A Space for Spirituality in Adult Learning?

December 4, 2018

In the current movement of globalization facilitated by technological development, changing population demographics, and outspoken political debate in the public realm, it may be curious that I am writing about spirituality and education. How might an exploration of spirituality — which is often perceived or confined to the realm of internal, private experience — equip today’s adult learners to navigate a society that often seems hostile and competitive? In fact, it is precisely because of the potential universal application and exploration of spirituality, as it connects with personal identity and experiences, value clarification, and personal and social transformation, that its inclusion within education is legitimate and necessary. Particularly when applied to settings of adult learning, the intentional inclusion of spirituality within the curriculum has the potential to provide a framework and skills for citizens to participate in a pluralist society and make positive change to influence future generations.

I feel it is appropriate and necessary to acknowledge my positionality and interest with this topic, and to be transparent about potential bias I may bring with me to my writing. I do not intend to treat the subject matter as something wholly objective and beyond my sphere of experience. I am young adult of Filipino heritage, raised and educated in the Greater Toronto Area. I identify as a practicing Catholic-Christian, and participating within the Christian faith is something I consider to be something instrumental to my family life and experience of my cultural identity. I am also an out gay man who has been working professionally in higher education Student Affairs since my undergraduate studies. Most of my work has been in academic and transition support for mostly new students within the university residence environment, and now within a business faculty. My learning and professional interests are furthering my knowledge of equity and diversity issues within education and supporting the multiple dimensions of success for the students I work with.

Often within the higher education setting that I have experienced (with foci on research and career preparedness), rational and objective knowledge are privileged within scholarship and teaching practices. There appears to be a certain code or expectation that it is inappropriate to discuss spirituality, and religion in particular, within the academic environment. As a Student Affairs professional, a fundamental position has been a commitment to supporting and developing the whole person, which includes people’s affective and spiritual experiences (Dungy & Gordon, 2011). Student Affairs is not alone in paying attention to these aspects of learners. According to Shahjahan, Wagner and Wane (2009), there has been an emergence of spirituality issues in higher education literature. Tisdell (2008) notes a growing conversation of spirituality and learning within adult education since the early 2000s. And there has been a growing consensus among scholars that spirituality is a missing component of our comprehensive understanding for effective teaching, and it tends to be neglected in educator preparation (Boone et al., 2010).

There appears to be a stigma associated with incorporating and exploring spirituality issues within the academy. Part of the challenge with spirituality being conceived as an individual and internal experience is that the subject can be perceived to lack academic rigor (Shahjahan, 2009). However, spirituality has important relevance to the lives of many people both within the academy and in society at large. Cavanaugh, Blanchard-Fields and Norris (2008) note that religiosity and spirituality are “important aspects of a person’s lifestyle that must be considered in a holistic approach” (p.88).

Spirituality is relevant to adult learning, viewed from social constructivist and transformative learning perspectives, as it is one of the ways in which adults construct knowledge and make meaning of experience. Boone et al. (2010) further explores the emancipatory potential of spirituality for adults in enabling them to examine and recognize the value of pluralism. As adult educators, it is important to recognize that we cannot divorce the empirical and rational from that which is personal and extra-rational. Njoki Wane (2009) asserts that “in order to function as a normal human being, we need to develop all aspects of ourselves — which includes the […] spiritual self” (as cited in Shahjahan et al., 2009, p.63). Indeed, it is individuals, who are complex and multidimensional beings, who learn — not only minds (Jarvis, 2005; as cited in McEwen, 2012).

Defining Spirituality

Because spirituality is often considered a personal and internal experience, it can be challenging to operationalize for the purpose of academic discourse. The fact that it is likely enmeshed within the influences of one’s culture, community and other intersecting identities means that spirituality may be understood as something quite different to two people in the same setting — and neither would be wrong. “How spirituality is expressed depends entirely on the culture and religious perspectives of the people. There is no right way or wrong way” (Bopp & Bopp, 2006, p.91). Within my research, several definitions and descriptions of spirituality were offered, some of which I have attempted to summarize here.

