Published: 6-12-2011, 05:36

Adult Education Overview


In the introduction to the second edition of the International Encyclopedia of Adult Education and Training, the editor points out that adult education is heuristic, multidisciplinary, eclectic in orientation, and that its knowledge base is diffuse and incomplete (Tuijnman, 1996, xv). If anything, this is even truer a decade or so later. Other disciplines and fields of study (such as economics, political science, psychology, sociology, and organizational sciences) increasingly take an interest in adult learning and contribute crucial knowledge to its theoretical and empirical knowledge base. So, it increasingly becomes difficult to precisely define what constitutes the core of adult education and learning. With this in mind, the adult education section of this encyclopedia attempts to present an overview of the still-emerging field of adult education. The 39 articles that make up the section provide insight into the historical development of the field, its conceptual controversies, domains and provision, perspectives on adult learning, instruction and program planning, outcomes, relationship to economy and society, and its status as a field of scholarly study and practice.

Toward a Field of Adult Education

Although J. H. Hudson’s 1851 The History of Adult Education identified it as a unique field, only in the last 60 years has adult education been recognized as a distinct field of practice and study. Organized forms of education serving very limited elite groups of adults have been noted since ancient time. Plato’s Republic presents a well-laid-out structure of what we today would call lifelong learning for the ruling class and outlines in detail what kind of education would be required at various stages in life from childhood up to middle age. Similar examples are available from early civilizations in Egypt, China, and India where the technological advancements and complex administrative systems relied on education and training of a small leading segment of the adult population (Kidd and Titmus, 1989: xxiv). A different and later form of adult education has its roots in the Protestant reformation in Northern and Central Europe during the latter part of the sixteenth century and the first-half of the seventeenth century. During this period, adult education was influenced by translations of the Bible and invention of the printing press that among other things supported Bible-study groups and a reading public. The modern forms of adult education and learning have their roots in the modernization of industrial processes and the resulting far-reaching changes to society taking place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Thus, the historical evolution of educational movements, the rise and fall of celebrated adult-education institutions as well as policies and reforms have to be seen in the context of the broader dynamics of social change and conflict. Presently, we can observe how regionally different models of lifelong learning policies are emerging as a response to changes in relatively unique cultural, economic, and political contexts.

The second part of the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century saw a marked increase in educational activities for adults in Europe and North America. However, as Kidd and Titmus (1989: xxiv), note, these were perceived as discrete activities rather than part of a coherent field of adult education. By the early twentieth century, adult education had become the fastest-growing educational sector in the USA. This highlighted the urgency to form national associations of adult education and saw a gradual move to a professionalization of the field. The first study of adult education in the United States, initiated by the Carnegie Corporation in 1924, resulted in the formation of the American Association for Adult Education (AAAE), in 1926. The purpose of AAAE was to advance lifelong learning, serve as a central forum for a variety of adult-education interest groups, influence local, state, and regional adult-education efforts, monitor legislation, conduct special studies, and maintain a speakers’ bureau. One of the first activities of the AAAE was to start the publication of a Handbook of Adult Education series, the first being released in 1928. Since then, nine handbooks have been published, including the latest edition that is to be published in 2010.

In Europe, the formation of adult-education associations originally had less to do with developing a professional orientation but was instead aimed at bringing adult education to the working class and others, for example, women previously denied access to education. The primary examples of this are the mechanics institutes and the Association for the Higher Education of Working Men formed in 1903, and renamed as theWorkers’ Educational Association (WEA) in 1905. The WEA movement quickly spread to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand where adult education became seen as an essential tool for encouraging new immigrants to contribute to their new society. Folk high schools and study associations tightly connected to the labor movement and other social movements appeared in the Nordic countries. Germany and some other continental and Eastern European countries saw the development of various forms of Volksbildung. However, it was not before the later part of the 1960s that a more discernable and cohesive academic field of adult education started to take shape.

One sign of a maturing field of adult education has been the mushrooming of local, national, regional, and world organizations. From its early beginnings, a defining character of the evolving field has been its strong international dimension built around shared values and aspirations. This has positioned adult education as an international movement promoting adult education as a way to combat inequalities, support democracy, and promote cultural and social, democratic development (Duke, 1994). The first United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) International Conference of Adult Education (CONFITEA) took place in 1949, and was followed by additional conferences in 1960, 1972, 1985, 1997, and 2009. The growth of the field can be illustrated by attendance at these conferences. In 1949, at the conference in Montreal, there was attendance from 25 countries, and in 1997, in Hamburg, the figure had increased to 130 and is expected to reach 175 at the 2009 conference.


