Women as Learners: The Significance of Gender in Adult Learning / Edition 1

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Shifting standards and roles for women—combined with many economic and social factors—have increased the number of women who participate in adult learning activities. Yet most literature on adult learning barely touches on the subject of women's learning. This limited understanding of how women learn is too often reflected in the practice of adult education. Here, at last, is a volume that explores and analyzes learning as a distinctive experience for women. The authors are all established adult education professionals and recognized authorities on women as adult learners. Together, they examine and compare the importance of such factors as sense of identity, self-esteem, social world, and power in what and how women learn.Drawing from a comprehensive review of research and scholarship, as well as from personal stories, Women as Learners reveals the numerous ways in which women experience the learning process. It explains, for example, how women often become personally connected to the object and process of learning. The authors explore these different experiences to show education and training professionals how they can better design and conduct programs for women. They also offer specific recommendations to improve all types of formal and informal adult educational programs, including literacy education, counseling and support groups, workplace training, and professional development activities. Concise yet comprehensive, this long-awaited book provides the most current principles for practice.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The strength of this book lies in the use of the research on women's learning and development to engage readers who are unfamiliar with or new to adult education…" (Journal of College Student Development; 10/1/2004; Vol. 45, No.5)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780787909208
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 2/28/2000
  • Series: Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

ELISABETH HAYES is professor of Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

DANIELE D. FLANNERY is assistant professor of Adult Education at The Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg.

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Table of Contents

1. Women's Learning: A Kaleidoscope.

2. Contexts of Women's Learning.

3. Women's Self and Learning.

4. Talk, Identity, & Power: Voice and Silence in Women's Learning.

5. Women's Knowing and Learning.

6. Transformative Learning in the Lives of Women, Ann Brooks.

7. Feminist Pedagogy in Three Movements: Stories from the Field, Elizabeth J. Tisdell.

8. Re-Searching for Women's Learning.

9. Re-Vision Learning Opportunities for Women, Jane M. Hugo.

10. Creating Knowledge about Women Learners.

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First Chapter

Women's Learning: A Kaleidoscope
Daniele D. Flannery, Elisabeth Hayes

Women's learning, and our search to begin to understand it, are like kaleidoscopes: an endless variety of patterns.

Why Women's Learning?

Changing social norms and roles for women, combined with other social and economic factors, have led to a tremendous growth in the number of adult women who are participating in formal educational programs and informal learning activities. Over the last decade, it has become increasingly important to educators in almost all adult and continuing education settings to improve learning opportunities for women, and yet actual practice in adult and continuing education shows a limited understanding of women's learning, or it is based on outdated information and perspectives. For example, it is common to find women described simplistically as "collaborative" learners, a characterization that seems to reinforce dominant stereotypes about women's orientation toward others rather than providing more nuanced insights that give attention to diversity among women and to the particular kinds of relationships that might be beneficial.

in general, show women as deficient, marginalized, or simply invisible (Hayes and Smith, 1994).

What About Men?

When we tell people we are writing a book on adult women's learning, some ask, "Is it true that men and women learn differently?" We reiterate as clearly as possible that our purpose in writing this book is to center our inquiry on women, to fill a void where data and synthesis are lacking. We do not imply comparison and contrast by what we write; when we describe women's learning, readers should not assume that men's learning is necessarily different or characterized by the opposite of what we say applies to women. One problem with this orientation toward difference, all too often, is an assumption embedded in such comparisons: that one way of learning is better than another. We do believe that women can be different from men. Our previous discussion of gender relations suggests that women and men are quite likely to have different opportunities for learning, different learning experiences, and different approaches to learning. Nevertheless, such differences do not mean that women's learning is inferior to men's learning, nor does it mean that women's learning is superior to men's.

Multiple Feminisms and Women's Learning

and selected the material for this book. For now, we want to note the following aspects of feminism that have been important to us in our lives and in writing this book.

Psychological Feminist Theories

Feminist scholars who draw on this type of feminist perspective tend to emphasize an understanding of the differences between women and men, using such constructs as gender-role socialization. Women's Ways of Knowing (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule, 1986) is a prominent example of research associated with this framework. The goal of that work was to develop a theory based on women's experience and, in doing so, to establish women's ways of knowing as legitimate and as valuable as those of men. These authors explain women's orientation to knowing primarily in terms of relationships with male authority figures and patterns of family interaction in childhood. The authors ultimately use their findings to argue for an approach to education that they call "connected teaching," which they claim would benefit men as well. Underlying this kind of feminist perspective is a liberal political perspective that seeks to achieve equality for women and men within the existing social order. In terms of education, the emphasis is more on achieving equal educational opportunities for women than on developing a critique of the educational and social structures that oppress women.

