Inclusive Adult Learning Environments
I've just changed completely from when I first (entered school). I used to take this little African body and force it into this European square peg. And you know, it didn't work. I kept trying to do it and trying to change who I was and tried to fit in. . . . When I finally decided to be the person that I am, I started feeling more comfortable. (Taylor 1995, p. 84).
Ever since Malcolm Knowles (1970) introduced the concept of learning climate, adult educators have been aware of how the environment affects learning. As reflected in the words of the returning woman student quoted here, however, adults may still find some learning environments to be inhospitable. Rather than learners trying to change who they are so that they will "fit in," adult educators must create learning environments in which all learners can thrive. Following an overview of changing conceptions of adult learning environments, this ERIC Digestdescribes what it means to create an inclusive learning environment, examines some related issues, and presents some guidelines for structuring inclusive learning environments.
Adult Learning Environments: Changing Conceptions
In introducing the concept of learning environment, Knowles (1970) suggested that activities conducted prior to and during the first session could "greatly affect it" (p. 270), including promotional materials and announcements; activities designed to assess learner needs prior to the event; physical arrangements; and the opening session, including greeting, learning activity overview, introductions, and treatment by the instructor. More recently, adult educators are recognizing that factors in the learning environment related to psychological, social, and cultural conditions also exert a powerful influence on the growth and development of learners (Hiemstra 1991).
Current discussions on learning environments have broadened to include the need to confront issues of sexism and racism (Hayes and Colin 1994), interlocking systems of power and oppression (Tisdell 1993b), and social justice (Shore et al. 1993). This broader understanding of factors that affect learning is leading adult educators to consider how they can create environments that address "issues of power that are inherent in cultural diversity, whether that diversity is based on nationality, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability or some other factor" (Merriam 1993, p. 58).
Developing Inclusive Learning Environments
How can inclusive learning environments be created? Tisdell (1995) suggests that a learning environment needs to attend to inclusivity at three levels. A truly inclusive learning environment should "(1) reflect the diversity of those present in the learning activity itself in the curriculum and pedagogical/andragogical style; (2) attend to the wider and immediate institutional contexts in which the participants work and live; and (3) in some way reflect the changing needs...