A Story of Transformation: Adult Learning Processes

Introduction Shakespeare demonstrates his view of education in Act 1, Scene 1 of Taming of the Shrew.  In his conversation with Lucentio, manservant Tranio states, “I am, in all things, affected as yourself / And glad that you thus continue your resolve / To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy.”  Seemingly enamored with a broad array of studies including logic, rhetoric, music, mathematics, and metaphysics,  Tranio exhorts, “Fall to them as your stomach serves you; / No profit grow as where is no pleasure ta’en [sic]: / In brief sir, study what you most affect (Shakespeare, Taming 203).  In Act 4, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of the lords attending to King Ferdinand wrapped in the allure of a woman’s eyes, also posits, “Learning is but an adjunct to ourself [sic], / And where we are, our learning likewise is” (Shakespeare, Love’s 271).

If there is one concern for adult learners, it is what the bard suggests: learn what remediation is necessary for the individual at the moment.  One’s experience or “phenomenological perspective” (Collins 257-59) is not a new idea.  As Shakespeare suggests through the Archbishop of Canterbury in Act 1, Scene 1 of King Henry V,people may learn in many “open haunts”; his conclusion is that the “art and practice of life must be the mistress” to theory (Shakespeare, King 533).  According to adult learning theorists, what one learns may only serve the needs of the individual as “situations” (not “subjects”) become paramount (Lindeman 33).  Ultimately, the drive is toward learning as transformation (Mezirow and Associates).

One canonical account that best mirrors the current interest in adult experiential, transformative learning is Ecclesiastes.  Qoheleth (“the preacher” in Hebrew) contends that he devoted himself to study, exploring “by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13).  He gave himself to pleasure (2:1-11), wisdom (2:12-16), work (2:17-26), justice (4:1-6), individualism (4:7-12), advancement (4:13-16), and wealth (5:8-17).  If there were a real person in Scripture who exemplified the adult learner’s interest toward changing one’s present satisfaction, it would be Solomon (1:12-16).[1]

If Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes after a life full of varied encounters, he might stand as the most impressive spokesperson for those who have taken in as much as one human could during a lifetime.  Speaking now as an authoritative adult learner, what Solomon could contribute to current theory and practice might add weight to adult learning theorists’ claims that individual, transformational experiences are crucial components to lifelong erudition.  In Solomon’s own words, he could contend: “Let me tell you what I’ve discovered through experience that has changed my life.”  By wedding past and current adult learning theory with Solomonic narrative style, autobiographical awareness, life experience, and reordered assumptions, we may establish an example of biblical, fully developed thinking and acting for people as they grow older.

Narrative Style: Knowledge as Transformation


Linkage between Solomon’s experience and adult learning begins in the arena of epistemology.  To some, knowledge is quantitative research (Mvududu); to others qualitative research needs to value people (St. Pierre 242).  John W. Creswell says, “Stating a knowledge claim means that researchers start a project with certain assumptions” (6).  Two important facets of knowledge claims and research design deal with the origin of knowledge and the interpretation of the researcher.  Robert Kegan and associates have developed the Subject-Object Interview which can ascertain “an individual’s underlying system of meaning making” (Erickson 68-69).

Christina Belcher maintains that one’s view of life is “an embodied language” (10).  Kegan’s question “What ‘form’ transforms?” posits that the method of acquiring knowledge supersedes the content of the information (35).  The form informs the meaning of anything (52).  Story is used consistently by scholars for transformative learning (Aalsburg-Wiessner and Mezirow 337-38).  Vigen Guroian believes, for instance, that businessmen learn ethics best by reading great literature (177-86).  At its core, story carries meaning, explaining how man must live before God.

Proverbs wrapped in narrative poetry might be an apt description of the literary style of Ecclesiastes connecting it to adult learning literature.  The form of narrative-poetry-wisdom lends itself to a broad view of knowledge; the literary type opens to a personal, experiential expertise.  Herein the teacher tells the tale journalistically.  He makes sure all people will identify with each category by engaging universal interests: work, wealth, wisdom, pleasure—all these just in Ecclesiastes chapter two.  Considering Solomon’s apologetic reach to various national leaders (cf. 1 Kings 9-10), the possibility exists that Ecclesiastes could have been intended as common truth for the common man in Old Testament evangelistic style (cf. Exodus 19:4-5; Deuteronomy 4:5-8).

