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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue B ::: October 2001

Describing the NCSALL Adult Development Research

by Eleanor Drago-Severson, Deborah Helsing, Robert Kegan, Maria Broderick, Kathryn Portnow, & Nancy Popp
How adult learners experience what we call "program learning" was the focus of the NCSALL Adult Development Research Group's two-year study. Program learning refers to how learners experience learning in their programs; how this learning transfers to their social roles as parents, workers, or learners; the ways in which learners experience program supports and challenges to their learning; and how this learning helps them to change. By listening to adult basic education (ABE) participants' experiences over the course of a year or more, the Adult Development Research Group was able to trace their processes of learning and, in some cases, transformation.

Research Sites and Participants

During 1998-1999, we evaluated a group of 41 adult learners from around the world who were enrolled in three different US ABE programs: a community college, a family literacy site, and a workplace site. The participant sample was diverse with respect to race, ethnicity, age, past educational experiences, socioeconomic status, and social roles. Of the participants, 38 were nonnative speakers of English.

At Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC), in Charlestown, MA, we studied how a group of recently immigrated young adults, who were mostly in their late teens or early 20s, experienced a pilot program aimed at helping them become better prepared for academic coursework in college. These learners were enrolled in the same two classes at BHCC during their first semester (i.e., an English for speakers of other languages ((ESOL)) class and an introductory psychology class designed for ESOL learners). During the second semester the group disbanded, and learners independently selected  courses from the full range of academic courses available at BHCC.

At the Even Start Family Literacy Program in Cambridge, MA, we evaluated one group of parents who were members of a pre-General Educational Development (GED) class, and another parent group enrolled in an ESOL class. These parents, who were mostly in their 30s, had emigrated from various countries and been living in the United States for an average of nine years. Family members in this program also had at least one child who attended the Family Literacy Program.

At the Polaroid Corporation, Norwood, MA, we studied a group of workers who participated in a 14-month Adult Diploma Program designed and delivered by the Continuing Education Institute (CEI) of Watertown, MA. Most of these learners were in their 30s and 40s, had lived in the United States for more than 20 years, were married, and had children.

Site Selection Criteria

As developmental psychologists and educators, we embarked on a process-based research study: our focus was to understand the processes of students' learning more than the content of what they learned. The sites we chose were running programs widely considered to be best practice (see e.g., Harbison & Kegan, 1999). Best practice programs are commonly celebrated because they use effective methods for achieving excellent and targeted results, and because such model programs often set benchmarks or standards for other programs to emulate (Hammer & Champy, 1993). In our case, we selected programs that were longer term (nine to 14 months), enabling us to explore long-term growth in students' understanding, and allowing us to examine the developmental dimensions of transformational learning.

We also looked for programs that intentionally incorporated a variety of supports and challenges to facilitate adult learning, including, for example, tutoring, advising, and technological support for learners. As part of our research process, we examined how program design, teacher practice, learner expectations, and curricula might support and challenge learners with different ways of knowing and possibly lead to transformation. We selected programs that supported the enhancement of adults' specific role competency in one of three social roles: student, parent, and worker. For example, at Bunker Hill Community College we could study the role of student. We selected Polaroid to study the role of worker and an Even Start Family Literacy site to study the role of parent. We examined the ways in which participants, over time, reported program learning as helping them to perform their specific social roles differently.

Research Questions

Prior studies that have used Robert Kegan's theory of adult development (see page 5) and research methods have largely been composed of white, highly educated, middle class adults who speak English as their first language. Our research study extends the use of this framework to ABE settings and applies a constructive developmental perspective of adult growth and learning to a sample of adults who are not economically privileged, mostly not native-born American, and mostly nonnative English speakers. This study was, therefore, among other things, an attempt to understand whether and how this particular theory of adult development could be extended to a very different population from that in which it was originally formulated.

By looking at the developmental dimensions of transformational learning, we sought to examine, both from the learners' and our developmental perspective, how the mix of supports and challenges provided by the three programs helped these adults in their learning. While the findings for all these research questions are not presented in the following three articles, these are questions that guided our exploration:

  1. How does developmental level (i.e., way of knowing) shape adults' experiences and definitions of the core roles they take on as learners, parents, and workers?

    What are the similarities in the ways in which adults at similar levels of development construct the role demands and supports in each of these domains?

  2. How do adult learners' ways of knowing shape their experience and definition of programs dedicated to increasing their role competence?

    What are adult learners' motives for learning, definitions of success, conceptions of the learners' role, and understandings of their teachers' relationship to their learning?

  3. What educational practices and processes contribute to changes in the learner's relationship to learning (vis--vis motive, efficacy, and meaning system) and specifically to any reconceptualizations of core roles?

  4. To what extent does the level of people's development or transformation predict their success or competence?

    Are the similarities in experiences across roles related to developmental levels (i.e., ways of knowing)?


We used a variety of data collection methods and tools, including qualitative interviews, structured exercises, classroom observations, focus groups, and quantitative survey measures and Likert scales that we administered to each adult learner on at least three different occasions during the study. Although we considered interviewing each adult learner in his or her first language, because of the diversity of our sample across the three research sites and the expense associated with hiring interviewers who spoke each of the represented languages, this was not feasible. All interviews were administered individually, in English.

Talking with the same adult learners at different points over the course of a year or more helped us to learn about their internal experiences of change and any ways in which their views had changed. For example, during each visit we asked participants about what makes a good student, what makes a good teacher, and how program learning was helping them in their social role. In other NCSALL publications (see Kegan et al., 2001), we discuss more fully what the processes of transformational learning looked like, how learners with different ways of knowing experienced such processes, and the practices that learners named as support to these changes.


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Kegan, R., Broderick, M, Drago-Severson, E., Helsing, D., Popp, N, & Portnow, K. (2001). Toward a "New Pluralism" in the ABE/ESL classroom: Teaching to Multiple "Cultures of Mind" - A Constructive Developmental Approach.  Boston, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Literacy and Learning.  

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About the Authors

The NCSALL Adult Development Research Group is based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Cambridge, MA. 

Eleanor Drago-Severson is a Research Associate at NCSALL and Postdoctoral Fellow at HGSE. 

Deborah Helsing is a doctoral student at HGSE and a Research Assistant at NCSALL.

Robert Kegan is Professor of Education in the field of Adult Learning and Professional Development.

Maria Broderick is a Research Associate at NCSALL.

Kathryn Portnow is a Research Associate at NCSALL and Postdoctoral Fellow at HGSE.

Nancy Popp is a Research Associate at NCSALL.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL