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Olive Bryanton,MEd,LLD
Project Coordinator PEI Centre on Health & Aging
310 Health Sciences Building UPEI Campus
550 University Ave.
Charlottetown, PE C1A 4P3
Phone: 902-894-2841 902-675-4312
PhD Student, Faculty of Education, UPEI

Knowledge of Theory
Olive Bryanton 23539
University of Prince Edward Island
September 2015

Author Note

Olive Bryanton, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Olive Bryanton, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island,
550 University Avenue Charlottetown, PE C1A 4P3


Knowledge of Theory

Research Questions

Critical Social Theory

Critical Educational Gerontology/Geragogy

Critical Feminist Lens




Although I explored several possible theoretical frameworks — ethnography, critical social theory, grounded theory, feminist theory, critical educational gerontology/geragogy, and narrative inquiry — I was drawn to critical social theory because its primary objective of improvement of humanity and its concern with finding alternatives to existing social conditions that negatively affect older adults; specifically, community dwelling women age 85 and older. Besides critical social theory, my study will be guided by the education philosophy of Paulo Freire, critical educational gerontology/geragogy and feminist lenses to explore the lived experiences of community dwelling women 85 and older including the impact of programs and policies developed largely as governmental responses to an aging population. Critical social theory focuses on making people aware of the social constraints under which they live, encourages questioning the status quo and challenges unconscious, passive acceptance of ‘the way things are or seem to be”.  My overall aim is to use this theoretical framework as an educational approach to understand the lived experiences of community dwelling women age 85 and older, and explore with the women challenges or questions they may have for their own emancipation.

When I began this program my ideas about the needs of older adults were based on assumptions or observations and, as an activist, the issues that I assumed older adults encountered. As I continued my education, my lack of a theoretical background and an understanding of the role theory plays in research became evident. But it was in my ED 703 Directed Studies in Educational Research and Theory that I began to understand and appreciate the value of theory and why I would need it as a conceptual framework to seek answers.

As noted earlier, I was drawn to critical social theory because it is a school of thought that has as its primary objective the improvement of humanity and is concerned with finding alternatives to negative existing social condition.  Three strands of inquiry resonate with me, that being critical social theory combined with educational gerontology/geragogy and feminist lenses, because I believe this combination facilitates critically exploring the everyday experiences of the women in my study and will help identify how governments’ programs and policies impact on their lives. My overall aim is to explore a theoretical framework for an educational approach that supports older women’s understanding of societal situations that may be oppressive, and to explore possible options for emancipation.


Underpinning my study will be the following questions:

        1. What are the lived realities of community dwelling women age 85 and older on Prince Edward Island?
        1. What underlying social structures and government policies support or impede these aging women’s ability to remain in their community?
        1. How do women 85 and older obtain the information they need to deal with challenges of growing older in Prince Edward Island?


I will use critical social theory because of it’s focus on making people aware of the social constraints under which they live, encourages questioning the status quo and challenges unconscious passive acceptance of ‘the way things are or seem to be”.  My educational focus will draw primarily on Paulo Freire because of his belief in the capacity of oppressed groups to change their own destiny through education and understanding. I will also use critical educational gerontology/geragogy and critical feminist lenses to deepen my understanding of aging women’s needs. I am using the PowerPoint presentation I gave in my ED 704 class April 2014 as my artefact as it illustrates my understanding of theorist Paulo Freire and his approach to adult education.  Click Here for PDF.
In the winter semester of 2014, I was presented with the opportunity to research a theorist who could support my own graduate research. I chose the work of Paulo Freire because of his educational theory and his understanding of the marginalized and powerless as a possible framework to examine barriers and enablers that might impact on community dwelling women age 85 and older, and how they might use their own agency to improve negative situations or inequalities they could encounter as they age in their location of choice.  His work with marginalized people using problem-posing education is pro-active and designed to allow individuals themselves to identify and generate solutions to the inequalities they experience. Freire’s process of conscientization helps people understand their condition in life and identify ways out of limiting situations. This assignment included an academic presentation to my PhD cohorts, research supervisors, committee members and UPEI Faculty of Education professors.

