ERIC Identifier: ED446252
Publication Date: 2000-11-00
Author: Imel, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Change: Connections to Adult Learning and Education. ERIC
Digest No. 221.
Phrases such as "change is inevitable," "change is constant," and "the only
thing certain is change itself" are commonly heard when commiserating about the
pace of modern life. As described in the fable WHO MOVED MY CHEESE? (Johnson
1998), humans have varying reactions to change: some welcome it, others tolerate
it, but many dread it. The main idea underlying Johnson's book--that change is
inevitable so we must learn to accept it--delivers a naive and simplistic
message about a complex process. Many perspectives exist about change, but a
common theme throughout the literature is that it is a process that involves
learning (Macduff 1993). The question of how adult learning and education can
cultivate change with individuals and groups is explored in this Digest.
Following a discussion of the change process, it examines the connection between
change and adult education and adult learning, and it concludes with some
suggestions for adult educators involved in the change process.
THE CHANGE PROCESS
Different types of change exist. Hohn
(1998) identifies four: change by exception, incremental change, pendulum
change, and paradigm change. Change by exception occurs when an individual makes
an exception to an existing belief system. For example, on the basis of an
experience with a person of another culture, an individual might make an
exception to what is fundamentally a racist belief system but only for that
person, not for the entire culture. When change happens so gradually that an
individual is not aware of it, it is incremental. Changes that result in extreme
exchanges of points of view are considered pendulum changes. Paradigm change
involves a fundamental rethinking of premises and assumptions, and both
individuals and organizations can experience it. Paradigm change involves a
changing of assumptions, beliefs, and values about how the world works. When
adult educators speak of change, they are generally referring to this kind of
Someone who deliberately tries to bring about a change or innovation is known
as a change agent (Havelock and Zlotolow 1995). A change agent is usually
associated with facilitating change in an organization or institution (ibid.;
Lippitt, Watson, and Westley 1958), but adult educators may assume a change
agent role in working with individual learners. Whether working with
organizations or individuals, by necessity, change agents engage "in the
exercise of power, politics, and interpersonal influence" (Buchanan and Badham
1999, p. 615).
In facilitating change, a key element is understanding the existing power
structure, including assessing "whose power moves things around" and whose power
should be supported by the change agents (Arnold et al. 1991, p. 24). This facet
of the change process includes understanding the social, organizational, and
political identities and interests of those involved; focusing on what really
matters instead of getting caught up in peripheral issues; assessing the agendas
of all concerned; and planning for action (ibid.). Analysis of the first three
areas will help a prospective change agent decide on the prudence or wisdom of
Change occurs over a period of time. The pace of the change process is
irregular with the most common pattern seeming "to consist of occasional spurts
of learning or change, separated by longer periods of apparent stability"
(Lippitt, Watson, and Westley 1958, p. 267). Although change may seem to be
constant at times, the truth is human beings could not endure constant change
(Levine 1996). "One of the key ideas that drives the adult during a period of
change is the idea that on the other side of change will come the down time--the
time of stability" (ibid. , p. 1).
As described here, the change process is transformative, political, involves
learning, and takes place over a period of time. How these characteristics
connect to adult education and learning is discussed next.
THE ADULT LEARNING AND EDUCATION CONNECTION
frequently act as change agents. An understanding of the connection between
adult education theory and practice and the role of change can be helpful.
ADULT LEARNING AND CHANGE
Literature describing the change
process and the learning that takes place as a part of change (e.g., Hohn 1998;
Lippert, Watson, and Westley, 1958; Page and Meerabeau 2000; Richardson 1998;
Williams 1992) uses terms or describes processes that are associated with adult
learning, particularly transformative learning, as defined by Mezirow (1991).
