Shame and Trauma in Adult Learning. Exploring Solutions and Creative Ideas We Might Discover Abroad.

Teacher Johnny
7 min readNov 27, 2020


This Medium project will reflect on a case study about and facilitator for the Ontario Literacy Coalition named Jenny and some of the problems she encounters while working with groups of literacy learners. There will be media sources and commentary on three questions.

One of the more striking areas from the case study addresses the often-found situation where foreign-born English as a Second Language (ESL) learners bring with them a burden of trauma. They may be relocated due to a refugee status, and it is possible they have faced war, oppression, imprisonment, and even torture. Kerka (2002, p.2) tells us amongst other things, “Adults experiencing the effects of past or current trauma may display such symptoms such as difficulty beginning new tasks, blame, guilt, and concern for safety…”

This leads us to our first question regarding what problems Jenny and her colleagues face. In the case study we learn a confusing scenario where despite coming from common or similar backgrounds, students harassed their peers who consequently did not feel safe. Merriam & Baumgartner (2020) impart upon the reader key concepts of transformative learning noting, “Experience is integral to learning” while conversely, “Content reflection concerns thinking about the actual experience itself” (p.182–183). Here we can observe some of the concepts Jude Walker (2017, p.6) inspires. The author addresses how educators can suffer from “imposter syndrome,” which can be summed up as a feeling of shame at not being qualified or knowing enough for the task at hand. Additionally, learners can be, “paralyzed by shame” being left with a feeling of not belonging due to their real or perceived lack of ability.

One essential problem with the case of Jenny and her colleges is they seem to feel stressed and overwhelmed by their own insecurities which can only exacerbate their ability to aid the learners in their ability to cope with theirs. Shame at not knowing can be a vicious method compounding the effects of already present trauma. In our first piece of media we have Brené Brown addressing some of these concerns.

Exploring Shame

The continuing sections of this Medium project will attempt to find solutions and creative ideas that might help Jenny and her colleges. Merriam & Baumgartner (2020) while introducing Transformative Learning address how, “Freire’s orientation emerges from a context of poverty and oppression and focusses on radical social changes” (167–168). This imparts many things to the reader. One could draw on the impression that educators must empathize with the life situations their leaners are in or have come from. One solution could be harvested from Butterwick & Selman (2020) stating, “For Adult educators and artists engaged with proactive resistance to fear mongering and demeaning messages, rediscovering and reinventing in creative spaces has much to offer” (p.38). Investing in non-linear creative ideas like the creation of new spaces could result in a better repour between educators and learners.

A more effective measure for Jenny and her colleagues might be found in how and where they conduct their own development. We are unable to know from the case study alone what limitations are in place. This solution suggests pursuing addition ESL training abroad.

A brief autobiographical pause:

In 2017 I completed the Cambridge CELTA program at one of its largest facilities located at International House in Bangkok Thailand. The learners we engaged with were provided through a United Nations mission. The students came from numerous backgrounds. Examples included Sudanese war refugees, Pakistani Christians fleeing persecution, Palestinians, Taiwanese nationals who were considered Chinese dissidents, and scores more. The program taught me a great deal about how to be a more effective English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor, but more critically it sharpened my awareness of being culturally sensitive while appreciating power relations; something we will investigate further in the final section of this Medium project.

Among many things in programs such as these, educators can engage in their own transformative learning approaches. Finding new ways to approach teaching while expanding one’s understanding of foreign cultures can prove to be an invaluable tool when searching for answers to questions about how to reach divergent groups of students. It was evident in the case study that not only were the students feeling fatigued when trying to utilize their new skillsets in their own environments, but the educators were equally frustrated when unintended consequences arose.

Again, because the case study does not provide an extensive logistical perspective, there is no reason to be shy in suggesting grand ideas and creative solutions to help Jenny and her colleagues. Beyond and including experiencing learning situations abroad, it would be beneficial for these educators to transform and shift their cultural perspectives. This may help them to adapt to the shame and trauma some of their learners are experiencing.

