”Most educators don’t realize they are following a theory”

Interview. Adult education practitioners should understand theory better, argues professor Jyri Manninen. Knowledge of theory broadens the didactic toolkit and breaks old norms.

All adult educators base their work on a theory or paradigm, believes Professor Jyri Manninen. It is another matter whether the practitioner’s choice of theory is conscious or unconscious.

Manninen is Professor of Adult & Continuing Education at the University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu. In his introductory courses to adult education science he acquaints university freshers with the broad field of adult education theory. Identifying the theory behind one’s work routines is important, and learning about new ones expands the educator’s toolkit, he thinks.

Which adult education theories and didactic methods derived from them are dominant in Europe at the moment?

One can’t really say that a particular theory would “dominate”, as most adult education practitioners do not necessarily understand that their practices are based on some theory. Those with at least some exposure to adult education science tend to favour socio-constructivism but often in a piecemeal fashion, adopting some general principles and concepts. Socio-constructivism, after all, is just one variation of constructivism.

How do practitioners end up “unconsciously” siding with a particular theory?

“Most educators teach the way they themselves have been taught and what has been the general norm. One’s own experience and good practices are the decisive factors here. They may then bump into a new didactic method –based on some theory – at a seminar or in a magazine, and they may pick up a few slogans and key words without knowing how to apply these in practice.

For example in the 1980’s the term “self-directed learning” was all the rage. This led to educators neglecting their learners because somebody somewhere had claimed that adult learners are self-directed.”

Do you think practitioners should be more theory-savvy?

“Educators, decision-makers and organizations should understand the variety of didactic methods better – that different theories and methods actually exist and they can be used to different ends.

This is very important. A basic rule is that didactic methods are like hammer and saw, different tools useful for different purposes. The argument is not about which tool is good or bad but what is it meant for. For instance, I myself use socio-constructivism in my university teaching because it is a good fit for the learning goals of my courses. If I taught boat-building in an adult education centre I would probably use a different approach.”

What are the dangers of theoretical ignorance then?

“Unless teaching methods and teaching culture are consciously developed, much will remain unchanged because people tend to act based on old norms. One of these old methods that resurfaces very easily is behaviorism, with its teacher-centered view of learning. Lastly I’ve seen behaviorism –or some mixed-up concepts about it – rear its head in some blogs on the new EPALE site, written by some education consultants who clearly lack a basic grounding in what they write about.

By the way, one instance where the top-down ethos of behaviourism seems to be really strong is the consultancy business. This is because a consultant-led behavioral model really works best in a typical working life context where a given educational intervention needs to have clear, measurable need-based goals. Methods drawing from behaviorism are okay for basic-level training, but for deeper understanding the consultant needs other methods –and the hiring firm needs more money.”

What about academia? Which theories dominate in the research community?

“Every self-respecting education researcher usually swears by constructivism and socio-constructivism. Learning research has found it to be the best functioning theory of learning, when we speak of teaching and learning on a general level. It is hard to question this theory as it is based on decades of robust learning research and it has attained the status of “scientific truth” of learning.”

Which theories are marginalized in practice and in the research world?

“Rare theories, for example bell hooks’ transgressive education, are less known and consequently less used. Often the lesser-known theories and methods are suited for special contexts – the transgressive education model being used in minority group learning for instance. Another example would be Jack Mezirow’s critical reflection model which is really demanding to use in practice.”

Tips for further reading?

”There are several good books to get a general grasp of the variety of educational theory. The ones I would recommend are:

Illeris , K. (ed.) (2009). Contemporary Theories of Learning. Learning theorists …in their own words. London: Routledge.

Manninen, J., Burman, A., Koivunen, A., Kuittinen, E., Luukannel, S., Passi, S. & Särkkä, H. (2007). Environments that support learning. Introduction to Learning Environments approach. Helsinki: National Board of Education.”

Read more:

Research confirms what practitioners know: studying improves quality of life:

BeLL project: almost all benefit from liberal adult education

Which theories, topics and methodologies dominate the global adult education research field currently?

Andreas Fejes and Erik Nylander: Some dominating methodological and theoretical trends in adult education research

Renfeng Wang and Jenni Pätäri are two young researchers. Which theorists and thinkers do they look up to? What would they ask their “theoretical hero” if they had the chance?

My theoretical heroes