The Adult Learner and Lifelong Learning

Introduction: The Adult Learner

This topic examines the extent to which adult learners have unique characteristics, distinct from child learners. The two major characteristics of adult learning that emerge out of this literature—which are inspired by humanistic principles—relate to (1) autonomy of direction in learning and (2) the importance of the use of personal experience as a learning resource. Further distinctions can be made between adults as returning students in adult education, industry training programs, mature age learners in college or graduate school, and school leavers as young adults who have progressed straight through their training without involvement in the “real world.” Finally, the unique characteristics and needs of some specific groups of adult learners can be identified.

The first reading (Tanner, Arnett & Leis, 2009) is a bit longer, and it is intended to be an introduction to one possible conception of the stages of adulthood. As you read, begin to think about how the needs of emerging adult students may differ (or be the same as) needs of children or needs of more mature adults.

The next reading for this topic (Burns, 1995) discusses a number of concepts and issues relating to adult learners—including the concepts of andragogy and pedagogy. His paper is very comprehensive and covers a number of theoretical perspectives on adult learning, concluding with major principles of teaching adult learners and conditions for effective adult learning (pp. 251–252).

The third reading for this topic is presented “out of order.” The previous reading critiques andragogy. The current reading is from the author of the theory, Malcolm Knowles. In particular, this book chapter presents the evolving conception of the theory of andragogy from Knowles and his colleagues. Knowles (1984) proposed that adult learners had unique characteristics and needs, distinct from child learners, and therefore require totally different instructional approaches. He believed that the pedagogical model used in schools was unsuitable for adult learners and proposed an andragogical model based on his assumptions about the unique characteristics of adult learners.

Readings (The Adult Learner)

Tanner, J. L., Arnett J. J., & Leis, J. A. (2009). Emerging adulthood: Learning and development during the first stage of adulthood. In M. C. Smith (Ed.), Handbook of research on adult learning and development (pp. 34–67).
New York: Routledge.

Burns, R. (1995). Theories of adult education. In The adult learner at work: A comprehensive guide to the context, psychology and methods of learning for the workplace (pp. 225–253). Chatswood, NSW, Australia: Business &
Professional Publishing.

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F. & Swanson, R. A. (1998). Beyond andragogy. In The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (5th ed., pp. 153–179). Houston: Gulf Publishing Company.

Readings (Lifelong Learning)

Candy, P. C., Crebert, G., & O’Leary, J. (1994). Context to this study. In Developinging lifelong learners through undergraduate education (pp. 15–21). Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Candy, P. C., Crebert, G., & O'Leary, J. (1994). Learning beyond graduation. In Developing lifelong learners through undergraduate education (extract pp. 43–44). Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Gonczi, A. (2004). The new professional and vocational education. In G. Foley (Ed.), Dimensions of adult learning: Adult education and training in a global era (pp. 19–34). Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Emerging Adulthood: Learning and Development During The First Stage of Adulthood


Tanner, Arnett, and Leis (2009) make the claim that there is a need for the "unique developmental features of discrete age periods", specifically "the need to recognize the age period between 29 [sic: 19] and 30 as a distinct development period, emerging adulthood". The theory of 'emerging adulthood' was proposed by Arnett, initially in 2000, "to identify a new and distinct period of the life course that came to define the experience of 18- to 29-year-olds in industrialized societies over the past half-century". Assigning development stages to social contexts, Arnett argues that 18-29 year olds can no longer be described as "young adults", as they are unmarried, without children, and are not in stable full-time work. Nor is it possible to describe them as "adolescents" as they are not going through puberty, they are not in secondary school, and they do not live in their parent's home.

