Reexamining Theories of Adult Learning and Adult Development Through the Lenses of Public Pedagogy

Reexamining Theories of Adult Learning and Adult Development Through the Lenses of Public Pedagogy

41583636Sandlin et al.Adult Education Quarterly AEQ63110.1177/07417136114158


Reexamining Theories of

Adult Learning and Adult

Development Through the

Lenses of Public Pedagogy

Adult Education Quarterly

63(1) 3 –23

© 2011 American Association for

Adult and Continuing Education

Reprints and permission:

DOI: 10.1177/0741713611415836

Adult Education Quarterly 63(1)

Sandlin et al. 5

Jennifer A. Sandlin[footnoteRef:1], Robin Redmon Wright[footnoteRef:2], and Carolyn Clark3 [1: Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA] [2: Penn State Harrisburg, Middletown, PA, USA 3Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA Corresponding Author: Jennifer A. Sandlin, Arizona State University, P.O. Box 874902, Tempe, AZ 85287-4902, USA Email:]


The authors examine the modernist underpinnings of traditional adult learning and development theories and evaluate elements of those theories through more contemporary lenses. Drawing on recent literature focused on “public pedagogy,” the authors argue that much learning takes place outside of formal educational institutions. They look beyond modernist narratives of adult development and consider the possible implications for critical adult learning occurring in and through contemporary fragmented, digital, media-saturated culture.


popular culture, adult learning, public pedagogy, informal learning

The field of adult education has long relied on theories of adult learning and development grounded in master narratives of modernity. These modernist narratives include

(1) the notion of a rational, autonomous subject; a self that has an essential human nature; (2) the notion of foundationalist epistemology (and foundationalist philosophy in general); (3) the notion of reason as a universal, a priori capacity of individuals; and (4) the belief in social and moral progress through the rational application of social scientific theories to the arts and social institutions (law, family, education, etc.). (Schwandt, 2007, p. 235)

Rosenau (1992) links these master narratives to humanism, which places the human subject at the center, emphasizing “the individual as a potentially effective, rational agent. Humanists are said to be naively optimistic about the nature of humankind, the potential for improvement in the human condition, and the scope of human accomplishments” (pp. 47-48). Merriam and Brockett (2007) explain that within humanism, humans are considered “free and autonomous creatures who exercise choice in determining their behavior. Humanism also emphasizes the notion of the self—a self that has the potential for growth and development, for self-actualization” (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p. 40). This individual is also conceptualized as rational, reason is seen as the way a person makes sense of experience, and individuals are viewed as having the freedom and power to act.

In this article, we question these master narratives of modernity and their stronghold within adult education through a discussion of how adult learning and development are shaped by the forces of various sites of public pedagogy, a focus we posit is missing from many dominant discourses of adult learning and development. Public pedagogy, a concept that was widely introduced to the educational research community through the work of Carmen Luke (1996) and other feminist researchers in the mid-1990s and subsequently popularized through the work of Henry Giroux beginning in the late 1990s, refers to various forms, processes, and sites of education and learning that occur beyond the realm of formal educational institutions—including popular culture (i.e., movies, television, the Internet, magazines, shopping malls), informal educational institutions and public spaces (i.e., museums, zoos, monuments), dominant discourses (i.e., public policy, neoliberalism, global capitalism), and public intellectualism and social activism (i.e., academics who engage with the public outside of the academy, grassroots organizations, and social movements) (Sandlin, Schultz, & Burdick, 2010). Although public pedagogy is conceptualized in the wider educational literature in these various ways, in this article we focus on popular cultureand informal cultural institutions, as these are the areas of public pedagogy most often taken up by adult education researchers.

The literature on public pedagogy is still underdeveloped theoretically and empirically. Savage (2010) raises critical issues, for example, regarding how both terms comprising the concept—“public” and “pedagogy”—are defined. Regarding the term and concept of “pedagogy,” for example, Savage argues that much of the work on public pedagogy seems to be grounded in Raymond Williams’s (1967) notion that all culture is educative. This point of view becomes synonymous with socialization or, when taken up by Frankfurt School thinkers and their intellectual descendents, comes to mean something akin to “capitalist brainwashing” (Savage, 2010, p. 108). Savage argues, with regard to the relationship between this view of education as socialization and educational research, that this perspective runs the risk of being so broad as to be unhelpful. He calls, instead, for researchers to focus more on specific forms of pedagog(ies) and of pedagogical address, citing as examples Giroux’s (2001b) analysis of films such as Fight Club or Ellsworth’s (2005) analysis of the Holocaust Museum. He also calls for scholars to analyze what makes these forms of address pedagogical, that is, how these sites of education actually operate as pedagogy, and urges researchers not to simply “fall back upon broad notions inspired by socialization or visions of education in its broadest sense” (p. 109). We do not have space in this article to delve into all of these issues surrounding the concept of public pedagogy (see Savage, 2010, and Sandlin, O’Malley, & Burdick, in press, for more detailed discussion of these issues), and instead focus on scholarship on public pedagogy within the field of adult education where scholars are attempting to wrestle with issues of pedagogy, pedagogical address, and processes of teaching and learning.

