Adult Learning Context and Perspectives /LEARNING PERSPECTIVES ESSAY

Intercontinental Master’s Program in Adult Learning and Global Change

Course: Adult learning: Perspectives and Contexts Assignment 1: Essay

Instructors: Madeleine Abrandt Dahlgren, Song-ee Ahn, Per Andersson

Discussion Group: The Colleagues Tutor: Song-ee Ahn Date: 11/ 14/2008


Learning is a complex process that has different definitions. It occurs at the interface of several events that can influence both the learners and the outcome of their efforts. Understanding the learning process is pivotal to the success of education, both as an institutional enterprise and as a personal engagement aimed at making sense of the world.

This essay will address several definitions of learning and relevant analogies and differences found in the three perspectives presented in this course – the Constructivist/cognitive, Phenomenographic and Socio-cultural perspectives.

The essay is divided into three sections.

In SECTION ONE, I will offer an overview of my general understanding of the three perspectives.

In SECTION TWO, I will consider the three dimensions of context, meaning and experience within each approach and compare them across the broader spectrum of the other perspectives. I will examine the interplay of their tri-dimensional aspects by discussing similarities and differences. I will also inject some comments on their relevance to my own learning.

In SECTION THREE, I will offer some thoughts stemming from self-reflection significant to my own and the cohort’s learning.

A BIBLIOGRAPHY will be listed at the end of this essay.


The Constructivist/cognitive perspective

The constructivist learning approach emerged from the experience of Behaviorism and Gestalt. Behaviorists believe that reality exists externally and needs to be learned. Their approach views knowledge as the process of acquisition of such external reality, and teachers are considered the transmitters of such pre-existing knowledge.

Constructivism shifted away from the assumption that people are empty boxes, a tabula rasa, that are eager to be filled by instructors with fixed samples of an externally existing world. It affirms that reality in not extrinsic to learners, who instead use motivation to actively and collaboratively construct their knowledge and meaning from their personal experience. Therefore learning is seen as the product of self-organization (von Glaserfeld, p.11), and to this end, teachers’ role is that of mediators and facilitators.

Within Constructivism there are several approaches that I will briefly outline below.

Cognitive constructivism

Cognitive constructivism is based on psychologist’s Jean Piaget’s work and views learning as a personal experience through which a learner accurately internalizes and re-construct external reality. (Doolittle, p.2)

Learners create mental structures called schemas to make sense of reality and symbols through an ongoing process of assimilation and accommodation. In short, cognitive constructivism “emphasizes accurate mental constructions of reality” through active mental processing. (Doolittle, p.4)

Social Constructivism

Unlike Cognitive Constructivism, Social Constructivism recognizes the social nature of knowledge. This way, a person is not considered as the depository of truth, as truth is arrived at through dialogic interaction and is “socially constructed and agreed upon” through the learners’ engagement in “co-participation in cultural practices.” (Doolittle, p. 4) Compared to Cognitive constructivism, this type of Constructivism appears to be more concerned with meaning than with structure.

Radical Constructivism

Radical constructivism affirms the internal, individual nature of knowledge, which is viewed not as an objective truth, but as an effective and personal way to experience reality. (Doolittle, p. 4) Accordingly, every learner constructs his or her own reality subjectively, and knowledge becomes entrenched in each individual experience.

Contextual Constructivism

Cobern defined this additional approach to Constructivism. In his view, “construction takes place in a context – a cultural context created by, for example, social and economic class, religion, geographical location, ethnicity, and language.” (Cobern, p.1) As I mentioned in several discussion forums, I too believe that culture plays a fundamental role in our learning processes,

It appears that even though all constructivist approaches recognize the importance of social interaction, only the latter three consider the role of such interaction as a pivotal aspect of learning.

The Phenomenographic perspective

Searching for an accurate shared interpretation of the term Phenomenography has been a real challenge for all discussion groups. I find some definitions of Phenomenography helpful in understanding its broad applicability spectrum. Mary Kay Orgill defines it with a citation by Marton as “an empirical research tradition that was designed to answer questions about thinking and learning, especially in the context of educational research.” (Traynor) Others define Phenomenography as “a qualitative research methodology, within the interpretivist paradigm, that investigates the qualitatively different ways in which people experience something or think about something” (Marton, 1984), or as “an approach to educational research that appeared in publications in the early 1980s and initially emerged from an empirical rather than theoretical or philosophical basis” (, “Phenomenography”, Åkerlind, 2005).

