Adult learning across cultures

Adult Learning in PeruBy Ariane Tulloch

Who is educated, rich, and used to make sweeping generalizations about human behavior? Any guesses?

The college aged students who make up the bulk of psychology study participants. The typical person in psychology studies tends to be part of the WEIRD demographic—Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic (Heinrich et al. 2010). Many of the behaviors and beliefs taken as normal based on studies done on these populations are actually not normal at all when one considers that people from this demographic only constitute a mere 12% of the world’s population (Heinrich et al. 2010).

Does that mean researchers have to discard the research that they have already collected? No. However, it might behoove them to expand their research pool in order to make veritable strides in their field. We can’t assume that what works in one place works everywhere. Doing that would be plain weird.

Forest Dialogue PeruOne group I find particularly interesting is non-Western adult learners. They differ from Western learners in important ways. For many non-Western adult learners, learning is not limited to the classroom. Furthermore, in more formal situations, the focus of what is taught is different. A great deal of time is devoted to talking about health, the local environment, and women’s issues.

Admittedly, it is just as much a sin to group all non-Western peoples together as it is only to use a select group of Westerners as the basis of psychological studies. There is great variety within the group classed as non-Western. However, for the sake of simplicity, I will use the term non-Western in my attempt to take a more global approach to education than many WEIRD studies.

Neuroscience and Education

Regardless of where one is from, a good breakfast is important when it comes to learning. Food helps prime brain and body, argue Sigman et al. (2014) in their Nature Neuroscience review article Neuroscience and education: prime time to build the bridge. This idea can most likely be extrapolated to having a well balanced meal before class, irrespective of the time of day. This information should be of interest to teachers who might work with students who don’t always have a chance to eat. Perhaps, they could provide snacks for their students.

Sigman et al. (2014) push readers to recognize that neuroscience points to broader lessons about learning than just an emphasis on learning in class. For example, neuroscience has taught us that sleep is important in consolidating what is learnt. How can adult educators incorporate this knowledge into their teaching?

Neuroscience has also shown us that bilingualism is associated with postponing the onset of symptoms of dementia in the elderly. Whilst we know that adults are past the critical period of learning a new language without interference from their first language, is it possible that teaching them a new language in adulthood might have similar effects in staving off the development of dementia?

Sigman et al. (2014) write:

It has been conjectured that the correlation of lifelong bilingualism with white matter integrity may be at the root of increased cognitive reserve56. Although this idea is still incipient, it presents an interesting example of how neuroscience and education need not be constrained to early development, and may instead be pertinent throughout the entire life span.

Adult Learning

Andragogy puzzleThe field of andragogy, the study of adult learning, was shaped under the guidance of Malcolm Knowles, an American adult educator. Andragogy is often distinguished from pedagogy, the science of teaching children, by the following characteristics that he attributed to adults.

*Adults are self-directed — Adults decide what it is that they want to learn and are internally motivated. No longer are teachers expected to supply external motivation in order to get their students to acquire new concepts.

*Adult learning is grounded in life experience — Whereas children are often thought to be tabulae rasae on which new knowledge is imprinted, adults generally come into a classroom with a whole host of experiences from which to draw. Adult educators then are charged with making sure that they employ their students’ experiences in their teaching.

*Adult learning needs to be applicable — The days when one learns complicated geometry theorems or English literature terminology that have no practical bearing on real life are over for most adults. Adults generally require that the knowledge they learn be of practical use, something that they can readily see how to employ in their lives.

*Adults collaborate with teachers to promote their learning. This sharply contrast with the way in which children are typically taught with teachers being seen as authoritarian figures who tower over their students in the hierarchical structure of elementary and secondary education (Knowles, 1980).

In Western society, adult learning often appears to be individualistic and egalitarian. However, do these characteristics of adult learning hold up cross culturally? If not, what characterizes adult learning in other parts of the world? What techniques do teachers of adults employ so that their students learn? What insights can neuroscience offer us about the way that adults learn cross culturally? Do different pathways light up in certain societies as opposed to others? How will this change or influence the way that adult educators teach?

Sigman et al. (2014) call for field studies and caution too about using neuroscience too bluntly:

Field studies to examine the validity of neuroscience theories in the classroom constitute a nearly unexploited research frontier that is crucial to prevent teachers, principals and decision makers (who are not experts in neuroscience) from arbitrarily picking, from the vast and heterogeneous body of empirical findings, solely concepts useful for their purposes.

Non Western Perspectives on LearningLearning across Cultures

Even given these characteristics of adult learning, adult learning is not the same in all cultures. In contrast to how Westerners view knowledge as solely for the individual, non-Westerners tend to view knowledge as communal. What is learnt is meant to be shared.

Merriam and Kim (2008) give a wonderful illustration from Islam of this principle: If a village has no doctor, then the villagers pool together their resources to send one their youth to medical school so that when he returns, the community will have a doctor.

Another characteristic of learning cross culturally is that it does not stop once the person has left a formal institution. In fact, the majority of learning happens outside of formal institutions. One can learn about nature and the cycles of life through gardening, for instance.