Further evidence of an international, trans-cultural outreach is the use of “God.”  Citing no specific supernatural name—surely Yahweh would have been used were this written to Hebrews—could have a cosmopolitan appeal.  The generic term for deity—Elohim—was a nomenclature understood throughout the ancient Near Eastern world.  However, each time Elohim appears in the text (some 35 times), it is preceded by the direct article.  As people would read the words, it would be clear in the language of the day that Solomon referenced “the one and only true God.”  While Solomon was reaching out to a wide audience through his narrative, he was clearly making an exclusive theological claim.

Solomon’s narrational knowledge assertions leading toward a contemplative change in outlook, espoused by adult learning theorists, is compounded by his open-ended study.  Almost as if the sovereign of Israel were establishing research protocol, the following words are used about his investigation: he studied, devoted, explored, applied, and learned about wisdom and knowledge (Ecclesiastes 1:13, 16-17; cf. 8:9, 16).  Throughout Ecclesiastes, we find Solomon personally, practically testing his contentions.  As Summa Theologica declares, “Man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek” (Aquinas 629).

Perhaps the personal story of the Hebrew researcher-king sheds light on current adult education praxis.  It seems clear that the “self-authoring mind” of Solomon satisfied both informative and transformative (what and how one knows) change (Kegan 50, 68).  In adult education, usage of story anticipates a ubiquitous audience, searching for common ground (Aalsburg-Wiessner and Mwzirow 333).  Key components of adult learning philosophy—human-, research-, change-centered concerns—are clearly cited throughout Ecclesiastes under the auspices of The God’s beneficence and common grace to all (St. Pierre 242).  “Biographicity”—encoding personal experiences over a lifetime for collective stories and structures (Glastra, Hake, and Schedler 300)—is found in Ecclesiastes.

Solomon’s narrative should not be left to arbitrary interpretation (Longman “Literary Approach” 392-95) where the application is left up to the reader’s perspective (Kaiser, “Inner” 44).  Ecclesiastes is historically, literally true (1 Kings 1-11; cf. Matthew 12:42).  The lessons from the forms of poetry and proverbs wrapped within the storyline of a man’s life makes the genre or form important in its educational application.  The Christian is committed to a personal narrative, interactive with this world and The Other.



Autobiographic Awareness: Assessment for Transformation

As it did with Solomon, learning about oneself within the social context of education might enlarge one’s viewpoint.  For teachers in particular, autobiographical efforts can improve instruction (Brookfield, Becoming 49-70).  The dignity and autonomy of the person is maintained, encouraging the student as an instrument of change (Collins; Freire).  Individual pupil transformation, learning styles, and interactive learning are all helped by the opportunity that one person has more than others for expansive experience, leading toward autonomous choice (Kiesling et al; Mezirow 26-27, 29).  Self-awareness utilizing self-assessment contributes to the educational autobiography (Taylor 172, 174).

Scholars refer to Ecclesiastes as a “royal autobiography” (Fox 153).  Introspection (Longman, The Book 37) drove Solomon’s seemingly insatiable urge toward a Renaissance Man’s awareness of things (cf. 1 Kings 4:29-34).  The king’s personal prayer to The God for “a wise and discerning heart” (1 Kings 3:7-9) is answered with a promise that there would be “no one else like him” (1 Kings 3:10-12).  Judging from the subsequent chapters’ historical notations, logic in human experience was but a “preparatory discipline… sharpen[ing] the mind in advance so that we shall see what there is to see” [emphasis his] (Trueblood 76).  Solomon’s personal investment noted by the use of “I” throughout Ecclesiastes demonstrates his dogged pursuit of earthly understanding.

As a king, David’s son was afforded a wonderful opportunity for educational freedom (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).  He reigned during a time of peace, and his armies consolidated gains by his warrior predecessor (1 Kings 4:1-28), allowing him time to create the wonder of Jerusalem’s temple (1 Kings 5-9).  Given the unique liberties unhurried by military campaigns, Solomon took time, meticulously assessing life as a whole throughout Ecclesiastes.  In chapter two alone, the reader finds question after question, critically evaluating a panoply of concerns: “What does laughter accomplish?” and “What more can be done?” are but two of the many queries perplexing Solomon’s mind (Ecclesiastes 2:2, 12; cf. 2:15, 19, 22, 25).  Self-assessment includes transparency and honesty.  After pouring his life into various projects (2:19), Solomon concedes his feelings of hatred (2:18), despair (2:20), emptiness (2:21), anxiety (2:22), and grief (2:23).  Perhaps Augustine’s Confessions, considered by many to be the first autobiography, drew its inspiration of self-awareness from Ecclesiastes (Augustine).

