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Authored by: Knud Illeris.

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Adult learning has been part of my focus for over forty years. My research and developmental work has been on what characterizes human learning, especially learning in youth and adulthood with a specific interest in less educated learners e. Illeris , a, , Adult learning did not emerge as a special area of interest before about Prior to there was, in the industrialized countries, a kind of general understanding that studies of learning should be related mainly to children and youth.

Of course there would also be some learning in adulthood, but this would either be for updating, minor issues, or new matters. For adults stability was both the norm and the ideal, and changes were related to disruptions and weakness. Around the s changes in the world were more frequent and the ideal of stability was supplemented by an ideal of flexibility.

Adults needed to be able to change, which implies a need to reject earlier learning and engage in new learning. Gradually adult learning became a very important issue. These new tendencies followed two main courses, learning for work and learning for social change. In the trades and industries interest in adult learning was mainly related to the movement of human resource development see e. But adult learning also became a focal point in social movements which involved the uneducated, poor, and oppressed people in a combination of basic education and personal consciousness raising, often related to political objectives.

This question, however, needs a closer elucidation to avoid such unprofitable discussion covering an underlying power struggle. For the traditional psychology of learning, there are no age-conditioned differences, because learning has been studied as a common phenomenon of which researchers endeavored to discover the basic and decisive characteristics.

Therefore research often involved animals and humans in constructed and simple laboratory situations. This depends, however, on which definition of learning is used. If learning is defined as only the internal psychological function of acquisition of new knowledge, skills and attitudes, as traditional learning psychology tends to do, it is to some extent possible to claim that, independent of the concrete conditions such as age differences or social background, learning processes are fundamentally the same.

But if the emotional dimension and social interaction processes are also seen as necessary and integrated elements of learning, the picture changes. The majority of modern learning theorists have accepted this, and some have even considered learning as mainly or only a social process e. Lave and Wenger , Gergen These changes strongly influence the character of the social and emotional dimensions of learning. In general, learning in childhood could be described as a continuous campaign to capture the world.

The child is born into an unknown world and learning is about acquiring this world and finding out how to deal with it. In this connection, two learning-related features are prominent, especially for the small child. The child learns everything within its grasp, throws itself into everything, and is limited only by its biological development and the nature of its surroundings. Second, the child places utter confidence in the adults around it because it has no criteria to evaluate their behavior.

Children must, for example, learn the language these adults speak and practice the culture they practice. Of course, late modern society has led to growing complexity and even confusion of this situation as older children receive impressions from their pals and especially from the mass media, which go far beyond the borders of their own environment. But still the open and confident approach must be recognized as the starting point.

17 Allen MacNeil Tough

Opposite of childhood learning stands learning during adulthood. In reality, it is a gradual process that takes place throughout the period of youth, may last well into the 20s or be entirely incomplete if the formation of a relatively stable identity is chosen as the criterion for its completion which is the classical description of this transition provided by Erik Erikson, This is immediately true concerning content in a narrow sense, but it also applies to views and attitudes, perceptions, communications options, behavioral patterns, lifestyle, etc.

So input must always be sorted. At any rate, typically, they only learn it partially, in a distorted way or with a lack of motivation that makes what is learned extremely vulnerable to oblivion and difficult to apply in situations not subjectively related to the learning context Illeris a: What can I use it for? How does it fit into my personal life perspectives? Finally learning in youth in this connection can be seen as a transition in which the uncensored learning of children is gradually replaced by the selective learning of adults, and the identity is developed as a kind of scale or yardstick of the selectivity.

It is not only researchers, administrators and teachers who traditionally have had the idea that learning is mainly related to childhood and youth. Also among adult learners this understanding is widespread. On the contrary adults experience the situation as if they are forced to return to an artificial kind of childhood, something that is degrading or even humiliating — because returning to school indirectly means not being good enough for the tasks in which one is involved.


In what we call free and democratic societies adults are in principle regarded as people of majority who can and must take responsibility for themselves and what they do and say. But at the same time they are subject to risks and situations which they cannot control. In relation to learning and education, anyone can suddenly and without having any responsibility for it themselves realize that their qualifications have become worthless and no longer can be sold on the labor market. This may happen, for example, if the owners and stakeholders of their workplace decide to move it to a country far away in which labor is cheaper, or if a new management undertakes a reorganization which makes certain departments and persons unnecessary.

But there may also be other and more personal reasons as for example, a bad relationship to a leader, low concentration because of too many problems at home, too many days lost through illness, etc. A considerable number of adult learners do not participate in adult education because they want to do so, but because for some reason outside their control they have to do so.

The 4 adult learning styles explained with JC Melvin

The central condition is that these adult learners are not in control of the situation. Therefore they are ambivalent — and the slogan of lifelong learning may in such situations become very ambiguous. Adult education today is usually far from the emancipating projects of the folk high schools or public enlightenment — in relation to which the idea of lifelong learning was originally launched.

If the possibilities for learning shall be turned in a positive direction, the adults must accept them psychologically, they must be able to understand the meaning of the learning activities in relation to themselves and their life situations see e. Illeris , , b.

The cognitive learning theory put forward by Jean Piaget in the s on the basis of extensive empirical studies, focused on the development of learning possibilities in childhood through a number of cognitive stages and sub-stages and thus maintained that there is a highly specific developmental course. Ultimately, the role of the educator in this setting is to enhance the attraction and help guide the adult visitor to new levels of understanding and action.

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