American education » Adult Education » Adult Learning

Published: 6-12-2011, 13:19

Adult Learning

Adult learning is a phenomenon at once deceptively simple, yet enormously complex. It is simple because we know that learning ‘‘is of the essence of everyday living and of conscious experience; it is the process of transforming that experience into knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, and beliefs’’ ( Jarvis, 1992: 11). However, it is also complex because there is no one definition, model, or theory that explains how adults learn, why adults learn, or how best to facilitate the process. Yet the learning of adults is the key theme that unites the otherwise widely disparate field of adult education. Whether in community-based literacy classes, training sessions in corporate settings, or continuing professional education seminars, practitioners share the common goal of facilitating adult learning. Rather than a single definition or description of adult learning, what we have is a colorful mosaic of theories, models, sets of principles, and explanations that, when combined, form the knowledge base of adult learning.

Until the mid-twentieth century, what we knew about adult learning was embedded in studies by behavioral and cognitive psychologists, studies that focused on problem solving, information processing, memory, intelligence, and motivation. Much of this research was conducted in laboratory settings, and if adults were included, what was of interest was how advancing age affected the learning activity. Thorndike et al.’s (1928) Adult Learning published in 1928 is an example of this early research. This book reports the results of adults being tested in a laboratory under timed conditions on various learning and memory tasks. The authors concluded that adults aged between 25 and 45 could learn ‘‘at nearly the same rate’’ as 20-year-olds (p. 178). Research in the 1940s found that when time pressure is removed, adults up to age 70 did as well as younger people.

Adult learning from a psychological, and in particular a behaviorist perspective shaped adult learning research and theory building in North America until the late 1960s when other traditions and European influences broadened inquiry. We now know quite a bit about the individual adult learner, how context shapes adult learning, and how noncognitive factors play a role in adult learning. This article is thus organized into three sections, in a loosely chronological order, reflecting our growing understanding of adult learning. The first part of this article explores the foundational adult learning theories of andragogy, self-directed learning, and transformational learning. A second strand of theory building represents a shift in the focus of learning from the individual to the context in which learning takes place. The third section of this article presents the most recent additions to our understanding of adult learning. These perspectives go beyond the cognitive and include the role of emotions, body, and spirit in learning.

The Individual Adult Learner

By the mid-twentieth century, adult education was a recognized field of practice with its own professional associations, journals, and conferences. Rather than extrapolating fromresearch with children or research that placed adults under the same conditions as children, adult educators began to consider how learning in adulthood could be distinguished from learning in childhood. Humanistic psychology provided the philosophical underpinnings for three theories of adult learning, which have become foundational to the field of adult education – andragogy, self-directed learning, and transformational learning.


The European concept of andragogy was introduced by Knowles (1968) as ‘‘a new label and a new technology’’ distinguishing adult learning from children’s learning or pedagogy (p. 351). Probably the best-known set of principles or assumptions to guide adult learning practice, andragogy actually tells us more about the characteristics of adult learners than about the nature of learning itself. Knowles originally presented the following four characteristics or assumptions about adult learners:

  1. As a person matures, his or her self-concept moves from that of a dependent personality toward one of a self-directing human being.
  2. An adult accumulates a growing reservoir of experience, which is a rich resource for learning.
  3. The readiness of an adult to learn is closely related to the developmental tasks of his or her social role.
  4. There is a change in time perspective as people mature – from future application of knowledge to immediacy of application. Thus, an adult is more problem centered than subject centered in learning. (Knowles, 1980: 44–45). In later publications, Knowles also suggested a fifth and sixth assumption:
  5. The most potent motivations are internal rather than external (Knowles et al., 1984: 12).
  6. Adults need to know why they need to learn something (Knowles, 1984: 12).

Working from these assumptions, Knowles (1980) proposed a program-planning model for designing, implementing, and evaluating educational activities with adults. For example, with regard to the first assumption that as adults mature they become more independent and self-directing, Knowles suggested that the classroom environment be one of adultness, both physically and psychologically. Adults who plan and direct their family, work, and community lives can also participate in their own learning by assisting in diagnosing their learning needs, planning and implementing learning activities, and evaluating those experiences.

