Adult Learning Theory Research Paper Starter

Adult Learning Theory

The number of adult learning programs has exploded over the past couple of decades. Cooperative extension, continuing education, and language learning programs, as well as professional schools, community colleges, and specialized degrees in various technologies, offer those seeking practical skills opportunities for advancement and for 'existential' growth. The dominant models of adult education are critical pedagogies and market-based pedagogies. Critical models are a force that fosters meaningful social action, while market-based pedagogies reinforce the norms of the dominant culture through practices of scientific management. Presently, there is a lack of definitive research on adult learning and on effective adult educational models. It is generally agreed, however, that the 'staying in school strategy' is the most effectual at promoting, encouraging, and sustaining literacy.

Keywords Andragogy; Critical Pedagogy; Human Capital Theory; Lifelong Learning; Literacy; Market-Based Pedagogies; Performativity; Postmodernism


Theoretical Foundations of Adult Education

The number of adult learning programs has exploded over the past couple of decades. Cooperative extension, continuing education, and language learning programs, as well as professional schools, community colleges, and specialized degrees in various technologies, offer those seeking practical skills opportunities for advancement. Adult learning, also referred to as experiential, self-directed, or collaborative learning, is a "force for constructive social action" (Sheridan, 2007, p. 9). At a time when new forms of production have eliminated a significant portion of manufacturing jobs (Tisdell, 2007) and in which expanding communication networks have eliminated many service sector positions, adult learning empowers individuals to cultivate other talents and to counter such oppressive economic and political forces (Sheridan, 2007).

The adult educational landscape is dominated by theorists and by practitioners of critical pedagogy and by systems that perpetuate pedagogies founded in economic principles of market systems. Market-driven educational initiatives view the individual as a human "resource" that must be trained for maximum work output and efficiency (Kaufman & Geroy, 2007). This model is widely employed in workplace training and in vocational education programs. Critical pedagogies challenge this purely economic conception of education, and aim to use education as a tool towards empowerment and emancipation from market-based mandates.

Adult Learning in a Postmodern World: Foundations of a Critical


Much of the research in the field of adult education centers around the notion of emancipation, of resistance to an imposed order, of finding personal ways of understanding the world, of not relying on the interpretation of the collective masses (Freire, 1971). The theoretical foundations of these new, postmodern ideas lie in critical theory, a philosophy born out of the work of social studies theorist and activist Karl Marx (1818-1883). Postmodernity is a movement that developed as a reactionary opposition to modern thinking and sensibilities. The modern age is generally understood as the period spurred in the 19th century by the Enlightenment and by the consequent period of industrialization (Usher et al., 1997). Modernity is rooted in rationalism and in the notion of absolute, formal truth, and is characterized by optimism, progress, unity of purpose, uniformity, and order.

In the present, contexts have shifted-the industrial revolution has been eclipsed by the "techno-scientific revolution," by markets "[becoming] volatile and fragmented," and by a shift in the general understanding of truth. The 'grand narrative' (Lyotard, 1984) prescribed by those in positions of power has begun to unravel, giving way to new emphases such as individuality, personal meaning-making, and intersections of multiple meaning structures (Usher et al., 1997, p. 3).

The postmodern condition is best understood through the lens of critical theory. Critical frameworks aim to unsettle traditional understandings and to reexamine them within a context of constantly changing landscapes. Critical theorists dissect and analyze currently accepted ways of thinking, exposing the power structures inherent in collective knowledge formation. Making sense of the ways in which those in power generate, shape, and control the dissemination of knowledge is the central focus of critical theory (Foucault, 1977; Foucault, 1978). Critical theory in practice empowers the oppressed to liberate themselves from mass mentalities and to transform themselves and their communities (Freire, 1971).

Many critical theorists rely solely on reason to counter authoritarian, hierarchical conceptions of power-they envision emancipation as a reason-driven process (Callahan, 2004). Others, as the German musician-philosopher Theodore Adorno (1903-1969), propose that emotional life plays as important a role as reason in the revealing of power-knowledge structures (1978). Emotions drive individual actions; collective individual actions propel social change. Emotion can thus be thought of as a 'catalyst' of social transformation (Callahan, 2004).