Since adult education began to emerge as a field, there have been constant discussions about what terminology to use to describe the enterprise as well as about its definition and boundaries. The understanding of what constitutes adult education has not only changed over time, but also varied depending on cultural and institutional context. Up to the 1920s, the tradition had been to talk about specific activities like literacy for immigrants, university extension, mechanic institutes, workers’ education, etc., but not to group these under an overall umbrella labeled adult education. As part of the professionalization of adult education taking place in the USA, in the first two decades, the term adult education came to be commonly used as a composite term to denote different activities relating to the education of adults. However, in most other parts of the world, the professionalization process came later and it was not until the 1960s that the generic term adult education was more broadly used. In many European countries, it had up until then been customary not to refer specifically to the education of adults but more generally to popular enlightenment as in France or the Nordic countries or Volksbildung as in Germany.

While the term adult education steadily won ground, there remained a lack of agreement on its definition and boundaries. Selman and Dampier (1991: 2) note that different terms are used for the same thing and people doing similar work may refer to this as community education, continuing education, adult training, literacy, extension, or adult education. Similarly, the terminology differs between country and country depending on historical circumstances. In fact, the organization of articles in this encyclopedia reflects the idiosyncrasies of what to include or not to include under the term adult education. Thus, to many in the field, several entries that are now presented in the volume on vocational education and training ought to have been included in the adult-education section and similar argument could be made for moving entries from the adult-education section to the one on vocational education and training.

Over the years, different definitions of the term adult education have appeared (see e.g., Bryson, 1936; Houle, 1972; Verner, 1962). The most commonly used definition presently is the one adopted by UNESCO in 1976 (UNESCO, 1976: 2) and reads in abbreviated form:

The term ‘‘adult education’’ denotes the entire body of organized educational processes, whatever the content, level and method, whether formal or otherwise, whether they prolong or replace initial education in schools, colleges and universities as well as in apprenticeship, whereby persons regarded as adult by the society to which they belong develop their abilities, enrich their knowledge, improve their technical or professional qualifications or turn them in a new direction and bring about changes in their attitudes or behavior in the two fold perspective of full personal development and participation in balanced and independent social, economic and cultural development; adult education, however, must not be considered as an entity in itself, it is a sub-division, and an integral part of, a global scheme for lifelong education and learning.

Critical in the UNESCO definition, like in most other attempts to outline adult education, is how the term adult is best understood. Building on (human-development) stage theory, Darkenwald and Merriam (1982: 9) state: ‘‘adult education is a process whereby persons whose major social roles are characteristic of adult status undertake systematic and sustained learning activities for the purpose of bringing about changes in knowledge, attitudes, values and skills.’’ Thus, adult education refers to ‘‘activities intentionally designed for the purpose of bringing about learning among those whose age, social roles, or self-perception define them as adults’’ (Merriam and Brockett (1997: 8). According to this view, it is not age as such that defines someone as an adult, but the social roles that the person is carrying out. The second key dimension in the UNESCO definition relates to the special educational organization of the education for adults. It is in this context that adult education refers to ‘‘its own peculiar organization, methods and curriculum, which distinguishes adult education from any other field of education.’’ In the words of Verner (1964: 1), ‘‘. . . the term adult education is used to designate all those educational activities that are designed specifically for adults.’’ However, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain this kind of definition. First, not all adults taking part in adult education are adults in the terms of social roles and functioning. Second, it is commonly pointed out that participation in adult education is not always a volunteer act but it is more commonly becoming something an adult has to do to keep her work or become eligible for certain benefits like unemployment insurance. Third, attempts to separate adult learners from first-time students attending regular school or university are also becoming more blurred. The traditional pattern of study has changed and with an increasing number of students moving in and out of the educational system and the labor market, it is difficult to identify who is in the first cycle of studies and who is a recurrent learner.

While recognizing the problems of defining who is an adult learner, various pragmatic solutions are being sought. So, for example, recent studies like the International Adult Literacy Survey and the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (OECD, 2003, 2005) allow for the exclusion of all regular, full-time students, except the following: full-time students subsidized by employers; full-time students over 19 enrolled in elementary or secondary programs; and full-time students over 24 enrolled in postsecondary programs. While this approach may be pragmatic, it is evident that in the emergent learning society, the traditional distinctions between initial education, particularly higher education, and adult education are becoming increasingly blurred.

