Adult education

Adult education is a practice in which adults engage in systematic and sustained self-educating activities in order to gain new forms of knowledge, skills, attitudes, or values.[1] It can mean any form of learning adults engage in beyond traditional schooling, encompassing basic literacy to personal fulfillment as a lifelong learner.[2]

In particular, adult education reflects a specific philosophy about learning and teaching based on the assumption that adults can and want to learn, that they are able and willing to take responsibility for that learning, and that the learning itself should respond to their needs.[3]

Driven by what one needs or wants to learn, the available opportunities, and the manner in which one learns, adult learning is affected by demographics, globalization and technology.[4] The learning happens in many ways and in many contexts just as all adults' lives differ.[5] Adult learning can be in any of the three contexts, i.e.:

  • Formal – Structured learning that typically takes place in an education or training institution, usually with a set curriculum and carries credentials;
  • Non-formal – Learning that is organized by educational institutions but non credential. Non-formal learning opportunities may be provided in the workplace and through the activities of civil society organizations and groups;
  • Informal education – Learning that goes on all the time, resulting from daily life activities related to work, family, community or leisure (e.g. community baking class).[6][7]


Educating adults differs from educating children in several ways given that adults have accumulated knowledge and work experience which can add to the learning experience.[8] Most adult education is voluntary, therefore, the participants are generally self-motivated, unless required to participate, by an employer. The science and art of helping adults learn,[9][10] the practice of adult education is referred to as andragogy, to distinguish it from the traditional school-based education for children pedagogy. Unlike children, adults are seen as more self-directed, rather than relying on others for help.

Adults are mature and therefore have knowledge and have gained life experiences which provide them a foundation of learning. An adult's readiness to learn is linked to their need to have the information. Their orientation to learn is problem centered rather than subject centered. Their motivation to learn is internal.[10]

Adults frequently apply their knowledge in a practical fashion to learn effectively. They must have a reasonable expectation that the knowledge they gain will help them further their goals. For example, during the 1990s, many adults, including mostly office workers, enrolled in computer training courses. These courses would teach basic use of the operating system or specific application software. Because the abstractions governing the user's interactions with a PC were so new, many people who had been working white-collar jobs for ten years or more eventually took such training courses, either at their own whim (to gain computer skills and thus earn higher pay) or at the behest of their managers.

In the United States and many areas in Canada, a more general example is when adults who dropped out of high school return to school to complete general education requirements. Most upwardly mobile positions require at the very least a high school diploma or equivalent. A working adult is unlikely to have the freedom to simply quit his or her job and go "back to school" full-time.

Public school systems and community colleges usually offer evening or weekend classes for this reason. In Europe this is often referred to as "second-chance", and many schools offer tailor-made courses and learning programs for these returning learners. Furthermore, adults with poor reading skills can obtain help from volunteer literacy programs. These national organizations provide training, tutor certification, and accreditation for local volunteer programs. States often have organizations which provide field services for volunteer literacy programs.

The purpose of adult education in the form of college or university is distinct. In these institutions, the aim is typically related to personal growth and development as well as occupation and career preparedness. Another goal might be to not only sustain the democratic society, but to even challenge and improve its social structure.[1]

A common problem in adult education in the US is the lack of professional development opportunities for adult educators. Most adult educators come from other professions and are not well trained to deal with adult learning issues. Most of the positions available in this field are only part-time without any benefits or stability since they are usually funded by government grants that might last for only a couple of years.

However, in Canada, professional development is available in all provinces and territories through postsecondary institutions and most Provinces also provide professional development through their ministry of education or school boards and through nongovernmental organizations.[11] In addition, there are programs about adult education for existing and aspiring practitioners offered, at various academic levels, by universities, colleges, and professional organizations.[12]


Continuing education can help adults maintain certifications, fulfill job requirements and stay up to date on new developments in their field. Also, the purpose of adult education can be vocational, social, recreational or for self-development.[13] One of its goals may be to help adult learners satisfy their personal needs and achieve their professional goals.[14] Therefore, its ultimate goal might be to achieve human fulfillment. The goal might also be to achieve an institution's needs. For example, this might include improving its operational effectiveness and productivity. A larger scale goal of adult education may be the growth of society by enabling its citizens to keep up with societal change and maintain good social order.[1]

One fast-growing sector of adult education is English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), also referred to as English as a Second Language (ESL) or English Language Learners (ELL).[15] These courses are key in assisting immigrants with not only the acquisition of the English language, but the acclimation process to the culture of the United States as well as other English speaking countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.[16]


The principles of andragogy flow directly from an understanding of the characteristics of adults as learners and can be recognized when we understand the characteristics of adults, and see the way those characteristics influence how adults learn best.[17] Teachers who follow the principles of andragogy when choosing materials for training and when designing program delivery, find that their learners progress more quickly, and are more successful in reaching their goals.[17] The Canadian Literacy and Learning Network outlines the 7 key principles of adult learning. In other words, these 7 principles distinguish adult learners from children and youth.