At first heralded as the explanation of adult learning, andragogy underwent intense examination by educators of both adults and children. It was recognized, for example, that some children and adolescents are independent, self-directed learners while some adults are highly dependent on a teacher for structure and guidance. Further, adults may be externally motivated to learn as when an employer requires attendance at a training program, and some children may be motivated by curiosity or the internal pleasure of learning. By 1980, Knowles had acknowledged that the dichotomy between andragogy and pedagogy was not as stark as originally drawn. A clear indication of his rethinking is represented in the subtitles of the 1970 and 1980 editions of The Modern Practice of Adult Education. The 1970 subtitle is Andragogy Versus Pedagogy, whereas the 1980 subtitle is From Pedagogy to Andragogy. He came to believe that there was a continuum ranging from teacher-directed (pedagogy) on the one end, to student-directed learning (andragogy) on the other, and that both approaches are appropriate with children and adults, depending on the situation.

Andragogy has been most severely critiqued for its assumption that the individual adult learner is autonomous and in control of his or her learning. Lacking is any recognition that both the learner and the learning that takes place are shaped by a person’s history and culture in conjunction with the institutional context where it occurs. Despite these critiques, practitioners who work with adult learners can intuitively connect with Knowles’ characteristics of adult learners and can see how they translate into concrete suggestions for program planning, instruction, and evaluation. More than 40 years after it was first proposed in North America, andragogy enjoys widespread recognition as one understanding of adult learning and a tested guide to working with adults in practice.

Self-Directed Learning

Appearing in North America about the same time that Knowles introduced andragogy, the concept of selfdirected learning (SDL) also helped distinguish adult learners from children. The major impetus for this model of adult learning came from Tough’s (1971) research with Canadian adult learners. He found that 90% of the participants in his study had engaged in an average of 100 h of self-planned learning projects in the previous year and that this learning was deeply embedded in their everyday lives. The uncovering and documenting of SDL – learning that is widespread, that occurs as a part of adults’ everyday life, and that is systematic yet does not depend on an instructor or a classroom – has been a major contribution toward understanding and defining adult learning.

More than 35 years of research in North America and Europe on SDL has verified its widespread presence among adults, documented the process by which it occurs, and developed assessment tools to measure the extent of individual self-directedness. Of these foci, the process of SDL speaks most directly to adult learning. How one actually moves through an SDL experience has generated a number of models of the process. The earliest models proposed by Tough (1971) and Knowles (1975) are the most linear, moving from diagnosing needs to identifying resources and instructional formats, to evaluating outcomes. Models developed in the late 1980s and 1990s are less linear and more interactive in which not only the learner, but the context of the learning and the nature of the learning itself are also considered. In the Danis (1992) model, for example, learning strategies, phases of the learning process, the content, the learner, and the environmental factors in the context must all be taken into account in mapping the process of SDL. The Spear and Mocker (l984) model considers the opportunities for learning found in one’s environment, past or new knowledge, and chance occurrences. These opportunities cluster into the ‘‘organizing circumstance’’ which in turn, structures the SDL activity, and the ‘‘circumstances created during one episode become the circumstances for the next’’ (p. 5).

Yet another application of SDL is in instruction in formal educational settings. The most popular is the Grow (1991) model. He presents a matrix showing how four types of learners and four types of facilitators intersect with appropriate instructional methods. For example, a dependent learner (one who is not at all self-directed) is a good match with an authority or expert, and lecture and drill are appropriate instructional strategies. At the other extreme would be a highly self-directed learner, matched with a facilitator or delegator and instruction would be embedded in independent projects and discussions.

As with andragogy, SDL has proven to be a mainstay of adult learning theory. Recent applications of SDL include its role in lifelong learning and continuing professional education, how SDL can be acknowledged and incorporated into the workplace, and how being self-directed is one criterion for success in online learning environments (Merriam et al., 2007).

