Adult Learning and Development

Practical integration of divergent theories in adult higher education practice

While each classification of adult education programs may seem mutually exclusive, any one may serve a role for considering options in an adult education program; however, no single philosophy alone seems to be prescriptive, while some philosophies are finding interesting applications in surprising environments. Applications of Marxist theory in capitalist organizations provide an example of a surprising application. Marxism has traditionally been a philosophy intended to bring down capitalist institutions. However, having proven an effective philosophy for governments to control entire populations, elements of Marxist theory have emerged in western capitalist organizations packaged as “Organizational Theory”, which provides organizations with strategies to effectively align the activities of individuals and groups to collectively work to meet organizational objectives.

Toward pluralism

Regarding the myopic limitations of relying on a single philosophy for academic programs, adult education practice in the United States leans toward pluralism rather than dogmatism, as reflected in arguments proposed by Houle (1996) for pragmatic utilitarianism, Cross (1981) for practice to match the characteristics of the learner, and Maehl (2000) to apply practices relevant to context, as follows:

Pragmatic utilitarianism

After identifying six philosophies upon which planners tend to design educational programs, Houle (1996) asserted that none of the philosophies dominates adult education. Houle proposed that practitioners not consider a single approach but that they adopt flexible planning that accommodates a broad range of approaches, while applying the specific application for each event. In this “pragmatic utilitarianism” the learning goal drives the choice of credo and application (pp. 70-71). Divergent philosophies help to guard against dogmatism, while allowing the market to meet the diverse needs and interests of adult learners.

Characteristics of the learning

Cross (1981) argues that learning programs should address the unique needs of the learner rather than the philosophical needs of the institution. Cross attempts to integrate androgogy, experiential learning, and lifespan psychology to identify the distinctive personal and situational Characteristics of Adult Learners (CAL), as follows:

  • both positive and negative factors influence motivation;
  • anticipated learning outcomes affect participation;
  • a need for security precedes the need for achievement, and;
  • the expectation of reward affects motivation.

According to Cross’ CAL model, adult learning programs should do the following:

  • build on the experience of participants;
  • adapt to age limitations of the participants;
  • challenge learners to increasingly advance through personal developmental stages;
  • provide choice in availability and organization of learning programs.

In short, effective adult educational programs will center on applying the combination of theories that meet the unique needs of the adult learners.


Maehl (2000) builds on Cross’ observations by pointing out that no single theory is adequate by itself. Various methods carry validity as long as they are “deliberate, respectful of the educational ends sought and cognitive of the circumstances of the learning event” (p. 39). Merriam, et al (2007) echo that no single philosophy explains adult learning; rather, most theories seem interconnected, with each providing elements that allow educators to build an eclectic practice that meets the needs of the situation.

Adapting adult education to the needs of a dynamic environment

Vaill (1996; Maehl, 2000, p. 24) sees traditional education as a “system for indoctrination and control” that is insufficient for meeting the needs of individuals, organizations, and society to continuously learn. While the era of lifetime employment upon graduation seems to be anachronistic, Vaill asserts that lifelong learning is becoming “a way of being…never over or complete”; the more an individual learns the more he will realize what he does not know. These forces are driving a shift from traditional education through institutions for the masses toward perpetual learning that is integrated into all aspects of life to meet the developmental needs of individuals, organizations, and society.

Somewhat to the derision of traditional institutions, the last generation has seen many non-traditional and for-profit programs rise to meet the needs of perpetual learners (Berg, 2005). While laying the foundation for traditional institutions to follow, the non-traditional programs seem to also be taking on some traditional characteristics as they mature. For example, University of Phoenix grew from a degree-completion institution for working adults in 1976 to become one of the largest comprehensive private universities in the world with program accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission matching revered traditional institutions like Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame (The Higher Learning Commission, 2008) and accreditation from the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs for its business programs, a prestige held by only 109 institutions in 2008 (Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs, 2008).

Meanwhile, as traditional educators generally disdain non-traditional programs, traditional institutions are taking note of the large influx of students into non-traditional programs, and are attempting to adapt best practices from non-traditional institutions to remain relevant in a dynamically changing environment (Berg, 2005). For example, through Berg’s Lesson from the Edge, the American Council of Education has published recommendations for transforming traditional universities based on a thorough analysis of for-profit and non-traditional education programs. Adult programs in traditional environments benefit when they implement an autonomous structure that clearly addresses the needs of adult learners while remaining aligned with the organizational purpose. Adult learning programs that operate with relative autonomy within traditional institutions include The School for Professional Studies at Regis and the accelerated degree program at Thomas More (Maehl, 2000, p. 278).