Picture: 'Adult education' by Adam Kuban. Sourced from flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence.

What is adult education? Is adult education a practice or a program? A methodology or an organization? A ‘science’ or a system? A process or a profession?

Is adult education a practice or a program? A methodology or an organization? A ‘science’ or a system? A process or a profession? Is adult education different from continuing education, vocational education, higher education? Does adult education have form and substance, or does it merely permeate through the environment like air? Is adult education, therefore, everywhere and yet nowhere in particular? Does adult education even exist? (McCullough 1980 quoted in Jarvis 1987a: 3)

Just how are we to approach adult education if it is everywhere and nowhere? As a starting point, Courtney (1989: 17-23) suggests that we can explore it from five basic and overlapping perspectives. Adult education as:

  • the work of certain institutions and organizations. What we know as adult education has been shaped by the activities of key organizations. Adult education is, thus, simply what certain organizations such as the Workers Education Association or the YMCA do.
  • a special kind of relationship. One way to approach this is to contrast adult education with the sort of learning that we engage in as part of everyday living. Adult education could be then seen as, for example, the process of managing the external conditions that facilitate the internal change in adults called learning (see Brookfield 1986: 46). In other words, it is a relationship that involves a conscious effort to learn something.
  • a profession or scientific discipline. Here the focus has been on two attributes of professions: an emphasis on training or preparation, and the notion of a specialized body of knowledge underpinning training and preparation. According to this view ‘the way in which adults are encouraged to learn and aided in that learning is the single most significant ingredient of adult education as a profession’ (op cit: 20).
  • stemming from a historical identification with spontaneous social movements. Adult education can be approached as a quality emerging through the developing activities of unionism, political parties and social movements such as the women’s movement and anti-colonial movements (see Lovett 1988).
  • distinct from other kinds of education by its goals and functions. This is arguably the most common way of demarcating adult education from other forms of education. For example:

Adult education is concerned not with preparing people for life, but rather with helping people to live more successfully. Thus if there is to be an overarching function of the adult education enterprise, it is to assist adults to increase competence, or negotiate transitions, in their social roles (worker, parent, retiree etc.), to help them gain greater fulfilment in their personal lives, and to assist them in solving personal and community problems. (Darkenwald and Merriam 1982: 9)

Darkenwald and Merriam combine three elements. Adult education is work with adults, to promote learning for adulthood. Approached via an interest in goals, ‘adult’ education could involve work with children so that they may become adult. As Lindeman (1926: 4) put it: ‘This new venture is called adult education not because it is confined to adults but because adulthood, maturity, defines its limits’.

The meaning of ‘adult’

A further issue is the various meanings given to ‘adult’. We might approach the notion, for example,as a:

  • biological state (post-puberty),
  • legal state (aged 18 or over; aged 21 or over?),
  • psychological state (their ‘self concept’ is that of an ‘adult’)
  • form of behaviour (adulthood as being in touch with one’s capacities whatever the context)
  • set of social roles (adulthood as the performance of certain roles e.g. working, raising children etc.).

Different societies and cultures will have contrasting understanding of what it is to be adult. ‘Adult’ can be set against ‘child’. In between adult and child (or more accurately, overlapping) there may be an idea of ‘youth’. At base adults are older than children and with this comes a set of expectations. They are not necessarily mature. ‘But they are supposed to be mature, and it is on this necessary supposition that their adulthood justifiably rests’ (Paterson 1979: 13).

A working definition

Most current texts seem to approach adult education via the adult status of students, and a concern with education (creating enlivening environments for learning). We could choose a starting definition from a range of writers. Rather than muck around I have taken one advanced by Sharan B. Merriam and Ralph G. Brockett (1997: 8). They define adult education as:

activities intentionally designed for the purpose of bringing about learning among those whose age, social roles, or self-perception define them as adults.

This definition has the virtue of side-stepping some of the issues around the meaning of ‘adult’ – but doesn’t fully engage with the nature of education. However, it is a start.

Further reading and references

Brookfield, S. D. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. A comprehensive analysis of principles and effective practices, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Collins, M. (1991) Adult Education as Vocation. A critical role for the adult educator, London: Routledge.

Courtney, S. (1989) ‘Defining adult and continuing education’ in S. B. Merriam and P. M. Cunningham (eds.) Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Darkenwald, G. G. and Merriam, S. B. (1982) Adult Education. Foundations of practice, New York: Harper and Row.

Jarvis, P. (1987) Adult Learning in the Social Context, Beckenham: Croom Helm.

Jarvis, P. (1995) Adult and Continuing Education. Theory and practice, (2nd. edn.), London: Routledge. Lovett, T. (ed.) (1988) Radical Approaches to Adult Education: a reader, Beckenham: Croom Helm

Lindeman, E. C. (1926) The Meaning of Adult Education (1989 edn), Norman: University of Oklahoma.

McCullough, K. O. (1980) ‘Analyzing the evolving structure of adult education’ in J. Peters (ed.) Building an Effective Adult Education Enterprise, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B. and Brockett, R. G. (1996) The Profession and Practice of Adult Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Paterson, R. W. K. (1979) Values, Education and the Adult. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Squires, G. (1993) ‘Education for adults’ in M. Thorpe, R. Edwards and A. Hanson (eds.) Culture and Processes of Adult Learning, London: Routledge.

Stephens, M. D. (1990) Adult Education, London: Cassell.

Acknowledgement: Picture: ‘Adult education’ by Adam Kuban. Sourced from flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/slice/3178384510/

© Mark K. Smith 1996, 1999.

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