NALL Working Paper #08 -
"Reflections on the Study of Adult Learning"
A brief talk at the 3rd New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL)
Conference Ė Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the
University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
February 19, 1999
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) had just opened in
1965, so my research in adult informal learning took place in the first five
years of OISEís life, and several students had some interesting data on adult
learning. The first three chapters of my book (The Adultís Learning Projects,
1971) went all right, but then I began to think Ďno oneís going to take me
seriously, no oneís going to take this book seriously at all unless we get out
and document that informal learning or self-directed learning is very common.í
We were looking at what people learn and how and why, but we werenít looking
at how many people do this and how much time do they spend at it, just the kinds
of things that the NALL survey has just found.
So I stopped writing the book after chapter three, so we had people going out
and interviewing different groups so that we could begin to document that, yes,
this is a common phenomenon. Lots of people do, they spend lots of time in
informal learning projects and so on. OISE was very wealthy in those days, so we
had a research associate and a research assistant and lots of students who were
paid to do your research for you.
I was surprised when I looked back at that, we only did sixty-six interviews
and we sort of based the next few years on these sixty-six interviews. But, as I
used to say at the time, I think you know more after ten interviews than if you
donít do any interviews at all, so itís worth doing even small studies, if
they illuminate things. Of course, they can lead on to further studies, and
thatís what happened in this case.
There have been something like fifty-five replications since. What happened
was that people in other parts of the world said that maybe thatís the way
people learn in Toronto and Hamilton, but we donít do that down in Atlanta or
we donít do that in Ohio, and then it was over in France and Holland and then
it was Jamaica and Zaire and so on. Then people started saying, Ďwell, maybe
itís a middle-class phenomenon and weíre going to study informal learning
among unemployed people in Montreal,í and a New Jersey study did unemployed
For me, one of the fascinating things was it doesnít seem to matter where
you are or what group you study, you get a very similar picture of informal
adult learning, and that for me has actually been the highlight of all this
research, as I read all these different studies, is that there seems to be a
common pattern, that informal learning just seems to be a very normal, very
natural human activity, and thatís why I think weíre all dealing with the
dichotomy between that fact and the fact that is so invisible, that people just
donít seem to be aware of their own learning. Theyíre not aware of other
peopleís learning, educators donít take it into account and so on. So
thereís this normal, natural thing going on, people are spending 15 hours a
week at it or on an average, and yet itís not talked about, itís not
recognized, itís sort of ignored or invisible. It seems to happen in all
The only study that I have ever seen that didnít find a whole lot of
informal learning was done in an old folksí home in Syracuse by a Cornell M.A.
student, and she found very little learning, but I checked with her and she said
that, in particular, that old folksí home was a very repressive kind of
atmosphere. There was just absolutely no stimulation to learn. But every other
demographic group seems to have lots of this going on, so itís not as though
itís a kind of learning going on in this country or this group. It seems to be
just pretty well worldwide. And one of those studies was done by Alan Thomas and
two of his colleagues on the two coasts of Canada, so there has been an earlier
Canadian survey and I found that a very interesting survey. Itís one of the
many studies that have found very similar patterns.
And Iím very excited about the survey thatís just been completed by NALL
(see Livingstone, 1998) because itís up-to-date, so itís documenting that
not only does this happen across the world, but it seems to happen across the
decades. We now have thirty years of studies that suggest that this [informal
learning] is not going to go away. In fact, it seems to be increasing. And I
just wanted to take the next few minutes to reflect on some of the parallel
findings of what we found thirty years ago with sixty-six people, a huge sample,
and what David Livingstone and his colleagues have found with this national
For me, one of the basic, one of the most important findings is the number of
people who have done some sort of intentional learning in the last year. Itís
somewhere around 90%. Your [NALL] figures today were suggesting itís even
higher because you only had about 3 Ĺ % in that lowest category (see:
www.oise.utoronto.ca/depts/ sese/csew/nall/sur_res.htm) And I think thatís a
whole shift for educators to make because you often hear adult educators
wringing their hands and saying, ďoh, how can we motivate people to learn, I
canít get people to learn.Ē And I say, nonsense, people are already
learning, theyíre already doing it, what do you mean you canít motivate
people. Maybe you canít motivate them to learn what you want them to learn,
but theyíre motivated to learn. Theyíre already doing it. You donít have
to stimulate people to learn, and yet a lot of adult educators perceive adults
as not normally learning. Itís not a normal thing for them, you have to
somehow motivate them or force them or persuade them to do this thing. Well,
theyíre already doing it, they just may not be doing it the way the educator
wants them to do it.
