Selected Moments of the 20th Century

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


Allen Tough publishes The Adult's Learning Projects

This year, Allen Tough, a professor in the Department of Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) published his research on adults' efforts to learn under the title "The Adult's Learning Projects." In this work, Tough identified, researched and put on paper the learning projects that more and more men and women begin and accomplish each year.

This book presented information that looked at another aspect of adults' learning efforts, one that is in line with the theory that adults are self-directed learners and that they can develop plans for changing themselves and their environment. It focussed on the fact that as more and more men and women fulfill their material goals, they strive to new goals which include self-actualization or realization of enormous potential.

A learning project is defined by Tough as a 'sustained, highly deliberate effort to learn' and his work focussed on episodes where more than half of the person's intention was to gain and retain certain definite knowledge and skill. He refers to this as a 'very deliberate learning episode'. A learning project was also defined as a series of clearly related episodes.

Tough's project was an important contribution in adult education because it looked at how common and how important learning projects really are. The study population included over 60 persons from 7 populations, including blue collar factory workers, upper middle-class women with preschool children, and social science professors.

What Tough and his collaborators discovered from the interviews was that the typical person conducted about 8 projects per year, and that each project occupied on average of 700-800 hours per year, approximately 90 hours each. Although a potential bias was identified because the samples were small and not all randomly chosen, it was nevertheless concluded that the results presented appeared to be generalizable to all adults.

Adult learning projects are important because changes in adults are an important and necessary part of social change. For example, a great number of learning projects are related to a person's job or occupation. Among some of the other projects include learning for home and personal responsibilities, for interest or leisure, for improving a broad area of competence, or for curiosity or to answer a question about a certain matter.

Of equal importance to what people learn is why they learn. What was discovered in this area is that people learn for intellectual, cognitive and material benefits. They learn for pleasure, satisfaction, self-esteem or to impress others. The benefits a person anticipates constitute a significant portion of the total motivation for learning.

Tough's work also focused on the steps that adults take to begin and complete their learning projects. In this area, Tough identified that people may need help in deciding the steps to take in their project. He also identified the possible role for a learning consultant or goal-setting consultant to help adults with learning projects. The study also focused on who the adult chose as their planner for the project. It was found that 2/3 of all projects were planned by the learners themselves. Some other planners identified included some object (book, tape recordings), a one-to-one situation, or a group. The type of planner that may be appropriate depends on the learning project but also the efficiency of the planner, the learning style of the adult, and his/her emotions and personality.

The area of project planning is a very important one for a number of reasons. First, appropriate planning helps to reduce repetition of preparatory steps, reduce countless wasted hours, and to reduce the number of inappropriate projects and inefficient methods. Additionally, project planning is an important area to which the field of adult education can devote attention to help design and facilitate educational experiences that will help adults with their learning projects, especially those for individual action. Once project planning is underway, there are also a number of resources which the adult may use for completion of the project. These resources include printed materials, individually selected films and TV programs, experts, travel, information centres, and computers.

In the area of what adult educators can do to help adults with their learning projects, Tough was able to make many suggestions and identify areas for consideration. Tough recognized the need for better help and resources for both the planning and the actual execution of the learning, and new ways to help people become more competent as learners. He also identified fields that should be considered and his list included human growth, parent education, schools and college and counsellors.

Tough predicted that the amount of appropriate knowledge and skill gained by the typical adult would be much greater in the future. Indeed, adults today undertake a greater number of projects than they did in the past. This is partly due to the fulfillment of material needs and a greater shift to self-actualization.

The work presented in 'The Adult's Learning Projects' is an important report on research into an area that affects each adult's life. It is an important piece of work focussing on an area of adult education that was never previously discussed in detail in the literature. Today, the research tradition pioneered by Tough continues at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT) through New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL), a research network coordinated by David Livingstone which comprises more than 40 research projects on adult informal learning.


Tough, A. (1971). The Adult's Learning Projects: A Fresh Approach to Theory and Practice in Adult Learning. Toronto: OISE.

Prepared by Artemis Diamantouros (OISE/UT)

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