The 1976 UNESCO definition reflects the strong and growing calls to see adult education as a segment within an overall principle of lifelong learning. Ideas of lifelong learning are today having strong influence over adult-education policy and different regional models are developing (ibid). In this perspective, it is of interest to note that the UNESCO Institute of Education changed its name to UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning. This use of the concept departs from the fundamental principle of lifelong learning as put forth by transnational organizations like the European Union (EU), the OECD, and the UNESCO which proclaim that the concept of lifelong learning is based on three fundamental attributes: 

  • it is lifelong and therefore concerns everything from cradle to grave;  
  • it is lifewide recognizing that learning occurs in many different settings; and  
  • it focuses on learning rather than limit itself to education. 

In adult-education circles, particularly in the Anglo Saxon countries, lifelong learning is given a more restrictive understanding and has increasingly come to be used interchangeably with just one segment of lifelong learning, namely adult learning. This is, for example, the case in the UKwhere departments of adult education have been renamed departments of lifelong learning. Similarly, one of the leading scholarly journals in adult education is named International Journal of Lifelong Education focusing almost exclusively on adult learning.

The embracement of lifelong learning, in its broad or restrictive meaning, is resulting in a shift from the concept of adult education to adult learning resulting in a further proliferation of the terminology in use. So, for example, today a distinction is being made between three basic categories of settings where purposeful learning activity takes place (European Commission, 2000):

  1. Formal learning. This learning typically takes place in an education or training institution, it is structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time, or learning support) and leading to certification. Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective. 
  2. Nonformal learning. It is learning that is not provided by an education or training institution and typically does not lead to certification. It is, however, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time, or learning support). Nonformal learning may be provided in the workplace and through the activities of civil-society organizations and groups. It can also be provided by organizations or through services that have been set up to complement formal systems, for example, arts, music, and sports classes. Nonformal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective. 
  3. Informal learning. It is learning resulting from daily life activities related to work, family, or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time, or learning support) and typically does not lead to certification. Informal learning may be intentional but in most cases it is nonintentional (or incidental/random). 

While policy documents overwhelmingly subscribe to definitions of adult learning that broadly correspond to those presented by the European Communities’ policy documents, the scholarly literature contains many different and competing definitions and questions the advisability of trying to seek clear definitional distinctions between the three concepts. Others warn that the tendency to substitute learning for education can de-politicize the field and move the focus away from broader issues like equity, the role of the state, policy, and resources which are central when addressing issues of democracy and equality (Duke, 1994; Rubenson, 2006). In this respect, it is of interest to note that the CONFINTEA VI meeting in 2009 uses the label adult learning and education (ALE), a concept that may become prevalent in the years to come.

As the debate over how to delimit education continues, many students of the field will likely agree with Duke (1994: 8) when he states:

The important point about the concept field and scope of adult education is that it is necessarily broad, diffuse, multi-locational in terms of research sites and academic identities. It reflects the diffuseness and weakly bounded nature of adult education (and learning) itself.

To some, the concerns over a breakdown of the traditional boundaries of adult education and adult education as a profession are misplaced. Instead, they recommend that the focus should be on practitioners working professionally with adults whoever and wherever they may be (Usher et al., 1997: 27).

Adult Education Domains and Provision

While the structure and provision of adult education vary considerably from country to country, some main sectors are discernable: 

  • adult basic education including adult literacy and numeracy;  
  • immigrant and citizenship education;  
  • adult higher education;  
  • workplace education and training (see section on vocational education and training);  
  • community education;  
  • popular adult education; and  
  • museums, radio, and TV and libraries. 

When the AAAE was formed in 1926, adult education was generally understood in a narrow sense and expected to fulfill two main purposes. First, it was to teach English to immigrants and to prepare them for American citizenship, and second, to provide a second chance for those that had been deprived of education in their earlier years. These two purposes have remained central to adult education. As immigration spread more and more, countries started to devote significant human and material resources to citizenship and immigrant education. Fromfocusing almost exclusively on preparing the newimmigrants for the labor market and assimilating into the prevailing culture, programs are increasingly having the dual purpose of stimulating unity and diversity. In the 1960s and 1970s, the expansion of educational opportunities for the young, in combination with rising skill demands in the economy, brought basic adult education and literacy onto the policy agenda. With the emerging knowledge economy, functional adult literacy and the national pool of human competencies have gained a renewed interest by policymakers (OECD, 2005). In the developing world, adult literacy is promoted as central to development as well as to address issues of human immunovirus/ acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/ AIDS). Adult basic education and particularly adult literacy education display a great variation in terms of structure, provider, and philosophy. It can be found in churches, schools, colleges, community settings, workplaces, and libraries and offered by professional or unqualified staff.