Like transformative learning, change involves a questioning of assumptions and a
fundamental rethinking of premises. The learning of prominent social activists,
for example, began with "testing the old rules." During this initial step, the
individuals used a questioning process to examine what they believed and why
Reflection is another term associated with both adult learning and change. In
describing the learning that takes place during the change process, Lippitt,
Watson, and Westley (1958) state that "during the learning period, the system
accumulates a number of new facts or ideas which are stored away, as it were,
for further consideration" (p. 267). In discussing teacher change, Richardson
(1998) describes a process that has reflection as its foundation. During the
reflection period, teachers assess their beliefs, goals, and results of changing
approaches to their work. In adult education, reflection is also an important
step in transformative learning theory (Mezirow 1991) and as well as in the
ideas of Schon, whose book, EDUCATING THE REFLECTIVE PRACTITIONER (1987), is
frequently cited in the adult education literature. Periods of reflection may
account for those times during the change process when nothing appears to be
The political aspects of change, including power, are also topics discussed
in adult learning, though only recently. Until the past decade, discussions of
adult learning have been dominated by the psychological perspective that focuses
on the individual learner (Merriam and Caffarella 1999). Now, however, there is
increasing discussion and analysis of the context in which learning takes place,
including "the larger systems in society, the culture and institutions that
shape learning, the structural and historical conditions framing, indeed
defining, the learning event" (ibid., p. 340). Cervero and Wilson (1994), for
example, describe how these factors influence the context and shape the power
structure by calling attention to the sociocultural nature of planning that must
be understood in program development.
TEACHING FOR CRITICAL CONSCIOUSNESS
Because a change agent
deliberately tries to bring about change, some adult educators may feel conflict
in helping adults become more aware of how society is structured and how their
own experiences have been shaped by such factors as gender, race, and class
(Tisdell, Hanley, and Taylor 2000). In discussing an inquiry-based staff
development project, King (1998) describes her dilemma of building in
participant experiences while pushing her agenda that included giving
participants the opportunity to examine critically their assumptions and values
about adult literacy education. In theory, she wanted to follow participatory
principles, but in practice, she had in mind definite outcomes for how the
participants would change and improve their work. Brookfield (1995), on the
other hand, feels that it is the responsibility of the teacher of adults to help
learners become critically reflective and to think of themselves as individuals
who are capable of taking action and changing the world.
ADULT EDUCATORS IN THE CHANGE PROCESS
A clear relationship
exists between the change process and adult learning. The role of change agent
is not appropriate in every situation and not all adult educators may be
comfortable with the role. When an adult educator assumes the role of change
agent, however, the following suggestions may guide the process.
Pay attention to the context. Whether acting as a change agent in an
organization or with individual students, understanding the context is critical
to success. Both organizations and individuals are shaped by factors that it is
important to address in the process of change. Individual learners have norms
and values that will influence the direction of change. When working with an
organization or institution, an analysis of the context in advance should
provide answers to such questions as "Will I be asked to do things that might be
in conflict with my ethical beliefs and standards?" and "Are factors present
that will prevent the change from occurring?"
Be prepared to be proactive. Underlying the change agent role is the
assumption that the change agent will bring about change. When acting as a
change agent, therefore, an adult educator must be prepared to initiate the
change process even though fulfilling this role may raise questions about the
ethics of facilitating change, including the responsible use of power in giving
students tools they can use in their lives (Tisdell, Hanley, and Taylor 2000).
Attend to learning. Since learning and change are interconnected, an adult
educator can assist those who are undergoing the change process in understanding
the different kinds of learning as well as the learning cycle of the change
process. Williams (1992), for example, talks about adult educators assisting
learners in "'peeling the onion' of theory and practice that have produced
current acceptable rules in any areas" (p. 47). Based on her experience of
encouraging critical reflection, King (1998) suggests using strategies such as
reading and discussing journal articles as ways of stimulating deeper analysis
of issues. It is important to allow for periods of reflection to incorporate
and/or practice new ways of thinking and acting. Finally, remembering that
learning does not end after the change will ensure that any changes are
implemented successfully. Page and Meerabeau (2000) found, for example, that the
constructive action following reflection requires additional support from those
initiating the change.
Build in action. Any change will not be complete unless it involves action.
Taking action related to a new mental concept or to organizational change will
increase the flow of information surrounding it and allow those involved to test
it out, receive reaction to it, and involve others in learning about it
(Williams 1992). Action will also provide the proof that the change has
Adult educators frequently act as change agents,
although they may not be conscious that they are playing this role. Like
learning, change is a complex process and understanding the relationship between
learning and the change process can help adult educators be more purposeful in
assisting with change.
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