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Reflection on Adult Education and Its Philosophies

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3395 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Before pursuing courses in adult education, it had been a while since I considered educational philosophy and what specifically my particular style entailed. When assigned this task, I assumed it would be easy to determine, ‘right?’ not so much, given the fact that my career has been in a pedagogical centered environment, adult education was a new concept and required reflection and hours of research.

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Entering the education profession over 20 years ago, education to me, meant an adult standing in front of the classroom lecturing (‘sage on the stage’ mentality) to the students or demonstrating on the chalkboard, occasionally, calling a student to the board to duplicate the steps, and assigning textbook exercises. There did not seem to be much adjusting of pace or differentiated instruction to meet the needs of learners, it was generic, focused on presenting the content and geared toward students with auditory learning styles with very few cues for the visual or kinesthetic learners. After substituting for several years prior to starting a full-time career as an educator, I learned that attitudes towards instructional methods were changing and becoming more focused on the student needs; therefore, encouraging me to want to be a part of the educational system. I wanted to be a witness to that “ah-ha moment” when understanding was achieved and be involved in helping students (learners) prepare for future careers.

Based on the information gathered and the acceptance that adult education is still considered a novel field to traverse, the questions: “what qualifies as adult education?”, “who are its learners?”, and “what are their reasons for continued learning” (Bierema, 2011) should be addressed before being able to commit to a specific philosophy.

Adult Education and Its Purpose

In the 19th century, adult education (through apprenticeships and lyceums) surfaced as an evolving concept and its philosophies continuously consulted in order to solidify a definition for adult learners, and their various reasons for continuing education throughout their lifetime. The dialogue presented throughout this course points to several views on the concept of adult education; however, no one specific ideology, nor consensus, is concrete to the field (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p. 215). This brings about the challenge of categorizing adult education (formal, informal, or non-formal) and establishing the roles of educator, student, and the educational system (Merriam & Brockett, 2007). Even more problematic is the task of committing to a personal educational philosophy when assuming the role of the adult educator.

Before being able to declare a specific philosophy of adult education some semblance of a definition and purpose are needed. Malcolm Knowles (2015), established the theory of andragogy, “helping adults learn,” to distinguish adult education from pedagogy, “teaching children” and to aid in outlining concepts for adult learning. The dilemma has been how to determine what adult education encompasses (Merriam & Brockett, 2007). Arguably, adult education, also associated with ‘continuing education’, ‘recurrent education’ or ‘life-long learning education’(UNESCO, 2015), is a broad field that enfolds all types of learning events ‘in response to specific requirements’ pursued through formal (college, university, or vocational institutions), non-formal (community centers), or informal (i.e. YouTube videos on how to change a flat tire) settings (Merriam & Brockett, 2007). Even the internet, as well as our authors, offers multiple explanations, stating that it takes on different meanings depending on the individual describing it (2007, p. 16-17; Danlami, n.d), whether work-based learning (professional development/training), personal interest (i.e. learning to play guitar), or in pursuit of a formal degree (i.e. for career advancement or status). My viewpoint of adult education’s definition/purpose is that it is aimed at those who are regarded as adults (by their society), and structured to help learners acquire or update their knowledge, skills/competencies in a specific field, or to enhance their economic status (enrich individual effectiveness in society) through completion of the next level of education. To briefly summarize, adult education’s theories focus on learning and teaching under the assumption that adults are driven to learn, they are willing to take responsibility for their learning, and that the learning itself should contribute to personal growth (“Adult”, n.d.).

Characterizing Adult Learners and Their Role

In the context of attempting to describe adult learners themselves, the terms goal/career-oriented, self-directed, equipped with life experiences, need for learning to be relatable/relevant, and need for respect, are just a few characterizations mentioned (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2015). Knowles (2015) suggests that adults are motivated to learn founded on life circumstances (job/career progression), situational differences (experience/stimuli, goals), and influences from social background (culture/upbringing), therefore, their learning should be meaningful in order to encourage gaining of new knowledge (Waller, 2013). For example, consider an adult who has decided to learn about car maintenance in order to save money, thus indicating there is a personal need/reason for the learning (gaining of knowledge). Another situation for adult learning could be due to a life change, such as losing a job and therefore, having to find a new one. Therefore, I consider the adult learner’s role as a student to be one of taking responsibility for their learning in order to not only contribute to their own personal growth but for the betterment of their community, family, and society, this is echoed in the humanistic adult education philosophy (Zinn, 1998).

