Philosophy of Adult Education

The primary purpose of adult education

I believe that the primary purpose of Adult Education is to support the development of:

  • functional skills to meet the basic and practical needs of life;
  • self-awareness to kindle meaning in the changes that occur throughout life; and
  • political consciousness to awaken and even provoke an awareness of and ability to criticize and resist the complex structures that bind individual lives.

Assumptions about human nature, society, and the role of education

Humans are complex. We are essentially good, but we learn and adapt as we interact with the world, and the world is not a neutral classroom. The circumstances in which we learn – the people around us, the resources at hand, the chance encounters that lead to new insights, and the challenges and joys we experience in our daily lives – limit or reveal opportunities. Sometimes, those circumstances are deliberately or systemically influenced, through expressions of power and control, and through education, both formal and informal.

Education is not automatically a positive good for everyone. Educators are influenced by their own circumstances, opportunities, limits, and motivations. Formal education reproduces and reinforces systems of power inherited from founders’ philosophies, funders’ objectives, and generations of students’ cultures. Informal education and learning may be ubiquitous, but researching it brings little reward, and so we know little about it.

Assumptions about learning, learners, and educators and actual practice

There is no noble learner, no ideal learning, and no perfect approach for everyone. Learning is a “contact sport,” played well or poorly, consciously or unconsciously, by both learner and educator, on a field that may or may not be ideal for either.  Learners are individuals experiencing their adult lives in real time, interacting with their context continually and experiencing supports and barriers to access, motivation, and meaning in learning. Educators have a responsibility to learn about their learners and themselves, both as individuals with real and meaningful lives playing out day to day, and as agents within larger systems of power that have been developing coherence and structure for years or centuries.

The practice of adult education must occur primarily in the context of the learner to have lasting value. Most adult learning will happen outside a formal classroom. In fact we are learning all the time. We learn daily from conversation, media, experiences in the world with both things and people, and from our own self-awareness. The educator and the learner must be aware of the purpose of the learning and continually communicate the effectiveness of the approach and adjust.

Learning is not value-neutral. It is situated in an historical, cultural, economic, political, and communications/media context. Much learning is informal, and therefore subject to the cognitive biases of the learner, and the sources from which the learner learns. Learning has cognitive, emotional, embodied, social, temporal, and adaptive elements that combine and recombine continually. Learning may happen anywhere, with anyone, for any reason.

Closest working philosophy and influences

Major Philosophies and what I believe


Thorndike, Watson, and Skinner are key thinkers in education through reinforcement, reward and measurement. Popular in corporate and industrial human capital programs, education is seen as a systems-improvement exercise to increase performance, and reduce waste. I have worked in a corporate, performance-driven “training” role, but grew bored and dissatisfied with the monoculture of thought within which I was allowed to work. I prefer not to participate in a behaviourist context. There is a place for behaviourist learning; I simply choose not to spend most of my time in that place participating in that learning.

Liberal Arts

Still the dominant approach in most formal education environments, particularly universities, the philosophy has a long history in Western culture. This philosophy assumes there is a “best” answer to any question, and it is to be gleaned from the intellectual output of an “expert.” Thinkers from this school include Bloom, Adler, and Van Doren. As a former consultant, I know there are times when listening to an expert is the quickest way to learn a complicated concept or idea, especially when many people need to get a foundational level of familiarity with it at the same time. A good “front of the room” teacher can make a difficult subject interesting, clear, and relevant.  But I am personally no longer interested in my own expertise, nor being the “sage on the stage.” I much prefer a complex, emergent environment of ideas, in which many perspectives are shared and explored.


Adult educators adopting this philosophy include Malcolm Knowles and Alan Tough, as well as Mezirow, Brookfield, and Jarvis. They were influenced by psychologists of the progressive era emphasizing freedom, autonomy, and the primacy of individual experience. Maslow’s hierarchy and Carl Rogers’  person-centred therapy influenced the widely popular learner-centred teaching philosophy. Learners are considered experts in their own learning needs. I have taught in this environment as well, a teamwork simulation in which each learner’s task was to create his or her own experience, almost from scratch. I am still impressed with the depth of transformation possible within the learning environment. But I am skeptical that the transformative learning I witnessed can survive the return to the world. The larger systems in which learners must make sense of their lives and work are overwhelmingly powerful compared to a single individual’s epiphany. I think this philosophy has a place in the continuum of learning, but it can’t stand alone.