In my understanding, the fundamentals of Freire’s approach were the development of critical consciousness of one’s place and potential in the world and to move people from a magical consciousness (which Freire identifies as people feeling they are controlled by outside forces and being unable to defend themselves) to a critical one where collective social action against oppressors could improve their quality of life. Freire’s assumption that all persons are conscious beings who are capable of reflecting and acting upon the world around them, echo my own thinking about the abilities of community dwelling women age 85 and older. His educational approach that focused on student/teacher relationship, educational content, and action and reflection support my belief that humans are reflective and transformable; understand situations from their own world knowledge; and dialogue about ways to improve the situation. This raising of consciousness and reflection I believe would enable older women to change their limiting situations that constrain their understanding of what is possible for them to change. Freire’s problem posing approach (problematizing) can be used to discuss and debate issues and reduce the culture of silence which has the effect of people believing they have no power, control or voice. Unlike traditional social theory – which examines social phenomena, in an attempt to explain social behaviour, power and social structure – critical social theory stimulates thinking that digs beneath the surface of social life and uncovers the assumptions that keep us from a full and true understanding of how the world works. Cranton (2013) also discussed the concept of emancipatory learning suggested in critical theory, and recognized the potential of human learners to move from understanding the meaning, to determining the knowledge distortions that may be present and to changing the social systems.


The lens of critical educational gerontology highlights ageing issues and explores the diversity of older people and their interactions with community. It also heightens awareness and understanding of the complex and diverse experiences of older women. Critical gerontology according to Formosa (2005): emerged first from the radical concerns to overcome the oppressions which locked older adults into ignorance, poverty and powerlessness and as a reaction to the uncritical acceptance of the language and the underlying ideological approach employed by older adult education.

Educator Marvin Formosa has a primary interest in older adult learning and focuses on the value of critical education for older adults. I was introduced to this researcher through my readings and later at a European conference on education for older adults.  He expanded on Freire’s work through critical educational gerontology/geragogy and feminist theory. Formosa (2012) notes that the term “educational gerontology” refers to the integration of the institutions and processes of education concerned with the knowledge of human ageing and the needs of older people. Hence, it must be distinguished from older adult learning, which reflects the process in which older adults, individually and in association with others, engage in direct encounters and then purposefully reflect upon, validate, transform, give personal meaning to and seek to integrate their ways of knowing. Geragogy, on the other hand, refers to the management of teaching and learning strategies where the target audience is older people. He argues that central to critical geragogy is its attempt to unsettle the complacency that older people feel about social conditions in the community and wider society and about their conviction that they are too insignificant and powerless to effect any serious change Formosa (2011). Lemieus and Martinez (2000) used the term geragogy to describe the education of and by the elderly; an education based on self-actualization, friendship, social relations, increase in well-being, talent development, and continuous learning. In this model, human life is considered as possessing possibilities for psychological and educational development, without age limitation.  Formosa (2012) evaluated the potential of a critical geragogical framework that encouraged active and participatory learning relevant to the lived experiences of learners through two key questions:

        1. What extent does critical geragogy raise older learners’ consciousness about their role in society, and hence unlocks older adults’ critical imagination?
        1. To what extent does critical geragogy lead older learners to engage in social activity that has the potential to change their lives for the better?

Formosa (2012) found that the framework’s intent in inviting older adults to engage with the struggles, and find their positions and voices, as well as to create spaces for resistance, subversions and new possibilities were met. However, the promise of critical geragogy to lead older adults from “reflection” to “action” has failed to materialise.

Another researcher with expertize in older adult learning, Brian Findsen, explored the relevance of the Freirean philosophy and pedagogy and argued that many of Freire’s concepts and principles have direct applicability to the tasks of adult educators working alongside marginalized or oppressed older adults. He argues that the new discourse about the education of older adults moves away from a functionalist tradition of adaptation of individuals to society, to one which emphasises the agency of older adults, and their collective capacity to empower themselves (Findsen, 2007). This approach to critical theory, of which Freire’s pedagogy is especially useful, provides the basis for a critique of the call for social action to empower older adults.

Merriam & Kee (2014) also advocate the promotion of lifelong learning among older adults and note it can significantly contribute to community wellbeing and noted that several frameworks have been advanced for capturing the links between aging, learning, quality of life, and community wellbeing.