  1. Adults cannot be made to learn. They will only learn when they are internally motivated to do so.
  2. Adults will only learn what they feel they need to learn. In other words, they are practical.
  3. Adults learn by doing. Active participation is especially important to adult learners in comparison to children.
  4. Adult learning is problem-based and these problems must be realistic. Adult learners like finding solutions to problems.
  5. Adult learning is affected by the experience each adult brings.
  6. Adults learn best informally. Adults learn what they feel they need to know whereas children learn from a curriculum.
  7. Children want guidance. Adults want information that will help them improve their situation or that of their children.[18]

Challenges and motivating factors

Adults have many responsibilities that they must balance against the demands of learning. Because of these responsibilities, adults have barriers and challenges against participating in learning and continuing their education. The barriers can be classified into three groups including institutional, situational and dispositional.[19]

Some of these barriers include the lack of time balancing career and family demands, finances and transportation. As well, things such as confidence, interest, lack of information about opportunities to learn, scheduling problems, entrance requirements and problems with child care can be barriers in learning.[20] Distance and/or online learning can address some problems with adult education that cause these barriers.[21]

Understanding what motivates adult learners and what their barriers are, can assist in enrolling more adult learners. When adult learners clearly know the benefits of their continuing education, such as getting promotions or better job performance, they are more likely to be motivated to attend.[22] When teachers are aware of the student's characteristics, they can develop lessons that address both the strengths and the needs of each student.[23] Adults that are motivated have confidence and positive self-esteem are more likely to develop into lifelong learners.[24]


Adult education can have many benefits ranging from better health and personal well-being to greater social inclusion. It can also support the function of democratic systems and provide greater opportunities for finding new or better employment. Adult education has been shown to have a positive impact on the economy.[25]

Adult education provides opportunities for personal growth, goal fulfillment and socialization. Chris McAllister's research of semi-structured interviews with older adult learners shows a motivation to communicate with people and to get out of the house to keep mentally active.[26] Researchers have documented the social aspects of older adult education.[27] Friendship was described as important aspects of adult learning and the classroom was seen as an important part of their social network. The development of social networks and support was found to be a key motivation of adult learners. As editor of a book entitled Adult Education and Health, Leona English claims that including health education as part of adult education makes for a healthier community.[28]

When surveying adult education programs in Japan, Nojima (2010) found that classes focusing on hobbies and very specific recreational activities were by far the most popular. The author noted that more time, money and resources needed to be in place so participants would be able to take advantage of these types of activities. Withnall (2006) explored the influences on later life learning in various parts in the U.K. Results were similar in that later in life education afforded these older adults opportunities to socialize.

Some experts claim that adult education has a long-term impact on the economy and that there is a correlation between innovation and learning at the workplace.[25]


Global Reports on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE)

Global Reports on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE) are a series of reports that monitor progress on Adult Learning and Education (ALE), promote action, identify trends in the field of ALE, and explore solutions to challenges. GRALE play a key role in meeting UNESCO’s commitment to monitor and report on countries’ implementation of the Belém Framework for Action. This Framework was adopted by 144 UNESCO Member States at the Sixth International Conference on Adult Learning and Education (CONFINTEA VI), which was held in Belém, Brazil, in 2009. In the Belém Framework for Action, countries agreed to improve ALE across five areas of action: policy; governance; financing; participation, inclusion and equity; and quality.[29][30]

See also

By geographic region





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  • McAllister, Chris, 2010. "'This is the beginning of my life educationally': (50+ years) working class adults’ participation in higher education in Scotland, through the lens of critical educational gerontology". International Journal of Lifelong Education, 29 (5), 547-563
  • Naruushima, Miya, 2008. "More than nickels and dimes: the health benefits of a community-based lifelong learning programme for older adults". International Journal of Lifelong Education, 27 (6), 673-692
  • Nojima, Masaya, 2010. "Japan’s Approach to Continuing Education for Senior Citizens". Bunkyo University, 463-471
  • Sloane-Seale, Atlanta; Kops, Bill, 2010. "Older Adult’s Participation in Education and Successful Aging: Implications for University Education in Canada". Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, 36 (1), 1-29
  • Withnall, Alexandra, 2006. "Exploring influences on later life learning". International Journal of Lifelong Education, 25 (1), 29-49


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