How to listen to the multiple voices of the adult learners? An example.


This work aims at introducing my experience in implementing the voice-centred relational method as a qualitative research method in the adult education to other practitioners and researchers. An overview of the back-round and a short description of the method is given, it is fallowed by the example of the practical implementation of the method in my research process.

Using the voice listening approach I analysed the discourse of the adult learners to find out the supportive factors of transformative learning in the workplace.  I conducted in depth interviews with 17 women working in the second biggest bank in Estonia. Using Listening Guide 4 steps the data was analysed accordingly.

The analyse shows that the working life has transformative influence on the working women and that most of the transformative learning takes place hidden of the formal training activities during informal social interaction and networking.

Based on the research I describe some of the activities to support the women in transformative learning processes at their workplaces.



Contemporary adult educators emphasise the importance of the learners in the process of learning (Jarvis, Holford, Griffin 2001). The information age has changed the role of the educators and the learner centred approaches have become dominant. Self-directed learning as a subject of research has been on the fore front for educational theorists starting from the 1960s (Hiemstra 1994; Jarvis, Holford, Griffin 2001).

Research shows that self-directed learner is more the aim than the starting point of adult education (Cranton 1994; Merriam 2004; Taylor 1997). Educator’s role is to facilitate the learner in the process of becoming critical, reflective and emancipated (Jarvis, Holford, Griffin 2001; Mezirow 2000).

In the year 1995 the European Commission emphasised the adult learning as a basic right to all citizens living in European Union in its white paper on education. Despite that the research in adult education outlines that there are differences in the participation in the lifelong learning between the groups of learners: some groups are excluded of the learning and for many the education provided is not motivating (Bhatti 2006; Preece 2001).

Muted[1] groups are in many cases out of the focus of the provision of learning opportunities although should be on the contrary in the very centre of the interest of adult educators. The year of 2007 in European Union was about the equal opportunities for all and the need to listen to the voice of the learners was constantly repeated.

One of the main issues of the adult educators of today is therefore the question of:

How to listen to the multiple voices of adult learners in order to understand their individual needs of learning?

This work aims at introducing my experience in implementing the voice-centred approach as a qualitative research method in the adult education to other practitioners and researchers. An overview of the back round and a short description of the method is given, it is fallowed by the example of the practical implementation of the method in my research process. I will also try to reflect on the difficulties I had during the analyse process.

I have translated an I-poem of one of the participants in my study as a practical example.        Finally I will outline the conclusions based on the research.



The concept of “voice” was first introduced by Carol Gilligan and associates in the context of moral psychology. She studied women’s moral development based on the theories of Lawrence Kohlberg. She argued women having a special “voice of care” differing from male voices and developed a method to study the phenomena. (Doucet & Mauthner 2001; Kiegelmann 2000).

“The voice-centred relational method represents an attempt to translate relational ontology into methodology and into concrete methods of data analysis by exploring individual narrative accounts in terms of their relationships to the people around them and their relationships to the broader social, structural and cultural contexts within which they live. “ (Doucet & Mauthner 2001,5)

Based on the idea of the social relationship between the researcher and the person being interviewed the reflective dialogical research process has to be established (Russel & Kelly 2002).

The voice-centred approach was developed further to Listening Guide Method (Gilligan 2003, after Kiegelmann 2000) and contains of four steps:

  1. listening for the plot,
  2. I- poems
  3. listening for contrapuntal voices, and
  4. composing and analysis.

I-poem contains all the self related verbs so that the subjectivity and self-image will become apparent (Balan 2005).

The method is about a series of sequential listenings in order to get familiar with the self behind the words and to bring the researcher into relationship with a person’s distinct and multilayered voice. Using colour pens, each voice must be separated in the narrative.

All the texts talk in many voices (Manning & Cullum-Swan 1994,469 after Russell  & Kelly 2002). The task of the researcher is to listen to the voices and pay special attention on the low or silent voices. (Russell & Kelly 2002).

By now the voice-centred relational method has been used as a research method in several fields of studies including educational research (Balan 2005; Doucet & Mauthner 2001; Kiegelmann 2000; Woodcock 2005).

It is also important to notify that most of the researchers have made some changes in the original method developed by Gilligan (Balan 2005; Doucet & Mauthner 2001; Kiegelmann 2000). For example in some cases group listening or discussions have been involved (Balan 2005; Doucet & Mauthner 2001).


My research was about the transformative learning in the workplace. Transformative learning theory is a constructivist leaning theory based on the precondition that the social world is created by people who construct it in the discourse with other people. The subject of the transformative learning in the workplace is the learner creating totally new meanings by reflecting on the experiences based on his/her current frames of references. (Marsick & Watkins 2001; Mezirow 1997, 2000; Taylor 1997).

