My theoretical heroes

Two young researchers reveal their scholarly heroes.


“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,”

goes Isaac Newton’s famous dictum, honoring those scientists who went before him and on whose work he could himself build upon.

Renfeng Wang and Jenni Pätäri are young PhD researchers, both active in the field of adult education. Here they share the theories that most inform their work – and their own personal broad-shouldered giants.


Renfeng Wang

Upon graduation, Renfeng plans to return to China to work for the lowering of learning barriers for the elderly.

Photo: Renfeng Wang


Renfeng Wang, 32

• Lives and works in Brussels, Belgium, at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Originally from China.

• Holds a Bachelor’s degree in English literature from Xi’an International Studies University and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwest University in China.

I pursue a PhD in the field of educational gerontology since 2012. I focus on the barriers that impede older adults from getting involved into educational activities from the perspective of different cultural contexts, especially in China. As the world’s most populous country with the largest ageing population, China faces serious demographic problems. Although the benefits of elderly learning are widely acknowledged, many older individuals are not involved in it.

By using both qualitative and quantitative approach, my research aims at exploring the definition of learning barriers and developing an instrument to measure learning participation barriers among Chinese older adults. From my research I try to draw recommendations for program models to facilitate elderly participation.

Knowles and Cross: andragogy and CAL model

Many theories are used in my work but I benefit a lot from the work of Malcolm Knowles (above, left) and K. P. Cross.

Knowles (1980) popularized the concept of andragogy (“the art and science of helping adults learn”), whereas Cross (1981) presented the Adult Learning Theory.

Knowles’ andragogy is perhaps the best known theory of adult learning and was an attempt to create a theory to differentiate learning in childhood from learning in adulthood. He gave his assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners and the process elements of adult education that stem from these characteristics: these are Self-concept, Experience, Readiness to learn, Orientation to learning, Motivation to learn and Relevance.

Cross analyzed lifelong learning programs and devised the Characteristics of Adults as Learners model (CAL), which incorporates other theories, including Andragogy and Lifespan Psychology Theory. The CAL model consists of two classes of variables: personal characteristics and situational characteristics.

Personal characteristics include: aging, life phases, and developmental stages while situational characteristics consist of part-time versus full-time learning, and voluntary versus compulsory learning.

According to this model, she gave suggestions on adult learning programs:

Programs should capitalize on the experience of participants and adapt to the age-specific limitations of the participants. Adults should also have as much choice as possible in the availability and organization of learning programs.

Cross as a guide to barriers

Cross shows that different demographic and external characteristics should be considered and alternative teaching strategies towards different age groups should be developed. In her Adult Learning Theory she describes how adult learners have unequal access to educational opportunities, and she lists different kinds of participation barriers according to learners’ individual differences, such as situational (personal circumstances), institutional (organizational practices and procedures) and dispositional (attitude-related) ones. In my work I draw directly from this as I, too, aim to identify older adults’ participation barriers.

If I could ask my theoretical hero anything…?

..,.I would have rather specific questions in mind. Cross mentions three kinds of barriers to impede learning participation. Many present surveys concentrate almost exclusively on situational and institutional barriers but relatively few on dispositional barriers. Why is this? How to strengthen the assessment of dispositional barriers?

Jenni Pätäri

Along with Foucault, Jenni Pätäri draws inspiration from Swedish scholar Andreas Fejes and her thesis supervisors Anja Heikkinen and Antti Saari.

Photo: Jenni Pätäri


Jenni Pätäri, 32

• Lives and works in Tampere, Finland, at the University of Tampere, School of Education

• Is an active member of the Finnish joint research programme Freedom and Responsibility of Liberal Adult Education (SVV) and along with her main job works as a publicist in the Finnish Society for Research on Adult Education (ATS).

My PhD thesis goes by the working title ”Research-practice relations and the will to knowledge in liberal adult education”. It focuses on the history of liberal adult education research and adult education science in Finland.

You could say that my thesis handles the rather trendy topic of the 3rd mission of the university and the impact of research – from a critical and societal perspective. I hope that my research will facilitate better use of research knowledge in liberal adult education and enhance interaction between research and practice.

My aim is especially to analyze different research-practice connections and their consequences. How research links with the reality, praxis and values of adult education in the context of various historical and societal factors and power relations? How research defines the conditions of possibilities for scientific knowledge of liberal adult education? And what follows?


Foucault: questioning taken-for-granted “truths”

In my thesis work I’m inspired by the theoretical work of Michel Foucault (1926-1984) (photo above), the French philosopher and social theorist. Educational researchers started to use Foucault’s ideas more extensively in the turn of the 1990s and nowadays he is widely used in educational research. The ongoing theme in Foucault’s work is the relationship between power and knowledge and how power is used to control and define knowledge. (see more Olssen, 2006; Fejes, 2008.)

I especially draw from Foucault’s genealogical approach. Genealogy deals with the history of systems of thought and of knowledge-shaping social structures. It challenges the traditional practices of history and conceptions of knowledge, truth and power. As Andreas Fejes has written, it sees history as a process of discontinuities and temporality, and questions the search for essence, origins and beginnings or for truths about human nature or the world. It does this in order to question the taken for granted ways of the present day and to open up new possibilities for the future.

Andreas Fejes reminds that genealogy takes a lot of time as the researcher needs to do extensive reading in order to trace the lines of emergence and descent. (see more Fejes 2008; Crowley 2009.) At the moment I’m building up my theoretical framework, finalizing data collection and starting the first analysis of the data. I’m eager to start tracing the question why liberal adult education and its research are where they are in present-day Finland.

To me it’s important to try to honour the foucauldian spirit and legacy that emphasizes freedom, refusal and openness, and curiosity, innovation and change – in relation to scientific knowledge and moreover to ethics. Foucault reminds us in an interview that it is not the function of scientific knowledge or intellectual to tell the others what is good or how they should live their lives. Rather, it is collective work based on various analyses of reality, and researchers can be part of this (see Bess 1980.).

If I could ask my theoretical hero anything…?

…I probably couldn’t think of a question but I’d like to thank him for all the inspiration and express my humble wish and aspiration to do justice to his work. I’m inspired but also quite overwhelmed and feel like a one big question mark before Foucault. Among other things I’m astonished at how spot on and topical Foucault’s theorizations e.g. on governmentality (the ways in which a state governs its populace) still are.

Given these feelings, it is comforting that Foucault (1994) noted that “I don’t write a book so that it will be the final word; I write a book so that other books are possible, not necessarily written by me.”

Read more:

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


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Bess, M. (1980). Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual. Interview with Michel Foucault. From the journal History of the Present 4 (Spring 1988), 1-2, 11-13. Interview was conducted on Nov. 3, 1980, by Michael Bess.

Crowley, Ú. (2009). International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography. Genealogy.

Foucault, M. (1994) [1971] ”Entretien avec Michel Foucault”. In Dits et Ecrits vol II. Paris: Gallimard, pp. 157-74. (trans. Clare O’Farrell).

Fejes, A. (2008). What’s the use of Foucault in research on lifelong learning and post-compulsory education?: A review of four academic journals. Studies in the Education of Adults, (40) 1, pp. 7-23.

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