The theory of emerging adulthood claims that period will be associated with "1) the age of identity explorations, 2) the age of instability, 3) the self-focussed age, 4) the age of feeling in-between, and 5) the age of possibilities". Identity exploration was previously associated with adolescence (Erikson, 1950) however Arnett (et al) now argue that although romantic love is typically experienced in that period, it becomes identity focussed in emerging adulthood. Likewise, whilst adolescents are often in part-time work, the work becomes more identity focussed in emerging adulthood, etc. Surveys suggest that emerging adults consider themselves subjectively adults "in some ways yes, in some ways no", suggesting a period of transition. Possibilities are considered high with the opportunity to leave pathogenic family environments with the "change in the parent-child relationship ... recognized as one of the most important markers in becoming an adult".

Arnett's "string of social transitions" is complemented by Tanner (2006) who presents a three-stage process of a development process of individual recentering from adolescence, emerging adulthood, and young adulthood, which "[b]y definition ... is marked by a weakening of institutional ties". The proponents claim that "developmental science has progressed in its understanding of emerging adulthood as a critical period for the evolution of adult cognitive structures", further noting "significant differences between the adolescent and emerging adult brains", particularly brain maturation. With brain maturation, "intelligence as a genetically pre-disposed component of cognitive functioning becomes less salient during emerging adulthood and settled in experience becomes more salient", the claim of salience also repeated for emotional intelligence, concluding when "adulthood is achieved as a function of consolidation of identity around commitments to careers and families", albeit with a period of emerging adulthood representing a high-risk for psychiatric disorder. In terms of informal social networks, the authors do acknowledge however that emerging adults have similar friendships, with existing gender differences continuing. The chief exception appears to be a higher than average subjective claim of family members as close friends, correlating with the establishment of individual independence.

Despite initial implications of universality, the authors suggest that "[e]merging adulthood is culturally bound existing 'in contemporary industrialized cultures that extend the transition to adulthood until the mid- to late twenties'", especially with the "American college experience and college environment are well-suited to the development features of emerging adulthood". In such societies "[t]he boundary between childhood an adulthood is not as sharp as it used to be", with emerging adulthood bridging a supposed gap between to the two stages. For the authors, the implication of such a developmental stage is an opportunity for "tapping into their unique motivations for learning and development", noting "an openness to experience, an eagerness to try new things, and a willingness to learn".


The article by Tanner, provides a compiled wealth of contemporary empirical references, but suffers for a want of epistemological rigour and clarity in interpretation. The initial concerns of how the proposal of "emerging adulthood" is initially implied as a developmental category, then redefined as culturally bound is an early example of this problem which the authors themselves noticed. Developmental psychology, of course, has historically sought universal features that can associate mental states with biological development. As Burns (1995) points out "The biological definition of would argue that adulthood commences when the individual can reproduce", and notes that legal categories for an age of majority, at least in modern societies, occur at various points after this biological minimum. The debates over these legal categories are, of course, informed by developmental psychology, specifically "Piaget on cognitive development, Freud on psychosexual development, Kohlberg on moral development, and Erikson on psychosocial development". One may add Mead's symbolic interactions as another contribution which also correlates to the aforementioned developmental structures (Mead, 1934). It is very significant that, with the exception of the most socially relativistic contribution (i.e., Erikson) Tanner, do not refer to the sequential categories well-established by developmental psychology.

To represent a genuinely new developmental stage, rather than a deviation that will generate social pathologies (something which Tanner et. al., note a significant without explanation), new developmental features have to be illustrated. In the field of cognitive structures, there is a clear path from sensorimotor cognition, to the preoperational, concrete operational, to formal operations from adolescence onwards. Likewise in moral development, from (again) the sensorimotor, to preconventional, conventional, to post-conventional moral reasoning, in psychosexual development from instinct, to the id, ego, and superego, and in interactions from the instinctual to play, games, and the adoption of roles. Where Tanner et. al., use psychosocial categories they acknowledge their relativism, but these must be perceived as categories that must co-exist with those illustrated by development psychology. If this is not done, then nonsensical results can occur; a child could be legally disinstituted, and then be classified as an "emerging adult", regardless of cognitive development; an mature adult could reject the need for a stable family or career life, and therefore remain supposedly trapped within adolescence, regardless of their reasons for doing so (Piaget and Kohlberg, for example, were always less concerns with the content of an answer, but more so with the reasons provided).

