The Role of Emotion-Laden
Experiences in Adult Learning

By Dr. John M. Dirkx
One of a series of articles about lifelong Jewish learning
[The full article is available at spertus.edu]

Learning in adulthood often stimulates powerful emotions and feelings. It is imperative to recognize and integrate the expression of emotion-laden experiences into the self-formation and meaning-making processes that characterize adult learning. This brief summary of a fuller article – replete with citations and case studies – was part of a presentation to and discussion with a group of two dozen Jewish educational professionals working with a diverse range of adult learners. In an important series organized by Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, we packed into a room at the CJE Senior Life in north Chicago.

Adults participate in learning experiences for much of their adult lives. Some of this learning occurs informally in contexts such as libraries, museums, parks, zoos, or self-directed learning projects, but many adults participate through more formal institutions or programs of education, such as adult and continuing education, professional development, higher education, training and human resource development, community education, the military, and religious institutions. Adults engage in learning to address their individual needs and interests, as well as those of their families, communities, and societies. The most common reasons adults cite for participating in adult learning are work or career related. Adult motivations for learning, however, often reflect multiple purposes, such as learning for learning sake, or engaging meaningfully with others in social contexts. Studies from the early 20th century to the present suggest that adult learning is also about fostering changes in one’s sense of self.

Not surprisingly, therefore, in the process of adult learning, the self of the learner is intimately drawn into and shapes the nature of the learning process, as well as the outcomes of learning. This inner reality becomes more evident in settings that adopt and make use of what are regarded as “best practices” for fostering adult leaning. Among these practices are instructional strategies that stress active, deep learning and meaning making, and that make use of reflective, experience-based approaches. These methods, images, and interactions often evoke or are used to work through disorienting dilemmas or significant events in one’s life that can precipitate a sense of crisis.

When adults learn, they engage in dialogical relationships with:

  • the context of learning,
  • the content or subject matter that is the focus of learning, and
  • the processes used to facilitate these relationships.

These factors influence not only why they learn but how and even what they learn. Context refers to the social and cultural characteristics of the setting, including fellow learners, the facilitator(s), physical and cultural environment, and resources and tools available for learning.

Self-formation occurs within a complex array of moving parts: a subject that is viewed as socially constructed, a context that facilitates open forms of communication and contributes to positive relationships within and among participants, and a process that is receptive, warm, and caring, and encourages difficult but open dialogue draws the self of the learner. Pedagogical methods that rely on active, deep, and collaborative strategies invite the whole self into the learning process. As these three components of the learning process are engaged dialogically, they evoke the social and emotional dimensions of one’s being, revealing or opening up another aspect of one’s self the reconstruction of meaning and processes of self-formation. The self of the learner becomes fully engaged in the meaning-making process, making more visible and calling into question the self that rests at the core of our being, setting in motion a reworking or defending of one’s sense of self.

For the most part, scholars focusing on self-formation within adult learning generally regard manifestation of emotion-laden experiences in adult learning as secondary to the conscious and largely cognitive processes they stress in their descriptions of self-formation. Much of what is most central to the psyche or self – that which is often the most important areas of our lives – remains unconscious or below the level of awareness. Like an iceberg within one of our great oceans, the conflicts, tensions, and ambivalences are largely unconscious and only become visible or manifest when the ego’s defenses are lowered, as in sleep or when the person is overwhelmed with powerful emotions.

From a psychodynamic perspective, a person’s psyche is comprised of multiple selves. We can most easily see these selves in the tripartite structure of Freud’s concept of the self – the id, the ego, and the superego. Each of these structures tend to operate as semi-independent entities that significantly influence our conscious awareness and behavior. Jung took this conception even further, conceptualizing the psyche as comprised of a community of little people who become visible to us, in part, through intrapersonal and interpersonal conflict. The different selves in Jung’s conception of the psyche comprise unconscious sets of expectations about the self and others, and the affect associated with these expectations. These various selves, which remain outside of consciousness, influence and shape interpretations of our experiences, especially those in which affect plays an important role.

Typically, emotions in adult learning have been regarded as a barrier to learning or, at best, a normal side effect of learning experiences that need attending so they don’t disrupt the academic learning. In contrast to this view, we are trying to develop a view of emotions as integral to the learning and meaning making processes in adulthood. Parker Palmer (1998) once remarked that our teaching can transform adult learning when we “connect with the inward, living core of our students lives.” This inner, living core is manifest through the emotion-laden experiences and images that are evoked through teaching or studying.

The first step in facilitating learning and meaning-making through emotion-laden experiences is to recognize their presence in the learning environment. Because of the dominant emphasis on learning as primarily a rational, cognitive, and conscious process, the expression and experiences of emotions within the learning environment are often not readily recognized or accepted as an integral part of the learning and meaning-making process. As facilitators and learners, we want to attend to the manifestation of emotion and affect within our learning environments. What aspects of the context seem to foster the expression of emotion? To what dimensions of the context does the affect seem situated? As facilitators engaging our students in the work of self-formation, we want to be open and receptive to the messages and the meaning to which these emotion-laden experiences are giving voice. Imaginative engagement provides a way to frame our understanding and interpretation of these experiences and to encourage student reflection on these experiences.

We facilitate self-formation within adult learning through our curricular and pedagogical decisions as facilitators. The curriculum mediates between the student’s outer world, represented by the subject matter, and his or her inner world expressing itself through emotions, images, and fantasies. As facilitators, we help this inner, unconscious world gain conscious expression through curricular materials and resources. Depending on the specific content being studied, we may want to include various forms of narrative, such as biography, fiction, and poetry, expressions of popular culture, including film and video; story problems that are cast in real world settings and scenarios; and the students’ own prior knowledge and experiences. Curricular material that is selected with more universal themes invites the students to vicariously identify and work with aspects of their own experiences evoked by these themes.

Over the last 100 years, we have come to appreciate more fully the breadth and depth of learning in adulthood. From Lindeman’s (1926) idea of the totally integrated personality to Mezirow’s (1991) theory of perspective transformation, we now know that adult learning involves far more than simply the acquisition of new knowledge and skills to adapt to the perceived demands of our outer realities. In addition to this conscious, rationale and outer-oriented learner, we all carry with us an unconscious, extra-rational, inner-oriented learner or, more accurately, multiple learners. This inner learning reflects the psyche’s journey of self-discovery and self-formation, of the deep struggle of the Self to become what it was intended to become. This inner-directed learning, however, makes use of a different kind of epistemology from that of the outer-directed learner, a way of knowing imaginatively rather than analytically or reflectively, of coming to know the Self through the images, symbols, and stories the psyche generates about itself.

Dr. John M. Dirkx is professor and Mildred B. Erickson Distinguished Chair (Emeritus) in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University and Director of the College of Education Master’s of Arts in Education (MAED) online program. A more in depth version of this article is available at spertus.edu.

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.com

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