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Applying Constructive-Developmental Theories of Adult Development to ABE and ESOL Practices

Volume 4: Chapter Five
Deborah Helsing, Eleanor Drago-Severson, and Robert Kegan

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In Chapter 5, Helsing, Drago-Severson and Kegan discuss theories of adult development and the implications of these theories for the teaching of ABE and ESOL. After a brief overview of age, or phasic, and gender-based models, the authors focus on constructive-developmental theory, which explores the qualitative differences in the ways in which individuals makes sense of their experience, regardless of age, phase of life, or gender. Helsing and colleagues outline four levels of adult development as generally defined by constructivist-developmental theorists. To illustrate the distinction among levels, the authors discuss different conceptions of knowledge, the role of teachers and learners, and learning itself typically held by adults at each level. As the authors note, while each level has its own strengths and limitations, "each successive level represents growth in the capacity to organize and reflect on experience." Movement from one level to the next is fostered by transformational learning, which leads to shifts in the way adults make sense of their experience, and a holding environment, or context, that balances challenges and support. Helsing and colleagues discuss the value of teachers' understanding learners' different levels of development and suggest approaches (pertaining to the role of the teacher, student assignments, and student interaction) which teachers can take to promote transformational learning for students at differing levels. In addition, the authors point out the value of ancillary supports and cohorts in supporting learners through transformative learning experiences. They also discuss the important role of reflective practice and group learning in supporting teachers' own continued development. 

The authors conclude with additional implications for practice, policy and research. They recommend adding a developmental perspective to the design of instruction, including, for example, pacing the use of activities such as critical inquiry or self-reflection and setting expectations for student performance. In addition, they call for policies that incorporate a developmental perspective and provide support for training and job security for educators, cohesion among learner cohorts, and the ancillary supports that complement classroom learning. Finally, the authors call attention to the need for research into the meaning making of adult educators, in order to identify aspects of effective professionalism, and recommend greater investments in professional development to support the important work of adult education. 

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