An emerging number of adult educators believe it is important to focus on public pedagogies because it is at least partially in and through these spaces of learning that our identities are formed. For example, in Mezirow’s (1995) construction of learning, adults operate with particular meaning perspectives that he argues are “for the most part culturally assimilated” (p. 42). Others (Brookfield, 1986; Graham, 1989; Taylor, 2010; Tisdell, 2008) also argue that our identities in large part are shaped through the process of interacting with popular and media culture as well as with cultural institutions such as museums. After a brief introduction to modernist adult learning and development theories, we focus on how master narratives of adult identity—who we are with regard to race, class, gender, sexuality, and so on—are portrayed to us and perpetuated through various public pedagogies. That is, as conceptualized by much of the public pedagogy literature, adults are not the fully autonomous, agentic beings of traditional adult development and learning literature but are shaped or constructed by the media and popular cultures within which adults live and by the cultural institutions with which they interact. Adults are also, however, not the wholly passive creations of the culture industries. In the latter part of this article, then, we focus on how adults learn to resist the dominant ideologies that are perpetuated through various public pedagogies.

The main focus in much of the work we discuss is on how various sites of public pedagogy foster or hinder “transformational learning.” Although this concept is defined differently by various scholars—see, for example, Mezirow (1995), Cunningham (1998), and Ellsworth (2005)—in general it refers to learners developing more open and inclusive worldviews and recognizing how “uncritically accepted and unjust dominant ideologies are embedded in everyday situations” (Brookfield, 2000, p. 36). Cunningham explains that through transformational learning, adults develop an “alternative map of reality, grounded by a political standpoint” (Cunningham, 1998, p. 23). However, although we argue that the focus on public pedagogy in the literature we present provides a new cultural dimension to discussions of adult learning and development, the authors we discuss provide differing conceptualizations of adult identity and of how transformational learning occurs and what helps to foster it, some of which reproduce the same modernist notions of adult development that their simultaneous focus on culture critiques. We discuss two main avenues of thought on critical learning in this literature. One draws on more unitary notions of the self and posits that critical transformational learning is the result of rational dialogue facilitated by an educator-asinterlocutor. An alternative vision focuses more on embodied, holistic, and aesthetic aspects of learning and development and sees transformation, learning, and development as more tentative and ambiguous. In this latter perspective, the self is viewed as multidimensional and always in the process of “becoming,” and learning occurs in the hard to define “in-between” spaces that put self and society in (aesthetic, embodied) relationship with one another (Ellsworth, 2005).

Modernist Narratives of Adult

Learning and Development

Of the four principles of the modernist master narrative outlined above by Schwandt (2007), the two most relevant for our discussion are (a) the autonomous, rational self, one capable of action and (b) the belief in progress and the assumption that it is both attainable and desirable. This modernist master narrative has shaped the delineation of theory and practice in both adult development and adult learning. This narrative undergirds prominent theories of adult development that have been influential within adult education, including humanistic psychology, theories of lifespan development, and theories of cognitive development.

Humanistic psychology has played a dominant role in shaping the modernist view of development as an internal psychological process. In adult learning theory this view is reflected in andragogy and in self-directed learning as well as in Mezirow’s theory of transformational learning (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). Lifespan developmental theories have been equally influential. Theories of psychosocial development (Erikson, 1963), age-graded life structure models (Levinson, Darrow, Klein, Levinson, & McKee, 1978), and Schlossberg’s (1987) life transitions model share a focus on developmental tasks, whether located within the individual or in the roles and expectations of society. In adult education these are seen as opportunities for learning, and the primary mode of learning associated with these conceptualizations of development is experiential learning (Dewey, 1938). The conventional understanding of experiential learning comes from the constructivist perspective, in which reflection plays a key role and locates learning both within and under the control of the learner (Fenwick, 2000). Finally, theories of cognitive development highlight the connection between adult learning and adult development; learning, after all, is traditionally conceptualized as a cognitive process in which patterns of thinking are changed. Major work in this area (King & Kitchener, 2004; Perry, 1999; Piaget, 1972) sees developmental positions as hierarchical and sequential and conceptualizes thinking patterns as progressing from simple dualism to more complex ideas of relativism and then commitment within relativism.

The impact of humanistic psychology, theories of psychosocial change, and cognitive theory is most visible within adult education in Mezirow’s (1990, 2000) theory of transformational learning. All learning produces change of some kind but transformational learning is responsible for personal change, the kind of change that is major and significant. Mezirow’s goal is to understand how adults construct meaning from their experience and in his view this is a complex cognitive process in which reason plays a dominant role. He argues that all human beings, across their lifetimes, construct meaning systems that are made up of beliefs, values, and assumptions and that these meaning systems function as a lens through which personal experience is mediated and interpreted. Although these cognitive structures make experience coherent, they also have the potential of limiting or distorting the perception of those experiences by creating what Mezirow (1990, p. 2) terms “habits of expectation.” When transformational learning occurs, these meaning structures are changed:

Transformative learning refers to the process by which we transform our taken-forgranted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, mind-sets) to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action. (Mezirow, 2000, pp. 7-8)

Of special importance to our argument is the highly rational nature of the transformational learning process. Mezirow places a high priority on critical reflection on assumptions and on what he calls ideal or reflective discourse, which includes elements such as complete information, the ability to evaluate arguments objectively, and freedom from coercion and self-deception. He admits that ideal discourse is in fact ideal and not something attainable in practice, but he believes that it stands as a model for what reflective discourse should be.

