2.1.2 Adult Learning Theories in Process Education

by Carol Holmes (Consultant for Faculty Development, Pacific Crest) and
Rose Ann Findlen (Freelance Educational Consultant)

Process Education principles are founded on two basic beliefs. First, no one should be marginalized: all learners have the capacity to improve the quality of their learning. Second, educators have a responsibility to “raise the bar” in their profession: learning is enhanced and achieved for all learners when educators help build learning skills, create and improve quality learning environments, design solid coherent curricula, and serve as effective facilitators of learning. These beliefs have a history. By looking into the discipline of adult learning and adult education (terms that are used interchangeably) we will deepen our understanding of the possible origins of Process Education principles we sometimes take for granted. This module describes the discipline of adult learning as well as some of the phases of its evolution. It highlights a sampling of the theories and contributions of some of the key contributors to the adult education movement, and connects them to some of the bedrock beliefs and practices within Process Education.

The Evolution of Adult Learning as a Discipline

Simply described, adult learning distinguishes the way adults learn from many of the principles and practices applied to children. There is no precise definition beyond this, but by reviewing some of the history, current models of adult learning, and research priorities, one forms an understanding of what this discipline is about.

Adult education was founded as a professional field of practice in the U.S. in 1926, but it has been part of European literature and research since 1833. Sharan Merriam (2001) identifies two pillars in the development of adult education in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s: andragogy and self-directed learning. Malcolm Knowles is often referred to as “the father of adult education.” He coined the term andragogy, or the study of how adults learn, in contrast to pedagogy, the study of how children learn. The andragogical model is predicated on four basic assumptions about learners, all of which have some relationship to our notions about learners’ abilities, needs, and desires to take responsibility for learning:

  1. Their self-concept moves from dependency to independency or self-directedness.

  2. They accumulate a reservoir of experiences that can be used as a basis on which to build learning.

  3. Their readiness to learn becomes increasingly associated with the developmental tasks of social roles.

  4. Their time and curricular perspectives change from learning that is removed from direct application to learning that is applied almost immediately, and from subject-centeredness to performance-centeredness (1988).

Between 1970 and 1980, Knowles’ thinking changed: he suggested that “... andragogy is simply another model of assumptions about adult learners to be used alongside the pedagogical model of assumptions, thereby providing two alternative models for testing out the assumptions as to their ‘fit’ with particular situations. Furthermore, the models are probably most useful when seen not as dichotomous but rather as two ends of a spectrum, with a realistic assumption (about learners) in a given situation falling in between the two ends” (1988).

Knowles focused on self directed learning, building on the work of Alan Tough and Cyril Houle. Merriam points out that humanists in this learning movement posit that self-directed learning should aim to develop the learner’s capacity to be self-directed; that is, by identifying need and goals, finding resources, determining one’s own learning strategies and means of evaluation, etc. (2001).

A more recent adult education movement changes the paradigm through which learning is viewed. Robert Kegan, a leader in this movement, states that “(w)hile much of the learning that we do in adulthood adds to what we know there is also the type of learning—transformational learning—that changes …how we know” (2000). Proponents of transformational learning agree that it should lead to empowerment of the learner, and that knowledge is not “out there” to be discovered but is created from interpretations and reinterpretations in light of new experiences. (Mezirow, 1996)

Rogers and Friere: Belief in Power of the Learner

Two noteworthy contributors share Knowles’ belief in human abilities: Carl Rogers and Paulo Friere. Knowles frequently credited Rogers with influencing his assumptions about adults and how they learn. Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow founded the humanist approach to psychology. In his book, Freedom to Learn (1969) Rogers describes his beliefs about learning and facilitation of learning. He believes that humans have a natural potentiality for learning, and that significant learning occurs when the learner regards the subject matter as relevant. The process also involves a change in self-organization, even in the perception of oneself. This is threatening and tends to be resisted, but these threats can be reduced when external threats are minimal and the threat to the self is low (Faculty Guidebook: 4.1.2 Distinctions Between Assessment and Evaluation). Another assumption is that in order to learn, one must do: the learner needs to responsibly participate. The most lasting and pervasive learning is self-initiated and involves both feeling and intellect (Faculty Guidebook: 3.3.5 Self- Validation of One’s Learning). When learners consider their self-criticisms and self-evaluations to be primary and that of others to be secondary, the learning process facilitates independence, creativity, and self-reliance. Lastly, learning how to learn better is the most socially useful learning in the modern world; it requires being constantly open to experience and incorporating oneself into the process of change.