The workplace learning research in Estonia has mainly driven on the specific interest and research practice of three groups: the adult trainers, vocational educators, human resource personnel (Alas 2002; Jõgi, L. 2004; Jõgi & Karu 2004; Loogma 2004; Sedrik 2001; Toompere 2004; Türk 2005). The switch towards learner centred views has beginning to emerge but the discourse on learning in the workplace has still behavioural approaches on learning.

My interest was how the transformative learning in the workplace in the real life occurs and how can the workplace support the process. I conducted 17 interviews in the second biggest bank in Estonia. All of the persons interviewed were female working in the service sector of the bank.

Idea to use voice listening approach arouse because most of the transformative learning in this environment was hidden. I started to look for special methods to overcome the silence I faced looking at the transcribed texts. It has also been argued by other researchers that transcribed texts might not always support the research process (Ashmore & Reed 2000; Marks & Mönnich-Marks 2003).

As the first step of the Listening Guide I listened to the recordings of the interviews many times. Then I decided to try writing the first I- poem and instantly the evidence of transformative learning became apparent to me.  I changed the original method by writing out all the activities related to us, to see if there was the collective dimension in learning happening.

I “listened” to the I-poems many times and outlined the different voices I heard about the learning and what was there to support it for the individual. I could feel the interview situation coming back to me just as it was and I could understand the voices as they were so obvious if I analysed it via I-poems.

For many women the transformative learning in the workplace was not an enjoyable experience. In most of the cases they felt alone with their problems and only some of the women got support through informal networks in the company. There was a strong competitive norm of the behaviour in the working place and the workers were all divided into clear clusters defined by their position in the professional ladder.

The formal training system did not recognise the informal paths of learning, had a behaviourist task oriented structure and had therefore only little impact in the real life learning processes of the women.

There were many different emotions involved and the interviews were really shocking to me as a working woman personally.


The research on the learning in the workplace is characterised by the discursive practice where the main emphasis is on the developing of norms and values important to the education or organisation. Transformative learning research has a history of 30 years but although the changes in society including working life and the work itself are transformative there is only small interest so far about the subject among the researchers.

The analyse shows that the working life has transformative influence on the working women and that most of the transformative learning takes place hidden of the formal training activities during informal social interaction and networking.

Based on this research the activities to support the women in transformative learning processes at their workplaces are:

  • develop learner centred systems at work;
  • pay more attention to the informal and incidental learning of the workers;
  • facilitate the social interaction between the workers and develop horisontal as well as vertical networks;
  • support the development of the reflective thinking;
  • organise the workplace to support the learning processes;
  • facilitate the learning of the workers specially during the periods of big changes like adaptation period to the new/different/more difficult work;
  • train mentors who will facilitate the learning of the others;
  • offer career guidance at work.


When I came to the bank
I was so interested in
Soon will be x years, I even do not know exactly
I had the highest category
I have really worked it through
When I came
I sat with the books
I was
I had to from A to B
I was a housewife
I went to work secretly
I checked that I need so much money
I knew nothing
I know nothing about banking
About money I know a little
I went to the bank and said I am the best
You have to blame yourself if you loose me

Then I had to myself
Myself to learn

Work makes me tired I am like a lemon
Training is about to give me some energy to continue again

There has no time to study something myself for a long time now
We used to have also the meetings once
We all had to read something
And we discussed that
There are so many problems we cannot solve
We cannot do anything

I have no examples
The reality what we do with the client
We have norms, responsibilities put on us
We feel it is pointless
We have to test everything
Everybody will suffer  the clients and us
Our ideas will end up nowhere
and we do not have any (ideas)
we have such a big work load
from us nothing clever goes up

I do not want
I personally do not want
I am not a person
I see no results
So that I would want too
I do not see anymore

I think I have found what I like
I like

Work develops and I will develop with is
I think
It is not my line
It is boring for me
I like to have goals
I like to have plans
I want to fill the plan

Find the best solution to feel good about myself
We are all humans

I might be enthusiastic
I don´t know
I am not here forever
What can I do
Sales work is my job
I would not guessed
I never see myself there anymore

I imagine
How we move
We have
We have families
Who are under us
We work
Our work expands

In my opinion
I think that life makes corrections
I think that will work
I have no idea how I know or feel it
We did not have it jet at that level
We did not have such families jet

I think it will come
I do not see it in dark colours
For me it is so logical
I have the information
I think everybody thinks of it

I do not know
I do not think my thoughts are important
I think there are much cleverer people
I do not see so global
I do not know why I do not see
I have the information the question is how much it interests me
how much I want to concentrate
I think too much
I protect myself
I do not concentrate
I do not think
I hope everything will be better
I have a trauma
I am really scared
For me is everything worse
I just do not know


Alas, R. (2002) Muudatuste juhtimine ja õppiv organisatsioon. [Management of Change and Learning Organisation ], Tallinn: Külim.