Lifespan and cognitive models of development popular within adult education fit within the modernist “search for an underlying and unifying truth and certainty that can render the world, experiences and events … coherent and meaningful” (Usher & Edwards, 1994, p. 12). Derived through the application of reason, these models give order to the complexities of change and development in adulthood and presume that the individual has the necessary agency to move through the various stages or meet the particular challenges of each life event. Furthermore, we see the underlying assumption, in all these theories, that normative change is directed toward higher and better levels of development. In the type of adult learning involved in this process, reflection on experience, the modernist principles of rationality and individual agency and autonomy are also clearly present. These two processes, development and learning, not only fit together but each requires the other.

Identity, Hegemony, Resistance, and Public Pedagogy

Missing from these dominant discourses of adult learning and development is a focus on the interactions between adults and the wider cultures within which they live and interact. We argue in this section that some of what we learn through public pedagogies such as popular culture and informal cultural institutions are the master narratives of adult identity, both individual and collective. That is, we learn who we are (or should be) with regard to race, class, gender, sexuality, and so on and whose cultures and histories are considered “normal” and “dominant” through the ways these cultures and identities are portrayed to us and perpetuated through public pedagogies. This proposition is widely accepted in many academic fields, including cultural studies, media studies, and communications. However, as noted above, much of the work in these other fields does not necessarily frame the relationship between culture and identity as one of learning or pedagogy, and thus does not explicitly focus on pedagogical address and pedagogical relationships of teaching and learning nor seek to explicate the process of how culture teaches or how and what people learn from interacting with/in that culture. Within adult education, though, this relationship is seen as an educational one. Graham (1989), Brookfield (1986), and P. Jarvis (1992), for example, argue that popular culture has powerful effects on adults’ worldviews and should thus be examined as a legitimate arena of adult education. More recently, Wright and Sandlin (2009), Tisdell and Thompson (2007), and Tisdell (2008) have posited that adult educators need to pay more attention to realms of public pedagogy such as popular culture because adults learn from the practice of cultural consumption (and production) in their everyday lives. Finally, in a recent New Directions volume, Borg and Mayo (2010), Grenier (2010), Packer and Ballantyne (2010), and Taylor (2010) call for adult educators to focus more attention on how informal cultural institutions such as museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and parks help shape dominant forms of knowledge and hegemonic representations, as well as how they can be sites of contestation and resistance, a point we return to, below.

Like similar work conducted in the K-12 education literature (Giroux, 1999; Kincheloe, 2002)—where scholars have explored how popular culture and cultural institutions such as museums reproduce hegemonic practices such as racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, machismo, and violence—much of the work within adult education focusing on popular culture and other sites of public pedagogy explicates how they reproduce hegemony, through constructing “socially acceptable” and conforming identities. This is especially true of the work emerging on this topic throughout the 1980s and 1990s within adult education, and this focus also remains in current research, although adult educators are recently focusing more on counterhegemonic or critical public pedagogies. Brookfield’s (1989) work on news media and Graham’s (1989) work on romance novels and television exemplify this approach. Graham (1989), for example, provides an analysis of how “our representative media achieve a form of ideological control over the social construction of reality” (p. 153). Drawing on Radway’s (1984) work on how women read romance novels, Graham (1989) states that these texts encourage readers to “consume a view of reality constructed along lines that tend to foster nonreflective acceptance of prescribed social values” (p. 155) concerning traditional gender roles and notions of romantic love grounded in a system of patriarchy. Graham (1989) also argues that television has the “power literally to manufacture information” (p. 156) and urges adult educators to take on the role of “freeing the viewer from uncritical exposure to different forms of mass media” (p. 157) through helping learners develop critical media literacy, a point we will return to later. Other work focusing on how popular culture instills hegemonic practices and identities that uphold racism, classism, sexism, consumerism, and so on include Boshier’s (1992) analysis of discourses about AIDS that circulated in the media and that reinforced racist identity perspectives; Sandlin, Milam, and Wickens’s (2007) critical analysis of popular lifestyle magazines as arenas through which adults learn to take on the identity of “consumer”; and Wright’s (2010a) explication of The Weather Channel and Fox News as sites of neoliberal political propaganda that help shape adults’ political identities. With regard to cultural institutions, Borg and Mayo’s (2010) recent work on museums, while advocating for ways to help educators bring critical pedagogies into museums, spends a great deal of time explicating how Malta’s National Maritime Museum operates hegemonically as it conceals or sanitizes the voices, identities, and histories of working class people. Borg and Mayo (2010) explain that within the museum

there is hardly any reference to class struggle; class organization; militancy; the harsh reality of dockyard life; accidents and ensuing deaths and disabilities resulting from great occupational hazards; poor health resulting from years of exhaust inhaling, grit blasting, and other dangerous emissions; political struggles; … the anxiety generated by intermittent precarious work; the experiment in self-management, government subsidies, and the European Union (EU); and privatization and its discontents. (p. 39)

Heimlich and Horr’s (2010) recent research reveals that visitors’ experiences with/in zoos, museums, and other cultural sites are tied to the development and expression of identity. Through ignoring the contested histories and stories of the subaltern, the Malta Maritime Museum presents only one “sanctioned” and “normalized” view of the region’s history and cultural identity(ies) and thus limits the ways in which visitors can form identities outside of the “official” ones on offer.

