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Editor’s Note: This study provides a number of viable answer for the question - What are the key, substantive differences between education and learning?

The Role of Adult Learning - Lifelong Learning
or Lifelong Education?

Myra Sellers

Who exactly is considered an adult learner and how does one become a member in this exclusive club? Johnstone and Rivera’s (1926) definition comes to mind: “the adult education participant is just as often a woman as a man, has completed high school or more….and is found in all parts of the country” (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999, p. 47). One of the most rapidly developing areas within education is the study and practice of education for and about adults. How can education continue to meet the needs and enhance the education process for adults?

The notion of learning through life is hardly new as a glance at Plato's Republic reveals. Plato's relevance to modern day informal educators can be seen at a number of levels. First, he believed, and demonstrated, that educators must have a deep care for the well-being and future of those they work with. Educating is a moral enterprise and it is the duty of educators to search for truth and virtue, and in so doing guide those they have a responsibility to teach.

Second, there is the 'Socratic teaching method'. The teacher must know his or her subject, but, as true philosophers, the teachers also know the limits of their knowledge. It is here that we see the power of dialogue - the joint exploration of a subject - 'knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning'.

Third, there is Plato’s interpretation of the differing educational requirements associated with various life stages. In his work the classical Greek concern was for body and mind. There was importance of exercise and discipline, of storytelling and games. Children enter school at six where they first learn the three Rs (reading, writing and counting) and then engage with music and sports. Plato's philosopher guardians then follow an educational path until they are 50. At eighteen they are to undergo military and physical training; at 21 they enter higher studies; at 30 they begin to study philosophy and serve the polis in the army or civil service. At 50 they are ready to rule. This is a model for what we now describe as lifelong education (indeed, some nineteenth century German writers described Plato's scheme as 'andragogy'). It is also a model of the 'learning society' - the polis is serviced by educators. It can only exist as a rational form if its members are trained - and continue to grow (Smith, 2001).

R. D. Waller (1956), in his book A Design for Democracy, describes a report from the Adult Education committee of the British Ministry of Reconstruction: “Adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there, nor as a thing which concerns only a short span of early manhood, but that adult education is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong” (1919: 55). This theme was also broadened in Eduard Lindman’s (1926) The Meaning of Adult Education. Along with his friend and colleague, John Dewey, Lindman argued that:

  1. Education is life: 'not merely preparation for an unknown kind of future living...The whole of life is learning, therefore education can have no endings. This new venture is called adult education not because it is confined to adults but because adulthood, maturity, defines its limits...' (p. 4-5).

  2. Adult education should be non-vocational: 'Education conceived as a process coterminous with life revolves about non-vocational ideals... adult education more accurately defined begins where vocational education leaves off. Its purpose is to put meaning into the whole of life' (ibid.: p. 5).

  3. We should start with situations not subjects: 'The approach... will be via the route of situations, not subjects... In conventional education the student is required to adjust himself to an established curriculum; in adult education the curriculum is built around the student's needs and interests' (ibid.: p. 6).

  4. We must use the learner's experience: 'The resource of highest value in adult education is the learner's experience... all genuine education will keep doing and thinking together' (ibid.: p. 6-7).

For many adults, learning is an ongoing and important part of their lives. With the development of a self-consciously 'adult education' came the view that education should be lifelong. Experience plays a huge role in whether or not the learning will continue to be important in the learner’s life. The perception of learning in certain groups and individuals has greatly varied. In the past, adults aged fifty or older viewed learning as of little value and working beyond sixty or sixty-five as unwarranted unless finances dictated. Health, environment, ethnic differences all played a part in the viewpoint of whether continued learning was necessary and still plays a part. Many of these attitudes were linked to a study by Moody (as cited in Lowy and O’Connor, 1986) suggesting that adults perceive learning from the vantage point of approximately how much time is left to live. Although never exact, this perspective of time dramatically influences educational goals of the adult.

Many adults, aged sixty to seventy, grew up in the pre-World War II era. Learning was taught, to a great extent, by the instructivist method, by a teacher and knowledge was in the possession of the teacher. Lesson plans were put into motion by the teacher and the material was learned and processed by the students. The students were assessed on their remembering the materials and the skills they possessed. Many students in this era by the seventh grade had dropped out of school out of necessity to go to work and help support their families. Many of these same students were called into armed services and went to serve their country during World War II. Some of the knowledge obtained, especially the reading and writing skills, was helpful during this time and was used by students in their jobs. But mastery of knowledge and schooling was not the most important thing in many families’ minds. Survival was the upper most concern and many students never returned to the classroom.

Adult learning has, since World War II, shifted. In the post-World War II era and with the introduction of the GI Bill of Rights, many adults saw the opportunity to, again, pick up pencil and paper (Sheppard, 2002). Higher education was seen as attainable and not just for the affluent. The common man and woman could actually have an education, increase their economic status in the community and their quality of life could be improved. It is for this that many adults chose to seek out educational opportunities.

