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Three Developmentally Different Types of Learners

Three Developmentally Different Types of Learners

by Eleanor Drago-Severson, Deborah Helsing, Robert Kegan, Maria Broderick, Nancy Popp & Kathryn Portnow
How is it that the very same curriculum, classroom activities, or teaching behaviors can leave some learners feeling excited and their needs well met, while others feel deserted or lost? Research findings from the NCSALL Adult Development Research shed some light on this question. Despite similarities in the study participants, all of whom were participating in adult basic education (ABE) programs, the students demonstrated a diversity of ways of knowing. In this article, the NCSALL Adult Development Research Group demonstrate how a developmental perspective can be a tool for better understanding how adults make sense of the learning they experience in their programs. Our intention is to broaden conceptions about how to support adult learners in their educational processes.

Diversity of Learners' Ways of Knowing

Learners in any one of the three research settings in which we gathered data (see page 3 for a description of the study) were primarily of similar age and oriented to a common and particular social role (e.g., at one site, all participants were parents, at another, all participants were workers). We nevertheless discovered a diversity in learners' ways of knowing in each site. At the same time, the learners demonstrated a range of ways of knowing similar to the range found in previous studies with samples of native English-speaking adults with similarly widespread socioeconomic status (see e.g., Kegan, 1994). For example, at each of our research sites, an Instrumental way of knowing was dominant for at least one learner. At each of the sites, Self-Authoring ways of knowing were dominant for several learners. At all three sites, the majority of learners demonstrated some degree of a Socializing way of knowing (a person can have two ways of knowing operating at the same time). Instrumental knowers tend toward a concrete, external, and transactive orientation to the world; Socializing knowers identify self through its relation to other persons or ideas; and Self-Authoring knowers take responsibility for and ownership of their own internal authority. The differences in complexity of learners' ways of knowing were not highly associated with level of formal education. That is, some learners with limited formal education nonetheless demonstrated developmentally complex ways of knowing.  

Interesting similarities and patterns emerged both within and across sites that illuminate how learners bound by a particular way of knowing commonly understood their program learning experiences, themselves as students, teacher expectations, and their social roles. Adults of markedly different ages, from very different cultures, and from different parts of the world shared these commonalities. Furthermore, people of similar ages or from similar cultural backgrounds were sometimes differentiated by very different ways of knowing. Hence a "new pluralism" of significance for the teacher emerges: that of developmental level. Tables 1 and 2 illustrate how, across all three sites, learners who shared a way of knowing demonstrated similar understanding in their conceptions of good students and good teachers. 


Our findings teach us that ABE and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classrooms are likely to be populated by adults with a range of qualitatively different ways of making sense of their experiences. Therefore, teachers and programs that recognize students' developmental diversity and support their growth accordingly will be especially effective. Attention paid to development may allow ABE and ESOL programs to better scaffold students who have a diversity of learning needs and ways of knowing.

In our study, we found that participants' experiences varied across different ways of knowing, and that there were intriguing commonalities among the experiences of learners who shared a particular way of knowing. This less visible form of diversity in adults' ways of knowing is one aspect of what we call a "new pluralism." The diversity of learners' ways of knowing that will likely exist in any ABE or ESOL classroom calls for what constitutes the second aspect of our new pluralism. Educators need to be mindful of and orient toward this new variable by including a variety - or plurality - of pedagogical approaches in their classroom practice.

A final aspect of our new pluralism is that a person's way of knowing can become more complex (i.e., change) if she or he is provided with developmentally appropriate supports and challenges. Attending to the diversity of ways in which adults interpret and make sense of their experience - in addition to other more visible types of diversity - can provide new and important insights into learners' experiences.

To return to our opening question, familiarity with learners' different ways of knowing may help to explain how the very same curriculum, classroom activities, or teaching behaviors can leave some learners feeling excited and their needs well-met while others feel deserted or lost. In such cases, teachers may unknowingly be using materials or teaching strategies attuned to one way of knowing while neglecting others. For example, asking one student to critique another student's idea may be threatening to a Socializing knower, who depends on feeling a sense of empathy and agreement with her peers. Teaching the English language only as a collection of specific and concrete rules to be learned may leave both Socializing and Self-Authoring learners feeling frustrated, while an Instrumental learner may feel comfortable. A teacher's enhanced capacity to support all students in a class, across a range of ways of knowing, can increase the chances of more students feeling recognized and valued for the meanings they bring to their learning. Students who are adequately and appropriately supported and challenged academically are more likely to learn more.


Our findings suggest that a new definition of the "resource-rich" classroom is needed including good pedagogical matches to a wide variety of adults' learning needs and ways of knowing. Thus, our study suggests that ABE and ESOL practitioners develop an understanding of this new variable - a diversity of learners' ways of knowing - as it expresses itself in the ABE or ESOL setting. By extension, we point to the need for educators to use a diversity of approaches in meeting and supporting learners with a diversity of learning needs and ways of knowing. Adult learners inevitably differ in ways that are less immediately apparent than that of more familiar pluralisms of race, gender, or age. 


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.

Nancy Popp is a Research Associate at NCSALL.

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