A definition of “adult education”

In The Profession and Practice of Adult Education (2007), Sharan Merriam and Ralph Brockett broadly define “adult education” as “virtually any activity for adults designed to bring about learning” (8). More specifically, they define adult education as:

activities intentionally designed for the purpose of bringing about learning among those whose age, social roles, or self-perception define them as adults (8).

As to the difference between adult education and adult learning, Merriam and Brockett define adult learning as “a cognitive process internal to the learner,” and can include “unplanned” and “incidental” learning experiences (5-6).  This is different than “adult education,” which is a systematic, organized and planned activity, designed with an intent to facilitate learning (6).

Merriam and Brockett note that there are “a number” of related terms and concepts associated with adult education in North America (10-15):

continuing education:  The definition of this term interchangeable with a broad definition of adult education (10).  This term (or “adult and continuing education”) is becoming used more often to describe the broad field of adult education in general (11).  However, “continuing education” can imply professional development, and “adult education” can imply “adult basic education” (10-11).  “Continuing education” can include programs offered by community colleges, vocational/technical schools and universities “that extend beyond the daytime programs serving students of traditional college age” (12).

human resource development (HRD): refers to “the training, education, and development of employees in the workplace” (10).

adult secondary education: for “adults whose skills are above eight-grade level but who have not graduated from high school” (12).

adult basic education: “refers to instructional programs for adults who basic skills (reading, writing, and computation) are assessed below the ninth-grade level” (11-12).

adult literacy education: “focuses on adults whose basic skills are fourth-grade level or below” (12).

university extension: may be referred to as “continuing education and can include programs offered by community colleges, vocational/technical schools and universities “that extend beyond the daytime programs serving students of traditional college age” (12).

nontraditional education: “refers to the variety of ways in which adults can receive credit toward a degree in higer education,” and “can include transfer credit, credit for experiential learning and credit by examination” (12).

community education: “may refer to any formal or informal action-oriented or problem-solving education that takes place in the community” (13).  This term may also refer to attempts to make “neighborhood public schools centers for educational, cultural, and recreational activity for people of all ages” (13).

community services: “usually refers to noncredit leisure course and cultural activities, particularly in a community college setting” (12).

formal education: “refers to educational institutions including all levels of schools both private and public, as well as specialized programs offering technical and professional training” (14, citing Coombs).

informal education: “generally unplanned, experience-based, incidental learning that occurs in the process of people’s daily lives” (14, citing Coombs).

nonformal education: “any organized educational activity outside the established formal system … that is intended to serve identifiable learning clienteles and learning objectives” (14, citing Coombs).  This terms may also refer to “community-based or community development efforts” (15).

popular education:  In North America, this term may refer to “nonformal education” (15), but in Latin America, it may refer to “education which is designed for the people by the people” (15, citing Jarvis), and in parts of Europe, this term may refer to traditional adult education (15).

Merriam and Brockett then turn to concepts associated with the practice of adult education (15), including:

andragogy: “the art and science of helping adults learn” (15, citing Knowles).

self-directed learning: “learning in which “the learner chooses to assume the primary responsibility for planning, carrying out, and evaluating those learning experiences” (16, citing Caffarella).

program: “the content – usually in a particular sequence – that is envisioned for a group of students to learn” (16).  “Schools and postsecondary institutions” generally refer to this as the “curriculum,” but when related to adult education, the preferred term is “program” (16).  The term “program” broadly refers to “the total educational offerings of an institution or agency […], activities designed for a particular clientele […], or a specific topical activity…” and can range “from ongoing programs to semester-length offerings to one-hour workshops.” (16)

facilitator: this term is preferred by adult educators instead of “teacher” or “instructor” because it “denotes a more collaborative, student-centered mode of interaction” (16).

practitioner: “refers to anyone involved at whatever level in the planning and implementation of learning activities for adults,” and is “generally interchangeable” with the term “adult educator” (16).

adult educator: this term is “quite broad and … reflects what “counts” to the person doing the defining” (16).  Merriam and Brockett suggest that “[l]ooking at the overall goals and purposes of one’s practice is one way of situating oneself in the field; it is also another way of asking what counts in adult education” (17).

There are some additional terms that I am adding to this list because they are relevant to the current trends and potential future of adult education:

technagogy: I first read about this term on the blog Tales from a Grad Student, by AJ Barse.  Barse defines the term as “the method and practice of teaching through modern technology, esp. as an academic subject or theoretical concept.”  In reference to part of the Knowles definition cited above by Merriam and Brockett, I think it is fair to describe technagogy as “the art and science of helping people learn with Internet technology.”

internet learning theory: I consider this term similar to “technagogy” and have started tagging posts on this blog with the terms “internet learning theory” and “internet learning theories.”  One of the ideas involved is that the Internet facilitates a new kind of learning that is a substantial improvement on the kinds of learning facilitated by “traditional” educational activities.

An example of technagogy in action is the development of this post.  One of the concepts that I am looking closely at these days is the idea that web technology and the Internet can facilitate an “active” learning experience.  Creating a glossary of terms is one way that I can actively engage with the material assigned for my class – I am reading the material closely and recreating it in a form that I find easier to understand than the way it is presented in the book. I’ve spent a fair amount of time creating this post, and consider it worthwhile given how these concepts are going to come up repeatedly over the course of my schoolwork and my career as an educator.

I think that the ‘recreating’ process is a “deep” and “active” form of learning; it reminds me of making outlines for classes in law school and the bar exam – the outline itself can be helpful for identifying the key concepts and the overall structure of the information, but it is the process of creating the outline that felt like the most significant learning experience.  To use terms associated with the practice of education, skipping the creative process involved in making an outline (for example, by only studying an outline created by someone else) can lead to “superficial learning,” and denies the student the active engagement with the material that comes with recreating it into a different form.

Placing this glossary online with an open comments section can facilitate a discussion about the information presented, including references to additional information, related questions or comments and an overall opportunity to continue the creative process.  In addition, anyone can link to this post as a part of a related discussion.  For example, when I respond to the online discussion question about my definition of adult education, which is posted on the Blackboard site for my class, I can include a link to this post as part of my answer.

Overall, this blog helps me keep track of, develop and reflect on ideas related to my studies in graduate school.  It is a tool that I find helpful to my learning experience.  Internet technology allows me to personalize the design of my notes and research in a system that works for me, and the same technology allows other people to choose their own design according to what works for them.

To be continued…

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One Response to “A definition of “adult education””

  1. Steve Rosenbaum Says:

    In the training and development field, this is a very popular point of argument. It’s a lot like the what’s a sport and what isn’t. In practice, most of these words are now used interchangeably with a few others like training added in.

    Next time you’re on a plane, ask the question: Do you hope the pilot is well educated or well trained? Is 90% a good enough score on the pilot test or is 100% a minimum?


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