My understanding is that a feminist lens helps us look at literature in a different light. It applies a focus on the women of the story and how they are portrayed or their role in the story.  Basically, adopting a feminist lens focuses on the older women’s rights and eliminates a patriarchal discourse where women are silenced and made passive through their invisibility. Calasanti, Slevin, and King (2006) brought attention to the fact that feminist scholars have given little attention either to old women or to aging and posit that this position suggests discrimination and exclusion based on age. Thus, they call for “a shift in how feminist scholars approach the study of inequalities by demonstrating how and why age matters”. These authors hope that once women’s studies scholars and activists take old age into account, they will work to imbue old age with positive content – a content that reflects the diversity of old people, their lives, and their varied contributions.

Formosa focused on the empowering potential inherent between critical educational gerontology and feminist gerontology. Following his field research to accentuate the neglect of both educational gerontology and adult education with older women as an oppressed population, Formosa (2005) attempted to construct a critical agenda for feminist educational gerontology and posits that the empowerment of older women is still an unknown and underutilized terrain, and focused on the ‘empowering’ potential inherent in that interface between feminist gerontology and critical educational gerontology.  He introduced five principles for the founding of a truly feminist educational experience in later life, namely: acknowledging older women as an oppressed population due to the ‘double standard of aging’; a focus on women’s lifelong cumulative disadvantages; emphasizing a ‘politics of difference’; embracing a feminist praxis in both older adult education and research activities; and finally, embodying a drive towards the empowerment of older women in a distinct but collective effort.

Calasanti, Slevin, & King (2006) suggested that the so-called women’s studies have only included aging in a long “et cetra” that hides the true dimensions of old age and note that attention to the old and age relations, could transform feminist scholarship.  Davison, DiGiacomo, & McGrath (2011) found that many older women continue to face inequities related to health and often are invisible within the discourse of aging policy.  Freixas, Luque and Regina (2012) posit that in order to perform critical, feminist gerontological research, it is necessary for researchers to make a distinction between aging and old age both in terms of experience and subjective living and in the significance of the body in this process. They note that being 60 is not the same as being 90, nor are the circumstances of people at these two ages the same. These authors suggest we need to understand their day-to-day experiences and the complexity of their lives to appreciate their needs.


Within this paper I have attempted to describe why critical social theory enhanced with critical educational gerontology/geragogy and critical feminist lenses can be used to understand older women as they age, try to maintain independence and continue as contributing members of their families and communities. The use of the three concepts will assist in understanding the real-life experiences of older women and enable me to look beyond the individuals, to the social forces that impact on their capacity to do the things they want or need to do.


Calasanti, T., Slevin, K. F., and King, N. (2006). Ageism and feminism: from “et cetera” to center. National Women’s Studies Association Journal, 18(1), 13-30.

Cranton, Patricia. (2013). Adult learning theory in Nesbit, Brigham, Taber, & Gibb (Eds. Building on critical traditions adult education and learning in Canada.  (pp. 95-106) Canada: Thompson Educational Publishing

Davidson, P. M., DiGiacomo, M., & McGrath, S. J. (2011). The feminization of aging: How will this impact on health outcomes and services. Health Care for Women International 32: 1031-1045

Findsen, B. (2007). Freirean philosophy and pedagogy in the adult education context: The case of older adults’ learning. Studies Philosophy Education. (2007) 26:545–559. doi: 10.1007/s11217-007-9063-1

Formosa, M. (2002). Critical geragogy: Developing practical possibilities for critical educational gerontology. Education and Ageing, 17, issue 3, pp. 73–86.

Formosa, M. (2005). Feminism and critical educational gerontology: An agenda for good practice. Ageing International, 30(4), 396-411.

Formosa, M. (2011). Critical Educational gerontology: A third statement of principles.

International Journal of Education and Ageing, 2, issue 1, pp. 317–332.

Formosa, M. (2012). Critical Geragogy: Situating Theory in Practice. Journal of Contemporary Educational Studies 5, 36–54

Freire, P. (2011). Pedagogy of the oppressed 30th anniversary edition translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York, N. Y. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Freixas, A., Luque, B., and Reina, A. (2012). Critical Feminist Gerontology: In the back room of research. Journal of Women & Aging, 24:44–58. doi: 10.1080/08952841.2012.638891

Lemieux, A. & Martinez, M.S. (2000) Gerontagogy beyond words: A reality. Educational Gerontology, 26, 475–498

Merriam, S. B. and Kee, Y. (2014). Promoting community wellbeing: The case for lifelong learning for older adults. Adult Education Quarterly 64(2) 128 –144, doi: 10.1177/0741713613513633