I think thatís a very important finding. I was also fascinated by the 10%
who had not learned anything intentionally in the last year. And so I asked the
interviewers, these were mostly doctoral students, to tell me about those
individuals and I listened to them and then we did some later studies on
intentional change and again, I did the same thing. Tell me about the people who
havenít changed anything in their life or themselves in the last year. [To the
audience] I would be interested in your guesses, letís just take a couple of
minutes for your guesses, what are your guesses about this group, this 10% or 5%
who havenít learned anything in the last year. Any guesses at all about any of
their characteristics? Deceased? Politicians? Any other guesses? This is
intentional learning. I believe they learn stuff incidentally, but not
intentionally, not on purpose. No other guesses? Okay. My guess is that they
really had intentionally learned anything. It wasnít just a misperception
because these were doctoral students who really knew the phenomenon and would
probe in the interviews. Okay, maybe they were overloaded with formal education.
Actually, we didnít find any of these things. We interviewed politicians and
we actually interviewed college students at one point and found they were doing
lots of informal learning. Actually, we had a very gung ho research
assistant at that time and we interviewed the mayor of Hamilton and the mayor of
Toronto, and found that they were doing lots of learning, intentional learning.
No, what we found was that these people are quite content. That seemed to be
the keyword, content. That their life was sort of together, theyíd done lots
of learning before. They learned how to raise their kids or do their job or
whatever, but now theyíre just sort of on a plateau, but life is good, itís
content, itís not that theyíre under extraordinary stress. They donít seem
any busier than the rest of us, but just right now they just donít see any
need to learn and I just find that fascinating and again it changed my
stereotype, my perception, because as an educator I want to get everybody to
learn, you know, and I was worried about this 10% who werenít learning. But it
turns out maybe we donít need to worry, maybe theyíre doing fine too, just
right now they donít need to learn anything. So that for me was a good
learning from all of this.
Another finding that seems to be right across the three decades is the range
of things that people are learning and itís not just one thing. The 15 hours a
week estimate isnít aimed at learning only one thing. Itís not just how to
be a better ... whatever their job is, itís not just raising their kids.
Itís the whole range of things and often with groups like this, if I have
time, I ask people to jot down their own learning efforts in the last year and
then share their lists with the group. Itís a very empowering exercise. And
what fascinates me is each of those lists has enormous diversity, that many of
the lists have something physical on them, exercise or a new sport or something
like that Ė or a health thing. Many of them have something around money,
running their finances, RRSPs, whatever. Of course, lots of work-related things
are claimed for most occupations. Usually something about raising kids or
relationship with spouse or something like that. So you get this range for each
person in one year, and again, I think we as educators often donít think about
the enormous range of what it is that people are learning, any one person, but
itís quite extraordinary.
Another finding was that we were looking at all learning efforts, including
Ďprofessionally plannedí or Ďacademic or institutionalí or whatever you
want to call them; formal. We found a 20/80% split. We found about 20 percent of
all major learning efforts were institutionally organized, or it was like a
driving school instructor or piano instructor, something like that. It was
one-to-one, but it was still somebody you paid to teach you, so it was a
professional formal situation. And the other 80% was informal. We didnít know
what to call it. So we called it Ďprofessional planí and Ďamateur planí,
amateur being a positive word, not a put-down. Thatís when I came up with this
idea of the iceberg as a metaphor, because so much of it is invisible, because
we were surprised to find so much adult learning is sort of under the surface of
the ocean as it were. You just donít see it. You could forget itís there
unless you keep reminding yourself that itís there.