According to Rockenbach et al. (2015), spirituality can be understood as connectivity and a sense of internal integration. This connection can be to others in one’s community and more globally, and a connection to God, or “something more”. Internal integration may include a sense of meaning and purpose, self-understanding and faith. Spirituality may characterize one’s efforts to live as more authentic and integrated, rather than compartmentalized (Boone et al., 2010). Furthermore, the personal orientation towards connecting with that which is beyond oneself may also inspire one’s ethic of compassion and service. Astin (2011) has qualified spirituality to include equanimity (reassurance about the goodness of life, ethic of care, charitable involvement, and ecumenical worldview (as opposed to egocentrism and ethnocentrism) (as cited in in Rockenbach et al., 2015).

Love and Talbot (1999; as cited in Rockenbach et al, 2015) situate a framework for elements of spirituality within the higher education/Student Affairs context. Here, spirituality is understood as seeking wholeness, moving beyond the current focal point of one’s life, greater connectedness to self and others, deriving meaning, and exploring relationships with powers beyond human existence. Koetting and Combs (2005) further describe spirituality as a personal search for meaning and purpose, a journey to which individuals feel personally compelled.

The spirituality that I am discussing can be considered separate from religious affiliation, though for those from faith communities or with these affiliations from their upbringing, they may experience or consider spirituality as something bound to their religious identity (Charaniya, 2012). In their qualitative content analysis of college students, Rockenbach et al. (2015) found that many Christian students consider spiritual connectivity as situated within a religious context, whereas non-Christian religious students tended to focus on spiritual connectivity to the world more broadly. Non-religious students in this study expressed an orientation towards “something more”, though not within a religious context. These non-religious students demonstrated they are able to identify with spirituality and find personal application for it in their lives, for example, through intrapersonal and interpersonal connection and development.

From these findings, one can consider the potential for universal applicability of reflection about spirituality for the development of a wide diversity of learners. Shahjahan et al. (2009) notes that marginalized people in particular may benefit from spirituality as a tool to heal from internalized oppression of their identities. Through focusing on our interconnections through spirituality, instead of our differences in religious beliefs and practices, we may be able to work towards true social transformation in the longer term. Although useful and important to understanding specific experiences, perhaps instead of focusing on social and identity theories about how we are different, we should also be paying more attention to developing theories about how diverse people are interconnected and interdependent.

Connection with Learning Theories

Particularly within adult education, where it is presumed that the learners bring with them a wealth of personal experience and knowledge (Merriam et al., 2007), there is value to facilitate a space for and introduce topics about spirituality within the learning environment. Considering the social constructivist view of learning, participants contribute to their own and collective meaning making, including that of the facilitator. In recognizing that individuals embody multifaceted identities that are defined by culture and how they interpret and experience the spiritual, the opportunities for learning are rich. One’s spirituality is intimately connected with cultural and social forces that define what is considered sacred and a sense of the divine (Charaniya, 2012). Diversity of opinions and perspectives can assist learners to critically reflect on their own beliefs and understandings, solidifying or possibly complicating previously held positions, within a dynamic learning experience.

Spirituality can play an important role in facilitating transformative learning experiences. Mezirow’s (1978) theory of transformative learning includes ten steps, including a disorienting dilemma which pushes one to self-examine and critically assess one’s assumptions (as cited in McEwen, 2012). One’s feeling of discontent opens the possibility of transformation, through exploring new understandings and planning action, acquiring knowledge, trying out new positions, and building competence, which one reintegrates into their own life context. Transformational learning can be an educational event or experience that moves learners towards changing their perspective. It has the potential to change our ways of being in the world, and in relation to each other (Koetting & Combs, 2005).

Possible feelings of discomfort associated with discussing spiritual matters or questioning others’ diverse perspectives related to the topic actually sets the stage for transformative learning of the individual or collective. Success of this process depends on the learners’ abilities to reflect and articulate the perspectives through which they interpret their experiences (Alhadeff-Jones & Kokkos, 2011; as cited in McEwen, 2012). These perhaps unexpected or unfamiliar experiences include the opportunity for learners to understand themselves and their relationships with others (Charaniya, 2012). It is hoped that this process and experience of questioning one’s beliefs allows for a more pronounced sense of purpose and self-understanding to emerge. These transformational experiences are more likely to occur if learners are engaged by multiple levels of their being: the cognitive (mind), the affective (heart), and symbolic or spiritual (soul) (Tisdell & Tolliver, 2001).