Adults do not only learn hegemonic identities through engaging with public pedagogies such as popular culture and informal cultural institutions, however. Increasingly, adult educators addressing public pedagogies focus on spaces of resistance within those sites. For example, research within adult education (Armstrong, 2000; Armstrong & Coles, 2008; Jubas, 2011) has focused on spaces of resistance within popular culture, where adults learn to challenge dominant conceptions of racial, gendered, and class identities. Instead of focusing on popular culture’s “negative” aspects (Savage, 2010), Armstrong (2000), for example, explores how “television viewing can have tremendous potential for stimulating critical commentary and raising awareness of a wide range of issues” (p. 17). In particular, Armstrong argues that soap operas such as Coronation Street address political and social issues, including health, welfare, employment, and education, and that learners engage in critical learning when watching them. Similarly, Wright (2010a) asserts that some science fiction television shows such as Doctor Who contains elements of resistance to war, capitalism, corporate greed, and media monopolies because “science fiction narratives, by their very nature, force the audience to think about possibilities outside our everyday lived reality” and thus contribute to adults’ critical learning and identity development.

Others have focused on videogames and Internet-based virtual environments as sites of resistant public pedagogy where adults engage in critical learning experiences.

Although some researchers acknowledge the more oppressive aspects of these sites (Freishtat & Sandlin, 2010), in general these electronic sites of popular culture are viewed as creative spaces that foster critical adult learning. For example, Gee and Hayes (2011) have examined a variety of videogames, including Second Life and The Sims; Grace (2004) examined the Internet as a space that can foster LGBTQ cultural literacy; and Thompson (2007) investigated YouTube and the Internet as spaces that foster adult learning. Gee and Hayes (2011), in their analyses of a range of videogames, found that these popular culture spaces foster learning related to identity formation and situated learning. Hayes (2005) also posits that the virtual worlds of many games function as “learning ecologies” (p. 197), which are “complex systems comprised of dynamic, interdependent elements that represent domains of knowledge and practice, and that are responsive to learners’ actions and demands” (p. 197).

One especially interesting space of resistance—both to hegemonic constructions of racial, class, and gendered experience as well as to traditional conceptualizations of adult learning and development in the adult education literature—involves some mainstream television shows that trouble traditional conceptualizations of adult development and learning (C. Jarvis, 2005; Pomerantz & Benjamin, 2000). This research ranges from examining the portrayal of adult development in situation comedies (Pomerantz & Benjamin, 2000) to examining lifelong learning in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (C. Jarvis, 2005). For instance, Pomerantz and Benjamin (2000) point to the adult characters on Home ImprovementThe Drew Carey Show, and Seinfeld as examples that “contravene the more traditional representations of adulthood, thus illustrating its instability” (p. 5). Traditional, linear, autonomous development of adulthood, “as a hard and fast concept, is now moot” (p. 5), they claim. They further argue that the very definition of what it means to be an adult has changed; therefore, adult education theories must change to include that expanded definition.

C. Jarvis (2005) provides another provocative example, using the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Jarvis examined how the characters in Buffyengage in selfdirected learning and argues that their everyday learning in the show is directly related to their growth and development. Through learning they change, develop, and become more complex. Jarvis argues, however, that this portrayal of adult learning and development challenges traditional perspectives and upholds more postmodern conceptualizations of learning and development. The portrayal of learning on the show, for example, challenges the notion of the “authentic” or “unitary” self that has been popular in both humanist adult learning and development theories as well as more radical traditions that rely on the notion of the critical self-awakening from false to true consciousness through critical transformational learning. The show makes it clear that the characters, and their identities, are social constructions—that identity is not fixed but, rather, constructed through narrative and context. The show also challenges the idea that the outcomes of transformational learning are always positive and clear, as it focuses on the difficulties this learning brings about, both for the individuals involved and for the larger society; in fact, life is harder for the characters after they engage in critical learning and development. Learning and development, for the characters in Buffy, do not necessarily lead to enlightened worldviews and to clear moral action.

Rather, C. Jarvis (2005) points out that for the characters,

there is no firm line between good and bad knowledge, just a series of increasingly difficult existential choices … there is often no dominant perspective with respect to the morally complex issues. There is no obvious, politically sound praxis. (p. 44)

Moreover, characters do not always rely on rationality to make decisions about how to act. Buffy presents a world that is morally complex, and argues that adult learners often “need to make situated and sometimes lateral, emotional and intuitive decisions about the best courses of action” (p. 44).