Incidentally, we interviewed 16-year-olds and got very similar results. We
interviewed 10-year-olds and did not get similar results, so maybe between the
age of 10 and 16 something happens, maybe people become more longer term in
their goals and start learning stuff now because itíll pay off later. I
donít know. Unfortunately, we didnít have the resources to pursue that. But,
what weíre talking about, I think, applies at least to 16-year-olds and
certainly to college students as well.
When we looked at the informal part below the surface of the ocean, we
distinguished three kinds of Ďplannersí. 73% of all adult learning is
planned by the learner himself or herself. The learner decides what to learn,
how to learn it from one episode to the next as they go along over the weeks. So
that 73% Ė so most of the 80% in other words Ė is there. That leaves 7%. You
know, 80% was informal, of that 80%, 73% is the learner himself or herself. 3%
was with a friend, a relative, a next-door neighbour or a co-worker teaching you
So if you want to learn to drive a car or play the piano, you can ask your
neighbour to teach you, you donít have to hire a professional, you can get a
family member to teach you. So that was only about 3% of all adult learning and
then 4% was a peer group, a group of peers who get together and learn something.
Incidentally, Alan Thomas is probably aware of this and Jack Quarter, thereís
some fascinating early literature in adult education in Canada on groups of
people getting together to learn things on their own without using any kind of
professional assistant whatsoever. One of the early ones is people preparing for
a boiler maintenance licence, you know, for people who operate boilers have to
be very skillful and have a licence and groups of these engineers got together
to prepare for this exam. So that was about 4%. So we have the fact that the
learner is a typical planner, but then you have some where itís a friend or a
co-worker or a neighbour and some where itís a group learning together.
Now one of the other things that we noticed Ė and I havenít really heard
David [Livingstone] or Alan [Thomas] talk about it this morning Ė itís a
very social phenomenon. Informal learning is a very social phenomenon. Thereís
a lot of human interaction, and this is one of my big struggles with my major
professor at the University of Chicago when I started studying this kind of
thing, because he was the kind of guy who at that time, when he was
learning Spanish because he was going Mexico, I think he was the kind of guy who
would get the language tapes and take them up to his room at home and just, you
know, listen to these tapes and never interact with anybody! So he thought it
was totally stupid for me for my Ph.D. thesis to study the human interaction of
people who were learning in an informal way because obviously in a classroom or
a room like this, you have lots of interaction, right, but when you learn on
your own you donít. Well, it turns out thatís not true, you do. In fact,
what I found was that you interact with an average of ten or eleven people while
youíre learning one thing, just over the course of weeks while learning that
one thing. Thatís a lot of interaction. In fact, there may actually be more
social interaction in informal learning than there is in classroom learning,
which again shatters one of our stereotypes, you know, you go to school to be
social and if youíre learning at home youíre not social. In fact, my wife
Cathy and I have struggles about this whether if Iím on a computer and, you
know, interacting with 20 of my colleagues around the world by email, is that
social or not? She thinks Iím just being totally unsocial. I say, no, Iím
interacting with 20 people.
In a very large survey, people all across the United States were asked
which two reasons were most important for preferring to learn on their own,
instead of in a class or course. They were handed a card with the following
items printed on it.
Can you guess which 4 items were chosen by a large number of persons?
And which 3 items were chosen by only a few persons?
[To the audience:] You have a handout sheet or should have a handout sheet
[see Fig.1]. If you donít, Cathy will bring one around to you, which comes
from the survey by Penland in the United States.
|a. Transportation to a class is too hard or expensive.
b. I donít have enough money for a course or class.
c. I donít like a formal classroom situation with a teacher.
d. Lack of time to engage in a group learning program.
e. I wanted to learn this right away and couldnít wait until a class
f. I didnít know of any class that taught what I wanted to know.
g. Desire to put my own structure on the learning project.
h. I wanted to keep the learning strategy flexible and easy to change.
i. Desire to use my own style of learning.
j. Desire to set my own learning pace.
