Defining the Distinctiveness of Adult Education: A Continuing Discussion

For many years there has been much debate about what, if anything, sets adult education apart from other fields of study or disciplines. According to Davenport and Davenport (1985), the identification of what is unique about adult learning (in contrast to child or youth learning) has been a long-standing effort in adult education. They reasoned that if this difference could be identified, then the research territory of adult education could be based on these theoretical distinctions.

Knowles (1980) suggests that a contributing factor to the confusion is that adult education can be defined in three different ways: (a) as a process; (b) as a set of organized activities carried on by a wide variety of institutions for the accomplishment of specific educational objectives; and (c) as an idea of a field of social practice involving individuals, institutions and associations “working toward common goals of improving the methods and materials of adult learning, extending the opportunities for adults to learn, and advancing the general level of our culture” (p.

5). After much criticism and debate over Knowles original definition of andragogy, he has asserted in his later writings that the differences between pedagogy and andragogy are perhaps not absolute but instead opposite ends of a continuum (as cited in Smith, 2002). This paper will argue that intentional learning is the essential ingredient that sets adult education apart from other fields of study and specifically of other types of education and learning.

The first section of this paper will define intentional learning and describe the factors that explain how this type of learning differentiates adult education, sometimes referred to as andragogy, from other disciplines, and specifically from pedagogy.

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The second section will address the critiques of this argument in the literature and a response to those critiques. Finally, a discussion of what is at stake in choosing this essential ingredient will be addressed.

Intentional Learning – The Essential Ingredient Gale Sinatra (2000) defines intentional learning as the kind of learning that is (a) goal directed and deliberate, (b) internally initiated rather than initiated by the environment, and (c) under the conscious control of the learner – who can initiate, redirect, or cease learning at will. “The intentional learner is one who uses knowledge or belief in internally initiated, goal directed action in the service of knowledge and skill acquisition” (p. 15).

According to Gale’s definition, the construct of intentional learning is related in educational psychology with the constructs of metacognition, self-regulation, engagement, and critical thinking. Intentional learning refers to learning that is being actively pursued and managed by the individual learner (Palincsar, 1990). He further states that intentional learning develops cognitive processes, portrays learning as a goal, and encourages students to monitor and adjust their learning styles as needed.

At its most basic definition, intentional learning emphasizes question generation along the road to goal attainment. This process guides students to find personal relevance in, and ownership of, learning activities and, in turn, develops the skills needed for lifelong learning (Palincsar). Based on these definitions, it may be argued that learners are not fully capable of intentional learning until a certain level of maturity is reached. The implication is that the required level of maturity is reached over time.

Bereiter and Scardamlia (1989) claim, “intentional learning is an achievement, not an automatic consequence of human intelligence” (p. 366). They argue that immature learners develop strategies to meet the short-term goals of school tasks in ways that economize on mental effort and thus lack the more effortful moves that may lead to the development of intentional learning. “Children have little conception of learning as a goal directed process so that, when they try to direct their learning, they can do little except assign themselves some kind of school-like work” (p. 77). Thus, the definition of intentional learning that will be adopted in this paper is the deliberate and purposeful learning initiated by intrinsically motivated learners under their full conscious control.

It is assumed that intentional learning is not an automatic characteristic of learners but rather something that develops with age and expertise. In his transformation theory of adult learning, Mezirow refers to Heron’s ideas around creating meaning. Presentational, propositional, and intentional construal are different and complementary, interactive ways of making meaning, of giving coherence to experience,” (as cited in Mezirow, 1995, p. 40). Propositional construal refers to making meaning of experiences using language categories and words, whereas presentational refers to making meaning without language, a sort of ‘knowing’ without the “direct and immediate use of language categories or words” (p. 41).

Mezirow suggests that both presentational and propositional are implied learning that occurs seemingly automatically in human beings. Mezirow describes the intentional construal as involving “purposeful awareness of our use of logic, inference, analysis, reflection, evaluation and the giving and assessing of reasons through rational discourse” (p. 41). Mezirow enhances the argument for intentional learning as the essential ingredient for adult learning by describing the intentional construal of meaning as involving “awareness informed by knowledge of the world” (1995, p. 2). He states that intentional construal is required to transform our meaning schemes and perspectives using critical reflection. He goes further to say that this critical reflection is a “natural mode of adult thought” (p. 45). In a circular way, this supports the argument that intentional learning is unique to adults. Draper provides further insight to this idea of what might be called life experience or worldly knowledge, in his reflections about the debate on andragogy and pedagogy.

He states “it is not experience alone that sets adults apart from children nor is it even accumulated experience (as this also applies to children) but the kind of experience that one has” (Draper, 2001, p. 28). This is in keeping with Mezirow’s transformational theory of adult learning as he “maintains that we understand the world through an integrated framework of meaning schemes that function as a lens or filter through which all new experience must pass” (as cited in Plumb & Welton, 2001, p. 3). Mezirow asserts these meaning schemes develop with increasing complexity throughout childhood into adulthood (as cited in Plumb & Welton, 2001). This brings us back to the point that intentional learning is required to develop the increasing complexity of meaning schemes, which occurs with age and maturity, therefore it follows that intentional learning can be considered unique to adult learners. The report, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, states:

Becoming such an intentional learner means developing self-awareness about the reason for study, the learning process itself, and how education is used. Intentional learners are integrative thinkers who can see connections in seemingly disparate information and draw on a wide range of knowledge to make decisions. They adapt the skills learned in one situation to new problems encountered in another—in a classroom, the workplace, their communities, and their personal lives. p. 21). The report also notes: The intentional learner is empowered through intellectual and practical skills; informed by knowledge and ways of knowing; and responsible for personal actions and civic values… Mastery of a range of abilities and capacities empowers intentional learners as they maneuver in and shape a world in flux…. Intentional learners possess a core of knowledge, both broad and deep, derived from many fields…

Through discussion, critical analysis, and introspection, intentional learners come to understand their roles in society and accept active participation. (p. 22). The argument can logically be made that it would take the time and experience of adulthood to acquire a broad and deep core of knowledge as well as the ability for critical reflection, further supporting the notion that intentional learning is specific to adult learners. It is important to note that intentional learning need not always be formal learning.