Tanner, do illustrate the significance of brain maturation and cognitive stability. As significant at these are these are not however new categories themselves. As such, there is no new developmental category of "emerging adulthood", but rather a useful illustration of the gradual biological extension of young adulthood through the maturation process and where cognitive reasoning is part of that process. This should certainly be recognisable in education; contrary to Tanner, many adolescents are certainly capable of being subject to the key concepts of the andragogical model, as illustrated by Burns, without or without institutional independence, but only after the acquisition of the capacity for formal operations, post-conventional moral reasoning, etc. What is quite interesting the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in the so-called "emerging adulthood" age. This, at least from a perspective of critical sociology, suggests that there is a misalignment in the societies studied between the cognitive development and social integration. That certainly is an area requiring further research.


Burns, R. (1995) Theories of adult education. Chapter 7 in "The Adult Learner at Work: A Comprehensive Guide to the Context, Psychology and Methods Learning for the Workplace" (pp225-253)/ Chatswood, NSW: Business & Professional Publishing

Mead, G.H. (1934) Mind, Self, and Society. Ed. by Charles W. Morris. University of Chicago Press.

Tanner, J.L., Arnett J.J., Leis, J.A. (2009). Emerging adulthood: Learning and development during the first stage of adulthood. In M.C. Smith (Ed). "Handbook of Research on Adult Learning and Development" (pp.43-67). New York: Routledge

"The authors in the first piece suggested that there is research were individuals were asked to reflect on a moment that helped define their identity. Most indicate the event took place during "emerging adulthood" (EA).

If you feel comfortable, would you share a defining event in your life that helped you better understand "who you are?" Also, please comment if this did or did not happen during EA"

Reviewing the earlier post "Who Are You?" and considering those changes I would have to claim that 'who I am', in terms of substantive content, is a matter of continuous transition that most certainly cannot be narrowed down to a single developmental age group, real or imagined.

If I try to abstract it however into an interest in computational science, and an involvement in libertarian socialist politics, and an interest in the aesthetic of mythologies - which really has dominated my entire adult life experience and therefore must be considered major components of my identity - I must acknowledge that these came to the be in my early adolescence, around 12-13 in all three cases.

It is not a case of a single particular event (although there were events that correlate), but rather - in hindsight - the apparent ability to look at such matters with a different cognitive manner which simply didn't exist in childhood.

Introduction: Lifelong Learning

The idea of leaving school, studying or training for a particular career or job, and then remaining in that job for life, no longer holds true. The changing nature of the workplace, including widespread implementation of computerised systems, means that job descriptions are being continuously redefined. Increased opportunities for travel and leisure have led to a more mobile workforce with the time to develop recreational interests.

With changes such as these, there is increasing acknowledgment that education and training are not the exclusive province of school children and school leavers. Instead, it is generally accepted that learning is a lifelong process:

Nowadays, it is widely—if not universally—acknowledged that formal education occupies only a small proportion of the learning continuum, that most people complete their formal education early in their lives in a relatively short period, and that most learning experiences take place outside the educational institution. Candy & Crebert (1990, pp 65–77)

The last pair of readings (Candy, Crebert, & O’Leary, 1994) for this topic stresses the importance of developing lifelong learners. The optional reading (Gonczi, 2004) also addresses the issue of lifelong learning and a learning society but in the context of vocational and professional education. The author is highly critical of reductionist approaches to competency-based education. He makes a case for the value of holistic, work-based learning opportunities that bring together the general and the vocational, the generic and the specific. Based on situated-learning theoretical perspectives, the author recommends that universities consider apprenticeship models for undergraduate education and postgraduate work-based learning degrees.

Short Answers

Lifelong learning is the interest. motivation, and increasingly the necessity, of the knowledge acquisition and reflection.