Ashmore, M.; Reed, D. (2000) Innocence and Nostalgia in Conversational Analysis: the Dynamic Relations of Tape and Transcript. [2006, February 12].

Baer, J. (1998). Muted Group Theory by Cheris Kramarae. [2008, January 2].

Balan, B. N. (2005). Multiple Voices and Methods: Listening to Women Who Are in Workplace Transition. [2006, March 22].

Bhatti, G. (2006) Social justice and non-traditional participants in higher education: a tale of “border crossing”, instrumentalism and drift, in Vincent, C. (Ed.), Social Justice, Education and Identity, London: Routledge.

Cranton, P. (1994) Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning. A Guide for Educators of Adults. San-Francisco. Josey-Bass.

Doucet, A. & Mauthner, N. (2001) Voice, reflexivity, and relationships in qualitative data analysis: Background paper for a workshop on “Voice in Qualitative Data Analysis. Data analysis: A neglected area?” , [2008, January 2],

Merriam, S. B. (2004). The Role of Cognitive Development in Mezirow’s Transformational Learning Theory, [2006, February 22] , .

Hiemstra, R. (1994) Self-directed learning. In T. Husen & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Education (second edition), Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Jarvis, P.; Holford, J.; Griffin, C. (2001) The Theory and Practice of Learning, London: Kogan Page.

Jarvis, P. (2004) Adult Education and Lifelong Learning. Theory and Practice. 3rd ed. London: RoutlegeFalmer.

Jõgi, L. (2004) Trends and Tendencies in Estonian Adult Education. Kasvatusteadused muutuste ajateljel, [Educational sciences in changing timescale], Ed. Pandis, M. Tallinn: Tallinna Pedagoogikaülikooli Kirjastus.

Jõgi, G. (2004) Organisatsiooni õppimine, [Organisational learning], Tallinn: Tallinna Pedagoogikaülikooli andragoogika õppetool, unpublished Master Thesis..

Jõgi, L. & Karu, K. (2004) Täiskasvanu õppimine kui koolituse problem, [Adult learning as a question of training], Õppimine mitmest vaatenurgast. Ed. Liimets, A. ; Ruus, V.-R. Tallinn: Tallinna Pedagoogikaülikooli Kirjastus.

Kiegelmann, M. (2000) Qualitative-Psychological Research Using the Voice-Approach. [2006, March 22].

Loogma, K. (2004) Töökeskkonnas õppimise tähendus töötajate kohanemisel töömuutustega. [The meaning of learning at work in adaptation to work changes], Tallinn: TPÜ Kirjastus.

Marks, S.; Mönnich-Marks, H. (2003) The Analysis of Counter-Transfer Reactions Is a Means to Discern Latent Interview-Contents.  [2006, March 22]. 

Marsick, V. J.; Watkins, K. E. (2001) Informal and Incidental Learning. [2005, aprill 6].

Mezirow, J. (1997) Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice. [2005, April 6].

Mezirow, J. (2000) Learning to Think Like an Adult: Core Concepts of Transformation Theory. In Learning as Transformation. Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. Ed.Mezirow, J. and Associates. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Preece, J. (2001) Implications for including the socially excluded in the learning age. Jarvis, P. (ed.), The age of learning: education and knowledge society. London: Kogan Page.

Russell, G. M.; Kelly, N. H. (2002) Research as Interacting Dialogic Process: Implications for Reflexivity. [2006, March 22]. 

Sedrik, J. (2001) Koolitusehindamise hetkeseis ja perspektiivid riigiasutustes (ametnike koolituse näitel), [The Evaluation of the training today and the perspectives in the public institutions (based on the example of the training of the public employees)], Tallinn: Tallinna Pedagoogikaülikooli andragoogika õppetool, unpublished Master Thesis..

Taylor, E. W. (1997) Building upon the Theoretical Debate: A Critical Review of the Empirical Studies of Mezirow`s Transformative Learning Theory, [2006, January 15],

Toompere, P. (2004) Õppimist toetava koolitusprotsessi eeldused organisatsioonis: EV Välisministeeriumi näitel, [The preconditions of learning supportive training process in the organisation: based on the example of the Estonian Ministry of International Affairs], Tallinna Pedagoogikaülikool, kasvatusteaduste teaduskond, andragoogika õppetool, unpublished Master Thesis.