Allen Toughís Handout Sheet - This survey is reported in Patrick R.
Penland, Self-planned learning in America. Pittsburgh: University of
Penland was a library school professor who wrote about librarians as sort of
learning consultants and he got very intrigued in our early work and so he did a
survey in the States. He got money for a survey research organization and did a
pretty good study. He wasnít statistically oriented, so Iím not sure itís
statistically totally perfect, but he put this on the map and he had 1,501
participants on the survey. I donít know, was NALLís was, exactly 1,500?
David Livingstone: 1,506 [people were surveyed for the NALL study].
Allen Tough: So you beat that [Penland], okay. It really is the worldís
largest so far.
And Penlandís was all across the states. It was good sampling and one of the
questions was ďwhy do you prefer to learn on your own instead of a class or
course?Ē and they were handed a card with these items printed on the card.
This was door-to-door survey and obviously not a telephone survey. From the card
people selected which items reflected their reasons for informal learning,
rather than going to a class or course.
What I want you to do today is to guess, just take a few minutes to mark up
your [handout] sheet, and guess which you think are the four items that most
people [in Penlandís survey] chose, the most common four, and which do you
think are the least common. Just put a checkmark beside the four you think were
most common or an x beside the fewest or whatever. Isnít this fun, to have
Okay, letís just look at the first two. Itís ďtransportation to class
is too hard or expensive,Ē how many picked that as one of the most common
ones? Maybe half of you. And the next one, ďI donít have enough money for a
course or a class.Ē Okay. These were actually the two least, which totally
breaks the stereotype.
Everybody says people donít take classes because they donít have money or
they canít get there, but thatís not what people themselves said. Now you
know, maybe theyíre fooling themselves but you have to take data pretty
seriously I think, and thatís what people said. In fact, this whole list is
reverse rank order so that the four at the bottom of the sheet are the four most
common, (j) being the most common of all and itís reverse rank order. In the
United States at that time that he did this, there was enormous emphasis on
those first two issues: money and transportation, and there was an effort to put
literacy classes and so on out into apartment buildings and malls and all that
kind of thing. American adult educators just ignored these findings because they
totally went against their ideology.
Now I bring this sheet not just for the fun of it, although it is a fun
exercise, but also because I think there is something really deep underneath it,
and this is when you look at those four that got the most people saying,
ďyeah, thatís why I didnít take a course or a class,Ē those four at the
bottom of your sheet (j) (i) (h) and (g), they seem to have something in common.
People seem to want to be in control. They want to set their own pace, use their
own style of learning, they want to keep it flexible. In other words, they
perceive courses and classes as inflexible. They want to put their own structure
I think this is really fascinating. Those are things that as educators we
donít pay any attention to, you know, we donít think of learners as even
noticing those things or caring about those things at all. What adult educators
so often put their efforts into is the transportation and the money. How can we
make courses more accessible by making them cheaper, or putting them into
apartment building lobbies or shopping malls, you know, places that people can
get to. Well, it turns out thatís not what people are saying at all. Theyíre
basically saying, ďyou know, I could get there, I could find the money, but
itís just I donít like the way you learn in courses and classes, itís not
my way of learning, I want to do it my way.Ē So I think thereís something
really deep and significant in this that we should all be paying attention to so
thatís why I bring it to you today.
Just one other thing and then Iíd like to get some of the questions and
reactions and then take some time to look at the implications of all of this,
some suggestions I have for it, but the one other thing I want to mention is the
types of work-related learning that weíve found.
