Why layers of life experience matter in learning

Three quick ones. If life is the adult learner’s living textbook, seniors are those with the most pages in their books. Experiential learning can help bring this to the forefront, argues Anita Malinen.

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01.04.2020

Before entering academia, Anita Malinen, now a lecturer in adult pedagogy at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, worked at various adult education institutes and non-formal learning settings. She became fascinated by what her students shared about their own learning experiences.

Ever since then, the keyword in Malinen’s work has been adult experiential learning, referring to the theory that a person can examine and utilise their own life experience as a basis for lifelong learning

A couple of years ago, Malinen was asked to join a liberal adult education initiative, but this time aimed particularly at those considered senior. Despite her initial hesitation – “after all I am a not a gerontologist,” Malinen points out – she started looking for existing research on the topic.

I was surprised by how little had been said about senior learning from the perspective of adult pedagogy.

“In fact, I was surprised by how little had been said about senior learning from the perspective of adult pedagogy. Aging is still often studied through what is lacking or lost, and though this is important in many ways, I felt it was also important to examine what is gained; what is it that older people have,” Malinen explains.

Over the last few years, Malinen has been involved in several initiatives aimed at senior learners.

We asked her three questions about applying experiential learning theory to working with older people.

Why is experiential learning particularly important for senior learners?

As Eduard C. Lindeman famously stated in 1926, experience is the adult learner’s living textbook. And in my opinion, this particularly applies to older learners; after all, they have the most pages in their textbooks. So-called” old age” is, in many ways, also the time when a person is the most capable of self-reflection.

I also like to talk about memory-based learning; this means considering how past experiences and memories affect the ways we learn, sometimes in a restricting manner. It is also acknowledged by psychologists that some memories are stronger than others, and those memories can alter the way we think and act in different situations.

A typical example of this could be that when a person from an older generation takes part in non-formal learning, he or she can easily look at it as if going back to school, and automatically views the teacher as an authority, as might have been the case in their childhood. Using a school desk, for instance, might reinforce this type of regression. It often requires work to shift this attitude and put the learners’ own experiences and views to the forefront.

What are the things adult educators should consider when working with seniors?

It is important to acknowledge that it is not necessarily easy to confront one’s memories or investigate why we think in a certain way. This is why creating the right conditions for open dialogue really matters – people from different backgrounds can help each other to examine and learn from their experiences.

Dialogic learning also means that the educator must be able to give up their position as an authority figure. Guiding a heterogeneous group including learners of different ages and backgrounds involves offering as much agency to the group as possible. They must discover the best ways to learn to suit their own needs.

It is important to acknowledge that it is not necessarily easy to confront one’s memories or investigate why we think in a certain way.

Teaching about dialogue with the dialogic approach, for instance, might look like this: everyone in the group picks a picture card that, for them, represents dialogue in some way and shares why they picked that specific card. In most cases, the group discovers that the essential theories and key arguments about the theme will be covered already during this sharing exercise.

Talking to adult educators working with seniors, a recurring concern has to do with their ethical responsibility towards learners with memory disorders. This is not a straightforward pedagogical question, but a more important one to consider carefully.

How can experiential learning help shape the future of lifelong learning?

There is a quote I like from the psychologist Hilkka Niemelä’s book about the transition to retirement. Niemelä writes that, upon her own retirement, she noticed that when buying a bus ticket, the driver started asking her: “An adult or….?” The correct answer to the question, of course, was “No, a pensioner”.

There is still this deeply ingrained idea in our culture that pensioners are also somewhat retiring from life and learning in general.

I find this interesting because it highlights what many older people experience, the shift in how they are being treated in the public eye. Though slowly changing, there is still this deeply ingrained idea in our culture that pensioners are also somewhat retiring from life and learning in general. It is crucial to challenge this – even if you are experiencing restriction in mobility or problems with hearing, it does not need to mean restrictions to learning. On the contrary, seniors have all these different layers of experience that should be utilised in learning.

It is also important not to pigeonhole people too much as one thing, as this can hamper the interaction and learning between individuals. I often think about this when attending my yoga class at a local adult education centre. The age range in the class reaches from early 20s to people over 80, and we are all there for the same thing – to learn yoga.

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