Leona English, Ed.D

Assistant Professor of Adult Education

St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, B2G 2W5

Abstract: I argue that the current focus on meaning-making in adult learning theory is intricately related to the spiritual quest of adults. Informal learning strategies such as mentoring and dialoguing can facilitate adult learners' search to construct meaning from their experience, and consequently to develop spiritually.

According to a Globe and Mail headline, adults in Canada "want Jesus, but hold the theology" (Nolen, 1999). This theme is echoed in a feature article in Macleans (Emberley, 1998). Whereas adults do not want organized religion, they do want to find meaning in their everyday lives (see Ó Murchú, 1998). Concomitant with this spiritual renaissance in popular culture is the ever-growing adult education interest in helping adults construct meaning from experience (e.g., MacKeracher, 1996; Merriam & Heuer, 1996; Mezirow, 1991). The focus on meaning-making is intricately related to the spiritual quest of adults, a search that forces us to reach beyond egocentric interests, to recognize the human connection to something greater than ourselves, and to be concerned about and to care for humans and the natural world.

Meaning-Making and Spirituality

The concept of meaning-making is not new to adult education. Belenky et al. (1986) popularized constructivism, or constructing knowledge/meaning from subjective and received sources, as integral for female development, in their much-touted Women's Ways of Knowing. Discussions about spirituality versus religion, and the place of spirituality in adult education, are also not new (e.g., Hart & Holton, 1993; Weibust & Thomas, 1993; Westrup, 1998). In fact, in 1925, British educator Yeaxlee highlighted the importance of spiritual values in adult education, calling them a neglected species. Yet, the quest for the spiritual dimensions of adult education seems to have developed a new sense of urgency in our time.

I maintain that the tide of attention to meaning-making needs to be steered away from a preoccupation with self which has become the predominant force in adult education. The interest in meaning-making ought to be directed to a more outward-looking spirituality which embraces a greater sense of the other, and the inter-relatedness of humans with the natural world. This thrust brings adult education closer to Lindeman's (1926) goals of a socially responsible adult education. Merriam and Heuer (1996) argue that adult educators can facilitate the process of meaning making-learning-development by exposing adults to a wide variety of experiences, by creating a safe place to learn and explore, and by modeling the kind of development they are seeking (p. 253). I argue that the spiritual dimensions of meaning-making can be furthered by the flexible and commonplace informal learning strategies of dialoguing and mentoring, both of which stretch the individual beyond a self-occupied focus on personal meaning, to a sense of responsibility and care for others and the natural world.

Adult Learning and Spirituality

The spiritual dimension of adult learning is evident in the informal adult learning strategies of mentorship and dialogue. Both of these strategies represent a means by which adults can learn, intentionally and unintentionally, from the routine, everyday experience of living (see Watkins & Marsick, 1992). Mentoring and dialoguing can be fostered in order to promote the spiritual dimensions of a stronger sense of one's self and one's experiences, and to develop interconnections with other humans and the natural world. By fostering these informal learning strategies, adults can be assisted in finding ways to develop a stronger sense of self and to reach out to others in respect and care.


Adult educators have paid close attention to the benefits and possibilities of mentorship as a means of adult learning. Cohen (1995), Levinson (1978), and (1995), Daloz (1986), to name but three, have closely examined how the mentor can assist the adult in realizing their life dreams, and in developing as a stronger human being. However, with the exception of Daloz, little attention has been given to mentoring as a means of helping the adult learner develop a stronger connection to others, to make meaning from experiences, and to accept the responsibility to care and be concerned for others.

Mentoring and an Awareness of One's Own Self. In authentic mentoring relationships, informal learning occurs continuously. Mentors teach the mentees what they know about their professional work, and emphasize that the mentee must develop as an individual and have a strong sense of self, while reaching outward to others. Effective mentors nurture and encourage mentees, by affirming them, challenging them, and providing opportunities for them to excel. These mentors enable mentees to examine their personal and professional experiences and to create meaning from them (English, 1998).