What kinds of learning do people do related to work? I think the most common
Ė we donít have data comparing which is most common Ė but my guess is that
the most common kind of learning is related to the fact that the person has a
task to perform and they learn in order to do that particular task. For example,
they have to have a report on the bossís desk next Monday, they have to
operate a new machine, or theyíre a union steward and thereís a new issue
coming along that they have to learn about. It might be something immediate,
that has to be done in the next few days, theyíre going to have to perform
something, so they learn in order to perform that task. What we actually found
in the research is people often learn in order to perform a task better, but
they could do it. They could do the job, the task, whatever it is without
learning. They could just go in and do it, but they donít want to just do it,
they want to do it better so they learn in order to write a good report, in
order to learn to run the machine properly and safely, in order to handle the
union issue in an effective manner or whatever. So itís very interesting to me
that itís not that people learn because they canít do it without learning,
they learn in order to do a good job. Thatís that most common reason. We find
it not just in work-related issues, but in raising kids, renovating your
basement, all kinds of things. People want to do something and they learn what
they have to learn in order to get that task done. Thatís one of the reasons
itís invisible I think. Itís one of the reasons this iceberg metaphor works
is that people think ďI wired my basement,Ē ďI dealt with the union
issue,Ē ďI wrote the report for my boss.Ē They donít think about ďI
did some learning in order to do that task,Ē they just think of the task. You
know, ďI raised my kids,Ē they donít think about what I learned in order
to be a better parent.
Another kind of job-related learning is where new things come along that have
to be learned, new ways of doing things, but this is a more general thing.
Trends in a field Ė and this is of course in studies of managers learning Ė
this is what they donít find time for, because thereís always fires to put
out. Theyíre always learning what they have to learn in order to do that task
next Monday, so they donít learn about trends in their particular business or
field and they donít find that much time to learn about these other things,
but thatís another kind of learning. Itís generally learning to keep up with
a field, to keep up with changes in a field, new processes, new ideas, new ways
of doing things and so on. Some of the journal reading they do is due to that
(learning to keep up in their field) or learning things from their organization,
if they are a member of a professional organization or some other organization
thatís related to their field. Theyíll read the materials in that
organization and go to workshops because thatís more a general kind of keeping
up, but the main kind of the learning seems to be because thereís a particular
task staring them in the face and they have to do it within a few days or a
couple of weeks and so they learn in order to do the immediate task.
The other thing that happens is a lot of sharing among co-workers and
thatís hardly ever been studied. There was one small study of people of people
in a meat-packing plant who were standing on the [assembly] line and I guess,
you know, ďI carve the whatever part of the cow, and then the next person
carves part,Ē and so on. What they found is that when the person beside me is
away, that I am able to go and step into her job, because Iíve been watching
out of the corner of my eye for the last few weeks. This doesnít even fit our
definition of learning because itís not a very intentional sort of learning,
but itís just part of normal human curiosity to Ďsort of notice what the
person beside us is doingí and this is how we learn how to do things.
There may be a lot of learning from other people at work thatís just sort
of part of being together and talking at coffee break and so on, maybe a little
less intentional that our definition, but still very important. A faculty member
here at OISE called Harold Houston was studying this, but unfortunately didnít
manage to complete the studies.
Now, I do have some implications that I want to mention, but let me stop for
a few minutes first, because thatís all I want to say about the phenomenon of
learning and I wonder if you have any questions on what I said so far, anybody
want to argue with me, comments, reactions?
Question: Have you or anyone else tried to correlate the percentages of
methods of informal learning that you talked about, with reference to learning
Allen Tough: Iím not a learning styles fan myself. I like David Cope but,
in fact, heís not as enthusiastic about his own view of learning styles as
other people are at this point. My sense is that all of us use all the styles
and maybe we feel more comfortable with one or we sort of start off with one,
but what strikes me about adult learning is the range of styles that one person
will use over a year or over several years, so I havenít done that research
and whether it would be useful I donít know.
