Applying Adult Learning Theories to the Field of Jewish Learning

By Dr. Jane S. Shapiro
One of a series of articles about lifelong Jewish learning

Sometime in the not-too-distant-future, we may be able to attach a device to an adult learner and watch as their brain lights up at certain moments, telling us when, where, and how learning actually takes place. Until that time, we have a set of animating ideas or theories about how adults learn which should guide our teaching practices.

Biology teaches that the human brain can perform four functions: detect patterns, store information, correct what it has learned through self-reflection, and create an unlimited number of new ideas. This information alone could take a teacher of adults far in their planning. But, we know even more specifically that:

  1. Adults are self-directed as learners, seeking ways to incorporate new information in order to cope with real life tasks and problems. They gravitate towards learning experiences that provide clear scaffolds for information and opportunities to make personal meaning about it through dialogue and reflection. This theory was championed by Malcolm Knowles.
  2. Adults continue to develop in many ways over their lifetime. Identity continues to develop through an encounter with psychosocial polarities like those articulated by Eric Erikson: hope vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs inferiority, intimacy vs. isolation, generatively vs. stagnation. These forces may influence a learner’s experience or indicate moments when they are most open to new ideas. Robert Kegan has done studies on adult cognitive development showing what takes place when adults identify how they used to think and where they are at a present moment. Kegan calls these three types of mind: socialized mind, self-authoring mind, and self-transforming mind. Teachers of adults want to plan for moments when their students can look back on what they used to believe or think about a Jewish idea, or practice, or text, and where they are now because these moments are the ones that consolidate all the efforts.
  3. Adults may learn differently according to gender. Studies by Schuster and Grant have pointed to the ways that women who were once silenced as Jewish learners have moved to voice with respect to Jewish wisdom. Today, with women far outnumbering men in many educational settings, the way in which women tend to deploy forms of subjective, procedural, and co-constructed knowing has shaped the experiences to produce maximal collaboration. Because no true study comparing and contrasting adult learners by gender has been conducted, it has been my preference to think of the importance of striking a balance between what once was considered male or female styles of learning – called autonomous and relational modalities of learning, by Dorothy Mackeracher. Men may like the embattled give and take of text study, while women prefer a coming together around shared meaning; but the reverse can often be seen.

Two other theories about learning in general complement these basics. First is that learning is a transformative process. Individuals construct mental maps about how they think the world works. Personal theories about the social order, relationships, and the past and future are part of this map. Once developed, this map is experienced as reality, “the way things are.” When a map and its assumptions are brought into dialogue with the maps of others, found in the encounters with a teacher or other students or even the voice of a text, it can lead to disruption and re-evaluation of prior assumptions. This type of learning is called transformative. It has the potential to lead to change as the original mental map undergoes modification, often resulting in changes in behavior. Mezirow has said that transformation happens on three levels. First, the content of a personal map changes in meaning as knowledge or skills are modified. Second, the processes of how individuals come to know what they know or value are altered through reflection and modification. These are called habits of mind. Finally, the general framework of meanings, which include the cultural context that shapes the perspective of reality, are also transformed through critical thinking and critical reflection. This is called transformation in meaning perspectives or frames of reference.

Transformative learning can happen in all arenas of life: ideological, social, political, ethical, moral, and philosophical. John Dirkx (Michigan State University) has written about the transformative learning of the soul when the unconscious is affected by contact with mythic narrative, collective stories, and deeper levels of expression as those found in art, ritual, or music. For students and teachers of Torah as spiritual practice this is particularly important. These cycles of learning and exploration are resonant and important.

Finally, learning of this type should be seen as experiential, a surprise, perhaps, for those who think of adult learning only as a formal classroom experience. Following the work of Dr. Barry Chazan (Spertus Institute), learning should be person-centered, full of direct observation and active engagement, full of Jewish values, interactive, collective and set with an eye to creating culture of some sort. Present and future environments in which Jewish life will occur both for present adults and those who follow will spring from Jewish teaching and learning animated by these ideas about who people are, what their needs are, and the potential of high-quality learning experiences to shape their ongoing development.

Dr. Jane Shapiro is co-founder of Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning and one of three outstanding Jewish educators to receive the 2017 Covenant Award.