Self-reporting, such as that done by Solomon, becomes “a person’s sense of spiritual construction” asserted by andragogy proponents (Kiesling et al256).  As older learners write about their life’s struggles, they may be “more motivated and self-directed in the learning process” (Williamson and Watson 40) while “imparting knowledge to the people” (Ecclesiastes 12:9).  The intrinsic motivation for learning—which may be more pronounced in older students—is encouraged for the young (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10) by an autobiographer who “searched to find just the right words” (12:10).  It seems Solomon consolidated frame of reference, displayed habit of mind, and created a point of view [emphasis his] (Mezirow 16-19)to establish an interpretation which is “upright and true” (Ecclesiastes 12:10).  The conclusion of Solomon’s memoirs will create the autonomous choice for all adult learners that he appropriated for himself.

Life Experience: Individuation as Transformation

Solomon’s personal learning processes are referred to by adult learning advocates as “individuation”: the development of one’s interiority (Cranton 188-189, 198).  Learner-centered, role modeling, experiential learning has been acknowledged as appropriate for teaching life skills (von Kotze) since life events do impact one’s practiced belief.  Self-involvement, which coincides with religious studies, has made others attend to the connection between existential and academic (Sabri et al).  Student-centered, situational points of view (Houle), developmental constructivism (Erickson), and phenomenological discovery (Collins 258-59) have been heralded in adult education circles.  Qualitative research in social science (Creswell) has further sought application in distance education conjoining “faculty lived experiences in the online environment” (Conceição).

Solomon’s lived life sets the standard for thoughtful, individual, transformational process.  Ecclesiastes 1:16 says the king had experienced, grown, and increased in all his endeavors.  The word “see” and its derivatives in Qoheleth are clear markers of personal life application (cf. 1:14; 2:3, 24; 3:22; etc.)  In fact, Solomon concedes, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired” (2:10; cf. 2:14; 5:11; 6:9; 8:16; 11:7, 9).

Solomon both looked and took.  His accomplishments, such as in the detailed account of material acquisition (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11), exactly bespeak the promises God bestowed on His servant (1 Kings 3:13).  Beyond this, Solomon internalized thoughts and actions by the processes of interpretation and application (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:15) nowhere better stated than in chapter eight, verse nine: “All this I saw, as I applied my mind to everything done under the sun.”  Solomon makes an intrapersonal break from the collective context to “critically question the habits of mind” (Cranton 189) so that he could speak to mankind as a whole, applying true Truth to life (cf. Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:1-12).

The Christian educator might agree that acknowledging new truth may be uncovered outside the parameters of the scientific method.  Some Christian scholars have questioned and rejected “the science ideal” [emphasis his](Wolterstorff 101) as the paradigm for integration, instead calling for a reinvestigation of how a Christian view of knowledge is assimilated.  Qualitative research, controlled by Christian faithfulness, may demonstrate the authority of true Truth resident in childlike faith experience.  Indeed, Christian teaching is “a personal experience that is shared, not simply a set of facts or ideas” (Wilhoit and Ryken 52).  “As Christian educators, we need to engage both the heart and the mind of a person with interactive learning that embraces both cognitive and experiential understanding as well as reflection and application” (Beck and Campbell 108).  Solomon’s words elsewhere suggest overarching resolve: “Do not be wise in your own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7); “Preserve sound judgment and discernment; do not let them out of your sight” (Proverbs 3:21).



Reordered Assumptions: Reflection for Transformation

Characteristic of Qoheleth is reflection, “a report of an inner contemplation of an issue” (Fox 155).  “Wisdom reflections” lend themselves to the reader both as authorization and application (Arnold and Beyer 327).  For example, adult learners can make connections between belief and behavior concerning social justice (Clare).  “Premise reflection” should precede “a fundamental reordering of assumptions” ((Mezirow 20; Brookfield “Transformative Learning” 139).  Critical self-reflection of assumptions (CSRA) is an established taxonomy for adult learning advocates (Brookfield “Transformative Learning” 131-136).  “Transitional learning” (Glastra, Hake, and Schedler) should be the end result of deliberation.

“I reflected on all of this” (Ecclesiastes 9:1) is both a recurring and summary statement from Solomon.  “I thought to myself” (e.g., 1:16) and “I thought in my heart” (e.g., 2:1, 15) are constantly repeated.  Leaving no stone unturned “all this I tested by wisdom” (7:23), Solomon declares.  “Look, this is what I have discovered…this is what I have found” (7:27, 29): one can almost see the teacher lecture (12:9).  Ultimately, Solomon has more questions than answers (6:11-12).