In general, I understand Phenomenography as “the empirical study of the differing ways in which people experience, perceive, apprehend, understand, conceptualize various phenomena in all aspects of the world around us.” (Phenomenography Crossroad, p.4) However, several discussions among cohorters seemed to point out that phenomenographic research investigates what students learn and how they learn it, which supports the view of Phenomenography as both a research approach and a perspective for understanding learning and teaching.  It is this latter meaning of Phenomenography that I will now proceed to outline.

Unlike Constructivism, Phenomenography does not appear to make many epistemological and philosophical assumptions. Instead, it is presented as an approach to understanding certain dynamics of current attitudes towards teaching and learning.

In Phenomenography learning is based on learners’ awareness of the object of their study. Phenomenographic variation theory views such awareness as the result of the experiencing of variations, which are considered the main building blocks in the learning process. (Marton and Trigwell, 2000)

In The Experience of Learning, Marton et al. offer a variety of recommendations on how teachers may improve their understanding of their students’ learning approaches and include such understanding in their teaching practices. I found it very interesting to read about the clear examination of deep and surface learning approaches and their relevance to final learning outcomes. There also appears to be disagreement on the accuracy of such dichotomy, as shown in the articles by Ekeblad and Webb (Ekeblad, 1997; Webb 1997). Unfortunately, given the limited length of this essay, I cannot fully explore such debate.

I believe that Phenomenography as a learning approach plays an important role in understanding the perceptual differences that exist between teachers and students. It offers a way to help students recognize certain aspects of their learning experience, and also assists teachers in making their teaching approaches more attuned to their students’ needs.

The Socio-cultural perspective

This final perspective emerges from the work of Etienne Wenger. It develops as a well-thought and highly structured approach to learning stemming from the social tenets of Constructivism, even though Etienne Wenger explicitly acknowledges that his theory of learning, unlike Constructivism, does not focus on epistemological and philosophical questions but emphasizes instead on its practical applicability. (Wenger, 1999, pp. 9-10)

He views learning as a “fundamentally social phenomenon” (Wenger, 1999, p.3) that emerges from the continuous and intense interplay of several factors at the interface between the frameworks of communities and the practice of their participants. Communities of practice are the setting for such learning. At the community level, learning derives from a shared experience of meaningful identity building enterprises. (Wenger, 1999, Ch. 3)

In his theory, Wenger takes a holistic and systemic approach. He presents it as a relational and situational web of communal and personal scenarios. Learning is the multileveled outcome of active social involvement developing from a complex process that encompasses stages of negotiation, participation and reification through which experiential meaningfulness is attained. (Wenger, 1999, ch.1)

Even though his theory may sound very dry, its step-by-step outline also shows the transformative potential of his model, something that was not specifically addressed in the other perspectives presented in this course, although Marton and Trigwell (2000, p.384, p. 392) recognize the role of participatory learning communities in shaping a learner’s identity.

Wenger’s systemic approach efficiently presents several levels of personal and social interactive participation as ways to promote communities and individuals both at the local and at the global level. The learning ensuing from meaningful community practices will shape the identities of both participants and communities, thereby reinforcing the social value of each learner’s experience. Identity is therefore viewed as trajectory that encompasses several stages of a person’s life and unifies them within the context of an ever evolving learning process. (Wenger, 1999, p. 163)


In this section I will begin with examining issues of context, meaning and experience within the Constructivist/cognitive perspective and later address similarities and differences found across the spectrum of the three perspectives presented in this course.