Some may find themselves completely unaware that different cultures learn in different ways. Weiyuan Zhang (2017) wrote a fantastic article to aide western educators entitled Conceptions of Lifelong Learning in Confucian Culture: Their Impact on Adult Learning. Citing the full title of the article here is useful as the title gives us a fitting conceptualization of the content. In a fine use of general observation, the author points to how, “Western educators emphasize individual learning while Chinese educators pay more attention to group learning” (p.556). In making additional suggestions to Jenny and her colleagues it must be considered that some of the shame the learners are feeling could be brought upon not only through internal traumas but also from a feeling of discomfort at the ways in which new knowledge is being presented. This is a common mistake educators like Jenny can encounter if they are new to certain ESL environments. Through no fault of their own, they are unaware their teaching methods may be received by their learners in as foreign a manner to the language itself. Specifically, it is suggested Jenny and her colleagues get out of their comfort zones by experiencing more opportunities outside of Ontario. Where unable to relocate, if only for a short time, additional cultural study could be of assistance instead.

Cambridge CELTA

Our final area of interest for this Medium project will consider the power relations in the learning setting that exists for Jenny, her colleagues, and their group of learners. The focus of power relations will be incorporated and viewed from the additional lens of cultural differences that have been alluded to in previous sections.

Merriam & Baumgartner (2020, p.276) bring us a delightful section subtitled Adult Learning from a Confucian Way of Thinking: Youngwha Kee. Here we find reference to a learning theory, “Which refers to the enjoyment of learning through daily experience” and additionally the view of learning having, “The literary meaning of a bird that is learning to fly by the continuous practice of flapping its wings in imitation of an example.” There exists a perception that Asian learners are passive rote learners. Tan Po-Li (2011) directs us to a series of Study Process Questionnaires (SPQ) where, “Cross-cultural studies using SPQ comparing Eastern and Western learners have, to a certain extent, dispelled some of these myths and paradoxes” (p.129). Still, and unfortunately, a few studies, however well conducted, will remain unable to completely shift a wide range of preexisting cultural stereotypes, incongruencies, and misunderstandings in the way education works. By most accounts, even from a Western perspective, Confucius was a brilliant man. Perhaps this already existing perception could be harnessed and used to promote better Eastern and Western educational dialogue.

Wise man

For Jenny and her colleges, we are suggesting words taken from our next piece of media should prove enlightening and productive. Leon Tsao quips at the beginning of his presentation, “Congratulations, you might have a condition called Western bias.” This is not an attack on Jenny and her colleagues, it is an observation that they themselves may be unaware of where they are located in the power structure of the classroom. While it is assumed the educators are spirited, polite, conscientious, and exceptionally eager to assist their learners, there remains the possibility that their own Western bias may exist without them even recognizing it.

Leon Tsao

In order for Jenny and her colleagues to effectively manage their program, and thus impart unto their learners the wisdom they will need to take to their own programs, it is imperative she and her friends change in meaningful ways. Whether by expanding their experiences in newfound locations, or expanding their minds through appropriate literary pursuits, the idea should be to learn and grow. Transformative learning enables us to take experiences, even those brought on by trauma and may elicit various forms of shame and use those experiences to better our capabilities as educators. Trauma in some cases is inevitable, and shame can therefore be thought of as natural. Solutions and creative outlets for dealing with these emotions and realities are numerous and deserve investigation. I wish Jenny and her colleagues the best of luck, and for her and anyone else viewing this Medium project I hope some of the content proves useful. [1496]


Butterwick S, and Selman, J. (2020). New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 165, Spring 2020, Wiley Periodicals Inc.

Kerka, S. (2002). Trauma and Adult Learning. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career an Vocational Education Columbus OH.

Merriam, S. B., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2020). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. John Wiley & Sons.

Po-Lo, Tan (2011). Towards a Culturally Sensitive and Deeper Understanding of “Rote Learning” and Memorization of Adult Learners. Journal of Transformative Education, 15(2), 124–145. Sage Publications

Walker, J. (2017). Shame and Transformation in the Theory and Practice of Adult Learning and Education. Journal of Transformative Education, 15(4), 357–374. Sage Publications

Weiyuan Zhang (2008) Conceptions of lifelong learning in Confucian culture: their impact on adult learners, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 27:5, 551–557

Video References:

Listening to shame | Brené Brown |

International House Bangkok — English Language and Teacher Training School |

Thinking outside the box: Eastern and Western perspectives on creativity | Leon Tsao |

Image References:

Confucius Quotes |