All the king’s reflections begin to shift long held beliefs.  An “under the sun” (used over 30 times in Ecclesiastes; e.g. 1:3, 9, 13, 14) or purely naturalistic point of view (i.e., there is nothing above the sun or its authority) is called “meaningless” (used over 35 times in Ecclesiastes; e.g. 1:2, 14; 2:1, 11, 15) and a “chasing after the wind” (used over 12 times in Ecclesiastes; e.g. 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26).  Every venue of life is examined and found wanting in and of itself apart from The God.  Satisfaction and sensibility on earth is vapid, empty, like condensed breathe in a cold climate—here and gone (the Hebraic concept of “meaningless” or “vanity” in the English).

Ecclesiastes turns on its head the “normative assumptions underpinning the values and expectations” (Mezirow 31) that most humans have believed since Eden’s garden (“it was not this way from the beginning,” Matthew 19:8; cf. Ecclesiastes 7:29; Acts 17:6; 1 John 3:8).  Solomon seems to suggest that power resides within cultural pressures to conform (e.g., Ecclesiastes 4:13-16).  Uncovering “dynamics and relationships” (Brookfield “Transformative Learning” 136) and “hegemonic assumptions” (137) that “actually work against us in the long term by serving the interests of those opposed to us” (138), is a necessary part of reflection leading to change.  Whatever else one learns from reflective reordering of assumptions is that “we cannot avoid reliance on some sort of authority” (Trueblood 67).



Conclusion Lifelong transitional learning seen through “self-actualization biographies” (Glastra, Hake, and Schedler 300) finds its replication in Ecclesiastes.  Looking at oneself in the mirror (cf. James 1:19-25) is metaphorically true both of Solomonic wisdom and adult learning.  Putting meaning in life is a key goal of andragogy (Lindeman), true also of Qoheleth.  “Intentional reflection” requires “renegotiation of older relationships and establishing new ones” (Mezirow 6), which is exactly what Solomon contends “is the conclusion of the matter” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  Scriptural texts must be placed as a lens over current research as adult education theories develop.

The responsibility of the Christian scholar is to claim teaching outside the Church which is in “harmony with our faith…better adapted to the use of truth” (Augustine 655).  Christian scholars should seek a trans-disciplinary, as well as an interdisciplinary, perspective by using a Solomonic “comprehensive framework through which they see and interpret all of reality” (Sinnema 198).  Integrationists, for instance, must “bring Christian educators into a conversation with current identity theorists and researchers” (Kielsing et al241).

Yet, as a story of transformation, Ecclesiastes is unique, setting it apart from pagan adult education theories.  A lifetime committed to understanding life’s core message and meaning is summarized in the positive refrain running throughout the book: life is a gift of God (2:24; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-9).  Ecclesiastes reflects a comprehensive, coherent view of the world and life by declaring the One and Only True God is beneficent toward His creation and creatures.  Appreciation of the present good and an expectation of more to follow is the common ground between people.  Solomon teaches that a repentant attitude, a will toward true transformation found in Proverbs 28:14-15, must be acted out by each learner as he concludes in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14.  As Pascal states in his treatise On Geometrical Demonstration, “We believe almost nothing unless it pleases us.  And this is why we are so loath to accept the truths of the Christian religion, which is entirely opposed to our pleasures” (440).

Solomon neither sidesteps difficult issues nor sets up straw men to make his point: being fallen and finite in this world is truly hard (cf. 1:15; 7:13).  There are possibilities without guarantees (11:1-6; 10:14).  Knowledge sometimes exists without understanding (11:5), and wisdom can come without accomplishment (9:13-18).  What is Solomon’s response?  He says there is a need to fear God (3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12-13; 12:13) because judgment is coming (3:17; 8:12-13; 11:9; 12:7, 14).  As Henry Stob states, “To be educated is to have received an inner structuring of mind and life…. Education is the transformation of one’s person, the structuring of one’s being…. The student…will have been filled out and integrated by the larger reality which lies in, around, and beyond him” (265).

A Christian view of adult education should set standards from the above observations without apology in the following academic interests:

1. Incarnational theology—personal care in belief—must be enacted in the classroom.  Passionate scholars must learn to harness their own “meaning making” while encouraging students to appropriate their own.  Understanding that form informs meaning, professorial delivery systems should be monitored together with course content.  Story and poetry should be used more often in classroom instruction.  The time taken to prepare for any lesson should equal the time given for its presentation.  A teacher’s mantra should be communicating as simply as possible to as broad an audience as possible.  Online curricular components must work much harder to make the educational experience personable.  Ultimately, professors should build possibilities of interpersonal learning with their students to wed theory with practice.