Mentoring and Interpersonal Connections. Effective mentors nurture their relationships with their mentees, and recognize the value of interpersonal connections. The close-knit nature of the mentoring relationship provides mentees with the opportunity to nurture knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Such mentors have a profound sense of responsibility to induct new professionals, and a commitment to pass to a new generation the lifework he or she has been involved in. By reverencing the mentees as learners, mentors teach them knowingly and intentionally. Committed mentors nurture mentorship as a spiritual practice, and not as a bottom-line driven activity. For them, mentorship is not connected solely to the improvement of productivity. Rather, these mentors have a serious commitment to the mentee and the greater good; only in this way can mentorship achieve its full potential.

The mentoring relationship is one in which mutuality prevails, and from which the mentor, mentee, and the learning environment all benefit. From this perspective, the mentor is the guide par excellence, leading, showing, teaching, instructing, and guiding the mentee in the intricacies of adult education practice. Mentoring is a viable alternative to a positivistic, technical, dispassionate mindset in adult education, in that it promotes a dialogical relationship which actively engages learners and facilitates their spiritual growth and development.


A second informal learning strategy is the nurturing of dialogue, holding in respect and reverence the opportunity to connect with the other in a meaningful way (Bohm, 1996). Dialogue, which is at its best a middle ground between the learners, is a primary means of adult informal learning. It can be fostered by an adept adult educator so that learners can maximize the opportunity to be actively engaged and responsive to one another. Dialogue is a term that is sometimes used synonymously with networking, yet it transcends networking in that it connotes the mutual giving and development of persons; it is less fraught with the profit-driven associations of networking.

Dialoguing and an Awareness of One's Own Self. Once adults become actively engaged with one another in dialogue a new reality develops between them. Physicist David Bohm (1996), an ardent proponent of genuine dialogue (as distinguished from discussion), points out that adults develop a stronger sense of self from their relationships with others. Adults become aware of who they are as individuals when they are in relationship. They engage in generative listening and speaking.

Dialoguing and Interpersonal Connections. Genuine dialogue helps individuals become aware of the limits of personal development and narcissism. Genuine dialogue causes learners to reach out to know and be known by others. The effective adult educator encourages the ongoing lifelong commitment to dialogue. Genuine dialogue allows adults to explore essential questions and to make meaning of their experiences; it nurtures spiritual development.

Effective dialogue does not have a recipe-approach; it is nurtured, not directed and not prescribed. It implies the holding tensions, suspending judgments, and engaging in participatory inquiry into differences. Adult educators can facilitate authentic dialogue by respecting the principles of adult learning, which include providing a safe environment, building sound relationships, and encouraging self-directed learning. These principles foster the likelihood that adults will learn from each other, enter into the sacred space between them, and increase their conversational capacity (Palmer, 1998). Adult educators need to model and encourage effective dialogue with learners. The engendering of bona fide dialogue is at the heart of adult learning.

Making Sense of Experience

Both dialogue and mentorship foster and support the adult learners' quest to grow, learn, develop and make meaning out of life experience, the perennial human challenges. Each of us needs to develop a strong sense of self in order to know, deeply understand, and actively respond to our interconnections and ultimately to our responsibility to other people and the natural world. The adult who is engaged in a discipline or practice such as dialogue or mentoring has the opportunity to engage with others and to discover purpose and meaning in life.

Ideally, adult learning is not an individual quest; it is very much a communal activity that occurs in relationship to others. It engages others in the spiritual practice of making meaning, which has been at the core of adult learning, from Lindeman (1926) to present. Isolationist tendencies, in contrast (Slee, 1993), divorce us from a communal undertaking. Strategies such as dialogue and mentoring stretch meaning making beyond individually centered practices and bring the adult to an awareness of their interconnections with others and the natural world.

As Merriam and Heuer (1996) point out, the meaning-making endeavor is a "dynamic process that involves the self, reflection and experience" (p. 254). Adults need challenge and critical reflection to understand their experiences and to grow and learn from them. Merriam and Heuer also note that adults require both time and space to facilitate the processing of new, challenging, or disorienting experiences. Authentic dialogue and mentoring experiences provide a supportive and safe environment for examining one's assumptions, and ways of acting in the world.