The Constructivist/cognitive perspective


As explained earlier, Constructivism is concerned with learners’ ability to construct their own reality. In general, within the three variations of constructivism (cognitive, radical, and social), active interaction between learners and teachers shape the context where learning occurs and knowledge is built. I would emphasize that such interaction must be participatory in nature, and collaborative among learners. Constructivism values social interaction in learning by promoting a learner-oriented environment within the context of each learner’s prior experience. Furthermore, in order for learning to occur, the context must be meaningful and must facilitate invention. (Jaeger; Lauritzen, p. 6) I would add that the context in which learning takes place reflects and is heavily based on the learner’s personal and cultural experience, which includes all aspects of a person’s life. (Cobern, p.1)


In Constructivism meaning is found in the learner’s ability to construct his/her own reality based on mediated information and social negotiations. Since learners are at center stage with regard to their experience, the content of their learning must be relevant to the individual. Doolittle identifies eight tenets that would ensure that learners retain a central position in their own learning. (Doolittle, pp.4-7)
People interpret reality through a process of intersecting, interconnected and self-improving stages of learning. These will include, and are not limited to information acquisition, mental representation, schemata, accretion (Winn & Snyder,, mapping, adaptation. Meaning is arrived at through the interaction of such processes. This appears similar to Marton’s theory of variations. (Marton, 2000)


Within Constructivism, experience may play different roles. Cognitive constructivism, for instance, does not include the subjective nature of knowledge, as learning is based on information processing through which knowledge is arrived at as an extrapolation of an external reality. Nevertheless, in spite of some ontological differences, personal experience and its social dimension maintain a pivotal role in each individual’s learning process, as it provides the background against which new knowledge is measured, understood, and internalized.


The three dimensions are actually intertwined and are part of one and the same learning process. Learning occurs within the context in which active learners construct new knowledge and meaning from their experience. Learning must be significant to the learner, who achieves a different level of understanding through a stage of perturbation (von Glaserfeld, 1989, p.6) or dissonance (Jaeger; Lauritzen, p. 6). Thus learning occurs as the result of the dynamic process of interplay between meaning and experience and develops within a context that is both personal and social.

Using the preceding paragraphs as a starting point, I will now address similarities and differences in the three dimensions of the other two perspectives.

The Phenomenographic perspective


Whereas Constructivism is based on a dualistic view of an external and an internal reality, the phenomenographic perspective does not recognize the dichotomy between a subjectively experienced world and an outer objective reality. The phenomenographic context is therefore the environment in which a learner experiences learning through several stages of variations in the learner’s perceived level of knowledge of a certain subject. (Marton and Trigwell, 2000)

Phenomenographic analysis points out the existing conflict between the personal and institutional aspects of the learning context. This issue is addressed by Charles Andersons in chapter twelve of The Experience of Learning. I find his argument relevant to my own experience in the ALGC, which combines formal teaching and tutorial strategies and where it is difficult sometimes to match the strict academic requirements to the open-ended approach typical of self-directed learning, which is presented as a pivotal part of the ALGC learning experience. It has been noted that students’ perceptions of curricular constrains have an impact on their learning (Paul Ramsden, in Marton at al., 1984, p. 198).

In our forums we also discussed what role culture plays in a phenomenographic analysis. Even though the learner is seen as the locus of her/his own learning context, Phenomenography seems to lack the social depth typical of Constructivism. If it is true that in both Phenomenography and Constructivism the environment includes the learners’ prior experience, phenomenographic analysis does not appear to consider aspects of the human experience such as culture and gender. In Variatio Est Mater Studiorum, Marton and Trigwell (2000) mention the importance of learning communities as loci for identity formation, but do not specifically address the role of cultural differences, which I believe exert so much influence on each person’s learning experience. If phenomenographic research does not address fundamental cultural differences among students, by restricting the scope of the inquiry only to certain aspects, would that not invalidate the applicability of the findings? I asked this question in the discussion forums but did not receive a clear answer and therefore it remains open.


In Phenomenography meaning derives from the relationship between a learner and the world. Unlike Constructivism, where the mind constructs its understanding of reality, Phenomenography views knowledge as the result of a relational connection between a learner and the world (Hales & Watkins, 2004, p.4, p.6). Meaning is arrived at individually by each learner within their own learning environment.