Adult Education

Critical theory, whether grounded in reason, emotion, or both, and as applied within postmodern contexts, forms the foundation of current adult education theories and research (Usher et al., 1997). Critical pedagogy, or popular pedagogy, is a new mode of thinking about teaching and learning developed out of efforts to educate disadvantaged adults (Freire, 1971). Like all forms of pedagogy, the newly emergent critical adult learning perspective reflects the currents of the current age (Sheridan, 2007).

A Form of Social Action

Today, the preeminent concerns in the field of adult education are characterized by shifting knowledge structures and by new emphases on meaning and language. The postmodern transformation of societal, cultural, and economic values has led to a critical pedagogy that understands the construction of meaning as a collective enterprise and the grasping of meaning as a personal endeavor that reflects one's background, interests, socio-economic status, and other individual features and characteristics (Tisdell, 2007).

Adult (critical) pedagogy is a form of social action and change. Adult education aims to reach individuals who have not previously had the opportunity to learn the practical skills they need to make them competitive market-players (Sheridan, 2007). Adult education programs include professional, graduate, and community college programs, vocational training, English language learning courses, technical training-often, in online environments, and others. As individuals gain skills and confidence to liberate themselves from structures and classes imposed on them by the greater order, they are able to recognize and think about their existential condition (Houle, 1984).

Lifelong Learning

Awareness of existential themes leads to a conception of learning as lifelong. As learning is a process of acquiring and assimilating new ways of understanding and thinking, it naturally occurs over the span of a life (Houle, 1984). Lifelong learning programs address the need of adults in a postmodern age to 'existentially' explore possibilities for further personal growth. These programs generally serve those who are already in command of the practical skills they need (Sheridan, 2007).

Engagement in conscious lifelong learning processes is difficult for those pursuing adult education and for those who do not have enough resources to meet their basic needs (Sheridan, 2007). These individuals do not have the luxury of time and material needs at their disposal-this type of adult education program tends to concentrate on gaining practical skills and experience, and those who do not have their needs met are interested primarily in meeting these needs (Sheridan, 2007).


The notion that learning occurs throughout a lifetime is transforming modern theories of pedagogy, and many envision lifelong learning as the next educational revolution (Houle, 1984). Lifelong learning programs introduce adults into the educational continuum previously dominated by children and teens. Teaching adult students requires consideration of a multitude of factors, not always present in classes of young students that refine and redefine notions of learning. Andragogy refers to the notion that adult pedagogy is distinct from and is not grounded in child or teen pedagogies. Adults bring maturity of thinking, varied life experiences, focus, and responsibility into the classroom, for example, dynamically shifting the power-knowledge structure towards a more equitable one (Knowles, 1950; Knowles, 1970).

Before individuals can fully embrace lifelong learning, however, they must be free to seek existential expression. This freedom can only exist in instances in which individuals are emancipated. Emancipation is possible as adults gain new and refine old skills, a process facilitated by adult education programs. Emancipation is, however, threatened by consumer-based pedagogies and adult learning programs, as these define educational purposes, means, and foundations in terms of capital, value, and performativity (Tisdell, 2007).

Emancipation through Economic, Political, Cultural,


The process of liberation from economic, political, and cultural impositions is challenged by the values, conceptions, and beliefs that intensify the perpetuation of oppressive structures. The postmodern age is increasingly characterized by globalization, by an overload of information and choice, and by the consumerism these realities nurture and proliferate (Tisdell, 2007). Today, commodities are 'culturally dominant'-individuals shape their identities around what they are able to afford. Many minority and immigrant groups, for example, understand empowerment as financial autonomy (Usher, 1997). This culture of commodities is enabled by the presence of images and by intense marketing efforts (Usher, 1997). Critical theorist Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) proposed that the dominating culture subjugates minority groups by bombarding them with market-biased images and information (1991).

Market-Based Pedagogies


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