The encouragement of meaning-making facilitates the adult task of lifelong searching for purpose and meaning. Whereas early writers such as Yeaxlee (1925) saw this task as intricately connected to religion, increasing numbers of people view it as the spiritual quest of adulthood, and as an intricate dimension of adult growth and development. Yeaxlee understood that adult education necessarily needs to be concerned with universal questions about the meaning of life, which he viewed as contributing to meaning making (see also Jarvis, 1983; Jarvis, 1987).

Limitations and Challenges

Adult informal learning, by its non-institutional nature, frequently lies beyond the bounds of the adult educator. Yet, the role of the adult educator is to nurture whenever and where-ever possible, the individual's interest in continuous informal learning, or the pursuit of lifelong learning. This challenge is confounded by the fact that support for informal learning is often given solely to increase organizational profits. As adult educators Fenwick and Lange (1998) have pointed out, organizations continue to pursue spiritual development and meaning-making in order to improve the bottom line. Yet, the adult educator in a workplace can strive to bring an authentic dimension to the fostering of spirituality through nurturing informal learning practices, which give pride of place to learners and their needs. An authentic spirituality must be fostered among learners, in order to create a sustainable world, where care, concern and outreach are forces to reckon with. Fostering informal learning through dialogue and mentorship, so that the spiritual meaning-making focus of adults is honored, is a significant undertaking and one that must be met if adult educators take seriously their role in addressing adult development needs.


Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldgerger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women=s ways of knowing. New York: Basic Books.

Bohm, D. (1996). On dialogue. (Lee Nichol, Ed.). New York: Routledge.

Cohen, N. H. (1995). Mentoring adult learners: A guide for educators and trainers. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Daloz, L. A. (1986). Effective teaching and mentoring. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Emberley, P. C. (1998, December 28). Searching for purpose. Macleans, pp.100-105.

English, L. M. (1998). Mentoring in religious education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.

Fenwick, T. J., & Lange, E. (1998). Spirituality in the workplace: The new frontier of HRD. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 12 (1), 63-87

Hart, M., & Holton, D. (1993). Beyond God the father and the mother: Adult education and spirituality. In. P. Jarvis & N. Walters (Eds). Adult education and theological interpretations (pp. 237-258). Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Jarvis, P. (1983). The lifelong religious development of the individual and the place of adult education. Lifelong Learning: The Adult Years, 6(9), 20-23.

Jarvis, P. (1987). Meaningful and meaningless experience: Towards an analysis of learning from life. Adult Education Quarterly, 37(3), 164-172.

Levinson, D. (1978). Seasons of a man's life. New York: Knopf.

Lindeman, E. C. (1926). The meaning of adult education. New York: New Republic.

MacKeracher, D. M. (1996). Making sense of adult learning. Toronto: Culture Concepts.

Merriam, S. B., & Heuer, B.( 1996). Meaning-making, adult learning and development: A model with implications for practice. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 15(4), 243-255.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nolen, S. (1999, January 2).Give them Jesus but hold the theology. Globe and Mail, pp. A1, A5.

Ó Murchú, D. (1998). Reclaiming spirituality. New York: Crossroad.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Slee, N. (1993). Endeavors in a theology of adult education. In. P. Jarvis & N. Walters (Eds). Adult education and theological interpretations (pp. 325-346). Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Watkins, K. E., & Marsick, V. J.(1992). Towards a theory of informal and incidental learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 2(4), 287-30.

Weibust, P. S., & Thomas, L. E. (1993). Learning and spirituality in adulthood, In J. D. Sinnott (Ed.), Interdisciplinary handbook of adult lifespan learning (pp. 120-134). Westport, CN: Greenwood.

Westrup, J. (1998). Invisibility? Spiritual values and adult education. Australian Journal of Adult and Community Education, 38(2), 106-110

Yeaxlee, B. A.(1925). Spiritual values in adult education: A study of a neglected species. (2 vols.). London: Oxford University Press.

Press this button to return to National Conference Archives Main Page.
Return to the National Conference Archives Main Page

Prepared August 3, 1999 by the ACÉÉA/CASAE Internet Working Group