Structural Feminist Theories

Feminist theorists working within this framework have focused on understanding the social structures that contribute to women's oppression. They have attempted to explain how patriarchy (which leads to gender-based oppression) and capitalism (which leads to class-based oppression) affect women's status and experiences. More recently, other forms of oppression (such as racial oppression) have become objects of concern within this framework. A key issue, frequently unresolved, is the question of how to understand the relationships among different forms of structural oppression. The goal of work undertaken within this framework tends to be change in social structures rather than individual change. On a more individual or interpersonal level, this framework draws our attention to the reproduction of power relationships in settings like the classroom, the family, and the workplace.

Poststructural Feminist Theories

Theorists working within this framework attempt to recognize and understand how each of us is at once oppressed and privileged and how this experience continually changes according to the contexts in which we find ourselves. Rather than focusing on the effects of one or two forms of oppression, poststructural feminist theories place emphasis on understanding the intersections of multiple systems of oppression and privilege. There is also attention to individual resistance and agency in the face of oppressive social forces; there is more stress on understanding how individual women respond to their unique and particular experiences of oppression than on developing theories about how broad types of oppression affect groups of women. Attention to language as a means of constructing reality is another hallmark of poststructuralist feminist theories. (Libby Tisdell includes in this framework those feminist theories that are influenced by postmodern thought. There are certain differences in the origins and assumptions of poststructuralism and postmodernism, but we will follow her lead by combining them in this way.)

Use of Feminism in Women as Learners

As already noted, we believe that all types of feminist theories have made contributions to our understanding of women's learning. Throughout this book we have incorporated the findings and perspectives of authors using diverse feminist perspectives; the development of our own thinking has been influenced by all of these frameworks. Nevertheless, our current thinking is most closely aligned with the poststructural feminist framework. This perspective is reflected in how we conceptualize gender as a system of social relations that are continually renegotiated, both at the level of daily interactions and at the level of the broader social structures. It is also reflected in our attention to the sociocultural context of women's lives, our attempts to make the social forces that influence women's lives more visible, and our emphasis on understanding how women are active agents in resisting oppressive forces and shaping their own lives and learning. It has informed our desire to recognize not only similarities among women but also differences related to such factors as age, race, class, and sexual orientation. In turn, these beliefs have influenced how we approached our discussion of the topics and literature in each chapter.

Locating Sources of Information

Gathering source material was not an easy task; it was certainly more difficult than we anticipated at the outset of our project. We began with what we intended to be a rigorous and systematic search of academic literature on adult women's learning. Our initial intent was to focus primarily on literature that described research or theory about the actual process of women's learning, women's attributes as learners, or the outcomes of their learning experiences. It is important to note that we did not want learning, for our purposes, to be confined to traditional settings of formal education because most learning for adults takes place in many other settings of everyday life. We sought out information about learning that ranged from the pursuit of formal education to such experiences as learning to be a mom, recovering from alcoholism, and becoming a business executive.

Issues in the Literature on Women's Learning

At least initially, we were quite disappointed in what we found-or didn't find-in the literature. Perhaps our major disappointment was that, in terms of sheer quantity, there turned out to be a relatively limited amount of scholarship specifically focused on women's learning in adulthood. At the outset, when we searched the databases with such conventional descriptors as learning and women, we identified what seemed to be a vast body of literature. Unfortunately, we quickly found that learning is such a broad term that it was almost useless in helping us locate appropriate material. In many instances, we found that journal articles identified by the descriptor learning are actually descriptions of educational programs designed for women, teaching methods advocated for women learners, strategies to increase women's participation in formal education, and so forth. Moreover, much of this literature is based on assumptions about how women learn that do not have any obvious support. We were also disturbed to find that a number of authors make unsubstantiated statements about women's learning.

Emerging Themes

From a scholarly perspective, much of what we found was problematic, but our concerns prompted us to move in new directions with our own work. In retrospect, we see that as we began our original search, we were using a masculine model of science that mirrored our formal training as researchers. We assumed that we could gather a body of evidence, evaluate it with traditional forms of academic analysis and critique, and draw conclusions about women's learning that could be applied by other researchers and educators. To put the matter simply, however, that model didn't work for us. There is a dearth of literature, and what does exist frequently offers very limited insights. Moreover, some of the more academically rigorous work is in fact the least helpful because it reduces learning to a set of seemingly isolated experiences or attributes. Often it seems as if researchers are more concerned with the interests of educational institutions than with women learners themselves (Edwards, 1993). Much of the literature fails to go deeply into what women as women are saying about their learning.

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