Adult education is on the rise as is the demand for programs that are beneficial to the adult learner. Adult learners, for the most part, ask themselves self-assessment questions before beginning a task. Adults, typically, set for themselves a strategy of learning. The goal for most adult learners is that they understand and can apply the new information to their present lives. Adult learners will, for the most part, continually ask themselves if they understand the information being given them and whether the information meets their needs and expectations. Vocational changes lead to additional adult learning out of necessity because an even more apparent demand for adult education is supported by research that suggests a twenty-year-old can expect to make six to seven job changes over the course of a working career (Aslanian and Brickell, 1980).

“There are two perspectives that educators view with working with adults: the individual and the contextual. Until recently, the individual perspective, driven by the psychological paradigm, was the predominate way we thought about learning in adulthood. Two basic assumptions form the foundation for this perspective. The first is that learning is something that happens internally, primarily inside of our heads. In essence, the outside environment is given little if any attention in the way we think and learn. Second, this perspective is based on the assumption we can construct a set of principles and competencies that can assist all adults to be more effective learners, no matter what their background or current life situation” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999).

 The first assumption—that learning is something that happens internally, primarily inside our heads—was also expressed by Malcolm Knowles in his 1970 book, The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy vs. Pedagogy. He stated:

“there were four assumptions with adults and learning: self-concept, experience, readiness to learn and orientation to learning. The self-concept principle reflects the self-directing character of the adult learner rather than dependent nature of the child. The principle of experience simply acknowledges the need to draw on the adult's rich source of experience. In contrast, the pedagogical framework perceives the child as not possessing sufficient life experience to effectively incorporate into the learning environment. Readiness to learn indicates that adults differ from children in their developmental stage and as a result have special learning needs. The assumption implies that adult learning needs tend to focus more towards their social roles. On the other hand, pedagogy claims that the learning needs of children are geared towards physiological and mental development stages. Orientation to learning assumes that adults put more value on being able to practically apply their learning while pedagogy suggests that children naturally focus on postponing immediate application for future needs. These four sets of assumptions establish significant guidelines for creating adult learning environments” (p.39).

What then is the implication of higher education with respect to adult learning? Patricia Cranton (1994) states: "Perspectives on adult learning have changed dramatically over the decades. Adult learning has been viewed as a process of being freed from the oppression of being illiterate, a means of gaining knowledge and skills, a way to satisfy learner needs, and a process of critical self-reflection that can lead to transformation. The phenomenon of adult learning is complex and difficult to capture in any one definition” (pg. 3).

The adult population has become increasingly more visible mainly because of the increasing size of the group. Learning in an aging population has become an afterthought to some in the education field. Programs of study are offered as continuing education in community organizations, some educational institutions, and churches just to name a few. But the diversity of the programs does not compliment what is offered to younger students. Education for adults is seen as an add-on and outside the traditional learning establishment. Programs of study offered in traditional institutions do not relate to older non-traditional students in general areas of interest. While some educational institutions try, many fail to reach the masses. Manheimer, Snodgrass, and Moskow-McKenzie (1995) pointed out the lack of a single dominant model of older adult education: "Different groups have a stake in older adult education and related policies but view older adults and their education differently. For example, some educational organizations claim or accept responsibility for education which targets a certain group of citizens, older adults being one of them. Aging organizations, on the other hand, claim or accept responsibility for older adult programs that happen to be educational" (p. 121).

Adults want to contribute to their immediate community and society. They want to be seen as viable individuals and, because of age and experience, want their contributions to be seen as worthwhile. Moody (1976) presented a four-stage model of education for the older adult: (1) rejection, (2) social services, (3) participation, and (4) self-actualization. The first stage, rejection, reflects the isolation of the aged in modern societies, in which "old people are, functionally speaking, nonentities" (p. 3). The second stage, social services, defines older adult education as leisure-time activities. The third stage, participation, prepares older adults for new roles in society through breaking stereotypes of old age. The fourth stage, self-actualization, focuses on the potential of older people to psychologically grow through learning. Moody concluded that the most current educational programs were directed at stages three and four, encouraging educators to respond to the needs of the least needy aged. Throughout the past decades, how have educational programs succeeded? It appears success has not quite happened to the extent some hoped for.

In 1974, the Elderhostel program, a residential educational program for anyone over the age of 55, was created and has rapidly grown to enroll over 300,000 adult participants annually. Currently it offers instruction in more than 1,999 facilities, such as universities and colleges, in more than forty countries around the world (Mills, 1993). With the creation of such programs, adults have the opportunity of participating in beneficial instruction. But the growth of this program leads one to believe that many adults are participating in educational opportunities. This is not true. Only about 4 to 6 percent of senior adults participate in organized educational programs annually (Lowy and O'Connor, 1986). This is a very small percentage of a population that has the time and resources to participate. What can be done to encourage more participation in learning in the adult population? How can educators encourage adult learners to continue in their learning and development of knowledge?