The one tendency toward learning style that Iíve found is if you ask people
if you wanted to learn so-and-so, how would you do it, a lot of people say
ďIíd go and get the best book or journal,Ē or ďIíd go on the Worldwide
Web.Ē Itís print-based. A lot of people say ďIíd go and find the
expert,Ē so there is that kind of natural tendency to head for print or
naturally head for an expert, and both ways have their pluses and minuses, I
think. I donít mean to put down learning styles, but itís just that I think
Q: The 73% of learning activities that were planned by the learner, were they
done individually or collectively? I mean, it was planned by the learner but
then did they engage with other people?
Allen Tough: As I say, what I found in my own thesis was that they engaged
with other people around the planning. They went and asked for help and advice
from a lot of different people. As for the actual learning, even in a classroom,
people are not interacting with other people most of the time, but theyíre
listening, theyíre reading, theyíre thinking, theyíre writing, which are
individual activities. Whether youíre surrounded by another or not is sort of
irrelevant in a sense.
Q: I mean I can quite see somebody who wants to learn how to cook something,
they would do it on their own mostly but, you know, in the workplace so much
learning takes place on the job, you know, how to do the job and people seem to
learn from people or most of the time anyway and thatís what Jack and I found
in the research at the Big Carrot which is a workersí cooperative in Toronto.
Allen Tough: My own guess is that this is an extraordinarily important part
of the learning in the workplace. My guess is that if we went in and interviewed
those workers, weíd find another amount of learning, maybe double the size of
what you just talked about, that is done more on their own so, you know, what
youíre seeing maybe the tip of the iceberg, the more visible part of learning.
Maybe there is another huge part that goes on more on their own, but it may
depend on the workplace and it may depend on the complexity of the tasks that
have to be learned.
Q: A question about collective vs. individual learning.
Allen Tough: Yeah, itís a very vibrant phenomenon. In fact, one of the very
first studies here at OISE in the 1960s was a student who studied groups of
women who got together in each otherís homes and learned various things and
that was I think one of the worldís first studies on this very vibrant
phenomenon which is still thriving, but Iím saying that the other kinds of
learning on which you donít basically rely on a group are probably even larger
but we just havenít noticed them yet.
Q: A question on job-related learning.
Allen Tough: Well, it would be in interesting sort of study to do, go into a
workplace and do surveys on how are they learning job-related things but I think
you are going to find that the groups of peers is a very important phenomenon.
Iím saying I think youíre also going to find thereís a whole lot that
people learn thatís more individual. Again with a lot of interaction Ė and
Iím glad you pointed out that a lot of interaction now is electronic because
it doesnít have to be face-to-face anymore.
Q: A question about the definition of an informal learning project vs. more
fragmented informal learning.
Allen Tough: Youíre talking about the definition of learning. Yeah. I
think we have a very similar phenomenon to what David Livingstone and his group
ended up with, but we actually started quite differently. We started with
Ďlearning episodesí and for us a learning episode was any period of time in
which your primary motivation is to gain and retain certain knowledge and skill.
So we actually had people think about a series of learning episodes, maybe an
hour today, a couple of hours next Monday, an hour a week after and so on, and
we said that these episodes on learning one kind of particular knowledge and
skill had to add up to at least seven hours. Now, if I were doing it again, I
would say twenty hours because most of them were far more than seven, but ours
was seven hours.
So we had a very careful definition actually and it took a whole chapter and
a whole appendix in The Adultís Learning Projects to spell it out. In the
actual interviews, you canít have people read a chapter and an appendix to get
your definition, so you have to have a certain amount of negotiation, which was
true in this survey as well. And I think it was a good interview schedule. But
what I found is that doctoral students, because they had the conceptual
framework in their head, were better at getting Ďlearning projectsí than the
surveys where we paid a research organization to do it, because they were
good at surveying, they were using people who had done lots of door-to-door
surveys or telephone surveys before but they didnít understand the phenomenon
well enough to really probe and get people to recall it. So doctoral students
were typically getting more about, you know, the researcherís biases and
skills are going to affect what you get. So that I think we had a crystal clear
definition, but then you have to also have people who can implement in an
interview, but I think our boundaries were pretty clear actually.