Espoused by Dewey, Lindeman,and Bergevin, Progressivism centres on experience, skills development, and education for social benefit. Education of individuals is seen to be valuable to the wider society, as the educated citizen will be better able to make appropriate personal, social, and political choices. Yet what was “appropriate” was assumed to be in the context of early 20th century white middle class American values. Faced with Critical Theory and Poststructuralism, I can no longer place myself within the boundaries of this philosophy. I may hang about the edges in my romantic moments, more out of nostalgia for a bygone era than out of a conviction that this is the future of learning. The world is simply too complex, entangled, and rapidly changing to wait for this philosophy to achieve meaningful goals.


The radical theorists view education as a force for fundamental social change. While progressive philosophy sees education supporting a gradual, positive change in the lives of individuals toward general social progress, Radicals conceive of education overturning oppressive forms of power altogether. Arising from Marxism, Gramsci’s adaptation of Marx’s works, socialism, and critical theory, radical theory found champions in Habermas, Counts, Holt, and most famously, Paulo Friere. Feminist, Queer, postcolonial, and other newer theories have drawn on Radical theorists’ works. Of all the philosophies, this is closest to my own. The work I am most proud of gives adults the tools to fight the systems which have taken from them and given nothing back.


Closely related to positivism, this is less a philosophy than a methodology of educational philosophy. The intention of the movement is to bring a scientific process to studies of adult education and establish clarity and consistency of language and purpose in the philosophies of adult education. I am attracted to rigour, professionalism, and evidence, and this philosophy attracts me. I wonder, however, if this is really a philosophy?

Postmodern and poststructural

Rejecting the accumulated traditions of philosophical, artistic, and cultural thought and expression, postmodernism contributed to Critical Theory by rejecting dominant discourses and setting the stage for a rethinking of assumptions. Poststructural philosophy influenced critical theory in education through deconstruction. This philosophy is a predictable counterpoint to the intensely influential philosophies of modernism and structuralism, and exposes their gaps and failings, especially in the complex context of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But it risks tipping over the edge into nonsense. Complexity theory has shown that neither chaos nor structure exists forever. The world in which we live is emergent, and any philosophy must represent that reality for me.

What I believe

Adult education has changed, and will change, depending on the context in which it unfolds. Adults learn, given a chance. When we have become familiar with the world in which learners must practice what they learn, we must also learn about the emerging trends of education, culture, politics, sociology, and science, and invite learners to engage in creating a practical response to their circumstances that will achieve the change they envision. We must also use our knowledge to “speak truth to power” for ourselves. We must discharge our responsibility as members of our community and speak if no one else will.

Living with contradictions, inconsistencies, tensions, workplace tensions

There is no absolute objective certainty about any philosophical approach. Even an objectively scientific field like physics continues to adapt, explore, and raise new theories, even theories which overturn foundations of theory.

However, I do have one strong belief about the most common theories field of adult education: all philosophies are useful at some time or other, and are often most effective in conscious combination; what makes a philosophy more or less attractive to either an adult educator or a learner is not its absolute efficacy or value, but its fit for the context and circumstances.

For instance, the behaviourist philosophy may be very effective when teaching first responders how to apply CPR to someone having a heart attack. The Liberal Arts approach may be useful for introducing a complex, new topic to learners who self-identify as enjoying that mode of teaching. The Humanist approach may be very effective when teaching Western approaches to yoga, meditation or other self-regulated, embodied personal learning experiences. And finally, combinations of philosophies are often extremely effective. The Antigonish Movement, Highlander Folk School, and other essentially radical social movements combined humanist, behaviourist, radical, critical theory and non-educational approaches to achieve complex results. Any philosophy may be carelessly or even deliberately destructively applied. Awareness of and openness to learning about the learner’s context, and allowing the learner freedom to pass on any aspect of learning are foundational to my beliefs about adult education.


My life has been a series of adaptations as I interact with the world, make sense of the interactions, and use my learning to negotiate my identity with the world and with my own consciousness. I expect there to be inconsistencies and tensions as my learning changes me, both within my own thinking, and between my thinking and that of others. I also know that inconsistencies can be the starting place for deep learning and connection.