According to Hales and Watkins meaning varies among individuals and within each learner on three levels: 1) The meaningful combination of the components of an experience; 2) How awareness organizes them; 3) “How the phenomenon is delimited from other phenomena.” (2004, p.6) This approach emphasizes the very personal nature of each learner’s experience, where meaning is postulated as a process linked to subjective awareness. This differs greatly from the social nature of learning found in Constructivism and also from the collaborative learning approach outlined in the socio-cultural perspective.


As I said earlier, the three dimensions are actually interconnected. Both in Phenomenography and Constructivism personal experience sits at the epicenter of individual learners’ learning and is the medium for the development of meaning, knowledge and understanding. Phenomenography recognizes five levels on which experience develops: 1) Increase in knowledge, 2) Memorization, 3) Fact acquisition, 4) Abstraction of meaning, 5) Understanding reality. Whereas intrinsic motivation seems to improve the effectiveness of learning leading to a deep approach, external concerns may limit the value of learning and lead to a surface approach. (Marton and Säljö, in Marton et al., 1984, Ch. 3) Such scheme falls short of including the stage of personal transformation that undeniably affects each learner as a result of perturbation and dissonance that – as mentioned above – are the supporting building blocks of personal learning experience.

I would argue that while both Constructivism and Phenomenography value the learner’s experience, in Phenomenography experience appears to be more rigidly interpreted, possibly due to the influence of institutional concerns on phenomenographic analysis.

The Socio-cultural perspective


In the Socio-cultural perspective communities of practice are the context in which learning occurs. The environment is highly socialized and contextualized, as it results from the stratification of experience over time. Even though the three approaches do not properly address the influence of cultural issues on the learning experience, the Socio-cultural perspective presents a fairly detailed description of how a community of practice is constantly constructing and revising its own cultural patterns. In this sense, Wenger’s approach implicitly recognizes the formative relevance of high-context within the process of community building. (Hall, 1976)[1]


“Practice is about meaning as an experience in everyday life.” (Wenger, 1999, p.52) In other words, this perspective views meaning as a direct derivation of daily experiential practice. Meaning entails both interpretation and action, and stems from both active personal participation in a social enterprise and the relevant production of artifacts called reification. The actual source of meaning is the ongoing interplay between these two dynamics within the context of a community of practice. The two aspects complement and support one another.

Compared with the other two perspectives, this one appears to recognize that meaning is contextualized within each community experience and that the level of variation found in human enterprises will ensure an ever-changing, refreshing evolvement in human cultures, personal experience and stages of learning, and ultimately in the acquisition and elaboration of knowledge.


Experience lies at the core of this perspective and informs each individual’s process of learning within the context of a community enterprise. In the Socio-cultural perspective experience transcends the role assigned to it in Constructivism and Phenomenography, where it is considered a means towards knowledge acquisition. Experience becomes the conditio sine qua non without which learning would not be possible. It is more that a means; it is part of learning itself.

To me, Wenger’s approach appears quintessentially experiential and collaborative, as if no learning were possible outside the framework of a community of practice. Such perspective, however, understates and underestimates the potential for individual emancipation, growth, learning and ultimately affirmation outside the community settings envisioned by Wenger. I believe that a learner, lacking the option to meaningfully participate in a community of practice, is still capable of engaging in forms of learning that would eventually increase his/her understanding of the world.


This section will cover some thoughts of self-reflection relevant to my own and the cohort’s learning.

In this course we explored certain aspects of learning as they were laid out in three important perspectives. In the forums I shared many comments stemming from my personal response to the material. I would like to write some final considerations that may add some personal touch to an otherwise very academic paper.

As an example of my personal reflection on Phenomenography and its applicability to my own learning, I liked Lennart Svensson’s holistic approach to “learning for understanding,” as described in chapter four of The Experience of Learning. The formation of integrated wholes as a way to understand complex phenomena fits perfectly with my personal capability envelop and is reflected in my learning plan. It is also true that such perspective traces its origin in Gestalt, and is further defined and improved in Wenger’s social theory, thereby becoming a common theme across the spectrum of the theories presented in this class.

Learning remains a very complex issue, which I believe is understood best from a wholistic and systemic perspective, which will certainly facilitate our cohort participation in the ALGC and in each member’s relevant professional practice.