I went to West Africa to Ghana to work with a doctoral student there who was
collecting data and we both interviewed teachers and people who worked in a bank
and people who worked in a department store head office, and it was interesting
that we got very different results. The hours we got were the same but he got
far more learning projects than I did, far more learning efforts. When we looked
at that we realized he had already worked in that culture for two years before
he came back here to work on his Ph.D. and I was brand new to the culture, you
know, Iíd been there a week. And so he was much more skillful that I was at
getting people to separate out different learning projects. I was so unskillful,
I just sort of had them lump this whole thing together, you know, I learned a
new management style or I learned a new teaching method or I learned how to work
better with the kids or whatever. I wasnít skillful enough to get them to make
a distinction. So we were getting the same number of hours in total, but he was
getting more learning efforts that I was.
It was an interesting demonstration for me of how the skill of the
interviewer can make a difference to what you get, which can happen with the
definition as well, that interviewers who really understand the definition seem
able to get more learning than those who donít.
We also had people keep diaries. A couple of people say, ďwell, how do you
know that people are telling you the truth?Ē So we had some people keep
learning diaries. Every evening they would write down Ďwhat did I spend time
in trying to learn todayí. We found that the number of learning efforts and
the number of hours were higher in the diaries than they were in the interviews.
That confirmed that the interviews were probably getting fairly good data.
Maybe we should move on to the implications at this point and then you can
come back with other questions and comments and reactions. I just have
five I call them next steps, five places I hope we go next and as David
Livingstone mentioned, the project is at a pivotal point and so itís a good
time to think about where do we go next.
For me, one of the fascinating questions is over-control and we ourselves as
educators, as parents, as supervisors. It seems fairly well documented that in
fact we over-control, we have this tendency to over-control. We want our kids to
grow up to be flexible, healthy, creative citizens, and how to we achieve that?
Well, we micro-manage them, we make sure that every single minute theyíre
doing something creative and flexible and healthy, and then we wonder why, you
know, they donít gain the skill to make their own choices. And we do a little
bit the same with our employees. We have good intentions, we want them to be
productive, but we micro-manage.
We do the same with our learners in a classroom. We set all the objectives,
we tell them exactly how to learn, and the more I listened to adults talk about
their own power and their own skill and confidence at learning, the more I began
to question my teaching approach. Why was I making these choices for students
and, of course, I shifted Ė as many people in our department did Ė toward
being more learner-centred and letting learners make a lot of their own choices.
But what nobody has studied yet is why do we have this tendency to
over-control? What is it that makes us want to control more than is actually
useful for our own goals? Our goal is to get people to learn and yet to do that,
we sort of force them to do all these particular steps. If we just free them up,
what we find is that people learn more and they learn more enthusiastically. The
energy is enormous because theyíre excited about what theyíre doing, so
weíre actually accomplishing more learning by being freer, but people donít
that and they donít operate that way. So I would just love to see some
research on what is it in all of us that makes us over- control as educators and
as parents and supervisors and so on.
Paul Rogers has a book called Paul Rogers on Personal Powers which documents
this phenomenon in field after field and I have a bit in my book called
Intentional Changes. I have a chapter on professional over-control, which is
just a fascinating phenomenon to me. Itís just something about human nature
that still baffles me.
The second suggestion I have is how can we people to successfully learn about
social and global issues about whatís happening in the world today. This is
something I want people to learn. I think of it as a good thing. You see Iím a
futurist as well as an adult educator and as a futurist, I really worry about
where our world is headed and I think that without learning, without enormous
learning in society, weíre not going to change enough, weíre not going to
change fast enough. So as a futurist, as somebody who cares about where our
society heads in the next 10 or 20 or 30 years, I see the need for learning at
the societal level as well as at the individual level. Thatís why I really
worry about and wonder about how we can get far more people to take
environmental issues seriously, to take seriously some of the issues that David
Livingstone raised today about equity and different groups and so on as well as
having opportunities to use your skills.
