Learning Theorist Report: Erik Homburger Erickson

If learning is a skill defined as “a behavioral change which is a direct result of experience rather than a consequences of inborn connections within the nervous system,” then it is – arguably – a quality which human beings share with other creatures (Moskowitz & Orgel, 1969, p. 104.). But human beings are surely superior to any other creatures; and what perhaps makes them so lies in how they are able to “profit” from past experiences in a manner so advanced and complex. Human learning, one must note with care, does not consists in how much one is able to gain from the past alone. On the contrary, Moskowitz and Orgel maintain that it is a skill acquired through an array of facets (1969, p. 105). It is to be remembered thus, that, on account of the complexity defining the manner by which human beings learn, many theories have been submitted by many thinkers in an attempt to shed light into how exactly this process is arrived at. Specifically for this paper however, Erik Erikson’s contribution to understanding certain aspects of adult learning shall be brought into the fore.

A.     Erik Homburger Erikson’s Core Theory
Erik Erikson (d. 1994), born in Germany in 1902, was an American theorist in the field of psychology who was heavily influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud (Erikson, 1964, p. 9). Erikson’s most famous contribution to psychological science is perhaps seen in the manner he well expounded the intricate link between stages of human growth, and the characteristic learning each stage brings to an individual. This theory came to be known as Erikson’s “eight stages of development”; and in it, Erikson was able to draw vital insights that teach how a “psychosocial theory of development considers the impact of external factors, parents and society on personality development from childhood to adulthood” (2007, www.learning-theories.com).

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In every stage of human growth – from infancy to late adulthood – Erikson believes that there are binary poles wherein one may find himself or herself identifying with, depending on the influences he or she may have had in his or her lifetime. Erickson’s theory maintains that certain issues accompany the various stages of human growth. Specifically for adults, Erikson seems to emphasize that growth and learning depends largely on the power of choice. Put in other words, what determines the successful development – or stagnation perhaps – of one’s learning and growth, lies not anymore on what is done to a person (as in the case for most children), as on what one does to oneself (2007, www.learning-theories.com).

B.     The Nature of Adult Learning
It will facilitate the development of this discussion if certain aspects about the specificity of adult learning are also laid bare. Firstly, there is a need to first define what an “adult learning” implies. Critical to this consideration is to primordially ask: who must be considered an adult? In this regard, Boulton-Lewis believes that Piaget’s description helps in clearly defining the dimensions of adult learning; as he describes it in conjunction with the growth process characterized by “the development of human thought as occurring in stages until formal operational thinking in adolescence” (cited in Sutherland, 1997, p. 21). Starting from adolescence, Boulton-Lewis contends that adult learning is that particular stage of learning where it “would be qualitatively the same” until a person matures further on in life (Sutherland, 1997, p. 21).

            Next, it is with equal importance that one should note that adult learning is marked with two chief characteristics: i.e., it is more “constructivist” in approach, and that it is conditioned by an array of distinct but related forces. What do these mean? First, Barry Dart contends that in learning, there are two chief approaches that are in place: the traditional transmission and the constructivist model. The traditional transmission model figures in how most classroom discussions are done; i.e., “information is transferred from teachers to learners” (cited in Sutherland, 1997, p. 30). Dart however furthers that in adult learning, the constructivist model takes over the former, as “learners recognize their own relevant ideas and beliefs, evaluate (them)… in terms of what is to be learned and how learning is intended to occur” (Sutherland, 1997, p. 31). Second, as previously mentioned, one must remember that the process of adult learning involves one too many forces, each contributing to its own share into the process itself. For instance, Glyn Owens submits for adults, the “role of language”, “learning by imitation” or “modeling”, strength of “thinking and problem-solving”, “the concept of attention”, and the difficulties in learning and remembering” are just among the many forces that determine the success of adult learning (cited in Sutherland, 1997, pp. 76-81).

C.     Understanding Adult Learners Using Erik Erikson
There are two good reasons to think that Erik Erikson’s psychosocial analysis of a person’s development can provide a widow to understand the adult learning process, if only one attempts to gel the previous points that were developed hereinabove.

            Firstly, Erik Erikson’s theory confirms, more than anything else, that adult learning is operative on the fact that the element of self-determination or choice is essentially linked into it. This basically distinguishes an infant or toddler from an adolescent learner, who, by right of comparison, is able to already put into prolific use his or her capacity for self-creativity and freedom. Using Erik Erikson’s model, one may not separate growth and learning from the capacity to determine oneself. Adult learning, if one may aptly put it, is so closely knitted with the proper use of an adult individual’s freedom to tread a path where he or she will eventually find fulfillment. This is the reason why the issues that an adult person needs to resolve – intimacy, generativity, or integrity for instance – are the ones that are supposed to be weighed in the light of choices one has made for oneself.

Second, Erik Erikson’s theory on learning affirms the need for adult learners to be dealt with by a learning process that treats them as participants and not as spectators. As it was seen, adult learners are argued to gain more from a participative learning environment – called constructivist model – than from an information spoon-feeding context. Erikson’s theory on the stages of human growth readily affirms this observation. His theory seems to suggest that adult learners are more defined by the issues involving the manner by which they were able to meaningfully participate in the decisions in their lives. Key to this aspect is participation. Consistent with the previous point raised, decision-making process becomes an avenue for growth and learning. Which is why, in the context of adult learning, the proper approach or model is the constructivist theory. For in that model, adult learners “are encouraged to take ownership” of any program or process (Tummons, 2005, p. 11).

This paper concludes with an admirable insight that Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory helps to emphasize the need to see an adult learner within the larger context of self-determination and life-generating decisions. In the points that were developed, it was seen that Erik Erikson’s model could lead to a greater appreciation of the fact that adult learners are participants in their own learning process. His eight stages of human growth is indeed a telling testimony of how human behavior can be seen as lifelong journey of learning. In the end, one must come to acknowledge the responsibility of having to live one’s life according to choices one makes for oneself, as they would later on constitute the significance of learning one eventually gathers. Such is the responsibility laid into the shoulders of every adult learner.


Boulton-Lewis, G. “Information Processing, Memory, Age and Adult Learning” in Sutherland,            P., Ed. (1997). Adult Learning. London: Kogan Page Ltd.

Dart, B. “Adult Learner’s Metacognitive Behavior in Higher Education” in Sutherland, P., Ed.             (1997). Adult Learning. London: Kogan Page Ltd.

Erikson, E. (1964). Insight and Responsibility. Lectures on the Ethical Implications of      Psychoanalytic Insight. New York: Norton and Company.

“Erikson’s Stages of Development”. Retrieved 25 June 2008, from http://www.learning-            theories.com/eriksons-stages-of-development.html

Moskowitz, M. & Orgel, A. (1969). General Psychology. A Core Text in Human Behavior.        Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Owens, G. “Behaviourist Approaches to Adult Learning” in Sutherland, P., Ed. (1997). Adult Learning. London: Kogan Page Ltd.

Tummons, J. (2005). Assessing Learning in Further Education. Exeter: Learning Matters Ltd.


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