Adult Learning and Development

Historical connections to emerging practice in adult education

Adult education pioneer Malcolm S. Knowles (2005) observed that, while the foundation of the western education system is built on “the art and science of teaching children”, the great teachers of history have been teachers of adults, not children. Aristotle, Confucius, the Buddha, the Christ, the Hebrew prophets, and Plato used processes of active inquiry that contrast significantly with the passive reception model that dominates traditional education. For example, Jesus used parables to help followers discover meaning and truth. Chinese and Hebrews applied a case method through which a group member would pose a problem for the group to explore and resolve. Using Socratic dialogue, the Greeks posed questions or dilemmas to groups and asked the members to find an answer or solution by pooling experience. The Romans challenged members to state and defend positions.

The ancient focus on adult learners began to shift in the seventh century with the introduction of cathedral and monastic schools. With the primary purpose to indoctrinate youth, the monastic schools focused on conditioning rather than inquiry. The set of assumptions about teaching youth become known as pedagogy, meaning “the art and science of teaching children” (Knowles M. S., 1968). Pedagogy became the dominant model of education in the western world and is the foundation of the American educational system.

While teachers in philosophical, religious, and political realms continued to apply the adult teaching practices introduced by the ancients, western education systems became frozen in the pedagogical model. Traditional education essentially ignored the adult. The few educational opportunities provided for adults were essentially considered as a means to provide adults with something they should have had as children and taught adults as if they were children (Knowles, Holton III, & Swanson, 2005, p. 61). This process was likely exacerbated by influential theorists like Freud and Piaget who proposed that all human development stops at adulthood and cognitive models suggesting that adulthood is a state of intellectual decline.

While such conclusions may seem counter-intuitive to adults who have experienced growth and transformation at all stages of life, researchers tended to ignore the unique characteristics of adult learners until Thorndike published research showing that adults could learn. Sorenson and Thorndike provided a scientific foundation for developing adult education programs by showing how adults and children have different interests and abilities. Influenced by John Dewey, Lindeman (1926; Brookfield, 1995) laid an artistic foundation for adult education by offering the following key assumptions of adult learners:

  • adults are motivated to learn by satisfying needs and interests;
  • adult learning is life-centered;
  • the richest source for adult learning is personal experience;
  • adults need to be autonomous, and;
  • individual differences increase with age.

The concept of adult education did not gain the full attention of educators until the late 1960s (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007) when Malcolm Knowles (1968) introduced andragogy, a set of assumptions that differentiated adult learning as being different from child learning. Adult education has since become a major and growing emphasis in education, spawning numerous non-traditional programs designed to meet the developmental needs of adults, compelling traditional education institutions to transform programs for a flood of adult learners into higher education programs, and providing all institutions the opportunity to rediscover ancient techniques and develop new processes to meet the developmental needs in emerging learning environments.