As mentioned earlier, this course also addresses issues of learning as they apply to daily tasks. Phenomenography accurately examines the pros and cons of deep and surface learning approaches, linking them to academic reading requirements. While I was reading about this, I was also experiencing it hands-on. Such dualistic opportunity served as a way to validate the very theories I was analyzing. The forums further expanded the scope of relevant discussions and created the experiential and social framework for my own learning experience.

In general, as many cohort members have also stated, the three perspectives serve as a platform for further analysis and understanding of learning-related issues. I feel confident that in the practice of my own profession I am now more knowledgeable about ways people learn and how that may inform both my teaching and learning approaches.

From a systemic point of view, my newly acquired understanding of these issues will affect my own interaction with others and my shifting roles as a teacher, learner, participant, observer, mentor, and learning partner.


Åkerlind, G.S. (2002). Principles and practice in phenomenographic research. In Proceedings of the International Symposium on Current Issues in Phenomenography, Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods, the Australian National University, Canberra. Retrieved on October 10, 2008, from <;

Åkerlind, G. (2005). Variation and commonality in phenomenographic research methods. Higher Education Research & Development, 24(4), 321-334.

Anderson, M. (nd). Phenomenography – Noel Entwistle Accessed on October 15, 2008 <>

Cobern, W. W. (1993). Contextual Constructivism: The Impact of Culture on the Learning and Teaching of Science. In K. G. Tobin (editor), The practice of constructivism in science education (pp. 51-69). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Retrieved on Oct. 15, 2008 from <>

Doolittle, P. (2000) Constructivism and Online Education. Online Conference in Teaching Online in Higher Education. Retrieved on Oct 20, 2008 from <>

Ekeblad, E. (1997). On the Surface of Phenomenography: A Response to Graham Webb. Higher Education. 33 (2), 219-24 Retrieved on October 25, 2008 from <;

Glasersfeld, E. von (1989) Cognition, construction of knowledge, and teaching. Synthese 80(1):121–140. Retrieved Oct. 1, 2008 from <;

Gullestrup, H. (2007). Cultural Analysis: Towards Cross Cultural Understanding Copenhagen, DK: Copenhagen Business School Press

Hales, R. & Mike Watkins, M. (2004) The Potential Contribution of Phenomenography to Study Individuals’ Meanings of Environmental Responsibility. Paper presented at the Conference Connections and Disconnections: Examining the reality and rhetoric.International perspectives on outdoor education theory and practice at La Trobe University Bendigo, Victoria, Australia, July 6-9, 2004. Retrieved on Oct. 15, 2008 from <>

Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press.

Jaeger, M; Lauritzen, C. (1992) The Construction of Meaning from Experience. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English (82nd, Louisville, KY, November 18-23, 1992) Retrieved on Oct. 9, 2008 from <>

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Marton, F., & Trigwell, K. (2000). Variatio Est Mater Studiorum. Higher Education Research & Development. 19 (3), 381-395.
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Traynor, D. (nd). “Phenomenography. An Article by MaryKay Orgill”. Accessed on Oct.15, 2008 <>

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[1] Low Context Cultures (LCC) value individual orientation and overt communication patterns and maintain a heterogeneous normative structure. High Context Cultures (HCC) value group orientation and covert communication patterns and maintain a homogeneous normative structure. Ting-Toomey, S. (1985),


One Response

  1. 2 comments
    Submitted 14 November 2008 13:05 by *******
    Teachers’ evaluations

    Assessed by Prof Madeleine Abrandt Dahlgren
    Assessment Excellent
    Comment Oscar,
    You have written an Excellent essay! Song-ee will get back to you with comments.
    Best wishes

    29 November 2008 15:50:55
    Dear Oscar
    I have read your assignment 1 with a great interest. At first when I read your description of the theories, I think that the description is somewhat short. However when I read the second part of your assignment where you discuss about the three concepts (context, meaning and experience), you show your understanding of the theories and comparison. You explain clearly what the concepts refer to and the relationship between concepts within theories and you compare the theories. I also appreciate your reflection and the fact that you have read additional readings.
    Therefore we assess that your assignment 1 is excellent.
    best wishes
    Song-ee Ahn

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