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adult education


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Courses of study offered for learners over the age of compulsory schooling. Sometimes used synonymously with evening classes, adult education encompasses a very wide range of provision, including prison education, education in the armed forces, adult literacy classes, and church‐based learning groups, as well as local authority and Workers’ Educational Association provision. It has a long history closely associated with ideals of social reform, self‐help, and self‐improvement, particularly among social classes who could not access adequate schooling or higher education. Direct forerunners of adult education were the ‘adult and benevolent evening schools’, the ‘young men's reformation and mental improvement societies’, and the mechanics' institutes of the 19th century. By the 21st century, however, adult education has lost much of its earlier, radical image. Theory related to the education of adults constitutes in itself a field of academic study, sometimes referred to as androgogy, to distinguish it from pedagogy, the theory related to the teaching of children. It is argued, for example, that some key characteristics can be associated with adult learners, which must be taken into account if they are to be helped to learn effectively. These include: their adult responsibilities and commitments, which will inevitably compete for time with their studies; their motivation, which has brought them back to education; their need to feel they are getting good value, in terms of learning, from the time and money they have invested; their level of anxiety at returning to education, which may be much higher than they are willing to disclose. The education of adults can also necessitate a reconfiguration of the teacher–pupil paradigm into a more egalitarian, negotiated relationship in which it will usually not be appropriate for the teacher to use the same forms of encouragement and sanctions which they might employ with younger learners. See also National Institute of Adult Continuing Education; radical educators.

their adult responsibilities and commitments, which will inevitably compete for time with their studies;

their motivation, which has brought them back to education;

their need to feel they are getting good value, in terms of learning, from the time and money they have invested;

their level of anxiety at returning to education, which may be much higher than they are willing to disclose.

Further Reading:

Roger Fieldhouse and Associates A History of Modern British Adult Education (NIACE, 1996).

Subjects: Education.


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