The concept of adult education is a complex and elusive term which has fluctuating meaning depending upon the purpose and intention of the person or organization using the term. Describing this broad band of meaning, Courtney states that “Adult education might be seen to embrace a variety of prominent, visible, social activities lying somewhere between schooling and recreation” (Merriam & Cunningham. 1989, p.15). Furthermore, numerous terms have been used interchangeably (i.e., adult education, continuing education, lifelong learning, etc.) without adequate distinction between their shades of meaning.
In an attempt to hone and clarify the definition Courtney presents several versions of comprehensive descriptions which attempt to capture the enigmatic notion of adult education. These include the following interpretations:
· “The progressive movement towards the solution of problems and the development of abilities to encounter similar future problems with greater competencies” (Boyd, Apps and Associates, 1980, pp 10–11).
· “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 or skills” (Darkenwald & Merriam, 1982, p. 9)
· “A process whereby persons who no longer attend school on a regular full-time basis . . . undertake sequential and organized activities with the conscious intention of bringing about changes in information, knowledge, understanding, or skill, appreciation and attitudes; or for the purpose of identifying or solving personal or community problems” (Liveright & Haygood, 1969, p. 8).
Similarly, Malcolm Knowles, a highly recognized leader in the field of adult education, defined the term from three vantage points. According to Knowles, from a broad perspective adult education “describes the process of adults learning and encompasses practically all experiences of mature men and women by which they acquire new knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes, interests or values” (Knowles, 1913, p.25). He further delineated the technical meaning to “describe a set of organized activities carried on by a wide variety of institutions for the accomplishment of specific educational objectives and encompassing all the organized classes, study groups, lecture series, planned reading programs, guided discussions, conferences, institutes, workshops and correspondence courses in which American adults engage” (Knowles, 1913, p. 25). Finally, Knowles approached the definition of adult education from a social movement perspective stating that “adult education brings together into a discrete social system all the individuals, institutions, and associations concerned with the education of adults and perceives them as working toward the common goals of improving the methods and materials of adult learning, extending the opportunities for adults to learn, and advancing the general level of our culture” (Knowles, 1913, p. 25).
Clearly, consensus regarding a precise and succinct definition of adult education has not been reached. Rather, one must consider that the definition varies somewhat depending on such factors as context, purpose, perspective and audience. Perhaps the most pointed definition is offered by Courtney as he concludes, “Adult education is an intervention into the ordinary business of life — an intervention whose immediate goal is change, in knowledge or in competence” (Merriam & Cunningham. 1989, p.24).
The distinction between adult education and the education of adults is related to the arguments for categorizing adult education as a profession distinguishable from the everyday experiences in which adult learn and/or are instructed. Adult Education is defined as “part of a systematic, planned instructional program for adults . . .where an educational agent designs a sequence of tasks using specific learning procedures to help an adult achieve a mutually agreeable learning objective” (Verner and Booth, 1964, pp. 1–2). In contrast, Verner referred to all other naturally occurring, relatively unstructured learning events in the regular course of an adult’s daily life as contributing to the education of adults. Other theorists refer to this as informal adult learning while labeling the aforementioned adult education as either formal or nonformal adult learning, with the distinction being its operation within an established system.
Obviously, the concept of adult education is one that is difficult to pinpoint and objectify. Knowles points out that while the functions of adult education have existed in society since ancient times, the consideration of this as a separate professional field has only persisted since the foundation of the American Association for Adult Education in 1926 (Knowles, 1913). This has many far-reaching implications for both the field in general and the participants involved in its practice.
Any new field struggles first with questions of what it is and what it is not, and by exploring aspects of these dimensions, begins to hone its identity. Knowles attributes part of the ambiguity of purpose and definition to the fact that adult education is a relatively new field and is thus “still in the process of forming an identity that is separate from youth education, social work, counseling, and related fields of social practice (Knowles, 1913, p. 25). Therefore, at certain times and in certain contexts, the entity that is adult education will resemble one or more of these areas, while appearing much different at other times and in other contexts. Likewise, its areas of concern and its representatives will fluctuate in appearance, function and focus depending upon their origin and ultimate ideological destination. All this will serve the gradual process of evolution and development of the profession.
Boyd, R. D., Apps, J. W. & Associates. (1980). Redefining the discipline of adult education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Darkenwald, G. G. & Merriam, S. B. (1982). Adult education: Foundations of practice. New York: Harper & Row.
Knowles, M. S. (1913). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Liveright, A. A. & Haygood, N. (Eds). (1969). The Exeter papers. Chicago: Center for the Study of Liberal Education for Adults.
Merriam, S. B. & Cunningham, P. H. (Eds.). (1989). Handbook of adult and continuing education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Verner, C. & Booth, A. (1964). Adult education. Washington, D.C.: The Center for Applied Research in Education.
Psychological Perspectives on the Role of Motivation in Learning
There’s Actually a Mathematical Formula for Motivation
Psychology-Based Strategies for Increasing the Motivation to Learn
Nurturing Self-Management in the Classroom