Saturday, March 30, 2013

Adult Education and Older Adult Learners



This is a reblog from my other blog, partsofspeaking.  

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

We’ve all heard that statement a thousand times in our lives.  It may be true about dogs, but it does not apply to people.

I am a doctoral student in a program in Adult Education and Organizational Leadership.  It is an executive style program for mid-career professionals, or so it is advertised.  As someone who has already been employed in various forms of higher education for (gasp) 35 years, I don’t really fit the description of the mid-career professional.  I do fit the description of an adult learner, of course, and I found out today I met the standard of an older adult learner, a special class—I’m over 50 or 55.  I am 57, and I am sure a lot of my friends and colleagues think I am crazy or something a little less foolish for doing doctoral work at this age. 

I will not be able to retire for 13 or more years, due to Social Security and getting a late start on investments (and having investments that have plummeted in values twice in the last fifteen years).  I don’t really want to retire until I can do it cleanly, with no need to come back into the workforce unless I just want to.  I am sure by then I will have been long tired of working anyway, especially teaching freshmen.

Which brings me to my second reason—a desire to get out of teaching so much, maybe just one course a semester and then doing administrative work.  Or getting out of higher education entirely; maybe consulting, doing creative work, writing, speaking. 

The third reason is instrumental:  I want Dr. in front of my name for at least some of my professional life.  As a colleague says, the doctorate only matters if you don’t have it.  I am not quite that cynical, but I do see that many doors are closed to me without it. 

The fourth reason is personal:  I have always wanted to earn a doctorate, and I felt I was getting stale.  That stale feeling has definitely gone away in the last ten months.  As I often say, there is no scaffolding in doctoral work, just as there is no crying in baseball.  If someone starts talking about a theory or theorists you don’t understand, go get the book or at least look it up on Wikipedia.  The professor won’t do it for you, which is ok. 

Related to the personal is wanting my mother and other family members see me graduate with the Ed.D. (I’m not going to get into arguments about the quality or rigor of a Ph.D. vs. an Ed.D.  This program is plenty rigorous for me and it’s what I want to study, so other persons’ opinions don’t much matter at this point.)  My mother has cancer and we have no idea how long she will be with us; however, ten months ago, when she started chemo, we didn’t think she would be here at Christmas, and now it’s Easter.  Since she went through high school and my father got to the third grade, and since I am a first generation student, earning a doctorate, even at 59, will be an accomplishment.  I have always been a late bloomer (due to Kallmann’s syndrome and other reasons) so the late date is not a problem for me.

Finally, the degree is almost free and very accessible, so I am able to afford it without debt, and I am pleased to say my cohortians are wonderful people.

I assumed I was the oldest person in the cohort, although I found out that I was not.  One woman was born a year and half before I was.  I still feel like the oldest, though, so the concept of what we had to read in our textbook this week was very appropriate for me:  Adult Education and the Older Learner.

People over 55 trying to learn are a unique group, but not a small one, not a homogeneous one, and not one to be ignored.  We have different reasons for learning than do younger populations, but not entirely.  The U.S. population is aging (this is a truism and doesn’t really need support, but the Census Bureau would be a good place to verify it: http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-09.pdf   In fact, more people were 65 years and over in 2010 than in any previous census. Between 2000 and 2010, the population 65 years and over increased at a faster rate (15.1 percent) than the total U.S population (9.7 percent).”  Because Americans are aging, the needs of senior adult learners should occupy a much bigger portion of our attention as adult learners.

However, stereotypes and attitudes about aging are still very strong.  When I go to Facebook to browse, I see that my older friends love to post cartoons and memes about age.  The Hallmark old lady predominates.   “Jokes” about creaking bones, slipping memories and slipped discs, pains, grandchildren being better than children, and nostalgia about ice trays and old-time coffee makers abound, at least on my page.  If someone 60 or over wants to learn, it must be for family or personal growth, primarily. 

As the chapter by Mary Alice Wolf and E. Michael Brady, “Adult and Continuing Education for an Aging Society” (2010) argues, “For many adults—whether it be for meaning making, vocation, literacy, socialization, or personal development—learning is a voluntary, often need-driven activity.  Older people make an active decision to embark on this quixotic and dynamic path:  to partake as learners of a variety of person, programmatic, and social endeavors” (p. 369).  In other words, we must be careful as professional educators not to bracket those over 55 or 60 too easily and too quickly.  I am an example.  They give others at the end of their chapter—that senior learners in their research vary from a prison inmate getting literacy skills to a rabbi learning to deal with aging congregants.   

We are often told that those who continue to learn will be healthier and will be less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s.  From what I have read, the jury is still out on that conclusion; other reasons for illness, such as genetics, can influence early morbidity and mortality.  Perhaps we should focus on quality of life rather than length.  Research cited by Wolf and Brady does show that active elders seek medical care less frequently, but learning is just one part of “activity” in terms of the elderly.  These categories still seem fluid, anyway.  I don’t think of myself as elderly (although my freshmen students do!).  Adult learning makes life more meaningful, but it seems that for the most part this is self-directed and informal/nonformal learning, although some elderly do pursue formal education and certification, and many over 55 (if we are going to use that as the cut-off) engage in continuing education and professional education for their careers and jobs.  Since it seems like technological change is constant, anyone who is still working will be expected to learn new programs and platforms, policies and procedures.  I remember years ago a local news report on a woman in her 80s who earned her GED.  She said, memorably, “The two things nobody can take away from your are your salvation and your education.” 