The important criteria that distinguish intentional informal learning and training are the “retrospective recognition of both (1) a new significant form of knowledge, understanding or skill acquired outside a prescribed curricular setting and (2) the process of acquisition, either on your own initiative in the case of self-directed informal learning, or with aid of a mentor in the case of informal training, respectively” (Livingstone, 2001, p. 4).

According to Livingstone, this is the guideline for distinguishing between intentional informal learning and training and all of the other tacit forms of learning and other everyday activities that we go through. Critique Of Intentional Learning As An Essential Ingredient Of Adult Education In his early writings, Knowles differentiated between pedagogy and andragogy by suggesting that the former was representative of formal schooling that was “authoritarian, other-directed learning and subject matter oriented,” (as cited in Draper, 2001, p. 8) and the latter a “self-directed form of learning that was problem or project oriented, a learner-centered approach to learning and was essentially non-formal…changing the status quo and therefore linked to social change and liberalization” (p. 28). Draper points out that this was later shown to be problematic as children can also be self-directed and engage in informal learning and further suggests that the “method used in an educational setting is relative and contextual” (p. 28).

While it is true that children engage in informal learning and can be self-directed, children are not likely to be able to meet all criteria of intentional learning. Adult students need to see their learning as practical and relevant, particularly in a formal higher education setting. Their learning is real and meaningful, as noted by Trueman and Hartley (1996), “mature students had better study habits than the younger students in that they engaged in more ‘deep’ and less ‘surface’ learning than did the younger students” (p. 01). Knowles suggested that as adults mature, they become increasingly independent and responsible for their own actions. They are often motivated to learn by a sincere desire to solve immediate problems in their lives. Additionally, they have an increasing need to be self-directing. In many ways the pedagogical model does not account for such developmental changes on the part of adults, and thus produces tension, resentment, and resistance in individuals (as cited in Hiemstra & Sisco, 1990).

What Is At Stake In Choosing This Essential Ingredient? Choosing this essential ingredient is the cornerstone to building a theoretical base on which adult learning can be considered a legitimate profession, and/or a field of study. Without identifying what makes adult education unique from the education of children and/or different from other disciplines or fields of study, we are left with an area of knowledge that is a subset of a larger discipline rather than a separate field of study.

Defining the discipline helps researchers develop and test theories. When theories of adult education can be tested and the results consistent, we can then start to feel assured that we know what adult learning really is, and we can feel more confident that adult education is, in fact, unique and separate from the education of children and/or other disciplines or fields of study. As Edwards (2005) states, “to engage in some form of systematic reflection on an issue is to engage with theory as a resources and with theorizing as a practice” (p. 15). Without an essential ingredient, a defining characteristic that proves that adult education is unique, it becomes difficult to defend adult education as a legitimate field of study. “In adult education, practices are informed by theories of humanistic, cognitive and sociocultural psychology, Marxism, Feminism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postmodernism and many others” (Edwards, p. 615).

Because theory informs practice, and there are numerous theoretical underpinnings in adult education, it becomes very difficult to identify practices that are unique to adult education. Educators will draw on theories that most relate to their circumstances, adding more ambiguity to the issue (Edwards). As Edwards suggests, “not to theorize is to engage in practice as some sort of unthinking activity, which is undesirable in adult education” (p. 15). Rubenson (1982) suggests that the first step in identifying an adequate theoretical perspective is to “improve our skill in drawing the map, as the existing one does not give sufficient help in finding one’s way in the territory of either the practitioner or the researcher” (p. 750). He further suggests that in this process “the compass should be set on a better conceptualization of the adult education phenomena” (p. 750). Conclusion

There are many theories and ideas about what adult education means, and many attempts have been made to isolate what differentiates adult education from other disciplines or fields of study. This paper has argued that intentional learning is the essential ingredient that sets adult education apart from other disciplines or fields of study. The first section of this paper defined intentional learning and described the factors that explain how this type of learning differentiates adult education, sometimes referred to as andragogy, from other disciplines, and specifically from pedagogy.

The second section addressed the critiques of this argument in the literature and provided a response to those critiques. Finally, a discussion of what is at stake in choosing this essential ingredient was addressed. Draper (2001) notes that a generic definition of adult education is not “determined by the content, skills, attitude or values being learned…; by any particular age group of adults; by the sponsoring agency or location of the educational program; or by the methods of teaching and learning being used” (2001, p. 9). He claims that the “key to which philosophical orientation is most appropriate at a given point in time is determined by the intent of the adult learner and the time and resources available” (2001, p. 29). Despite every attempt being made to identify an essential ingredient of adult education, what is most clear is that there is no clarity. Polson (1993) asked the question, “is the ‘adult learner’ a recognizable, single entity for whom there is one best way to teach, or for whom there is one best way to learn?

No. There is no agreement in the literature as to what constitutes an adult learner” (p. 5). What remains to be seen is whether theorists will be able to continue to “create and refine the terms that they use, as well as to strengthen the theoretical base of their field of practice and study (through research) within the social sciences” (Draper, 2001, p. 29) in order to give adult education a clear identity.

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Defining the Distinctiveness of Adult Education: A Continuing Discussion. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

Defining the Distinctiveness of Adult Education: A Continuing Discussion
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