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)

Questions and Answers on Adult Education

Edited by Daniel Schugurensky

This site includes questions and answers on Adult Education that were written by students in the course 'Outline of Adult Education' at OISE/UT. The questions are first raised in class by the students themselves. Then they organize in teams in order to research and answer them. New entries are added regularly. This website is intended to provide information about the field to new students and to those who have a general interest in Adult Education. Anyone is welcome to submit a question and/or answer.


What are some of the main philosophies in the field of Adult Education?

Prepared by Tamar Kagan and Alfred Meidow, OISE/UT

According to Sue M. Scott, there are five main philosophies of Adult Education. The five philosophies are Liberal, Progressive, Behaviourist, Humanist, and Radical.

Liberal (Arts) Adult Education

To develop, stimulate, and discipline the mind through the study of principles and absolutes
To seek knowledge for its own sake in order to gain a 'well-rounded' perspective of the world
Learner seeks knowledge over his/her lifetime
Teacher is the expert
Knowledge is transmitted from the teacher (e.g., through lectures)
Teacher challenges students to absorb information and think about it critically
Evaluation takes place through essays, critical analysis, and discussion
Methods used include lectures, reading and critical analysis, question-and-answer, teacher-led discussion, individual study, essay testing, and 'bell-curve' grading
Important contributors to this philosophy: Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau, Piaget, Hutchins, Adler, Houle, and Hirsch

Progressive Adult Education

To provide individuals with relevant problem-solving skills that relate to their lives
To provide practical knowledge
Education emerges from life experience
Individual takes an active role in the learning process
Individual's needs and interests shape the educational process
Teacher is a guide, someone who facilitates the learning process but follows the student's lead
Evaluation takes place through personal and group dialogue, cooperative learning, etc.
Methods used include projects, scientific or experimental method, simulations, group investigation, cooperative learning, portfolios, pass/no pass grading, community schools
Important contributors to this philosophy: Dewey, Taylor, Whitehead, Lindeman

Behavioural Adult Education

To promote behavioural change and skill development
Educational environments are structured
Learners are not involved in setting objectives
Learners work to master a particular skill before moving to the next step
Individuals have been programmed from birth, and thus for learning to occur, individuals need to be reprogrammed
Teacher structures the environment through rewarding and punishing desirable and undesirable behaviour
Evaluation takes place by examining changed behaviour
Methods used include competency-based instruction, lock-step curriculum, technical/skill training, demo and practice, standardized and criterion-referenced testing
Important contributors to this philosophy: Thorndike, Skinner, Mager, Nadler

Humanistic Adult Education

To enhance personal growth and development
To allow the learner to be involved in knowledge construction and 'meaning making'
To cultivate the self
Learner is motivated and directs the learning process
Teacher is a mediator who balances the different learning styles and goals of students
Teacher supports the individual in realizing his/her potential
Evaluation takes place by examining the extent to which people learn about themselves in relation to the subject matter
Methods used include experiential learning, discovery learning, open discussion, individual projects, collaborative learning, independent study, self-assessment, popular education, personal growth and development programs, and assertiveness training
Important contributors to this philosophy: Rogers, Maslow, Knowles, Tough, Mezirow, Stanage

Radical Adult Education

To use education as a means to bring about fundamental social, cultural, political, and economic change
The purpose of education is to raise awareness of issues of social justice, and to empower individuals to fight for change
The learner is a voluntary participant in the process
Learners and teachers are equal
Teachers are coordinators who act to support the learner in challenging the status quo
Evaluation takes place through visible personal and/or social transformation
Methods used include critical theory, feminist theory, critical discussion and reflection, problem posing, analysis of media output, and social action theatre
Important contributors to this philosophy: Freire, Illich, Kozol, Shor, Habermas, Ohliger, Collins, and Perelman

These five philosophies provide a clear framework to understand the different definitions, goals, roles, concepts, methods and scholars within Adult Education. It is important however, to realize that in reality, our personal philosophies of education do not fit neatly into categories and that while we may identify primarily with one philosophy, we share elements of the others.


Elias, J. and S. Merriman (1995), Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education (2nd ed.) Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co.

Scott, Sue M., Bruce Spencer and Alan Thomas (Eds.) (1998). Philosophies in Action. In Learning for Life: Canadian Readings in Adult Education. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc. Chapter 7.

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Last updated on September 04, 2002.