Encouragement, the definition, according to the Encarta Dictionary, is “support of a kind that inspires confidence and a will to continue or develop.” The pursuit of an adult learner’s goals is different from a young person. Their learning is often self-directed—learners taking the responsibility to learn on their own, to teach themselves something where there is, in many instances, lack of the pressure of time. Adult learners, most often have sensible and logical abilities for planning and guiding their learning. Charles Hayes (1998) states that “when we fail to take control of our education, we fail to take control of our lives. Self-directed inquiry, the process of taking control of your own education... is the lifeblood of democracy” (xiv). Taking control brings the freedom to choose a path where a person would like to go.

In its broadest meaning, 'self-directed learning' describes, according to Malcolm Knowles (1975) a process:

... “in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” (p. 18).

Knowles (1975) puts forward three immediate reasons for self-directed learning in adults:

  1. “They enter into learning more purposefully and with greater motivation. They also tend to retain and make use of what they learn better and longer than do the reactive learners”(p. 14);

  2. “An essential aspect of maturing is developing the ability to take increasing responsibility for our own lives - to become increasingly self-directed” (p. 15); and

  3. 'Students entering into these programs without having learned the skills of self-directed inquiry will experience anxiety, frustration, and often failure, and so will their teachers”(15).

As Merriam and Cafferella (1991) comment, this means of conceptualizing the way we learn on our own is very similar to much of the literature on planning and carrying out instruction for adults in formal institutional settings. It is represented as a linear process. Learning then progresses as 'the circumstances created in one episode become the circumstances for the next logical step' (p. 46).

There has been a shift in much of the literature and policy discussions from lifelong education to lifelong learning. There has been an associated tendency to substitute the term adult learning for adult education (Courtney, 1989). One way is to view learning, as a thought process relating to the learner that can occur 'both incidentally and in planned educational activities', while, 'it is only the planned activities we call…education' (Merriam and Brockett 1997: 6). The shift may, as Courtney suggests, reflect a growing interest in learning, 'however unorganized, episodic or experiential' (ibid.), beyond the classroom. And as stated by Tom Bentley in The Economist (October 9, 1999), “it requires a shift in our thinking about the fundamental organizational unit of education, from the school, an institution where learning is organized, defined and contained, to the learner, an intelligent agent with the potential to learn from any and all of her encounters with the world around her” (pg. 42).

As the population continues to age and longer life expectancy fuels the education market for adults, educators will have to continue to look for new programs to entice adults to continue in their pursuit of lifelong learning or lifelong education whichever term is applicable. Educators must continue to strive to help students reach their goals because as Mark Smith (1996) states:

“Real poverty comes from settling for dreams defined by others while remaining bereft of our own.”


Aslanian, C.B., Brickell, H.M. (1980). Americans in transition: Life changes as reasons for adult Learning. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Bentley, T. (1998). Labour's learning revolution. The Economist, October 9, 1999, page 42.

Courtney, S. (1989) 'Defining adult and continuing education' in S. B. Merriam and P. M. Cunningham (eds.) Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 19.

Cranton, P. (1994). Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 3. 

Hayes, C. (1998) Beyond the American Dream: Lifelong learning and the search for meaning in a postmodern world. Wasilla: Autodidactic Press. 365 + xvii pages.

Johnstone, J.W.C., & Rivera, R.J. (1965).Volunteers for learning: A study of the educational pursuits of adults. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine.

Knowles, Malcolm S. (1970). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy. New York: Association Press. 39.

Knowles, Malcolm S. (1980) The Modern Practice of Adult Education. Revised and Updated. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Regents.

Lindeman, E. C. (1926) The Meaning of Adult Education. New York: New Republic. Republished in a new edition in 1989 by The Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education. 4-7.

Lowy, L., & O'Connor, D. (1986). Why education in the later years?. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company.

Manheimer, R. L., Snodgrass, D. D.,& Moskow-McKenzie, D. M.(1995). Older Adult Education. London: Greenwood Press. 121.

Merriam, S., and Brockett, R. (1997) The Profession and Practice of Adult Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 6.

Merriam, S. B. & Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 46-47.

Mills, E. S. (1993). The Story of Elderhostel. Hanover, N. H.: University Press of New England.

Ministry of Reconstruction (1919). Final Report of the Adult Education Committee, London: HMSO. Republished by University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education. 55.

Moody, H. R. (1976). "Philosophical Presuppositions of Education for Old Age." Educational Gerontology. 1(1), 1-16.

Moody, H. R.( 1993). "A Strategy for Productive Aging: Education in Later Life." In S. A. Bass, G. Caro, and Y. P.Chen (eds.), Achieving a Productive Aging Society. Westport, Conn.: Auburn House.

Sheppard, T. (2002). "The learning journey." Navy Supply Corps Newsletter. June-August, 2002. Available: http:/findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0NQS/is_3_65/ai_90624361

Smith, M. K. (1996, 2001). 'Lifelong learning', The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Available: http://www.infed.org/lifelonglearning/b-life.htm

Waller, R.(1956). A Design for Democracy. London: Max Parrish. 22.

About the Author

Myra Sellers is a graduate of the University of Alabama 2008, with a M. S. degree in Interactive Technology. She is presently pursuing a M.S. degree in Instructional Technology at Troy University, Montgomery, Alabama. She can be reached at: gsellers4540@gmail.com

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