Harvard Educational Review
  1. Becoming Adult Learners

    Principles and Practices for Effective Development

    By Eleanor Drago-Severson

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2004. 224 pp. $27.95.

    Becoming Adult Learners: Principles and Practices for Effective Development begins with Eleanor Drago-Severson sharing her experiences growing up with grandparents who immigrated to the United States from Italy. For them, literacy was a way to achieve dreams and education was a path to a better life. The emotion in these personal stories set the tone for this book about adult learners, with many of the featured individuals sharing aspirations and life histories similar to those of Drago-Severson’s grandparents. By focusing on individual experiences, Drago-Severson explores a “new diversity” in adult education, namely, the “developmental diversity” of adult learners.

    Throughout the book, Drago-Severson honors what she learned from her grandparents with a holistic approach to her research. Using the lens of constructive-developmental theory, she examines the interconnectedness between her research participants’ views of education, self, and work. Their relationships with coworkers, peers, and teachers provide ample evidence for their learning and personal growth. Sponsored by the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL), Drago-Severson led a research team studying sixteen Polaroid shop-floor workers. These employees were enrolled in the Continuing Education Institute (CEI) Adult Diploma Program to prepare them to take the G.E.D. They varied considerably by country of origin, age, gender, and other personal characteristics, yet “the cases demonstrate how two people can come from the same home country, live with similar expectations, and have a similar educational background yet demonstrate different ways of knowing” (p. 127).

    Initial chapters set the context for the research project, explaining the purpose of the book, constructive-developmental framework, research methods, and background information about Polaroid and the 1998–99 CEI program. At times the background is overly detailed, but it is helpful for establishing the setting and the purposes of the research study. The section on constructive-developmental theory repeats information in other works on the same topic, but Drago-Severson offers an overview of stages three, four, and five (instrumental, socializing, and self-authoring, respectively) that are remarkably concise, even for readers unfamiliar with the theory (an observation echoed by Laurent Daloz in his foreword to the book). In fact, the second chapter could function as a stand-alone chapter for courses, workshops, or individuals who would like a brief introduction to stages within constructive-developmental theory. Drago-Severson illustrates each stage with examples from participants in the Polaroid study, with general implications for teachers and learners.

    Subsequent chapters show how participants experienced learning cohorts, expectations for teaching and learning, teacher-student relationships, and an adult basic education curriculum. It also covers how their attitudes about themselves as learners and workers, relationships with coworkers, and their work skills shifted during the course of their education. Chapter 8 summarizes implications for teachers and ABE programs, with an array of options that honor the diversity of ABE and ESOL classrooms and programs. Recommendations include ways to create “holding environments” that serve as catalysts for growth, even when it is not possible to create a cohort like CEI’s.

    This is the first book applying constructive developmental theory to adult basic education programs, and the lessons Drago-Severson learned from the Polaroid workers will hopefully not only set the tone for future research in the field, but also for adult basic education instructors and corporate administrators who underwrite programs like the one at Polaroid. The book ends as it begins, with a personal story from Drago-Severson and her team attending the CEI graduation. With personal, theoretical, and pedagogical perspectives on adult learning, this book has wide appeal to educators and researchers alike.

    W. S. H.
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    Book Notes

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    Becoming Adult Learners
    By Eleanor Drago-Severson

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