Why Adults Pursue New Knowledge

To answer the question of why adults continue to learn, possible reasons to gain new knowledge (epistemology, study of the nature of knowledge) may be to empower them in overcoming barriers such as, poverty, discrimination, social status, skepticism (the uncertainty of being able to accomplish a task), or the need to adapt in a career/job (p. 231-232). Our text (p. 46) defines knowledge as “the meaning people make out of their own experiences.” Oftentimes, adults assess their prior knowledge (“this is what I already know…”) in order to determine a way towards gaining a deeper understanding of the experience (reflective thought/self-actualization) and how it will help them grow personally or professionally, classified under the humanistic educational purpose (Labr.net, 2016).  I agree with our authors, Merriam and Brockett (2007), that knowledge plays a defining role as a major concept of adult education in regards to social change (radical adult education philosophy). For instance, in collecting (i.e. reflecting) information about the field of adult education for this assignment, with the aim of reaching a broader understanding, I gained a clearer picture of my beliefs on the area of education and how my personal life influences instructional approach when teaching. Another explanation of why adults may choose to glean new knowledge is just for the sake of the experience, i.e. learning to skydive or take a ballroom dancing class (informal education).  It is also stated that adults are inspired to learn through social interaction (community) and may draw from their prior experiences in ways that are not accomplished through formal instruction (Merriam & Brockett, 2007). Therefore, there must be a connection between the adult learner and the knowledge being presented in order for actual learning to take place and should be a consideration when forming an educational philosophy.

Philosophies of Adult Education

In order to isolate my own philosophy of adult education, I reviewed the five philosophies introduced in our course; behavioral (behavioral change), humanistic (self-actualization), liberal arts (intellectual development), progressive (practical problem solving), and radical (social change). Notably, characteristics listed under each concept corresponds with context from Knowles’ core adult learning principles (2015), which is echoed in the humanistic and progressive philosophies. Additionally, rooted within the progressive approach, is Dewey’s concept of experiential knowledge (2017) and in Kolb’s experiential learning (1984; Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p. 153) there is evidence of the humanistic ideology, whereas, Mezirow’s transformational learning (2000; Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p. 141) hints at humanistic and radical perspectives. These philosophies, considered foundational, offer descriptive outlines for the focus of adult education, the roles of the learner and educator (Elias & Merriam, 1995). 

Looking at the behaviorist concept first, Zinn (1998) describes it to be fixed toward conditioning individuals through environment manipulation with set learning objectives, standards-based education) as well as, assessing/evaluating what is learned (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p. 38). Educators teaching under the behaviorist philosophy might use methods such as, planned instruction, contract learning, skill/vocational training (military), and computer-guided instruction (Labr.net, 2016), to promote/reinforce learning of expected and desired behaviors; however, this philosophy seems the most restrictive, holding both teacher and student responsible for the success of the outcome.

Challenging the behaviorist ideology, the humanist philosophy (‘humans are naturally moral and exercise choice in determining their behavior’) draws from the Italian Renaissance and Enlightenment eras (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p. 39-41) and promotes self-actualization (experiential learning) and individuality, as well as, encourages experiential learning (Zinn, 1998). Humanistic learners are believed to have an obligation towards humanity and viewed as determined and self-directed (Labr.net, 2016). Adult educators incorporating the humanist approach work side by side with students to promote their individualized learning instead of controlling it, and incorporate team teaching, or group discussions (Zinn, 1998). This philosophy is “concerned with the growth of the whole person (holistic in nature) with an emphasis upon the emotional (feelings) dimension of the personality” (Elias & Merriam, 1995, p.109). When framing an adult education philosophy the humanistic approach seems the most flexible.

The oldest of the ideologies for adult education, dating back to Greek, medieval Christian, and the Enlightenment eras, is liberal arts education (classical humanism) focusing on comprehensive knowledge through cultural and moral themes, promoting conceptual thinking (analyze critically), religion, and the humanities (fine arts) through courses in philosophy, literature, economics, and science (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, pg. 33; Labr.net, 2016). Adler, mentioned as a key philosopher in the Great Books program, deems liberal education as the best fit for lifelong learning (p. 34). The teachers’ noticeable role in this philosophy is characterized as ‘directing the learning process’ (Labr.net, 2016) with authority. The learners’ role under the liberal education philosophy is that of continuously seeking knowledge from culture, artistic, economic, and political context.