It is contextually relevant for adult learners who already have reached a level of education. It may occur in a formal, semi-formal, informal, or even autodidact setting.

(1) What differences—if any—do you see between adult learners and children learners?

Whilst the differences between adult and child learners exist on a continuum and vary according to individuals concerned, some aggregate remarks can made, most of which can be discerned from the readings by Burns and Knowles et. al. In summary;

* Adults are usually in a voluntary learning environment, whereas children must attend school.
* Adult learning tends more towards self-motivated and independent learning with a greater range of experiental resources.
* Adult learning tends increasingly towards a research orientation rather than a teaching-training orientation.

The reasons for this change include chronological opportunities for life experience and development of social networks, the acquisition of legal rights, and neurological changes. The main ramifications is the need for educators to provide a learning environment that is more orientated to a greater level of equality between learner and educator, the opportunity to express knowledge from life experiences, and the flexibility to engage in study directions suited to their own practical tasks and interests.

As an adult learner in a variety of settings (formal, informal, personal) this matches with my own experience.

(2) Why is LLL valuable in your life or in your students’ lives?

As adult learner motivations vary the value of LLL will also vary. As an example, derived from the Burn's article, for some, it is a matter of a pure love of learning for its own sake. For others it about establishing social networks in an area of mutual interest. For other still, it is a necessary (and perhaps even unwelcome!) response to the rate of change on the vocational environment. In most cases the value will be a combination of all three.

Please think of 3-5 non-traditional places where adult learning happens. Share these with your classmates.

Places where non-traditional adult learning can occur (assuming "traditional" means the university and other higher education setting) includes:

- Various online sources and specialist social media, but only those who make a serious effort to check primary sources, etc. Wikipedia, for example, as a starting point by following the references it uses. Google scholar is quite good as well.

- At work, through experience and discussion with colleagues.

- Conferences and meetings of organisations I'm involved in and casual conversation with friends; again however caution is expressed. Much of what people say in casual conversation needs to be checked. Conference presentations, at least of the more scholarly variety, tend to be somewhat better researched.

Please view the Colorado Technical University and Open Universities Australia advertisements (available from the main page).

Share your thoughts about the message being conveyed. Here are a few guiding questions:
(1) What is the message?
(2) Is this good or bad?
(3) What are the assumptions about the current state of education and the proposed “fix”?
(4) What do students need to be able to succeed in the proposed environment?

(1) What is the message?

The message is new and flexible approach to online education is more adaptable to unique student requirements.

(2) Is this good or bad?

The suggestion of greater flexibility and student control over their time and content is particularly beneficial in an increasingly asynchronous and unstructured social environment (whether that is a good thing is another matter entirely).

In terms of the learning presentation, it is not really something that can be determined from the material provided. Online education can and does work (speaking from someone who has completed "a few" post-graduate qualifications from online institutions), but it really does depend on the quality of the tools provided, the community, the individual learner, and the subject matter.

(3) What are the assumptions about the current state of education and the proposed “fix”?

The assumption is the that most traditional education systems are rigid, especially in terms of functional needs (spatial proximity, timetables, etc); there is an implicit suggestion that traditional education methods are old-fashioned and the people who use them are herd-like.

(4) What do students need to be able to succeed in the proposed environment?

Data access technologies are a necessary requirement. Relevant skills at operating such technologies will also prove advantageous. Assuming technologies and skills, time management, motivation and interest of the student will be deciding factors.

One of the activities in the internal session was to reflect on a good or bad teacher/teaching experience. Setting yourself in the role of supervisor, what type of evaluation would you write for this person, and how would you draw on the theories of the readings for Topic 1 to support your conclusions?

As an overall statement, deriving from Burns (1995), an adult educator must relate to their students on a more equal basis. Where this is not the case Burns makes a point that "where responsibility is withheld, and where learners must fit into the structure ... [i]t is hardly surprising that adults approach formal settings with diffidence, low confidence and feelings of inferiority".