Transformational Learning

The third contribution to adult learning that helped define what is different about learning in adulthood is transformational learning. Rather than focusing on the learner as andragogy and, to a large extent, SDL do, transformational learning is about the cognitive process of meaning making. It is particularly an adult learning theory because transformational learning is dependent on adult life experiences and a more mature level of cognitive functioning than found in childhood. The essence of transformational learning is that through sudden or dramatic experiences, people are changed in ways that they themselves and others can recognize.

Mezirow (2000) is considered the primary architect of transformational learning, although he readily acknowledges being influenced by the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire (1970) emphasized the need for this type of learning to deal with oppression and to bring about social change. Mezirow (2000) focuses more on the process of individual transformation, a process that is personally empowering. Learning in adulthood is not just adding on to what we already know, although that is part of the story. It is also, according to Mezirow (1996: 162), ‘‘the process of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or a revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience in order to guide future action.’’ In short, learning is also making sense of our experiences. Learning can result in a change in one of our beliefs or attitudes, or it can be a change in our entire perspective. A perspective transformation is key to transformational learning.

Mezirow (2000) delineated a 10-step transformational learning process that is initiated by a disorienting dilemma – a life experience that cannot be accommodated by one’s present worldview. This leads the adult to examine and critically reflect on the assumptions and beliefs that have guided meaning making in the past, but now are no longer adequate. From an examination of current beliefs, the learner moves to exploring new ways of dealing with the dilemma, often in conjunction with others confronting a similar crisis. It is in dialog with others that the learner tests out new assumptions, understandings, and perspectives. A plan of action is then formulated and put into motion. The new or transformed perspective is more inclusive and accommodating than the previous perspective.

Since the 1990s, transformational learning has moved center stage in terms of the volume of research and writing. Transformational learning conferences occurring every 2 years, with the most recent in 2007, have also contributed to the burgeoning knowledge base about this type of learning. Further, connections between transformational learning and adult development (Merriam and Clark, 2006), and transformational learning and spirituality (Tolliver and Tisdell, 2006), have expanded our understanding of adult learning and the meaning-making process.

In summary, andragogy, SDL, and transformational learning have come to define much of adult learning today. Both andragogy and SDL were instrumental in distinguishing adult learning from childhood learning at a time when the field of adult education was defining itself. They remain dominant in the real world of practice, perhaps because of their humanistic foundations and the fact that they capture what is popularly and intuitively understood about adult learning. Transformational learning, though powerful and emancipatory when it occurs, is more difficult to plan for, implement, and assess.

The Context of Adult Learning

Andragogy, SDL, and especially transformative learning theory focus on the individual learner; indeed, each has been critiqued for not recognizing how the context where this learning occurs also shapes the learning. Attention to context became prominent in the later decades of the twentieth century and remains central to understanding adult learning today. One perspective that attends to context draws from critical social science and related perspectives such as Marxism, critical theory, multiculturalism, critical race theory, queer theory, and feminist theory. What this literature has in common is the relentless questioning of power relations embedded in the structures of society. The focus is on the context of learning, not the individual learner. Through questioning and critique, the status quo is challenged, leading hopefully to social change.

More congruent with educational psychology is a second perspective that also shifts the focus from the individual to the context where learning takes place. Emerging from cognitive psychology and known loosely as situated cognition or contextual learning, learning cannot be understood as simply an individual, internal cognitive process; rather, learning is what is constructed by the interaction of people in a particular situation with particular tools or artifacts (including technology, language, signs, and symbols). Research (Lave, 1988; Lave and Wenger, 1991) has demonstrated that the context in which learning takes place is crucial to the nature of the learning, as are the tools in that setting, and the social interaction with others. Understanding human cognition means examining it in situations of authentic activity in which actual cognitive processes are required, rather than the simulated ones typical of school. Lave’s (1988) experiments with grocery shoppers is a good example of the difference. Comparison pricing was found to be considerably more accurate in the activity of shopping (98% error-free) than in doing identical calculations on a paper-and-pencil test in the classroom (59% error-free).