Finally, recent work exploring informal cultural institutions such as zoos, libraries, museums, historical sites, and botanical gardens has focused on how such spaces of public pedagogy can foster critical learning and critical identity development among adults. Grenier (2010), for example, explicates how some museums encourage visitors to play and explore and argues that this kind of collaborative play provides individuals with new ways of thinking about their identities and about how these individual identities are related to the broader social world. To Grenier, museums “can provide the space to confront dominant stories and existing ideas, and co-construct new meanings within a constantly changing context of world, self, other, and time” (p. 83). Kemp and Parrish (2010) provide an example of how historical archives can be used to foster critical engagement with both the past and the present. They describe how Kemp, through her work with the Theatre for Transformation, uses historical documents to create performances that give voice to the silenced stories of those not typically included in mainstream historical reports and museums. Through these performances, Kemp hopes to “connect people to themselves, the seen and unseen, the remembered and the dis-membered, parts of themselves” with the goal of empowering learnerparticipants “to acquire and produce knowledge for others” (p. 55). Finally, Heimlich and Horr (2010) and Packer and Ballantyne (2010) focus on how informal institutions such as science centers, national parks, and zoos can foster critical environmental awareness among adult visitors and explore how such cultural institutions help adults “learn into” various identities of “environmentalist.” Packer and Ballantyne (2010) explain that at zoos, for example, a visitor’s interactions with the animals may spark “an emotional and/or cognitive response within the visitor. They may identify with the animal’s struggles … and develop an appreciation for the uniqueness of each animal or the ways different parts of an ecosystem are linked together” (p. 31). Thus, such informal institutions help adults engage in critical learning and identity formation where they come to see themselves as one part of a larger interrelated ecosystem. Lucia (2007) further explains that cultural institutions are places of public pedagogy where “the community explores and revises its values, where complicated conversations occur, [and] where complexity and controversy are embraced and engaged” (p. 1).

Fostering Critical Transformational

Learning: Competing Perspectives

The main focus in much of this literature is on how various sites of public pedagogy foster or hinder transformational learning. As stated above, we believe the focus on culture and context itself in the public pedagogy literature provides a counternarrative to more traditional discussions of learning and development. However, we argue that adult educators focusing on public pedagogy conceptualize adult identity, and the ways in which critical transformational learning can be fostered, in a variety of ways, some of which ironically reproduce the same modernist notions of adult development presented above. We will now turn to a discussion of two main ways of viewing critical learning and development—one that focuses mainly on rational dialogue and the unitary self and the other that focuses more on embodied learning and multidimensional selves.

Much of the literature addressing the connections between critical adult learning/ development and public pedagogy focuses on the importance of adult educators facilitating these transformational learning experiences through critical dialogue deconstructing popular culture and through promoting stronger critical media literacy among both teachers and learners. That is, these authors argue that popular culture as a hegemonic device can be disrupted via close readings and thus reclaimed and repositioned as a productive site of cultural analysis, typically within adult education classrooms, but also via interactions between adult-educators-as-public-intellectuals and the general public (through, for instance, television appearances or academic books written for a broad public audience). In this view, “critical” transformational learning moments occur when “progressive educators” (Giroux, 2001a, p. 588) enact “interpretation as intervention” (p. 588, italics added), which is typically conducted in critical pedagogical fashion, through rational discussion and dialogue. Giroux sees educators as integral to the process of fostering among students and the general public “forms of [critical] literacy” (p. 588) that bring to light the “profoundly political and pedagogical ways in which knowledge is constructed and enters our lives” (p. 588) through popular media and other forms of popular culture. In this view, educators are the critical link between hegemonic popular culture and critical awareness of that popular culture as hegemonic; they foster critical dialogue and help adult learners understand the power and politics at work within popular culture. Giroux (2001a) provides one vision of this interpretation as intervention:

This might mean educating students and others to engage the ethical and practical task of critically analyzing how film functions as a social practice that influences their everyday lives and positions them within existing social, cultural, and institutional machineries of power; it might mean educating students in how the historical and contemporary meanings that film produces align, reproduce, and interrupt broader sets of ideas, discourses, and social configurations at work in the larger society. (p. 588)

Some critical adult education researchers wishing to foster critical pedagogy with learners focus on how adult educators can help learners deconstruct the hegemonic ideas about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other positionalities depicted in mass media and explore how these messages are integrated into individual identities. Researchers also focus on encouraging learners to become critical consumers of mass media (Guy, 2007; Hanley, 2007; Stack & Kelly, 2007). Graham (1989), for example, urges adult educators to help students “become progressively emancipated from the spell of media’s construction of reality” (p. 160) and calls for adult educators to “stimulate intellect and imagination so that adults may be enabled to move towards understanding the workings of culture and power in their lives” (p. 160), whereas Brookfield (1986) calls for adult educators to help students engage in what he calls “ideological detoxification”—a process of critical thinking through which adults come to “realize that the representations of political realities presented on television and in the press often are culture specific, influenced by vested interests, and reflect an unchallenged ideological orthodoxy” (p. 151). And Tisdell and Thompson (2007) found that learners’ understandings of race, class, and gender issues in popular culture were advanced and deepened with the help of facilitated discussions in the classroom. To push learners into critical reflection and analysis, and thus toward a heightened media literacy, they suggest that instructors guide discussions with questions focusing on how popular culture is produced and what dominant messages are contained in its content.