With a background of hesitation to incorporate discussions of spirituality in teaching practice, facilitating these kinds of discussions can be a form of emancipatory learning and a strategy to decolonize the academy. By evoking spiritual perspectives in teaching and learning, educators help give voice to diverse bodies and perspectives that do exist in the academy and the broader world (Shahjahan et al., 2009). This act claims the legitimacy of spirituality within higher education, as a worthy worldview, as are other perspectives, such as secular and materialist ones. Inclusion of spirituality in teaching and learning invites and gives permission for both educators and learners to be more authentic, and the learning more meaningful. By inviting learners to share knowledges, poetry, and narratives from their culture and worldview, we can support individuals whose cultural groups have been historically oppressed within higher education to explore, reclaim and express their cultural identity in an affirming way (Tisdell & Tolliver, 2001).

Implications for adult education

Adult learners stand to benefit from educational experiences that support their spiritual exploration and development. Many adults return to participate in various forms of education as a result of personal and professional life transitions, and with specific goals relating to the need for applicable knowledge to benefit themselves and those around them (Merriam et al., 2007). These transition experiences may prime these adult learners to examine taken-for-granted beliefs and worldviews, and perhaps deepen or transform their understanding of themselves and those around them through learning experiences that engage the spirit.

Many adults believe that a relationship with God can be an important component of coping with life’s challenges (Cavanaugh et al., 2008). Recognizing the spiritual and cultural foundations that adult learners are bringing with them to the learning experience can be a departure point for educators wishing to facilitate their learning through the transformation of experience. An appreciation for the interconnectedness of being, and with other things or that which is beyond oneself, by those examining spirituality may help these learners adopt more universal views that can support their resilience in time of personal crisis (Tisdell, 2008).

Ultimately. spirituality in adult education is about honouring people’s stories and experiences. At midlife, it is common to question or have questioned one’s spiritual journey and recognize a “tension of opposites” which opens us to new understandings of spirituality and seeing the world (Tisdell, 2008). This can lead to commitment to actions consistent with one’s sense of purpose. As Charaniya (2012) reflects, this examination of belief and identity can direct the learner to a profound sense of interdependence with others and the sacred, which can inspire a more active engagement with the world.

Because transformation impacts not only the individual but potentially their relationships as well, educators should consider the wider potential impact to communities resulting from facilitating transformative learning with their students. Bearing this in mind, educators should be thoughtful and intentional about their responsibility in how they support the spiritual development of their students.

Educators and Student Affairs professionals within religiously affiliated institutions are especially expected to concern themselves with the spiritual matters of their students, particularly their faith development (Hirt, 2009). Models of faith development proposed by Fowler (1981) and Parks (2000) describe stages of how beliefs and values become progressively important to the individual (as cited in Evans, 2011). Parks qualifies faith as an interaction of four components: self, other, world, and God. As an individual’s faith develops, how these components are viewed and associated with each other changes. Typically in adulthood, individuals arrive at a “tested” stage, where self-knowledge and beliefs that were previously more tentative become more secure, and these individuals seek communities with compatible belief systems (Evans, 2011).

Whether or not an educator self-identifies as religious or spiritual, or works within a religiously-affiliated institution, it is important to consider that learners may be developing in their faith and beliefs. Intentionally or otherwise, the learning environment likely influences these individual’s spiritual development. Educators can promote positive development by introducing learners to new ideas, and facilitating opportunities for them to reflect on them and try out new positions or perspectives. Even if support for faith development is not explicitly within one’s personal goals as an educator, it should be worth noting that Christian beliefs and values in particular do impact the academy. Historically, spirituality has been an important influence on North American adult education, as many instructors were member of the Christian clergy. Important thinkers like Paulo Freire and social justice education movements, such as the Antigonish Movement and Highlander Folk School, all were influenced by religious thought and communities (Tisdell, 2008). The learning environment can further be enriched by the influence and contributions of learners, educators and educational leaders from other faith and spiritual belief systems, reflecting the growing diversity among adult learners and our communities.

