Facilitating Adult Education — The Behaviorist, Humanistic and Critical Paradigms

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Behaviorist Paradigm

Behavioral learning theory, “assumes that the outcome of learning is change in behavior and emphasizes the effects of external events upon the individual” (Woolfolk, 1998, p. 205). The behaviorist orientation forms the basis for the traditional didactic orientation toward learning and teaching, emphasizing clearly defined, often progressive learning goals which are managed by the instructor in an evaluative capacity. The emphasis is on demonstrated performance of tasks determined to objectify learning goals. Inherent within this orientation is a distinctive and hierarchical separation of instructor and learner, whereby the more knowledgeable individual imparts expertise upon the less knowledgeable individual. This orientation is appropriate for concrete tasks or performance-oriented activities with definitive answers or measurable standards of achievement.

Based on the work of psychologist B. F. Skinner, the behaviorist model develops formal structured systems of learning progression which each student is passed through in the same manner. It is typically the most widely utilized and institutionally approved mode for delivery and assessment of learning. However, its critics argue that this approach inhibits rather that facilitates some of the fundamental principles of adult learning, including critical thinking, self-directed motivation, individual practical application and personally meaningful reflection and deliberation.

Humanistic Paradigm

In stark contrast to the behaviorist model, the humanistic orientation focuses on the involvement of the learner in the determination of the learning experience and emphasizes the subjective rather than the objective experience. This perspective considers learning to be a cooperative endeavor incorporating negotiation between student and facilitator from planning through evaluation. Thus, there exists a de-emphasis on the disparity in status between the learner and the facilitator which permeates the learning environment.

The humanistic orientation emphasizes intrinsic sources of motivation and self-determination and thus considers the facilitation of learning to include, “motivation through encouraging the learners inner resources — their sense of competence, self-esteem, autonomy and self-actualization” (Woolfolk, 1998, p. 375). In this way, this perspective seems more in line with the principles of adult learning. However, it has been criticized as reflecting a consumerism mentality and being ineffective for teaching concrete skills and information.

Critical Paradigm

The critical perspective is a constructionist view which challenges learners to critically examine the beliefs systems they hold in light of the social and political context. Exemplified by the work of Freire this orientation encourages critical examination of previously passively accepted cultural and societal assumptions and promotes free thinking which challenges current social constructions. The critical paradigm is based on the interaction between diverging realities among learners and facilitators which is reflective of a diverse society and necessary to challenge the learner with alternative perspectives. Therefore, it follows that facilitators have the responsibility of promoting the critical analysis of the self and of the context within which one functions.

To accomplish this, it is necessary that facilitators espouse an objective and comprehensive view of the societal context and the individual’s role in the broader social struggles and conditions. In this way, this view is typically associated with reformative political perspectives and the expectation that informed students will naturally challenge the current system, which may or may not accurately reflect the values of the participants. While challenging students in the development of introspection and self/other analysis is highly meaningful and even advantageous to society at large, like the humanist view, it may not always be appropriate or effective depending upon the subject matter to be mastered.

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Woolfolk, A. E. (1998). Educational psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology

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