The structure of the current university adult and continuing-education programs reflect their historical roots. In the UK and the Commonwealth, these are to be found in the adult and extra-mural tradition with its special centers or departments dedicated to offering university courses to adults. In the USA, on the other hand, the tradition emanated from the Land Grant universities with their explicit mission to support the local community and rural development. Reflecting an acceptance of the principle of lifelong learning, adult learners now make up a large proportion of students in higher education – in some countries they even constitute a majority. A large number of these are enrolled in regular courses or programs while others take a continuing-education course. Among the latter, an increasing number is found in continuing professional education which has increased dramatically with rising demands for mandatory continuing education in several professions. As with any educational system, continuing professional education has many stakeholders with multiple agendas that are being shaped by professional and social, institutional, and educational considerations (OECD, 2005). A new growing clientele for the university are older adults who take advantage of courses offered by continuingeducation departments or specialized programs like Elderhostel or the University of the Third Age.

Information on enrolment in different forms of adult education reveals a dramatic shift in provision over the last three decades. In the OECD countries, this is primarily caused by a remarkable increase in employer-supported activities that have radically altered the landscape of adult education (Be´langer and Valdivieso, 1997; Desjardins et al., 2006). The data reflect the broader changes that have occurred in the labor market, which, among other things, forces people to participate because they are ordered or feel pressurized to undergo some form of adult education and training linked to their work (Carre´, 2000). This education and training is being offered by a multiplicity of providers from different sectors including: formal educational institutions, commercial schools/private training providers, and employers and suppliers of equipment. The range and diversity of providers of workplace-related education contributes to the uncertainties about the reach and impact of public policy decisions on the structure of adult education and training.

Another distinct sector involves popular adult education where we today can find two dominant traditions; one Nordic and one Latin American though each have some followers in other parts of the world. Folk high schools and adult-education associations with roots in the classical social movements are a vital part of the adult-education sector particularly in the Nordic countries. In the latter countries, it is free and voluntary, despite considerable state and municipal subsidies; it lies at the crossroads between civil society and the state and has three major roles: it acts as an agency of popularmovements, it is an adult educator, and it is a supporter of culture. It does not primarily cater to individuals’ careers and job needs, but broadly responds to their role as citizens, parents, and/or personal development. In many parts of the world, popular adult education, while less structured than in the Nordic countries and lacking state subsidy, plays an important role in the life of various social movements. The Latin American tradition is closely associated with the work and pedagogy of Paulo Freire. Working closely with oppressed groups, the focus is often on improving their literacy and consciousness raising with an aim to inspire solidarity and collective political awareness and action. This tradition of popular adult education draws heavily on popular culture traditions, dance, song, drama, and storytelling. Its vitality can be seen in other areas of educational activity aswell. For example, labor education, which can take many different forms, is sometimes an important avenue for popular education. Community education is a form of locally funded educational and recreationally programthat can be seen to occupy a space between the formal educational system and popular adult education. This form of provision is particularly well developed in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and parts of the USA and also in several African countries, for example, South Africa. Traditions and structure of community education vary between countries and at times the role of the state in setting direction ismore directwhile in other traditions, for example, the so-calledWisconsin model, it follows a hands-off approach. However, a common denominator is the rootedness in the community and the focus on preparing the community and its inhabitants to respond to structural and educational disadvantage.

The section on domains and provision has addressed actual structures of adult education, but in addition to these, it is worth mentioning a recent idea that focuses not on specific providers but considers a city or region as a learning entity. The concept can be seen as a political and social utopia that expresses what a city or region wants to become in the emerging knowledge society. Another current development is the general idea of prior learning assessment (PLA), which is about acknowledging and giving formal recognition to prior learning, irrespective of when, where, and how learning has taken place. PLA can be seen as a natural consequence of the acceptance of the principle of lifelong learning and breaks with the tradition of defining adult-education activities in term of provider and instead recognizes learning in whatever form it takes.

Adult Learning, Instruction, and Program Planning

The literature on adult education has primarily focused on what and how adults learn, instructional methods appropriate when working with adults, and how to design and organize educational activities for adults.

A hotly debated issue has been whether or not adult learning should be understood as a distinctive process that significantly differs from how children learn. In The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy versus Pedagogy, Knowles (1970) argues that adult learning differs fundamentally from how children learn. The book, which contains a set of principles that should guide adult learning practices, quickly became somewhat of a Bible for practitioners. Facing extensive criticism for the sharp division he had drawn between how adults and children learn, Knowles changed his position and suggested that rather than see a dichotomy between andragogy and pedagogy, they constituted a continuum. Consequently, in the 1980 edition of The Modern Practice of Adult Education, the subtitle was changed to read From Pedagogy to Andragogy. To many, even this softening of the original position does not go far enough and they challenge the idea of trying to build an academic field focusing distinctly on adult learning. This is the case among scholars working in the biographic perspective on adult learning who stress the continuities between early life and adult experience (Knowles, 1970). Others, while recognizing that adults’ and children’s learning from the point of psychological functioning may not differ, maintain that this position only holds for some very basic features of learning. Their key point is that in the planning of adult-education practices, one has to recognize that adult learning, in contrast to children’s learning, is principally selective and self-directed.