The notion of situated cognition resonates well with what we already know about adult learning. Fenwick (2003) points out that one cannot separate the learning process from the situation in which it takes place. Knowledge is constructed in the context; it is ‘‘part of the very process of participation in the immediate situation’’ (Fenwick, 2003: 25; italics in the original). Learning takes place when people interact with the community (including its history and cultural values and assumptions), ‘‘the tools at hand,’’ and the activity itself (Fenwick, 2003: 25). For example, in a recent study of Korean older adults in an intermediate computer literacy course, questions were asked about the cultural context of the course, the socialinteraction patterns of the participants, the tools of the setting, and how learning is constructed through the interaction of these elements (Kim, 2008).

Locating learning in the real-life experiences of adults has long been promoted as a good adult education practice. Schon (1987, 1996), for example, is noted for promoting contextually based reflective practice. Knowledge gained in school is not enough to make a reflective practitioner. One must also engage in the actual practice. Others recommend apprenticeships, internships, and practicums where one can learn through modeling, coaching, and trial and error.

An important component of situated cognition is entering into relationships with other learners, thereby becoming a member of a learning community. This learning community can be considered a community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Communities of practice are groups of people who share insights and ideas and who help each other solve problems and develop a common practice. All people belong to communities of practice, whether through formal learning environments, civic organizations, or family structures. While most communities of practice do not have a name, they are quite familiar to us.We know who belongs. The concepts of practice are both explicit and tacit. It includes the language, documents, images, symbols, roles, procedures, regulations, subtle cues, rules of thumb, sensitivities, embodied understandings, underlying assumptions, and shared worldviews that are crucial to the success of the community. In a study of a community of practice of Wiccans, an earth-based faith group, it was discovered that learning was embedded in the rites and rituals of their practice; learning in practice was experiential, combined formal and intuitive knowledge, and was spread across the group (Merriam, et al., 2003).

Communities of practice as a learning theory has extended the work on situated cognition. Situated cognition posits that learning is context bound, tool dependent, and socially interactive. These factors suggest looking at this type of learning from the perspective of a bounded system. A family, a classroom, a profession, an online community, a town, and a corporation can all be thought of as a community of practice, or a learning community. This approach contextualizes learning, uncoupling it from a preoccupation with the individual learner.

Emotions, Body, and Spirit in Adult Learning

The mind/body split so ingrained in Western notions of learning has dominated adult learning. In addition, learning has become so connected with schooling that the activity of learning is almost always framed from a rational, cognitive perspective.We learn through processing information in the brain. By the time we are adults, learning that is valued, formal, and systematic is devoid of anything emotional or physical. However, some of the most recent research and theory building in adult learning are based on the premise that knowledge construction and learning can be through pathways other than those that depend on the mind. Scholars are now trying to explain and legitimize the role played by emotions, body, and spirit in learning.

Emotions and Somatic Knowing

Knowledge construction is more than a cognitive process of meaning making. In fact, there is little cognitive about this – rather, we know through our emotions and our physical body. Dirkx (2001) argues that learning itself is inherently an imaginative, emotional act and that significant learning is inconceivable without emotion and feelings. It is through emotions that deeply personal, meaningful connections are made so that really significant learning can take place. These connections are of two kinds. First, there is the connection to one’s own inner experiences; ‘‘emotions are gateways to the unconscious and our emotional, feeling selves’’ (p. 69); second, ‘‘emotions and feelings can connect to the shared ideas within the world as well and are reflected in big words or concepts, such as Truth, Power, Justice, and Love’’ (p. 69).We learn to understand or make meaning of our experience through engagement with these emotions and the images they evoke.