These authors seemingly believe that adult learners need the critical pedagogue as interpreter, focus on the rational cognitive dimensions of the critical learning process, and imply more modernist notions of selfhood; other researchers argue that adult learners who interact with popular culture can engage in critically transformative learning on their own, focus more on noncognitive and embodied aspects of learning, and discuss notions of selfhood that are tentative and “becoming” rather than fixed or unitary. For example, there is emerging evidence that adults can, through their interactions with public pedagogies, engage in critical transformative learning without the help of an intervening adult educator and without critical, rational dialogue. Research (Armstrong, 2000; Rogers, 2002; Wright, 2010b; Wright & Sandlin, 2009) has shown that adult learners construct their adult identities through identifying with particular fictional characters and that they are exposed to a variety of ideologies through engaging with popular culture, from which they choose particular elements to incorporate into their lives. Through qualitative interviews of British women who had watched the television show The Avengers in the 1960s, Wright (2010b) found that the pleasures of watching prime-time TV drama can lead to adult identity development and critical transformational learning. Her research demonstrates how self-directed learning from a television character is not only meaningful but is potentially critical, transformational, life-changing, and lifelong. Investigating the impact of “the first feminist on television,” Dr. Cathy Gale on the 1960s British cult TV classic, The Avengers, on her contemporaneous female viewing audience, Wright found that some fans changed the direction of their lives by incorporating the character’s traits into their own identities.

And they still relate to the character and enact the lessons learned from watching Cathy Gale, even 40 years later.

Recent work focusing on informal cultural institutions as sites of public pedagogy also highlights adults engaging in transformational learning through interaction with/in these sites (often without the direct intervention of a critical adult educator) and explores how this learning often is enacted through noncognitive ways of knowing. Kemp and Parrish (2010) explain, through a discussion of the performance ethnographies Kemp creates from rewriting historical archives, how analytic and rational thinking is privileged in academia, a situation that downplays “feelings or personal relations” (p. 55). In contrast to academia’s focus on rational thinking, Kemp’s nonverbal, improvisational, performative work encourages “adult learners to cultivate multiple ways of knowing” as they learn to foster connections between themselves and others. Likewise, Packer and Ballantyne (2010) discuss how zoos foster affective connections between humans and animals that help encourage learners to develop critical identities as environmentalists. Parrish (2010) also explains that cultural institutions such as zoos and museums “heighten emotions” among learners and that through these affective experiences these spaces of public pedagogy “can foster social change” (p. 87). The kind of learning that happens in many of these cultural institutions is described by Heimlich and Horr (2010) as “continual, nonlinear, and unique to the person” (p. 60) and by Parrish (2010) as happening in ways that decenter the educator, placing him or her “on the periphery of the learning process” (p. 88) and as involving “play, risk-taking, and experimentation … with no overtly directed set of learning outcomes” (p. 88).


These conflicting findings raise questions about the roles of the adult educator, popular culture, experience, critical reflection, and learner positionality and life situation in facilitating critical learning experiences and point to differing conceptualizations of learning, development, and identity. In the various studies we reviewed which aim to increase the critical media literacy of adult learners, the engine for transformation is the acquisition of a set of at least somewhat predetermined critically pedagogical criteria. Much of the work focusing on deconstructing the hegemonic meanings from popular culture and cultural institutions through critical dialogue facilitated by an adult educator as critical pedagogue also relies, we argue—like the modernist narratives we discussed above—on a unitary notion of the self and on a traditional, linear view of the process of adult development; this view is similar to how Mezirow (1995) describes the transformative learning process and the vision of the self:

Transformative learning involves movement from alienation to agency, and “centering,” movement from a lack of authenticity, being true to one’s self, to authenticity … [As adults develop, they] often move to a more mature level of cognitive differentiation involving enhanced awareness of social context, psychological factors, individual and collective goals, and premises. Older adults become more autonomous, socially oriented, and dialectical … they are more likely to integrate logic and feelings. They may become increasingly critically reflective of assumptions. (pp. 48, 50)

This vision of the stable, “authentic” self and of critical rationality and dialogue as the path to “discovering” that self is critiqued by Ellsworth (1988), who argues that these kinds of rational dialogues may, in fact, reinforce repressive myths by attempting to dictate who people should be and what they should think rather than allowing for the open “talking back”—the “defiant speech that is constructed within communities of resistance” (p. 310). We agree that we must be mindful of the tendency of critical pedagogy that focuses on adult development and learning toward the goal of more inclusive worldviews to rely too heavily on “rationalistic tools” that “fail to loosen deep-seated, self-interested investments” (p. 313) based on typically European, White, male, middleclass, Christian, able-bodied thinking and heterosexual ideals.