Andragogy, like two other dominant perspectives on adult learning, self-directed learning and transformative learning, is informed by humanistic psychology and focuses on the individual adult learner. Following the general developments in learning research, scholars in adult education have become more skeptical to the traditional strong individual orientation and have increasingly adopted a situated-cognition orientation. This is particularly noticeable in writings on workplace learning, an area that is prominent in recent adult education learning literature. The research on the situated nature of learning at work has helped shed light on why there often is less of a transfer between what has been learned in a school situation and the application of this knowledge and experiences at the workplace. The focus on workplace learning has stimulated an interest to understand not only how individuals learn but also how organizations themselves might hinder or encourage learning. A learning organization is being promoted as an ideal form of organization that fosters continuous organizational renewal through encouraging the learning of its members (Knowles, 1970). With the interest in organizational learning and situated-cognition workplace learning, scholars have embraced a network and community of practice traditions, more recently a co-participation model that encourages combined micro- and macro-level analysis of workplaces.

Outcomes of Adult Education

With increased public and private investment in adult education, there is a growing interest in developing a more comprehensive understanding of how adult education and learning can contribute economically and socially to the well-being of the individual and society. The two central questions are: who is participating in what kind of adult education and learning, and what benefits does this learning have for the individual and society.

Existing research shows that participation rates vary substantially across countries and that there are marked differences between countries with quite similar economies too. Regardless of overall participation rate, participation patterns are very similar. In all countries, older adults, the poor, and unemployed, low-skilled workers, migrants, ethnic minorities, and rural inhabitants report a reduced tendency to participate (Desjardins, in press). Gender inequalities vary between countries with some reporting a higher rate of participation among women and the others a lower. However, despite similar patterns of exclusion, the degree of inequality varies substantially among countries. Comparative findings suggest that policy does matter and that political commitment to high standards of equity, and willingness to address market failures through sustained public policy efforts affect participation patterns. Thus, government intervention can affect a person’s capability to participate through fostering broad structural conditions relevant to participation and construct targeted policy measures that are aimed at overcoming both structurally and individually based barriers (Rubenson and Desjardins, 2009).

The main individual outcomes of participation in adult education that have been examined are labor-market outcomes such as wages, employment, and earnings. For employers, the key outcome of adult education and training is worker productivity (44). The literature suggests that while there may be unaccounted-for factors, returns to training, particularly employer training and off-the job training are generally positive.

Further, there seem to be interesting differences between countries (ibid). Most studies tend to focus solely on skills and competencies for economic outcomes and neglect the relationships between various forms of adult learning and quality of life as well as overlook the synergy between formal, nonformal, and informal learning. Naturally, the impacts of adult education and learning extend beyond various economic outcomes and during recent years, there is a growing interest in the wider benefits of adult learning, particularly health and civic engagement. The work carried out so far suggests positive impact on health civic and political participation, but it has also identified a range of difficult methodological issues. One general problem is that situating outcomes of adult learning in the broader context of lifelong learning requires measures that allow comparisons across formal, nonformal, and informal learning settings, so that substitution and complementarity between the various forms of adult learning can be assessed. While participation in organized learning is quite restricted, almost everyone seems to be engaged in purposeful informal learning activities – but so what? What consequences flow from being involved in particular forms of adult learning? The shift in focus from adult education to lifelong learning has moved the attention away from inputs toward outputs.

As part of the professionalization process of adult education, scholars and practitioners began to pay serious attention to designing and organizing adult educational activities. Over time, the program planning literature in adult education, predominantly from the USA, has come to provide a rich body of competing models and theories on decisions and actions about what is to be learned, how the learning is to take place, who the learners and the teachers are, and what the education is for. Despite the great number of models developed for specific programs over the years, there seems to be more uniformity than could be expected, which has made some scholars to suggest the existence of a generic model (ibid; Sork and Cafarella, 1989). These reviews have also identified a sense of a growing gap between what is prescribed in the theories and what practitioners actually do when planning programs. The explanation for this is to be found in the fact that the proposed planning theories are limited in their understanding of what actual planning practice is required, and instead are rooted in a form of instrumental rationality that privileges normative prescriptions of what planners should do.