It is interesting that in a book with so many theories, there is only one theory mentioned in the chapter about this population, and that is Eric Erickson.   The quotation of his used is a bit depressing:  “What is the last ritualization built into the style of old age?  I think it is philosophical:  for in maintaining some order and meaning in the disintegration of body and mind, it can also advocate a durable hope in wisdom” (p. 370).  Well, thank you for that, Eric!  Disintegration, hunh?  In all seriousness, I know there are a lot of theoretical perspectives about aging in other fields, such as social work and medicine.  As the authors go on to say, in educational fields there is a great potential for older adults to  be marginalized, pushed to the side, and only allowed to follow subjects that “old people” would like.

I am thinking about writing a paper about my own experience with older learners in my writers’ group.  We meet twice a month at 3:30 on the second and fourth Thursday.  We meet at 3:30 at the local library (and sometimes Panera Bread) because the oldest members do not want to drive in the dark in the winter.  We have had ten to fifteen people in our group; the membership and attendance is fluid, but as the leader I do not want to be a dictator.  I try to reach consensus with them about our procedures.  The youngest member is probably about fifty, but she no longer works, after several years as an elementary school teacher.  She writes poetry, religious plays, and short essays; she was recently published in the Chicken Soup series, which we all rejoiced about.  Our oldest two members are in their eighties, both veterans of the Korean War.  One is a gifted writer but currently unable to come to the meetings because of his wife’s serious illness.  The other is writing memoirs about his war experiences.  The first gentleman was a journalist and understands style; the second gentleman, who is hard of hearing and sometimes interjects comments that have nothing to do with the discussion topic, is a wonderful storyteller but doesn’t quite get the point of punctuation.

Another member suffers from a muscular atrophying disease like ALS, Kennedy’s Disease.  He maintains a blog about it and is writing a fantasy novel.  He takes over when I am not there, as happened Thursday because of my (and here’s the old age part) sciatica.  The next member is a middle-aged woman writing a procedural novel; she has had a serious bout with Bells Palsy but works diligently at her craft although she does not have a higher educational background and works for UPS.  The sixth member is an old friend who herself graduated from college where I teach in her fifties; she is a marvelous writer who is self-directed but needs some other eyes to look at her prose.  The seventh member is a character herself, an old-time Southern woman from
“Chahleston South Caylina” who writes dazzling poetry and a memoir about her life in the ‘30s and ‘40s on the South Carolina coast.  She has had a rich life and it comes out in her writing.  The eighth member is another accomplished writer, a former journalist, who has two motives:  to write for her family to know their and her past, and to tell about a murder mystery in a funeral home (it’s quite funny).  The ninth member is new and is writing a memoir about her late husband’s struggle with mental illness.  I am the tenth member who is currently attending, but we have had at least four or five others who have attended and submitted writing.  I am working on my fifth novel, a Southern Gothic thing in the vein of Fried Green Tomatoes, The Help, and Faulkner.

Our procedure is to send each other, by email, a piece no longer than ten pages.  It can be prose, poetry, memoir, fiction, nonfiction.  We either print it out or send back to the person with track changes.  Each person gets ten to fifteen minutes in the meeting, depending on how many are there that day.  If the members wants to read their selection, they can, but we don’t encourage oral reading because a publisher (and we all want to be published) will want the piece to be correct in terms of “look” as well as “sound.”  Then we talk about what works and what doesn’t.  We are honest, maybe too honest for some people.  We’ve lost at least two members who didn’t want a critique group, but just a place to read and feel warm and fuzzy.  We are kind, but not warm and fuzzy. 

We are serious writers, and we get results.  Three of our members are writing poetry for a book about the Blue Ridge Parkway and all three will be published; the author of the book of photographs has said that our group has “added class” to the project.  Yes!  I value their input into my story.

My point in this narrative is that it is a case study in Older Adult Learning.  We are learning in this group—about writing and publishing.  We face critique, and sometimes it’s a little stinging.  But as older people we face some challenges that a group of thirty-somethings would not.  Many of us have health problems that get in the way of everyday life and doing everything we would like to.  Many of us have family caregiving issues.  Many of us are writing for philosophical purposes, as Erickson would say.  To create a legacy for others and families; to leave a record of ourselves; to make meaning.  To say “I was here and here’s proof, and it’s good proof—I knew what I was doing when I wrote this.” 

This is true of the gentleman who has Kennedy’s Disease; he is confined to a wheelchair and always will be.  I asked him why he was writing the fantasy novel, which is quite good but still in process.  He said he just wanted to finish it, and there is some courage in that statement.  There is a social element—we like each other and meeting.  It takes a lot out of me personally, but I am pleased when I know the others have had a good meeting.  Some of the writing is for a purpose, like a Christmas play at a church.  None of us expects to be the next John Grisham, not really, although we would like to make some money from the writing.

In terms of other research about adult learners, I suppose that they fit the norms.  They are all white (the county I live in has less than 2% African American population, I am sorry to say); women outnumber the men; almost all have some college background and all would probably fit into middle class, at least when they were younger and not on fixed incomes.   Only two of the current attenders work, and the rest are either retired, on disability, or stopped working early to take care of family. 

I have told them that I will be doing a focus group or interviews with them to document this learning more scientifically and perhaps publish or present on the subject of older adult informal/nonformal, self-directed learning.  They would be a great group for this subject.
  

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