The alternative vision of critical transformational learning and development focuses more on embodied, holistic, performative, intersubjective, and aesthetic aspects of learning and development and sees transformation, learning, and development as more tentative and ambiguous. Ellsworth (2005) argues, for example, that the most powerful learning experiences arise out of public pedagogies that “emphasize noncognitive, nonrepresentational processes and events such as movement, sensation, intensity, rhythm, passage, and self-augmenting change”—pedagogies that “aim their designs at involving their users in ways that exceed psychical mechanisms such as memory, recognition, or cognition” (p. 6). This sort of transformational learning “challenges assumptions that our reasons for initiating particular political action must be grounded in language-based knowledge claims” (p. 29). For Ellsworth the self is nonunitary and multidimensional, and critical learning and development do not occur in straightforward, rational, or linear ways. Ellsworth thus argues that people experiencing critical learning and development do not do so in a neat or orderly fashion—they have not “entered ‘the niceness of a framed neat closed experience’” but rather have “fallen into life as opened and unfinished” (p. 123). She further explains that new ways of seeing the world “can be released only through movement into and within the messy intervals of space and time between the ‘things’ we already know and between the ‘beings’ we have already made of ourselves and others” (p. 123). Ellsworth states that the “in-between” is the site where personal, social, cultural transformations occur—this “in-between-ness” is also a metaphor for her vision of adult identity itself. The “in-between” is “the only place—the place around identities, between identities—where becoming, an openness to futurity, outstrips the conservational impetus to retain cohesion and unity” (p. 123). In fact, Ellsworth argues that openness and in-betweenness—moving away from cohesion and unity—is actually what constitutes learning and development.

In this perspective, then, critical learning is a relational practice that seeks to disrupt binaries, and consists of “experiences of being radically in relation to one’s self, to others, and to the world” (Ellsworth, 2005, p. 2). Pedagogies that foster relationality are pedagogies that foster transformative experiences: “A staged public event becomes pedagogical and pedagogy becomes a public event when, together, they create a space between that reforms both the self and the other, the self and its lived relations with others” (p. 48). Ellsworth offers many examples of sites of public pedagogy that foster these kinds of ambiguous, relational, transformative learning potentials, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Anna Deavere Smith’s theatrical performances such as “Fires in the Mirror,” Shimon Attie’s public projection projects such as “The Writing on the Wall,” and the Art Inside Out exhibit at the Manhattan Children’s Museum. Through her analyses of these sites of public pedagogy, Ellsworth focuses on how they foster openness, creativity, and ambiguity and how they operate as transitional spaces, as they seek to relate learners’ inner selves with outer social realities; she focuses on how these spaces operate as “armature for social and cultural change,” as these spaces

act as a framework that protects as their users “go outside” and they provide supports for standing between realities and for being in transition during the time that the old self is lost and the new self is in the making. (Ellsworth, 2005, p. 94)

In her analysis of the Holocaust Museum, for example—in which she examines the content of the exhibit as well as the actual physical architecture of the museum—she argues that the power of its pedagogical address “lies in its indeterminacy” (p. 100). She states that the exhibit’s pedagogy “interrupts the logic of narrative structure throughout the exhibit, and, especially, it refuses to provide an ‘ending.’” (p. 104). Additionally, “the very narrative frame of the story being told is shattered by continual references to its own limits, … by self-referential gestures at the impossibility of its own project—the impossibility of narrating the Holocaust” (p. 104). She also argues that what makes this public pedagogical space powerful is how it shifts its “efforts from trying to ‘know’ and then ‘teach’ the Holocaust to engaging with it as an event that has not yet ended and to contemporaneously respond to it” (p. 19).

Adult educators embracing this perspective focus on how critical transformative learning, or opening up critical democratic imagination—through aesthetic and noncognitive ways of being and knowing—involves avoiding certainty and encouraging exploration, what Ellsworth (1988) calls a “pedagogy of the unknowable.” In this pedagogy, narratives and ideas are always partial, “in the sense that the meaning of an individual’s or group’s experience is never [completely] self-evident or complete” (p. 318). Indeed, these authors posit that the work of critical education is most powerful when it demonstrates the pedagogical force of not dictating “the final correct answer” (Ellsworth, 2005, p. 76). Grenier (2010), for example, focuses on how play in museums can “support opportunities for creativity, social interaction, and adult learning” (p. 78), because play involves the affective realm and allows for openness and ambiguity rather than a rational quest for the right answer; this ambiguity “allows visitors to create their own meanings and/or make new discoveries” (p. 81) as they learn new ways of thinking about themselves and of relating to others in society. And Taylor (2010) discusses how in cultural institutions such as museums and zoos, “Each object or specimen exhibited has its own complex presence, offering the learner the possibility of multiple interpretations” (p. 10). He further explains that “the exhibition (live or artificial) is a changing or a false reality; a depiction of circumstance where objects and messages from one time and culture are brought into contact with learners from another specific time and culture” (p. 10), thus revealing the tentative and changing nature of self and of knowledge construction.