Adult Education, Economy, and Society

A full appreciation of adult education and learning requires that they be seen in their socioeconomic, political, and cultural contexts. In a historical perspective, the idea of modernization provides an insight into the changing institutional realities and conceptual meanings of adult education and learning. For example, literacy education was needed to enable modern societies and a condition for socioeconomic development while popular and community education have had a perspective of social, cultural, and political self-articulation as well as social and political struggle (ibid). Further, recent stress on continuing-skills upgrading reflects changes in the reproduction of labor. Traditionally, skills upgrading occurred when younger more skilled workers replaced retiring workers. In the new economy, this is no longer a sufficient process to secure economic survival. Thus, contemporary policies on and approaches to adult education are driven by the expected role of adult learning in humancapital formation, particularly for the so-called knowledge economy.

While considering how different societies are responding to the stress of a globalized knowledge economy, we should remember Martin Carnoy’s point that there are crucial differences in what adult education attempts to do and can do in different social–political structures. He states (Carnoy, 1995: 3):

Ultimately, these differences depend heavily on the possibilities and limits of the state, since it is the state that defines adult education and is the principal beneficiary of its effective implementation. These possibilities and limits of the state are, then, a key issue understanding the form and content of adult education.

Carnoy’s point helps understand the importance of situating the present discussion on skills in the political economy of adult education and to take account of the social construction of skills. It also foregrounds the political purpose of adult education which becomes evident when juxtaposing adult education and nation building. The region of the Southern African development community provides an illustrative example of how adult education and nation building is influenced by local regional and global developments (Carnoy, 1995).

The political will of government is reflected in the extent to which, as well as how, adult education gets funding, the balance between public and market-driven funding mechanisms, and how this reflects on the social justice and distributional aspects of adult education and learning. Concerned about the latter, adult educators have critiqued the dominance of a strong market approach and governments’ reluctance to address market failures in the learning market. In response to the dominant political economy, driving adult education there has been a revival of adult education for civil society which further illustrates of how socioeconomic, political, and cultural context inform the formation of adult education. Adult education, for civil society, can in Gramscian terms (Adamson 1980; Boggs 1976), be understood as a struggle to build a counter hegemony to the dominant discourse on adult education and learning. In countries affected by the collapse of the totalitarian communist states, or being freed from other forms of dictatorship, it is also a response to the need for a new form of citizenship.

There are particularly three aspects of justice with regard to adult education that concern adult-education scholars, class, gender, and race and ethnicity. Understandings of class have been central in explaining inequalities of opportunities, standards of living, and widening disparities between rich and poor. From an adult-education perspective, two issues stand out. First, how are adult education and learning practices linked to the globalized nature of capitalism and second, the operation of a distinctive working-class learning style (ibid). Similar questions are asked by feminist scholars engaged with gender analysis. Gender analysis that can reflect different theoretical perspectives is shaped by its history and provides a strategy for research process and strategic initiatives to address inequalities (ibid). Like class and gender, race and ethnicity play a major role in structuring society and the opportunities it provides. Reviews of the literature reveal somewhat surprisingly that the way race has been socially constructed has remained stable over the last 50 years. Further, it is noted that it was not until the last 15 years that the issue of race was given an in-depth analysis in the adult-education literature (ibid).

Field of Study

Since adult education began to emerge as a field of study in the late 1920s, it has undergone three quite distinctive phases. These phases are most noticeable in the USA, which to a large extent has come to define the nature of the scholarly field, but they are also clearly discernible in Europe and to a lesser extent in some other parts of the world.

As the demand for trained instructors to teach the large number of immigrants grew, a few US universities began offering specific courses on how to teach adults, starting with the University of Columbia in 1922 (Milton et al., 2003). Quite soon, graduate programs began to emerge. The first began at Teachers College at Columbia University in 1930, and by 1964, 16 universities in the USA offered master and doctoral programs in adult education (Houle, 1991). A similar development took place in the UK, in departments of extra-mural studies offering university courses, where adults developed an interest in adult-education research and in 1926, the first chair in adult education was established at the University of Nottingham (Hake, 1994).

With a small but growing number of adult-education programs, faculty started to focus on how to generate a body of knowledge that would help in the growth of the evolving field. Guided by funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Commission of Professors in the USA set out to define the conceptual foundations of adult education ( Jensen et al., 1964). Officially titled, Adult Education: Outlines of an Emerging Field of University Study and published in 1964, their work has come to be known as the Black Book. This publication can be seen as ushering in the second phase of adult education, characterized by a major expansion of graduate programs and the coming of age of adult education as a field of study. Between the release of the Black Book and the publication of its follow up, Adult Education: Evolution and Achievements in a Developing Field of Study, in 1991, the number of adulteducation graduate programs in the USA increased from 16 to 124 (Houle, 1991). Another indication of the growing knowledge base of adult education was the launch in 1969 of the yearly American Adult Education Research Conference (AERC) and the development of Adult Education Quarterly – arguably, the preeminent journal in the field.