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Sharing some of its ideology with liberal adult education, the progressive viewpoint (drawing from pragmatism) underscores societal well-being (change in society) and individual effectiveness as an approach to learning (Elias & Merriam, 1995). Its learners implement problem-solving and practical knowledge (doing, inquiring, being involved) thereby responding to real-life problems (Zinn, 1998). Merriam and Brockett (2007, p. 35) outline the progressive approach as ‘regarding knowledge from observation and experience instead of through institutions’. Its educators establish a collaborative (teamwork) environment and prefer instructional methods such as scientific, problem-based learning, and cooperative learning (Labr.net, 2016).

Lastly, the newest concept is radical (critical) adult education philosophy, like the progressive view, it touts an obligation to social change pinpointed through social, political, and economic education; however, disagreement is with the democratic system, calling for it to be replaced with less oppressive ideology (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, pg. 43; Labr.net, 2016).  Its educational platform often occurs externally from mainstream higher education agendas with it teachers preferring to coordinate or make suggestions, using such teaching methods as exposure to media and real-life situations ((Labr.net, 2016), as well as promoting an equal collaboration their learners. Within the radical concept, the role of adult education is to help empower its learners through awareness in order to overcome barriers (i.e. oppression based on gender, race, or social status) of a dominating society. The stigma attached to the radical philosophy has been directed towards politicizing adult education (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, pg. 43-46).

 Personal Philosophy of Adult Education

Finally, to the point of analyzing my own beliefs and where my educational philosophy originates. Oftentimes what educators believe and what they truly practice is conflicted; therefore, it is imperative to declare an educational philosophy to serve as a road map for guiding decisions on instructional methods and curriculum (Tisdell & Taylor, 2001). Results from taking the Philosophy of Adult Education Inventory (PAEI) showed that my principles aligned mostly with progressive adult education values (Labr.net, 2016) rating the highest (84%). Upon identifying this philosophy, I began to take into account the roles of the learner and teacher, as well as the purpose. Having taught computer science for many years the progressive adult education philosophy makes sense, focusing on the critical thinking and problem solving methodology of instruction.

Agreeably, the liberal philosophy (79%) is a close second since I like to make sure there is clear direction to the learning and to encourage critical reading and discussion in the lessons (Labr.net, 2016). The scores also point out that there is not a wide margin between the liberal and behaviorist philosophies (76%). On the behavioral philosophy side, “compliance with standards and societal expectations” (Labr.net, 2016) has been a crutch to lean on when getting through the day with high school students. Drawing on the humanistic philosophy (68%), I would like to believe my students are highly motivated however, this is not often the case for high school students; therefore, my role as facilitator and helper is usually in overdrive.

However, coming from a pedagogical centered environment, there was no surprised on the score in the radical adult education section being the lowest but I would not have thought it to be 57%. The idea of equality between teacher and learner in the high school environment makes me a little uncomfortable but I acknowledge that when dealing with adults it becomes an area to consider.

In all honesty, if I had taken this survey eight years ago, I would score much higher in the liberal education section. I tended to focus more on the importance of the material and using a top-down/teacher in full “sage on the stage” mentality but after a few professional development seminars, notably the paradigm shifted to the progressive mixed with humanistic education philosophy (more concern for the needs of the learner), which seems to have worked much better.


Notably, adult education has made progress on the international front and will continue to thrive, regardless of the numerous issues (i.e. professionalization of the field) still debated. Educators must still seek to define what role they play in the adult education field and how to address the needs of the learner whether through formal, informal, or non-formal education.

According to the reading, the importance of having a base (framework) or educational path seems necessary for educators in order to be able to define goals/objectives for what is to be taught and how best to approach the target learners (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p. 28-29). The statement is also made in the text that by adopting a philosophy in teaching, educators can contribute to the field by uniting theory to practice (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p. 30). Therefore, having an educational philosophy helps to set the path for the adult educator but notably, it is not so concrete that it cannot change and evolve over time.


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