Learning is defined as a mental process that takes place in the mind especially in Western heritage, but the role of body and spirit are considered and integrated in adult learning in recent years (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).  

In modern Western philosophy, learning is believed as mental process that occurs only in human mind – compatibly human brain. In seventeenth century at France, Descartes indicated that “body, figure, extension, motion, and place are merely fictions of my mind” (Descartes, 1955). This notion describes that physical worlds including body are outcomes of human mind, which assumes the body and mind are objectified with each. Cartesians and enlightenment philosophers descended the idea of separation of mind and body, and they focused on ‘reason’ – the mental process as the only source of knowledge (Merriam et al., 2007). The heritage of separation of mind and body had dominated till middle of twenties centuries, and the importance of body and spirit in learning have been recognized and reclaimed by adult educators since late of the century.

Embodied (or Somatic) learning grounds the idea of learning through body in experiences. For example, Amann (2003) suggests four-part model of somatic knowing that is composed with four dimensions – kinesthetic, sensory, affective, and spiritual.  Other writers add that the embodied learning is correlated with culture, identity, and power relationship in a society (Beckett & Morris, 2001; Brockman, 2001).

Spirituality is defined as “more personal belief and experience of a divine spirit or higher purpose, about how we construct meaning, and what we individually and communally experience and attend to and honor as the sacred in our lives” (Tisdell, 2003, p. 23). Merriam describes her spiritual meaning making as “I felt a sense of peace and of being “present” that I had not experienced before; the fact that I had just turned sixty seemed not to matter and my angst about it evaporated” (Merriam et al., 2007). While the spiritual learning gets special attention from adult educators, medical practitioners, and business leaders, it requires theoretical models and better understandings to be accommodated in formal educational settings such as workplace or school.

Narrative learning is the use of stories in the construction of meaning. Using narrative as storying the curriculum, story-telling, autobiography, and journal writing, adult educators can facilitate and promote learners’ development and transformation (Merriam et al., 2007).

Adult Learning is mainly influenced by psychology, with its focus on individual learners, their growth and development, and their learning in and out of formal setting. But learning cannot be separated from ‘social contexts’ that oppress individual learners (Brookfield, 1987; Merriam et al., 2007). Questioning and critiquing taken-for-granted worldviews, structures, and institutions of society are the first steps in changing oppressive and nonemancipatory practices.

There are five common themes in questioning and critiquing contemporary adult education: Race, Class, Gender, Power & Oppression, and Knowledge and Truth. Multicultural theorist focuses on the race as a oppressor in a society; critical theorist address class and power relations; and feminist views the inequity of power comes from gender difference. Postmodernist argues that modern beliefs such as scientific, industrial, and universal foundations of truth are not effective in complex and uncertain societies anymore, and they claim that deconstruction of hierarchical power relationship are inevitable.


In the classroom discussion, I proposed a question about nontraditional learning theories: Are these nontraditional theories applicable to adult education research and practice? In order to address the presented question, we discussed about underlying assumptions in applying nontraditional learning program for executives; the role of human resource development experts in medical school; and legitimation of nontraditional learning in HRD field of study.

First, we discussed about huge investment in executive retreat programs that include spiritual learning and somatic learning. We argued that there is an underlying assumption at executive retreat programs: executives justify and legitimate those retreats as one of the best human resource development programs whether the programs are directly related to executives’ performances or not. In the view of critical theories, many nontraditional learning practices are accepted and practiced not because of economic value, but because of decision power of a certain group of people such executives.

Second, we heard about Phoenix’s experience of developing an online education program for spirituality in medical school. She explained the role of human resource development experts was limited in developing the online program. Phoenix’s case represent the function of HRD is counted as a subordinate or supportive function in her organization.

Finally, nontraditional learning theories and applications are seemed have little legitimation in the field of HRD. Discussants in the classroom discussion agreed that nontraditional theories and practices provide conceptual frames for better understanding and creation of new knowledge in adult education and HRD, but application of nontraditional learning theories are unnecessarily underrepresented in academic journals. Several classmates argues that journal editors and writers regulate and hinder presenting nontraditional theory articles to avoid challenging current power relations in field, because they are likely to averse risk of jobs, reputations, and resources. 

 In summary, nontraditional learning theories can provide new understandings and knowledge about contemporary adult education, but lack of academic credentials and legitimation weaken the application those theories in academia and the field of HRD and adult education.



Amann, T. L. (2003). Creating space for somatic ways of knowing within transformative learning theory.

Beckett, D., & Morris, G. (2001). Ontological performance: Bodies, identities and learning. Studies in the Education of Adults, 33(1), 35-48.

Brockman, J. (2001). A somatic epistemology for education.

Brookfield, S. D. (1987). Developing critical thinkers: Challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting: Jossey-Bass.

Descartes, R. (1955). Discourse on method: Great Books Foundation.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood a comprehensive guide The Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series (pp. xvi, 533 p.).  Retrieved from http://www.library.uiuc.edu/proxy/go.php?url=http://www.credoreference.com/book/wileyla

Tisdell, E. J. (2003). Exploring spirituality and culture in adult and higher education: Jossey-Bass Inc Pub.


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Posted by Jeonghwan Choi

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