Türk, K. (2005) Inimressursi juhtimine, [Human Resource Management], Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus.

Woodcock, C. (2005) The Silenced Voice in Literacy: Listening beyond Words to a “Struggling” Adolescent Girl, Journal of Authentic Learning, Volume II, Number 1, September 2005.

[1] Muted Group Theory developed out of the cultural anthropology field, but more recently has been developed in communication mostly as a feminist and cross-cultural theory. Muted group theory helps explain communication patterns and social representation of non-dominant cultural groups. (Baer 1998)

Introduced in Lahti May 2011 Conference Innovations for Competence Management.



A young man came out of the forests with a book he had managed to save from his tent filled with seawater that had risen sometimes during the night while he was in deep sleep as well as filled with lot of rum from the meeting he had had with his neighbors the evening before. He came to my house freezing, wet and having a terrible hangover to use my bath and warm himself up a bit. We opened a bottle of champagne not the real one from France but the one the intellectuals were drinking during the Soviet times. One could still experience the same kind of decadence and feel the moment of freedom as a fresh wind blowing suddenly through this God forsaken Swedish eco village filled with people all grown up in different middle-class welfare families who´s worries make me laugh or cry or want to scream of anger. We drank champagne and ate the first strawberries probably from Spain. Everything was like it should be. Calm and secure. The strawberries were quite fresh and tasted like summer. We were chatting about the accident near the sea where the water had destroyed the man´s  good night sleep. The sunset was beautiful. From my house one could enjoy a marvelous view over the fields and the forests and the village nearby.  Everything was peaceful and perfect like always. I nearly forgot my past and could live in a moment. For a short while I was like them all.

May 2011 in Järna

I find myself
In a world
So surreal
That my mind
Flies away
Looking for
That will
Motivate me
To breath again
Even if it is
So surreal
I continue
Movements like fractions
I am a cubistic
I look like
Rounds and cubes
Pressed on white paper
I continue
I learned it already
In kindergarten
When I was lying
For hours and hours
Days after days
They took me home for weekends
Sometimes it felt
Like years went by
But I just kept still
As told
I had to listen
I have to listen


I am afraid of it
Even today
I know that one day
I will be punished
For all the secrets
All these times
My body
Soulless meat
Taking care of
Life surreal
I do not
Feel like
Being part of your

To be straightly honest with you now
I am probably not so very modern at all

May 19th 2011 Lahti conference
Innovations for Competence Management

Clean Baltic as an individual learning journey

I have initiated a community page for the people working for clean Baltic sea. It has taken a lot of energy during the last year but now it is nearly starting up

It is my first larger attempt to support the environment protecting processes in the Baltic sea region. I see it as a transformational learning journey for millions of people in 9 different countries. Transformational learning has been my interest for many years. During the last months I am more and more reading me into integral learning… but that is another  story that I am probably going to tell you some years from today…

Societal change as a transformational learning process for millions of individuals in the Baltic sea area. This is the research I am slowly working on, I expect no quick results. I am making many interviews and living in different networks and communities. So very often I meet people who are amazing and inspiring. They tell me their stories, share their ideas, they invite me in their lives. This is how my world expands, this is how my theories evolve, this is how my way of living changes slowly. I listen to their multiple voices as they live their lives breathing the same ear, drinking the same water, eating the same food, going to the same kind of supermarkets as I am too.

Clean Baltic sea is in a way an individual learning journey. It is my learning journey. As I  am one of the millions who have to learn to live more sustainably. I too have to change my way of living, eating and consuming, just like everyone else in this region. I believe that I cannot go around and tell other people to change. Instead I have to show them new ways. I have to bring them to my home and tell them my story. I have to invite them and love them. Then perhaps they start to understand my words. There is a chance they begin to see the world through new eyes. But in may respect I am also changing constantly, just by meeting other people.

Shared lives and multiple voices are necessary in order to develop new visions. Togetherness is the heart of communities, it is also the seed to the large changes in society. It gives security and support for the individual change. There is no such thing as learning community if no one of the members in a community is willing to embrace the new way of living, more sustainable way of living. It is a journey that brings us all to unknown, it brings us to the future.

It is your learning journey as well even if you do not see it that way just jet. Perhaps you start to question your old way of looking at your life, perhaps you start to  see the multiple pathways that are possible. Perhaps you have started to wonder and have searched for the better alternatives already, perhaps you even feel willing to share your experiences with your friends…

I believe this is the way how the change happens. In the end there are millions of people who are searching and sharing and transforming their everyday practices…

Not because they were told to or forced by someone else but because they feel the growing need to change because they do respect the nature and care for the generations that come after. This is how the clean Baltic sea will become reality .