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Adult Learning: An Overview

Adult learning is frequently spoken of by adult educators as if it were a discretely separate domain, having little connection to learning in childhood or adolescence. This chapter will examine critically this claim by exploring four major research areas (self-directed learning, critical reflection, experiential learning and learning to learn) each of which have been proposed as representing unique and exclusive adult learning processes.

Issues in Understanding Adult Learning

Despite the plethora of journals, books and research conferences devoted to adult learning across the world, we are very far from a universal understanding of adult learning. Even though warnings are frequently issued that at best only a multitude of context and domain specific theories are likely to result, the energy expended on developing a general theory of adult learning shows no sign of abating. Judged by epistemological, communicative and critically analytic criteria, theory development in adult learning is weak and is hindered by the persistence of myths that are etched deeply into adult educators’ minds (Brookfield, 1992). These myths (which, taken together, comprise something of an academic orthodoxy in adult education) hold that adult learning is inherently joyful, that adults are innately self-directed learners, that good educational practice always meets the needs articulated by learners themselves and that there is a uniquely adult learning process as well as a uniquely adult form of practice.

Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning focuses on the process by which adults take control of their own learning, in particular how they set their own learning goals, locate appropriate resources, decide on which learning methods to use and evaluate their progress. Work on self-direction is now so widespread that it justifies an annual international symposium devoted solely to research and theory in the area. After criticisms that the emphasis on self-directed learning as an adult characteristic was being uncritically advanced, that studies were conducted mostly with middle class subjects, that issues concerning the quality of self-directed learning projects were being ignored and that it was treated as disconnected from wider social and political forces, there have been some attempts to inject a more critical tone into work in this area.

Experiential Learning

The emphasis on experience as a defining feature of adult learning was expressed in Lindeman’s frequently quoted aphorism that “experience is the adult learner’s living textbook” (1926, p. 7) and that adult education was, therefore, “a continuing process of evaluating experiences” (p. 85). This emphasis on experience is central to the concept of andragogy that has evolved to describe adult education practice in societies as diverse as the United States, Britain, France, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Estonia, Czechkoslovakia, Finland and Yugoslavia (Savicevic 1991; Vooglaid and Marja, 1992). The belief that adult teaching should be grounded in adults’ experiences, and that these experiences represent a valuable resource, is currently cited as crucial by adult educators of every conceivable ideological hue.

Learning to Learn

The ability of adults to learn how to learn – to become skilled at learning in a range of different situations and through a range of different styles – has often been proposed as an overarching purpose for those educators who work with adults. Like its sister term of ‘meta-cognition’, learning how to learn suffers for lack of a commonly agreed on definition, functioning more as an umbrella term for any attempts by adults to develop insight into their own habitual ways of learning. Most research on this topic has been conducted by Smith (1990) who has drawn together educators from the United States, Scotland, Australia, Germany and Sweden to work on theory development in this area (1987). An important body of related work (focusing mostly on young adults) is that of Kitchener and King (1990) who propose the concepts of epistemic cognition and reflective judgment.

Stephen Brookfield

Knowledge Inc.

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