Farmers Potato Park PeruMerriam and Kim (2008) contrast this type of learning with learning geared towards bettering one’s vocation which is prevalent in Western culture. There is a remunerative aspect tied to learning in that the learner acquires skills to help him produce more or faster (Merriam & Kim, 2008). Additionally, in contrast to Western culture, non-Western cultures view learning as lifelong. It only ends when the person dies. Thus, learning occurs solely for the sake of learning.

Finally, learning is holistic, incorporating the whole person beyond just the mind. Downey’s (2012) article, “Balancing between cultures,” attests to this as he alludes to the fact that learning the Brazilian martial art of capoeira has influenced the way he carries his body. His sense of balance had been shaped by the many many hours of training that he spent practicing bananeira, a dynamic handstand that required the doer to ignore his natural inclination to look down to maintain his balance, instead demanding that he keep his eyes on his adversary at all times.

The art of yoga is yet another example of how learning goes beyond the mind-body dichotomy that we have established in Western society. Yoga seeks to balance the mind, body, and spirit in an effort to move the whole person towards enlightenment (Merriam & Kim, 2008).

What it means to be educated even varies across cultures. In one longitudinal study conducted on Salvadoran adult learners, being educated encompassed not just book knowledge, but rather a holistic melding of social knowledge as well (Prins 2011). Treating others with respect regardless of their station in life was considered one of the hallmarks of an educated person. Prins’ (2012) study On Becoming an Educated Person: Salvadoran Adult Learners’ Cultural Model of Educación/Education included interviews from 12 Salvadoran adults from rural El Salvador, none of whom had had more than six years of schooling.

One of the participants recounted an incident in which he went into a bank and was asked by a bank employee to put his cebolleta here. Though the term in this case referred to signature, it is considered insulting and would never have been used with someone of higher status. Thus, whist the bank employee was educated in the technical sense, he was not an educated person in the Salvadoran sense.

Other participants corroborated the importance of learning proper social etiquette as part of their education. One participant claimed that before the literacy classes, she did not have the correct vocabulary to address people. She claimed that people often looked down on the campesinos, those from the country, because of the seemingly brusque way in which they interacted with others. As neuroanthropologists, and not just neuroscientists, we should conduct more studies about how the meaning of what it is to be educated differs cross culturally.

What is Taught?

It is also important to look at what adults are taught in various cultures. In parts of the world in which AIDS rates are astronomical, high priority is placed on teaching basic health procedures. In places where literacy rates are low, much attention is paid to boosting adult literacy.

In 1968, Brazilian adult educator, Paolo Freire published his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In this book, Freire criticized what he called the banking model of education. In that model, students were passive learners into whose heads teachers input knowledge, much in the same way that a child puts money into a piggy bank.

Instead, Freire encouraged problematization, the solving of real world problems (Elias & Merriam, 2005). When he taught his students to read, he made use of images that they would see in their everyday environment. Thus, reading became of practical use to them. In the United States and the UK, much emphasis is placed on Human Resource Development, the branch of adult education that devoted to training employees to improve their organizational skills, professional skills, and overall productivity.

In sub Saharan Africa, countries such as South Africa and Botswana devote many resources to teaching their citizens about safe sex and HIV/AIDS prevention (Merriam et al, 2006). In rural Latin America, adult education programs teach mothers how to better care for their children by showing them how to prepare nutritious meals. In Asia, which houses three quarters of the world’s illiterate population, efforts are being made to lower that statistic (Ahmed, 2009).

By getting neuroanthropology and education to work hand in hand, we might advance our ways to better understand how adults can live up to their true learning potential wherever they might live.

Photo Credits

UNESCO, The Youth and Adult Literacy and Basic Education Programme (PAEBA) – Peru

The Forests Dialogue, Field Dialogue on REDD+ Benefit Sharing in Peru

The International Institute for Environment and Development, Peru: Farmers sharing potatoes in the Potato Park


Ahmed, M. (2008). The state of development of adult learning in Asia and the Pacific: Regional synthesis report. UNESCO.

Downey, G. (2012). Balancing between cultures. In D.H. Lende & G. Downey (Eds.), The Encultured Brain:An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. (pp. 169-194). Cambridge, Massachusetts. The MIT Press.

Elias, J. L., & Merriam, S. B. (2005). Philosophical foundations of adult education (3rd ed.). Malabar, Fla.:Krieger Pub

Heinrich, J et al. (2010). The weirdest people in the world. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61-135

Knowles, M. S (1980). What is andragogy? In The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy (40-60). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge

Merriam, S. B., Courtenay, B. C., Cervero, R. M., & McClure, G. (Eds.). (2006). Global Issues and Adult     Education: Perspectives from Latin America, Southern Africa and the United States. Jossey-Bass

Merriam, S. B. and Kim, Y.S. (2008). Non-Western perspectives on learning and knowing. New Directionsfor Adult and Continuing Education, 119(Fall), 71-79. Retrieved from DOI: 10.1002/ace.307

Prins, E. (2011). On becoming an educated person: Salvadoran adult learner’s cultural model of educación/education. Teacher College Record, 113(7), 1477-1505

Sigman, M. et al. (2014). Neuroscience and education: prime time to build the bridge. Nature Neuroscience, 17(4), 497-501

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