Learning Theory – The Margins of Learning Management: How to Keep Learning Indispensible


Author: T M Stafford, MS MA

One of the key issues that needs to be considered in adult learning is the balance between the load of life and the managing power that one feels he has to counterbalance the load that he finds himself under. Consider this as an example, when one is sick, immediately the load of life becomes overpowering to the person to the point that they can no longer function in the same way while under this new load. This forces the learner to make decisions about what is expendable in this situation so as to help balance out the weight of being sick. For different people this list of negotiables includes: (1) missing work, (2) visiting the doctor, (3) taking an over the counter medicine, (4) going back to bed and a host of other options that each person can sort through while considering the weight of the load.  Howard McClusky captures this scenario is his, Theory of Margin, where he shows that the fulcrum of balancing life is the key for the adult learner moves variably between the load of life and the power of life to counteract that load. There are several significant factors that are critical to understanding how this theory affect eh adult learner.

The Load of Life acts like an independent variable

How many of us have gone to get in our car and the tire is flat or our teenager has left us with no gas, or maybe we got pulled over for a ticket on the way to work?  It happens to all of us much more often than we want to admit.  McClusky shows that these loads in life are variable, external, and somewhat unpredictable and this is when we have to understand how the power of life acts as the managing agent of these kinds of situations. This being said, there are also loads of life that we agree to:  (1) work weeks, (2) graduate school, (3) families, and (4) community activities all factor into a load that is static in the sense that we do the same things every day, every week every month but at the same time, there is a litany of variables in each of these areas of life and so the load of life tends to be a fluid reality.

The power of life is defined as the power to manage the load of life

This power to manage really comes in several forms:

Personal strength can play a vital role in ones ability to manage an ever-changing life load. However, most who are stronger internally would tell you that their strength is due to learning how to endure different loads of life that changed throughout their lifetime. When a 12 year old tells you that she has been working her whole life to become a singing star, this has a completely different meaning than the singer who can say the same thing about her life at 30 years old. It is not that the load is different, or that the intention of the singer is variable, but the strength of person, built through 20 years of adversity, will be different than for a 12 year old. In the same way, I have met teenagers who had an amazing strength of character because of a very difficult childhood and they were able to find a resolve to succeed no matter what the circumstances. In each of these situations, the will to thrive won out over a debilitating load of life.

Support infrastructures provide scaffolding for the development of character. I have been through things in life where I felt I was all alone and they prepared me to be able to endure and find rest in certain situations. However there have been many times where my need to press on was championed, encouraged ad empowered by a network of support that I was able to build around myself to help me get through particularly difficult times in the journey. These support structures created an environment where the load of life could be shared to some degree, which made carrying that load easier, and finding balance a more plausible reality as time passed. A young woman who found herself divorced with two young children finds strength in a network of friends from a local church when she had nowhere else to go, a young man minds great encouragement in a mentor who is there as he makes a career journey, young adults find hope and strength in teachers and others who believe in them as the climb the academic ladders. All of these are examples of networks that aid in allowing a person to leverage some of the load to another person so that more can be accomplished. Finally the power of life can be linked to the measure of hope. An ancient proverb states, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Hope is one of the most powerful forces for humans because with hope there can be purpose, and purpose can drive movement and movement can drive change. If we are learning with a hope that we will be the conduit for change, then that is much more powerful than if we learn because we are obligated to know and to do.

How This Affects Design

At the heart of the matter is the understanding by those who create instruction that education and learning is dispensable. If the load that I am under is too great for me to manage, then I must begin to “jettison cargo” emotionally, and here is where education or learning can find itself “thrown overboard” for the sake of survival. So it is incumbent on the instructional designer and trainer to understand the nature of the load that people are under and work opportunities for them to be aware of how indispensible this knowledge is to them and their career. We need to continue to make learning something that is not merely obligatory but something that helps to fashion who the learner is and not just what the learner does.

This distinction is where hope can be laced into the equation and the learning can have a far greater impact even to one who is managing a heavy emotional load. Adults can mange loads better as they age, but it is important to understand the load generated by learning and to engage in strategies to help adults be empowered to manage this load so that methodologies that create scenarios of dispensability are not employed.


McClusky, H. Y. (1963). The course of the adult life span. In W. C. Hallenbeck (Ed.), Psychology of adults. Chicago: Adult Education Association of the U.S.A.

McClusky, H. Y. (1970). An approach to a differential psychology of the adult potential. In S. M. Grabowski (Ed.), Adult Learning and Instruction. Syracuse, NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 045 867).

McClusky, H. Y. (ca. 1974). Education for aging: The scope of the field and perspectives for the future. In S. Grabowski & W. D. Mason (Eds.), Learning for aging (pp. 324-355). Washington, DC: Adult Education Association of the USA.

Web: www.tmstaffordllc.com

Email: tmstaffordllc@gmail.com

LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/tim-stafford/12/11b/6


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