Similar developments took place in Canada and in parts of Europe. In the former, the first graduate program was established at the University of British Columbia in 1957 and by the late 1980s, there were ten graduate programs in the country (Selman and Dampier, 1991: 255). In the UK and Germany, the number of departments of adult education increased, first slowly in the 1950s and 1960s, and thereafter more frequently in the 1970s and 1980s. Sweden, with a very long tradition of adult education, introduced special funding for adult-education research at the end of the 1960s, and university programs and chairs sprang up in Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Poland, the former Yugoslavia, and somewhat later in several other European countries. In 1991, the European Society for the study of adult education was formed.

In other parts of the world, particularly in the developing countries, the process begun later and many countries are in what can be seen as the first phase. This is the case in several African and Latin American countries. In some instances, like in Brazil, there is an acceleration of programs and departments specializing in adult education. In China, the first MA program was launched at East China Normal University in 1993 and a PhD program in 2004. In 2008, China reports to have some 100 specialized institutions for adult-education research and is moving into what can be seen as the second phase.

The 1991 review of the evolution and achievements in the developing field of adult education (Peters and Jarvis, 1991) can be read as a summary of situation in North America and Northern Europe at the end of phase 2. The book paints a very positive picture noticing the significant expansion in the knowledge base, lessened dependency on related disciplines, broadening of research methodologies, exponential growth of graduate programs, and that the field has become more internationalized. Based on the achievements so far, the book ends on a positive outlook and with expectations of continuous growth and solidifying of the field of adult education over the coming 25 years. While there does not exist any comprehensive review of what has happened, since the 1991 book, there are several indications that the field of study has not progressed as anticipated and that it has entered into a new phase in its development. In North America and those parts of Europe where the field had expanded and matured during the second phase, the last two decades have not seen a continuing growth in specialized adulteducation departments. Instead, the trend has been to amalgamate adult-education programs with other areas into larger departments or in some instances to close them down. These developments have been driven by a combination of forces external and internal to the field of adult education. First, the amalgamations have been part of a general restructuring of university departments into larger structures, which tends to hamper the building of a field of adult education as foreseen under phase 2. Second, the embracement of the principle of lifelong learning also weakens the ambition of building a separate field of adult education. Third, with workplace learning being by far the fastest-growing area of adult-education practice, adult-education researchers have increasingly come to be engaged in research on workplace learning. Over the last decade, workplace learning has increasingly taken on the shape of an alternative field with its own journals and scholarly conferences. While this development can weaken the field as adult educators break out of the traditional boundary of their discipline, it also provides an opportunity to strengthen the field as researchers from other disciplines are encouraged to break into adult education. The focus on the so-called knowledge economy has stimulated other disciplines, economics, sociology, organizational sciences, etc. to engage with issues that traditionally would have been seen to fall under adult education. Fourth, as in other fields of education, there is a general shift away from more pure fields and disciplines and a move to organize the knowledge-generation process around cross-cutting themes like gender, immigration, etc. that are approached from an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary stand. In this environment, adult-education scholars increasingly develop multiple alliances housed in different academic fields.

Tensions Within the Field of Study

Since adult education embarked on expanding its knowledge base, two issues have continued to cause tension: its relationship to other disciplines and link between practice and theory.

The Black Book was organized around the understanding that:

Adult education develops a unique body of knowledge suited to its purposes through two methods of procedures:

(1) Experiences gained from coping with problems of practice lead to the formulation of principles or generalizations which provide guides for future practice.

(2) Knowledge which has been developed by other disciplines is borrowed and reformulated for use in adult education. ( Jensen, 1964: 105)