I got involved with some work, with what we call Future Generations, looking
ahead to the next generations, even the generations yet unborn and what kind of
a world theyíre going to inherit, how do we get people to take all this
seriously and care about future generations, to put their needs at least equal
to our own needs. Dr. Gordon Ball, who was here for his thesis, studied and
Iím really delighted that youíre here Gord, studied the process that people
went through that made them much more sensitive to the environment and the needs
of future generations and so on.
But my question to Gord this morning was how do we get everybody to go
through this process or at least more people so that enough care about the
planet and about the future that weíll start to make some different decisions
as a society. Weíre just incredibly short-term at this point.
I was encouraged by the study we did of in this case of Toronto City Council
Members and I said earlier two mayors, and it was only ten interviews, a very
small sample, but in fact all ten of those people were heavily engaged in
learning, so it actually gave me a different picture of politicians that they
donít just make decisions on a whim but they were actually trying to learn
about the issues before they made decisions. So the kind of thing Iím talking
about here is, yeah, I want people in power to learn as well. I want everybody
to learn about these issues because weíre all just keeping our heads in the
sand, thatís my sense.
Anyway, let me go on to the third point, which is the Worldwide Web. I see
the Worldwide Web as the most exciting development in adult education in the
last thirty years. Iíve been making that statement for a couple of years now
and nobodyís told me Iím totally crazy. The Worldwide Web is about three
years old at this point, in any real sense only a couple of years old. It
didnít really start taking off until 1996. You started seeing movie ads and
television ads and so on. You started seeing URLs, so itís really a very young
phenomenon. I think we have no sense of where the Worldwide Web is going to end
up in the next three years. I think it is educators, particularly educators of
adults, who need to take the web very seriously, because itís being rapidly
used by more and more people as one of their key ways to get information,
whether the information is good or bad.
I mean, thatís one of the things that we have to deal with educators Ė
that thereís a lot of crap on the web just as thereís a lot of crap in your
local store if you look at the magazine rack Ė so you know, itís not just
the web. And even libraries are known to have some things in them that arenít
so accurate, so itís no guarantee to walk into a library and find quality
materials. But the web is just incredibly powerful. Itís there and itís
instant, any time of the day or night. The web fits beautifully into the
whole paradigm of informal learning; that you donít have to go and sit in some
course at 7:00 oíclock on a Thursday evening, you can do it anytime you like.
Thereís been relatively little research on the web and what itís going to do
to, or is doing, to adult learning, let alone its potential. I think the
potential is just absolutely enormous. If you read the history of the web Ė
thereís a book called The First Thousand Days which is about the history of
the web, itís such a short history and the speed with which things did happen
and are still happening makes me think that this is something we need a lot of
I have two other suggestions, the first is as follows: what we find is that
people are really surprised when we interview them. Theyíre surprised that
theyíve done so much learning and theyíre surprised at all the different
methods theyíve used. You wouldnít believe how many interviews start off
with us sort of explaining what we want to study. Theyíll say, ďoh, not me,
donít study me, I havenít learned anything since I left school,Ē and
theyíre sincere. This is not just a polite thing, theyíre sincere. They
honestly believe they have not learned anything since theyíve left school. And
we say, ďoh well, you know, can you think of anything at youíve tried to
learn, any kind of knowledge or skill or understanding,Ē and eventually they
start to remember some things that theyíve been learning in the last year. And
by the end of the interview, we had a lot of people thanking us for the
interview. You know, weíre in there collecting data right? Weíre
researchers. But people thanked us and said, ďyou really opened my eyes, I had
no idea Iíd learned all these things in the last twelve months,Ē and they
had a list of five or six things that theyíd learned, and theyíd say ďI
had no idea that I used so many different methods.Ē
So Ė and this is part of the iceberg phenomenon Ė not only are we as a
society (or as educators) oblivious to informal learning, we donít even notice
our own. Thatís right, people donít even notice their own informal learning.
So what do we do about this? Well, to begin with, I think itís really
empowering and helpful and supportive to encourage people to look at their own