Inclusive Adult Learning Environments. ERIC Digest.
by Imel, Susan
I've just changed completely from when I first (entered school). I used
to take this little African body and force it into this European square
peg. And you know, it didn't work. I kept trying to do it and trying to
change who I was and tried to fit in....When I finally decided to be the
person that I am, I started feeling more comfortable. (Taylor 1995, p.
Ever since Malcolm Knowles (1970) introduced the concept of learning
climate, adult educators have been aware of how the environment affects
learning. As reflected in the words of the returning woman student quoted
here, however, adults may still find some learning environments to be inhospitable.
Rather than learners trying to change who they are so that they will "fit
in," adult educators must create learning environments in which all learners
can thrive. Following an overview of changing conceptions of adult learning
environments, this ERIC Digest describes what it means to create an inclusive
learning environment, examines some related issues, and presents some guidelines
for structuring inclusive learning environments.
ADULT LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS: CHANGING CONCEPTIONS
In introducing the concept of learning environment, Knowles (1970) suggested
that activities conducted prior to and during the first session could "greatly
affect it" (p. 270), including promotional materials and announcements;
activities designed to assess learner needs prior to the event; physical
arrangements; and the opening session, including greeting, learning activity
overview, introductions, and treatment by the instructor. More recently,
adult educators are recognizing that factors in the learning environment
related to psychological, social, and cultural conditions also exert a
powerful influence on the growth and development of learners (Hiemstra
Current discussions on learning environments have broadened to include
the need to confront issues of sexism and racism (Hayes and Colin 1994),
interlocking systems of power and oppression (Tisdell 1993b), and social
justice (Shore et al. 1993). This broader understanding of factors that
affect learning is leading adult educators to consider how they can create
environments that address "issues of power that are inherent in cultural
diversity, whether that diversity is based on nationality, race, class,
gender, sexual orientation, disability or some other factor" (Merriam 1993,
DEVELOPING INCLUSIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
How can inclusive learning environments be created? Tisdell (1995) suggests
that a learning environment needs to attend to inclusivity at three levels.
A truly inclusive learning environment should "(1) reflect the diversity
of those present in the learning activity itself in the curriculum and
pedagogical/andragogical style; (2) attend to the wider and immediate institutional
contexts in which the participants work and live; and (3) in some way reflect
the changing needs of an increasingly diverse society" (p. 4). Because
learners "do not live in a vacuum" (ibid.), addressing institutional and
societal levels is important, but the most significant level is the selection
of appropriate materials and methods that address the characteristics of
learning group members.
Addressing the diversity of learners by selecting appropriate curriculum
and course content is a critical aspect of inclusiveness. The understanding
that all groups--including those that are dominant--have culture or ethnicity
must form the basis for the curriculum (Shore et al. 1993). The knowledge
base of all groups needs to be represented in the curriculum (hooks 1994).
Although "many groups share in the subordinate social status and selective
discrimination that 'minorities' often implies, each cultural group has
its own history, values, and customs" (Ross-Gordon 1993, p. 53), and each
must be considered in choosing resources and learning activities. It is
a mistake, for example, to assume that general information on women also
applies to women of color.
Based on recent research and theory building, a different conception
of pedagogy is emerging, one that is appropriate for an inclusive learning
environment. Termed "new pedagogy" by Taylor and Marienau (1995), this
way of teaching is more inclusive and it incorporates (1) the validity
of the student's experiences as well as support for the emerging self as
a focus of education; (2) the contextual nature of knowledge, including
the relationship between the learner and his or her knowledge base; and
(3) the notion that learning can be a transformative process. The new pedagogy
employs diverse practices such as reflective journal writing, storytelling,
role playing, small group discussion, and metaphor analysis (Caffarella
1992), and it addresses the learning styles and preferences of groups represented
in the learning activity.
No one definition or prescription for inclusiveness will fit every learning
environment. What happens in any learning environment in terms of inclusiveness
will depend on the adult educator's personal experiences with various systems
of privilege and oppressions, the educational context, and the participants
and their characteristics (Tisdell 1995).
SOME RELATED ISSUES
Working toward the goal of creating an inclusive learning environment
may give rise to some issues, especially those related to power and control.
At the most basic level are the traditional--but unequal--power relations
that exist between learners and teachers. In conventional educational settings,
teachers and learners have expectations about their roles; the teacher
is seen as the source of knowledge and consequently is ascribed power;
the learner is perceived as the receiver of the teacher's knowledge, sometimes
described as an empty vessel waiting to be filled. However, inclusive learning
environments work to "dismantle ways of operating...that unnecessarily
privilege teachers' formal knowledge and experience" (Shore et al. 1993,
p. 12), and this power shift can be unsettling for both teachers and learners.
Power relations between and among learners are also likely to change
as the environment becomes more inclusive. Groups of learners or individuals
who may have felt silenced previously will feel freer to become part of
the discussions and to challenge existing truths and biases. As differences
are recognized and more voices are heard, the notion that a learning setting
should be a "safe harmonious place" will be tested (hooks 1994, p. 30).
The need to maintain a balance between being learner centered (placing
learners at the center of a learning activity) and learner positive (providing
positive experiences for the learner) can also be an issue in inclusive
learning environments. Related to questions of power and control, this
issue refers to the need to examine the extent to which being "learner
centered" may diminish the efforts to be inclusive. Although learner centeredness
is a hallmark of adult education, and "may help resolve some of the authority
issues inherent in...teacher-centered programming," it tends to make "invisible
certain kinds of relationships among students, among workers, and among
students and workers...[especially those based on] differences in race,
sex, class background, abilities, sources of income, immigration status,
and so on" (Lloyd, Ennis, and Atkinson 1994, p. 25). Tisdell (1993a) shows
how the dissonance between being learner centered and learner positive
might occur in a description of how one teacher's efforts to create a learner-centered
classroom were thwarted; after the teacher yielded her power and control
to the learners, a group who considered themselves the enlightened dominated
the class and effectively silenced other learners.
Because a primary goal of inclusive learning environments is to equalize
power between teachers and learners and among learners in the learning
setting, issues related to power and control are the most complex. Acknowledging
and discussing these issues can be a first step in addressing them.
CREATING INCLUSIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS:
As noted earlier, depending on the instructor, the learners, and the
context, each learning environment will differ in terms of inclusiveness
(Tisdell 1995). Although these variations make it impossible to be prescriptive
about creating inclusive learning environments, the following suggestions
can be used to guide their development:
Acknowledge that all individuals bring multiple perspectives to any
learning situation as a result of their gender, ethnicity, class, age,
sexuality, and/or physical abilities
Recognize that since identification with social groups is multiple and
complex, [a learner's] claimed identity will be in response to many contextual
factors that position the individual politically
Reflect the experiences of learners, both as individuals and as members
of particular social groups, and value these experiences through their
use as the basis of learning and assessment (Shore et al. 1993, p. 3)
Pay attention to the power relations inherent in knowledge production
Be aware that participants are positioned differently in relationship
to each other and to the knowledge being acquired
Acknowledge the power disparity between the teacher/facilitator and
the students (Tisdell 1995, p. 90)
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