2. Acceptance of research must depend on both its veracity and applicability.  Slow, thorough precision should be as much an assessment as quantity and quality of work.  Self-assessment measures should be part of any coursework.  Teaching the concept of “lifelong learning” means measured, steady growth—unlike the pressures consistent with usual academic settings.  Cultural and educational commonalities must be sought for universal use.  Motivation for learning must be consistently encouraged.

3. Historical biography must be read and written.  Students should be trained to think and teach biographically.  Character development should be the core of a liberal education model, building students from the inside out.  Reading classic literature presses the learner to appropriate lessons more by example than dogmatism.  To feed transformational agents, dietary parallels could be sought—consumption determines performance.  Such a suggested educational process demands time and opportunity for reflection.

4. Truth models must be proposed in academics.  An arbiter must exist in Christian higher education.  “Under the sun” should be subservient to “life is a gift of God.”  While human thinking changes, long-held beliefs may need adjustment; a standard of veritas should give finite, fallible humans a functional framework.  Caution against idolatry and pride must be part of a professor’s daily concerns.

The academy must strive for a holistic, integrated curriculum. Christian higher education should set the standard for true interdisciplinary studies, showing how all things cohere in Christ (Colossians 1:15-17).

In Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s As You Like It,Rosalind—daughter of the banished Duke Senior—contemplates melancholy and sadness caused by experience which has been “extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels” (Shakespeare, As You Like It 617).  Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine establishes a sober note in reply: “It is well to warn studious and able young men, who fear God and are seeking for happiness of life, not to venture heedlessly upon the pursuit of the branches of learning that are in vogue beyond” (654).  Adult learning theory untethered from the transcendent source of Truth can become a human-centered, self-centered exercise.  All theoretical constructs and qualitative research must be moored to the teaching of the One and Only True God in Christian Scripture with a constant desire for universal application.  Ultimately, the Story of transformation’s inception is external; its completion is internal (John 1:1-18; Romans 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 15:1-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; 2 Peter 1:12-18).



[1] Claims for Solomonic authorship must begin with his reign during a time of peace (1 Kings 4:25; 1 Chronicles 22:9); thus, he was able to pursue all interests of wisdom and wealth (1 Kings 3-4).  As a king (Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12), Solomon was not inhibited by cost or restriction (“whatever my eye desired,” 2:10).  Building projects (2:1-11), for instance, are strongly reminiscent of Solomon’s construction throughout the first ten chapters of the Hebrew book of Kings.  International relations drew people to Solomon (1 Kings 4: 9-10), another indication of his universal appeal.  Certainly considered by conservative exegetical scholars to be of Solomonic origin (Arnold and Beyer 330; Goldberg 22; Kaiser, Ecclesiastes 29), it is here Ecclesiastes most bears the mark of David’s son: Solomon writes for a non-Israelite audience.  God’s personal name Yahweh (“LORD” in the NIV) is absent.  There is no mention of Hebrew history in the book.  An “everyman” approach to world affairs resonates throughout (see, for instance, chapters seven through ten).  Indeed, it seems the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is meant for adult rulers who sought Solomon’s wisdom (1 Kings 10:23-24), no matter their age (Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:1) or the condition of their elderly body (12:2-7).  Solomon knew the conclusion to Ecclesiasties (12:13-14) in a very personal way: it was the injunction given him by his father David just prior to his death (1 Chronicles 28:5-9).

Giving added weight to claims for Solomonic authorship, academics consider Solomon’s work to be the pinnacle of his vociferous writing career.  Old Testament scholars conjecture that the Song of Solomon was penned while Solomon was a young man, Proverbs during his training of leaders during his middle years (Harrison 1073); indeed, Hebrew rabbis contend the same (Dell 3). Some believe that only at the end of the king’s life does he construct his universal appeal to all students of life everywhere (Kidner 14).  Song of Solomon, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (young, middle, old age) may suggest a progression of thought, of growth throughout life, a narrowing and at the same time, a broadening of focus: in understanding oneself, ordering one’s life, and explaining what was discovered.

Dr. Mark Eckel now teaches at Capital Seminary & Graduate School.  This original paper was first written for a doctoral course in 2008 and then published as “A Story of Transformation: Ecclesiastes as an Example of Adult Learning Processes” in Intégrité 7:2, Fall 2008.


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  1. The narrative focus of Incarnational theology engages and challenges each learner and teacher, while deepening overall learning experience to more than terms by applying concepts. This teaching method, which you employ, I can see already challenging me in the process of learning.

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