Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Roby Kidd publishes How Adults Learn

This year, Canadian educator Roby Kidd (1915-1982) publishes How Adults Learn, a concise and well-written book that summarized the body of theory and research available on that topic in order to assist adult education practitioners with their daily work. 

Roby Kidd was one of the most important Canadian adult educators of the 20th century. He was a scholar, an organizer and a teacher who had a lifelong interest and commitment to the education of underprivileged adults worldwide. He was the first Canadian to obtain a doctorate in adult education (Columbia University, 1947) and during the 1950s he served as Chair of UNESCO’s advisory committee on adult education. In such role, he organized the Second World Conference on Adult Education that took place in Montreal in 1960. In 1958, Kidd was instrumental in creating the Overseas Book Centre, a non-governmental foreign assistance venture in Canada, which shipped books to Third World Countries. These books were sent to educational institutions to assist them with program development. In 1966, he was the main force behind the creation of the Department of Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). He was appointed as the first Chair of this department, a position that he held until his death in 1982. In 1972, he created the International Council for Adult Education where he also served as its secretary-general to address the concerns of equity and practice in Third World countries. 

Kidd was the author of several publications including, “Adult Education in the Canadian University”, “Adult Education in the Caribbean”, “Financing Continuing Education”, “Adult Learning: a Design for Development” and the benchmark book How Adults Learn (1959), which has been published in nine languages. In this book, Kidd realized that there was no real answer to the question of how adults learn but he wanted to reveal his observations, the path of adult education and its character. (p.24).

How Adults Learn was well received by the Adult Education community. In Gordon Selman’s review of the book he states that Kidd’s book was “one of the first textbooks in the field and represents one of Kidd’s most important contributions. The book anticipated developments (greater emphasis on the adult learner and adult learning as distinct from methodology and other institutional concerns), which are only now strongly coming to the fore in the field.” (Selman, 1982)

Kidd begins the book by explaining that, in the past, the main emphasis in literature has been on teaching and that we should in fact be more focused on the learner. Learning is active and the learner is opening up their mind to take in and retain the information we give them. First Kidd examines the characteristics of the learner. He believes that one must discover the learner’s personality, physical changes, intellectual development, and the role of motives and emotions in learning. 

Kidd dispels some of the myths that are associated with learning. Among these are, "You can't change human nature" and "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." He feels that the limits that people have in learning are often psychological limits that they put on themselves. The limits are influenced by the learning histories and old wives' tales that teach of human inadequacies (p.17-8). The limitations must be overcome before learning can occur.

Kidd continues his book by discussing several theories of education including theories created by Adler, John Dewey, Eduard Lindeman, and Sir Richard Livingstone. He spends considerable time discussing and dissecting Livingstone’s theories, one of which states that, “only in adulthood is it possible for some kinds of learning to happen. Children and youths have not the requisite experience on which learning must build.” (p.155)

The next chapter of the book examines the fields of practice. They are divided into four sections: basic adult education programs, agriculture, industry, and the armed forces. Basic adult education is also known by the name functional literacy and can be found prevalently around the world. It has attracted many expert adult educators and since 1967 has been under UNESCO’s wing as they put effort into evaluating various countries’ programs. (p.197)

Further into his book, Kidd discusses the environmental factors that can be associated with learning. Here he notes that some adults, upon entering university or college later in life, find the environment hostile. (p.235) Often this is due to the new students’ inability to cope with the high standards demanded of them by their professor before they have a chance to settle in. This can result in their dropping out.

Other environment factors that affect the learner are: the lighting, amount of distracting sounds, appropriate temperatures, and fresh air. As most learning is conducted in the home, at work, while traveling (i.e. by bus, train, aircraft), or in the library, all of these factors must be considered; primarily in the first three examples as they have not initially been set up to serve as learning environments.

The crucial message throughout Roby Kidd’s book is that “people of all kinds, in all places, and of all ages have a marvelous capacity to learn and grow and enlarge.” (p.7) Even as he made updates to his book in 1973, he felt that this central theme does not change with time.


International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame: 

Kidd, J. Roby. How Adults Learn. Association Press, New York, 1959 and 1973.

Selman, Gordon. R. Roby Kidd And The Canadian Association For Adult Education 1951-1961." Occasional Papers in Continuing Education (1982).

Thomas, Alan M. Roby Kidd – Intellectual Voyager. Croom Helm, New York, 1987.

Trent University Library: 

Prepared by Sarah Worgan and Tracy Schweitzer, OISE/UT, 2004


How to cite a moment

DS Home Page     Back to Index     Suggest or Submit a Moment

© 1996-2004 Daniel Schugurensky. All Rights Reserved. Design and maintenance by LMS.
Last updated on December 11, 2004.