For Lather (2004), it is through getting lost that the interesting learning can start: getting lost concerns “dispersing rather than capturing meanings, and producing bafflement rather than solutions” (p. 2). And for Ellsworth (2005), “transitional spaces” are spaces of play, creativity, and cultural production; transitional spaces help us bridge the boundaries between the self and the other. When we are in those spaces, “We are entertaining strangeness and playing in difference. We are crossing that important internal boundary that is the line between the person we have been but no longer are and the person we will become” (Ellsworth, 2005, p. 62). These transitional spaces are spaces where our knowing is incomplete and unfinished; in Ellsworth’s words, these powerful pedagogies are forces “through which we come to have the surprising, incomplete knowings, ideas, and sensations that undo us and set us in motion toward an open future” (pp. 17-18). In these spaces of the unknown, the “learning self of the experience of the learning self is invented in and through its engagement with pedagogy’s force” (Ellsworth, 2005, p. 7). Thus, Ellsworth’s views of development and learning both engage with how learning and development are grounded in everyday life experiences and engagements with informal spaces of learning and also provide a vision of the learning and developing self that is incomplete and constantly changing. We argue that this vision provides a challenge to conceptualizations of the self posited in more traditional adult development and learning theories. Furthermore, Ellsworth focuses on the role of the arts and aesthetics—nonrational ways of being and learning—as the catalyst for transformational learning and development, in opposition to the traditional focus on rational dialogue.


In this article, we have discussed how, contrary to the ideas of traditional adult learning and development theories, individuals are embedded in cultural contexts that shape who they are and how they learn. After briefly describing modernist theories of adult development and learning, we explicated how such master narratives of adult identity are portrayed, perpetuated, and also resisted through various hegemonic and counterhegemonic public pedagogies. We argued that the focus on public pedagogy and its relationship to adult learning and development provides a new critical, cultural dimension within the literature—and thus in many ways provides a counternarrative to more traditional discussions of those issues. However, we also posited that a range of conceptualizations of adult identity, transformation, development, and learning are present in this public pedagogy literature, some of which ironically reinforce the same modernist notions of adult development that their simultaneous focus on culture dispels.

Our discussion raises questions about what, exactly, is the role of adult educators in fostering critical transformational learning, given the increasing recognition of the importance of the nonmediated learning occurring in various sites of public pedagogy. In the spirit of the work we discussed that is focused on selves and learning in the making, ambiguity, relationality, and not dictating the final answer, we refuse to provide a definitive answer to this query. We do agree with Ellsworth (2005), however, that a more tentative, ambiguous, and complicated perspective on identity and learning calls for the staging of “pedagogy as the field of emergence of the learning self” (p. 28). If so enacted, as Ellsworth (2005) explains, educators would

create places of learning in embodied terms and in ways that depart from the dominant perceptions of learning as the acquisition of knowledge driven by cognitive functions. Thinking of teachers as interfering and resonating with one another and with different disciplines in this way disburses the place of the teacher, and this recasts many of the problematic dynamics associated with the teacher-student relationship, such as the will to know, the desire for the one who knows, and the desire to teach what one knows. (p. 28)

We hope we have raised questions concerning the nature of critical learning, the nature of adult identity, the roles of the adult educator, and the meanings of transformation and critical pedagogies. We contend that the public pedagogies we have discussed have the potential to foster critical learning through opening up spaces of incomplete knowings and ideas. We also argue that critically challenging the modernist narratives still present within adult learning theories, such as andragogy, self-directed learning, and transformational learning, opens up transitional spaces within and outside those theories for adult education research and practice. We see in some of the recent work we have discussed possibilities for creating new theories with greater relevance to an increasingly interconnected lifeworld and with a globalized, egalitarian, socially just, yet fluid and flexible, definition of what it means to be an informed, learned, engaged adult human being.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


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Jennifer A. Sandlin is an associate professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, where her research focuses on the intersections of education, learning, and consumption, as well as on understanding and theorizing public pedagogy. Her recent work investigates sites of public pedagogy, informal learning, and anti-consumption social activism that question the norms of consumption, create resistance to consumer culture, and focus on “unlearning” consumerism. Current projects include an exploration of how Jack T. Chick religious cartoon tracts perform a “paranoid (public) pedagogy” and a book project focused on problematizing public pedagogy.

Robin Redmon Wright is currently an assistant professor of adult education at Penn State,

Harrisburg. She holds both a BA and an MA in English Literature from the University of Tennessee and a PhD in Educational Human Resource Development (adult education emphasis) from Texas A&M University. Her research interests reflect a critical perspective on adult identity development, feminist identity development, popular culture and informal adult learning and development, and adult learning, educational access and socio-economic class. Recent publications include articles in the International Journal of Lifelong Education, Adult Education Quarterly, Journal of Transformational Education, New Horizons for Adult

Education and Human Resource Development, Journal of Studies in International Education, and The Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, as well as chapters in the Routledge Handbook of Public Pedagogy, New Directions in Adult and Continuing Education, and Women and Pedagogy.

Carolyn Clark received her BA in English literature from the University of Maryland, her MA in Christian Spirituality from Creighton University, and her EdD in Adult Education from the University of Georgia. She is currently an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development at Texas A&M University and co-editor of the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. Her research interests include: women’s issues; adult development and learning, with particular focus on marginalized women’s identity development; transformational learning; narrative learning; and issues in qualitative research.

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