Knowledge Area BEPs: Adult Education Principles


Adult learning is a complex and little understood element of human development, but is generally described as a psychological and social process (Mezirow, in McDonald, 1999, p. 163). McDonald compiled the following definitions (1999, pp. 162-163).

For adults, learning is:

  • Described in terms of outcomes, that is, as a change in behavior (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991).
  • “A process of being freed from the oppression of being illiterate, a means of gaining knowledge and skills, a way to satisfy learner needs, a process of critical self-reflection that can lead to transformation” (Cranton, 1994).
  • A meaning-making process based on life experiences that may or may not be goal-directed (Jarvis, 1992).
  • “The process of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience in order to guide future action” (Mezirow. 1991).
  • Implicit in all experience, whether we are conscious of it or not (Vaill, 1996).
  • Adaptation to a changing environment (Jaynes, 1990).
  • A political act of emancipation and the primary means by which humans overcome being victims of oppression (Friere, 1970, 1994; Gadotti, 1996).

Adult education is the social system that facilitates adult learning. The question is not “Will they learn?” It is “What will they learn?” Adults appear to be more motivated when learning something relevant to their “current development tasks, social roles, life crises, and transition period” (Brookfield, in McDonald, 1999, p. 29).


Key considerations include (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999):

  • Learning implies the intersection of the learner; the context; and the process.
  • An adult needs time to examine a problem or respond to a situation.
  • Adults are not inclined to engage in learning unless it is meaningful.
  • Acquisition of information may be slower than with children due to age-related factors, but because accumulation of knowledge is seen as crucial to the integration of new learning, adults are in a better position to learn new things than children.
  • Adults are “problem finders” (adults “notice” a problem) and engage in dialectical thinking (the art of reasoning about matters of opinion).

Finally, adult educators are involved in a moral activity, and will want to evaluate potential implications of their endeavor. “Regardless of our specific role or the organization that employs us, we are engaged in bringing about change, and the change process . . . Education . . . is a form of social intervention, which is defined as “any act, planned or unplanned, that alters the characteristics of another individual or pattern of relationships between individuals” (Kelman & Warwick, in Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 13).

REFERENCES 2008. Adult learning theories and theorists. NY Times, About Inc., Understanding Adult Learning at

Knox, A. 1993. Strengthening Adult and Continuing Education: A Global Perspective on Synergistic Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McDonald, B. 1999. From pedagogy to ecogogy: Integrating adult learning, education, and ecosystem management (Chapter 10) in Integrating Social Sciences with Ecosystem Management: Human Dimensions in Assessment, Policy, and Management. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.

Merriam, S. & R. Caffarella. 1999. Learning in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.