Practical strategies for inclusion of spirituality in adult learning

Several authors provide and discuss strategies for facilitating the inclusion of spirituality in teaching and learning. An important starting point is for educators to recognize the importance of their spiritual self-awareness, and the decisions they make around honouring this in the learning environment. Boone et al. (2010) cite a growing number of scholars who consider spirituality to be a critical part of effective teaching, and defend that spirituality is relevant to educator preparation. Compared to the development of knowledge and technical skills, these authors are concerned about the lack of attention paid to educators’ dispositions (i.e. attitude, beliefs, and behaviours) that impact their abilities to function in a multicultural society. Spirituality may be a powerful motivating force for many aspiring educators, yet this appears to be ignored in their preparation programs. Many educator candidates feel “called” to pursue a career where they can care for and impact the development of learners and communities beyond, an expression of the concept of spiritual connectivity to others and the world.

Connection with others and communities can be motivated by and facilitated through personal reflection, where one’s spirituality is enhanced by nurturing connections that extend beyond oneself (Rockenbach et al., 2015). These connections require and are most successful when there is a foundation of trust and respect between the individual and their peers within the learning environment. McEwen (2012) elaborates that meaningful dialogue cannot happen without trust. Meaningful dialogue opens the learners to questioning, sharing and group meaning-making. To be able to participate effectively in this kind of dialogue, learners should come with the prerequisite tools of curiosity, comfort with ambiguity, and openness to having one’s assumptions challenged — what Charaniya (2012) describes as intellectual and social humility. Educators can serve as important role models for this curiosity and humility in how they present themselves to students.

Within the learning environment, it is important to recognize that subject matter and discussion may evoke powerful emotions. According to Dirkx (2012), these manifestations of our unconscious should be attended to and investigated, rather than discouraged. We should not shy away from processing our emotional responses through the learning experience and should not devalue our subjective experience, as there are multiple ways of knowing and relating to meanings that are collectively made (Shahjahan et al., 2009). Taylor (2008) points to the importance of shared experience and collaboration as providing the basis for both personal reflection and group discussion, which can emerge from the acknowledging and processing of our affective experiences.

Other strategies for including spirituality within adult education are including meditation, opportunities for students to acknowledge their feelings, sharing food among peers, and sharing different perspectives and personal histories. In a recent social work class I took that was facilitated by an Indigenous knowledge-keeper, we started every session with a “personal check-in”, which allowed us to introduce ourselves to the class and describe what were “bringing with us” that day. Through this exercise, classmates shared how they were doing and a bit about something significant happening in their personal/professional life, or acknowledging a certain knowledge or teaching they were contributing to the group that week. At the end of the course, the instructor facilitated an experience of “feasting” the class in a way that was specific to their cultural and spiritual background. By feasting the class, they honoured the contributions of the students and formally marked the end of our learning experience together, in this ritual of nourishing and sharing.

This Indigenous knowledge-keeper exemplified an educator who role-modeled the facilitation and invitation of the spiritual in the learning experience. And by making the learning personal, and encouraging us to reflect on and commit to how we would act on our new knowledge gained from the course, they were encouraging us to extend our collective meaning-making into our lives and communities beyond the classroom.


As evidenced by the writings of several scholars and practitioners, there is growing support for the inclusion and recognition of spirituality within higher education. Given the wealth of experiences of adult learners, there are opportunities for adult educators to facilitate rich learning experiences, which encourage learners to critically reflect on and explore their beliefs and perspectives. Educators will be more effective in supporting the spiritual development of their students if they too are cognizant of their own beliefs as well as the knowledges that they honour and welcome into the learning environment. The potential transformation that can be facilitated among the learners can impact their communities and world beyond, which may best equip and inspire these learners to participate meaningfully and effective as citizens in an increasingly pluralistic world.


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Dan Cantiller

Student Affairs professional working in Canadian higher education. Recent Master of Education graduate. Queer. Baritone. Toronto is home. (he/him)