Following the recommendations of adult educational theory (andragogy), it is essential to differentiate the teaching methods from childhood educational theory (pedagogy), with the emphasis of the gradual introduction of adult teaching styles to those who have reached the appropriate level of cognitive maturity, operational ability, and moral reasoning.

In the particular example being considered greater attention can made towards the desire for adult learners to derive resources from their own experiences and that of their social network rather than the revealed knowledge of the educator, to present a focus on particular problems rather than a subject and prescribed curriculum, and to establish motivation from perfomance success rather than external critera (Burns op cit, p239).

The subject matter involves the introduction of new, disruptive, technologies into the workplace. Given the high level of unpredictability to an environment, course material can be more orientated towards the proposals for lifelong learning (Candy et al., 1994) and especially the need for lifelong learning for all adults. In the particular context it would have also been extremely useful to encourage collaborative workplace-based education (Gonczi, 2004).


Burns, R. (1995). Theories of adult education. In The adult learner at work: A comprehensive guide to the context, psychology and methods of learning for the workplace (pp. 225 -253). Chatswood, NSW, Australia: Business & Professional Publishing.

Candy, P.C., Crebert, G., O'Leary (eds), (1994). Development Lifelong Learners through Undergraduate Education. Australia: National Board of Employment, Education and Training.

Gonczi, A. (2004). The new professional and vocational education. In G. Foley (Ed.), Dimensions of adult learning: Adult education and training in a global era (pp. 19-34). Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin

I am always curious what phrases catch people's attention.

These two phrases caught my eye:

Burns, pg 237 "as the new meanings and knowledge are digested into existing knowledge" -- a great metaphor for the influence of past experience on the assimilation of new information

Gonczi, pg 27 "the mind as a holistic pattern detector" -- a great metaphor for the innate skills all students bring to the learning process...and, too often, a skill that is overlooked in the curriculum planning process.

Please share any quotes from the readings that "spoke" to you as an adult educator and/or lifelong learner.

Whilst I could find numerous references to the quote from Émile, when I actually checked the text (available in full at: it simply doesn't exist. Of course, it's scattered "all over the Internet", but at least Wikiquote notes that the attribution is, in fact, unsourced. (I do admit to a somewhat passionate distaste for false, misleading, and otherwise incorrect attributions. I have ranted about such things elsewhere c.f.,

If we pretend however that Rousseau did make such a remark, and that he did so in Émile, there is another glaring difference between that quote and the reference to Knowles by Burns: Rousseau wrote Émile specifically for childhood education whereas the Knowles reference refers to adult education. It is not until Book V (Book VI is reserved for the education of girls and young women) that Émile enters his adolescent years and taught of the complexity of human emotions, is socialised - and is taught (for the first time) about religion.

Retaining the pretence, it makes great sense that Rousseau argues that the teacher retains control, whilst allows for the appearance of freedom. For it allows the child to learn through exploration, whilst retaining safe boundaries. They are effectively being *taught* freedom. Likewise, in reference to Knowles, it makes sense in an adult education environment that formal control is retained by the educator, even if they express this through informal techniques - as the students already have the responsibility of freedom. In both cases the activities are beneficial to the student.

Just a few semi-random thoughts on reading the STP:

* I am uncertain whether the experiences of "emerging adults" are integrated into "identities and memories more so than in any other age". There would be a few methodological issues with testing this to begin with!

* The challenge between adults as self-directing agents, and framing curriculum to their diverse interests is a very real one. In the Software Carpentry model ( there is a deliberate attempt to bring people in from similar disciplines to encourage common interest, application, and collaboration.

* Learning style preferences can be accommodated through diversity in teaching presentation, class activities, and multimedia. This may result in repeating content, but certainly from the paper by Biggs (1986) on "Confucian-heritage learning culture", that repetition does not equate with rote-learning.

* The example of a student learning scales, some of which they have ability, and other where do not, is interesting in illustrating how emphasizing the former can be used for confidence building, and gradually introducing the latter provides scaffolding.