November 15, 2007 at 4:02 pm (education, essays)

some definitions from week one of ED541, adult education:

There are many definitions of Adult Education in currency, however most of them share a limited number of aspects, which need definition themselves for the greater statement to have any meaning.

One could define training, learning, teaching, development, schooling, lifelong learning, continuing education, andragogy, recurrent education, nontraditional education, community education, community development, vocational education and liberal education, to compare or contrast adult education with each of them, but the bare necessities are ‘adult’ and ‘education’.

“A wide range of concepts is involved when we use the term ‘adult’. The word can refer to a stage in the live cycle of the individual; he or she is first a child, then a youth, then an adult. It can refer to status, an acceptance by society that the person concerned has completed his or her novitiate and is now incorporated fully into the community. It can refer to a social sub-set: adults as distinct from children. Or it can include a set of ideals and values: adulthood.” (Rogers (original emphasis) in Tight, p14.)

There is indeed a wide range of ways to define adults, but I don’t think any of these are relevant to who can use adult education, define it, or have it designed for them. I think we can bypass most of them by establishing internal, education-relevant criteria: an adult, in terms of a constituent of adult education, is anyone old enough to have left compulsory education. This way also, while to some extent linking with the arbitrary measure of age, allows for the age in question to vary in different societies, according to local customs. I would not however exclude anyone who considers themself adult from such a status.


“…the deliberate, systematic and sustained effort to transmit, evoke, or acquire knowledge, attitudes, values, or skills, as well as any outcomes of that effort” (Darkenwald & Merriam, p2.)

Here is a cautious, technical definition of education. It acknowledges the importance of reception, not just transmission of learning, and both content and ‘hidden curriculum’,

i) that ‘education’ implies the transmission of what is worthwhile to those who become committed to it;

ii) that ‘education’ must involve knowledge and understanding and some kind of cognitive perspective, which are not inert;

iii) that ‘education’ at least rules out some some procedures of transmission, on the grounds that they lack wittingness and voluntariness on the part of the learner.(Peters, in Tight, p16.)

This is a much more slippery definition, though with some valuable points to consider as it attempts to address finer details. It however acknowledges none of the important points of the previous quote, and is still concerned only with attributes and mechanics.

Adult Education:

Excluding school and tertiary education is a more concrete and specific assessment than merely non-formality, but Education is often defined by the purpose for which it is provided, but though education can exist without teachers, it cannot without learners. I think moreover that this is a very important point to guide our perspectives. I would be inclined to count training as a subset of education, rather than an opposition. This is particularly influenced by the possibilities, which I think very important to explore, of including broader, more cognitive aspects associated with education, in a course specifically designed to train for a narrower skill.

“Adult education is 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, p9.)

This definition, more or less a synthesis of the previous examples, gives a rough outline of the current situation. This however is not politically neutral as it is framed, in the era of economic rationalism. Looking back to earlier perspectives uncovers a mine of ideas from an entirely different perspective. These would not negate our previous definitions, but would find them appallingly limited and incomplete. I would have to agree.

The purpose of adult education “was to build democracy, to strengthen our resolve and our ability to reasonable participate in those decisions that affected our day-to-day lives.”(Lindeman, in Heaney, p565.)

It was “about problem-posing, thinking through, finding common meanings, and taking collective action.”(Heaney, p565.)

It is abundantly clear that adult education these days mostly operates without regard to these explicit ideals and goals. However there is always one or another political agenda being supported, if only implicitly. A social structure is always being maintained or resisted, a community positioned, fused or isolated, a group economically benefited or disadvantaged.

My definition:

I consider an actual definition of the term Adult Education is unnecessary. It is a complex, global phenomenon, and practitioners and theorists in different places and situations have as much right as us to define it according to their own needs and circumstances. A definition of the scope of our interest in Adult Education may be of value; I will hazard that we are interested in non-tertiary education used by people no longer in compulsory schooling, both for individual purposes including acquiring understanding, knowledge, attitudes, values or skills, and wider purposes including advancing or changing the nature of, or participation in, the social, political or economic system.


Tight, M. (2002). Chapter 1 “The Core Concepts” (pp. 12 – 36) in Key Concepts in Adult Education and Training, London: Routledge (second edition).

Darkenwald, G.G. and Merriam S.B. (1982). Chapter 1: “Adult Education” (pp. 1 – 34) in Adult Education: Foundations of Practice, New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

Heaney, T.W. (2000). Chapter 36: “Adult education and society” (pp. 559 – 572) in Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education by Wilson, A.L. and E.R. Hayes (eds.), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.


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