The Black Book allocates a chapter each to scrutinize how adult education can borrow and adopt knowledge, theory, and research traditions from the disciplines of: sociology, social psychology, psychology, history, and organization and administration. As the field matured, the position presented in the Black Book began to be questioned. Instead of relying on other disciplines, the trend, particularly in the USA, was to primarily rely on adult-education literature (Boshier and Pickard, 1979). To build too closely on other disciplines was seen by some as a threat to the development of an adult-education knowledge base (Boyd and Apps, 1980; Kranjc, 1987). Some went as far as Plecas and Sork (1986) who argued against copying scholars in other disciplines and for adulteducation scholars to remain focused on research that is closely related to well-established definitions of adult education. However, while warning adult educators to be cautious in their borrowing, it was generally recognized also within the US adult-education community that much could be learned from other disciplines (Peters, 1991). Outside the USA, the push toward a clearly defined field of adult education was, with a few exceptions like the former Yugoslavia, less strong. Here, the dominant position has been that other disciplines can provide the conceptual apparatus for a better understanding of the structure, the functioning, and problems of adult education as scholars worked to strengthening research on the education of adults rather than building a distinct field of study. A good example of this can be found in the German series Handbuch der Erwachsenenbildung where the first volume appeared in 1974. Of special interest are vol. 3, Anthropologie und Psychologie des Erwachsenen (Zdarzil and Olechowski, 1976) and vol. 6, Sociologie der Erwachsenenbildung (Eggers and Steinbacher, 1977).

The second issue in the field of study stems from the fact that knowledge production in adult education has overwhelmingly been shaped by a stress on practicality. Consequently, the dominant view has been that theory is deemed useful only to the extent that it improves practice. Using this criterion, there has been a constant criticism of the limited relevance of the research enterprise for the practice of adult education. There are very varied views on the cause and remedy of the problem. One camp of adult-education scholars has argued that research has been influenced too much by the rituals of science and not enough by the needs of the learners, while others take a diametrically opposite position seeing the lack of influence being a consequence of research having concentrated too much on applied problems (Cevero, 1991: 26). Sork and Cafarella (1989) suggest that the gap, which has been present since the outset of adult education becoming a field of study, was widening rather than shrinking. This could be an outcome of the calls, during the late 1970s, for the field to become more theoretically sophisticated so that it might gain more respect in the scholarly world. In a response to this call, university departments of adult education began recruiting new faculty, into adult education, who often had less connection to the field of practice than the outgoing faculty.

Concern about the usefulness of adult education research is still flourishing today. However, not only practitioners in the field but also policymakers voice their disappointment. Thus, it is interesting to note that the criticism of adult-education research for a lack of usefulness is a dominant theme in the national reports from developing as well as developed countries prepared for the 2009 UNESCO CONFINTEA meeting. Developing countries point to the need for research to more directly support initiatives focusing on reducing poverty, addressing HIV, and the strengthening of women’s role, while developing countries talk about the need for knowledge to support evidence-informed policy agendas. The European summary report to CONFINTEA speaks of the need ‘‘for a research interface to promote the use of research results in policy development and implementation’’ (Keogh, 2008: 10). The Arabic Summary report notes the lack of research dealing with literacy (Yousif, 2009) while the report from Latin America (Torres, 2009) speaks of the lack of dissemination of adult-educationresearch results outside academic circles. While we have to remember that the national reports have been produced by governments, in many cases in cooperation with the adult-education community, they reflect a special understanding of the relationship between research and practice and policy.

Concluding Comment

As evident from this wide-ranging overview of theories, policies, practices, institutions, and scholarship in adult education and learning, the field is very broad and does not allow itself to be neatly organized within strict boundaries. While scholars are engaged in heated debates on what constitutes the field of adult education and/or how the scholarly field should evolve, adult learning has become a way of life for one-third to 50% the population in the industrialized world and is increasingly spreading in the developing world. When responding to these challenges, practitioners, policymakers, as well social activists can fall back on a rich history of practice and scholarship in adult education.

See also: Adult Basic Education: A Challenge for Vocational Based Learning; Adult Education and Civil Society; Adult Education and Nation-Building; Adult Learning; Adult Learning and Instruction: Transformative Learning Perspectives; Adult Learning in a Biographic Perspective; Adult Learning, Instruction and Programme Planning: Insights from Freire; Adult Literacy Education; Barriers to Participation in Adult Education; Characteristics of Adult Learning; Citizenship and Immigrant Education; Class Analysis in Adult Education; Continuing Professional Education: Multiple Stakeholders and Agendas; Financing of Adult and Lifelong Learning; Gender Analysis; Informal Learning: A Contested Concept; Labor Education; Lifelong Learning; Modernization Processes and the Changing Function of Adult Learning; Museums as Sites of Adult Learning; Organizational Learning; Overview of Lifelong Learning Policies and Systems; Participation in Adult Learning; Popular Adult Education; Program Planning; Provision of Prior Learning Assessment; Race and Ethnicity in the Field of Adult Education; Rewriting the History of Adult Education: The Search for Narrative Structures; The Age of Learning: Seniors Learning; The Political Economy of Adult Education; Trends in Workplace Learning Research; University Adult Continuing Education: The Extra-Mural Tradition Revisited; Wider Benefits of Adult Education; Workplace Learning Frameworks.