Somatic or embodied learning is closely related to emotional responses in learning. In somatic knowing, we can learn through our bodies, as we do when we connect physical manifestations of stress to our psychological situation. Pert (1997) in fact argues that since receptors are found in the body’s nerves of all kinds, it would then follow that emotions could be stored and mediated by parts of the body other than just the brain. ‘‘These recent discoveries are important for appreciating how memories are stored not only in the brain, but in a psychosomatic network extending into the body’’ (p. 141). In fact, the interconnectedness of body, brain, and emotions is itself receiving attention through the neuroscience of learning ( Johnson and Taylor, 2006).

It is clear that a false dichotomy has been created by the Western philosophical bias that dissects the whole person into mind and body, limiting knowledge construction to what goes on in one’s mind. Even physiologically, the mind, body, and emotions cannot be separated. Certainly, in our own real-life experiences of living and learning, we involve our emotions and our body at least as much as our intellect.

Spirituality and Learning

Part of the difficulty in considering spirituality in learning has been definitional. There is little consensus about the boundaries of its meaning; the most writers can do is to define it as they are using the term.All agree that spirituality is not the same as religion, which is an organized community of faith; rather, spirituality is more about one’s own beliefs and experience of a higher power or higher purpose. Spirituality is ‘‘about how we construct meaning, and what we individually and communally experience and attend to and honor as sacred in our lives’’ (Tisdell, 2003: 29).

Spirituality is connected to adult learning through the construct of meaning making. Aktouf (1992: 415) argues that ‘‘the human being is, by definition and necessity, a being whose destiny is meaning, intentions, and projects, a subject whose being is meaning andwhich has need of meaning.’’We are inveteratemeaningmakers. Tisdell (1999)makes several points about the relationship between spirituality, meaning making, and adult learning. First, educators should recognize that a search for or an acknowledgement of the spiritual in the lives of adult learners ‘‘is connected to how we create meaning in our relationships with others. It is in our living and loving. It is also connected with how we understand a higher power or a transcendent being’’ (p. 93). Second, adults come into our classroom with this agenda (meaning making), whether or not it is articulated. Third, meaning making is knowledge construction that uses images and symbols, ‘‘which often emanate from the deepest core of our being and can be accessed and manifested through art, music, or other creative work’’ (p. 93).

Those writing from this more holistic perspective on learning are not about promoting a particular form of embodied or spiritual learning. Rather, they are ‘‘committed to learning that makes a difference in learners’ lives and increases their sense of knowing the content of the course in their heads, their hearts, their souls, and their entire being—that has meaning to them and makes a difference in the world’’ (Tolliver and Tisdell, 2006: 45). Journal writing, poetry, storytelling, myths, symbols, images, and even dreams can be used in an adult learning environment to foster a more holistic learning experience. Indeed, an entire volume of New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education is devoted to ‘Artistic ways of knowing’ (Lawrence, 2005). In this volume, authors speak to the use of art, music, poetry, photography, and drama to ‘‘extend the boundaries of how we come to know’’ (p. 3).


Learning in adulthood defies a simple explanation, and it is highly unlikely that there will ever be a single theory or explanation that encompasses all that we know now about adult learning. There is a substantial body of research and literature dating back to the early decades of the twentieth century where adult learning was conceived of as problem solving, memory, and information processing. From that foundation, adult educators began to differentiate adult learning from pre-adult learning, a move that led to a focus on the adult learners themselves. Andragogy, SDL, and, more recently, transformational learning are the major distinguishing aspects of adult learning today.

In addition, our understanding of adult learning has been expanded to include consideration of the larger sociocultural and political context in which it takes place, and how the context itself both shapes and is an integral part of the learning transaction. The analytical tools of situated cognition and critical perspectives have allowed us to uncover how context shapes learning, as well as to critically assess and challenge the disparities in adult education and learning in particular social contexts. Finally, an even more holistic conception of adult learning acknowledges the role of emotions, body, and spirit in learning. These as well as other approaches to adult learning will continue to be investigated, contributing to our understanding of the complex nature of learning in adulthood.

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