Rogers’ views related to facilitation of learning are grounded in the belief that the facilitator is responsible for setting the initial mood or climate. To begin, the facilitator asks learners to state their individual purposes for learning, and, because individuals are more likely to be motivated by things that have personal meaning, the facilitator also asks about the more general purposes of the group. Facilitators endeavor to organize and make the widest possible range of resources for learning easily available; facilitators themselves are regarded as resources for learning (Faculty Guidebook: 3.1.1 Overview of Quality Learning Environments). When responding to the group, facilitators accept both intellectual content and emotional attitudes, endeavoring to give each aspect the approximate degree of emphasis that it has for the individual or the group. As the acceptant classroom climate becomes established, the facilitator is increasingly able to become a participant learner whose views are expressed as being those of one individual only. By sharing one’s own feelings and thoughts, facilitators do not demand or impose but simply represent personal sharing that students can take or leave. Facilitators remain ever alert to expressions that indicate deep or strong feelings. They also endeavor to recognize and accept their own limitations.

Paulo Friere, a constructivist who was widely read in the late seventies and early eighties, is considered a key influence for the transformative/transformation theory, and is well known for his work with poor illiterate people in Brazil. Friere challenged the commonly held assumption that certain groups of adults are incapable of learning because they were not exposed to formal education as children. Constructivism assumes that meaning exists within the learner rather than within external forms. Friere found that “…the ‘banking method’ of education, which emphasizes passive listening and acceptance of facts, kept (his) students disenfranchised.” (2000) He described a process of conscientization, by which adults “achieve a deepening awareness of both the socio-cultural reality which shapes their lives and…their capacity to transform that reality through action upon it.”

Perry and Meizrow Frame Ways to Raise the Bar on Learning

Two more key contributors to development of this growing body of knowledge are William Perry and Jack Mezirow. Both focus on elevating the thinking skills of learners through reflection, critical thinking, and guided inquiry as part of instructional design, facilitation of learning, and mentoring growth.

William Perry provided a four-category/nine-position scheme for cognitive and ethical development in the “journey of growth” of learners:

  1. Dualism/received knowledge: There are right and wrong answers, engraved on golden tablets in the sky, known by authorities.

  2. Multiplicity/subjective knowledge: There are conflicting answers; therefore, students must trust their “inner voices,” not external authority.

  3. Relativism/procedural knowledge: There are disciplinary reasoning methods of connected knowledge vs. separated knowledge. Some solutions are considered better than others depending on the context; the student’s task is to learn to evaluate solutions. Ultimately the student sees the need to make choices and commit to a solution.

  4. Commitment/constructed knowledge: The student makes a commitment, explores the issues relative to this commitment, and realizes that it is ongoing, unfolding, and evolving (Faculty Guidebook: 4.2.2 Becoming a Self-Grower).

Dr. Jack Mezirow’s work is foundational for thinking about strategies to help people develop their thinking and behaviors such that the way they view the world and themselves is changed. Mezirow pioneered a theory of transformative learning that is viewed as critical in helping people think differently. Transformative learning (or transformational learning) is a process of getting beyond the acquisition of factual knowledge alone to being changed in some meaningful way by what one learns. According to Mezirow, transformational learning is a process in which critical reflection is prompted by a disorienting dilemma. In a disorienting dilemma, the new information does not fit with previous beliefs; in order to gain new meaning, one must engage in significant reflective thinking. When learning is transformative, learners question assumptions, beliefs, and values, and consider multiple points of view, while always seeking to verify their reasoning (Boyd, 1988).

Mezirow regards the educator’s role as one of helping learners to focus on and examine assumptions that underlie their beliefs, feelings, and actions, to assess the consequences of these assumptions; to identify and explore alternative assumptions; and to test the validity of the assumptions through participation in reflective dialog. He states that “transformative learning involves becoming more reflective and critical, being more open to the perspectives of others, and being less defensive and more accepting of new ideas” (2000).

Contributors and Implications for Process Educators

Table 1 is organized to reflect the three phases of the adult learning movement articulated above, and to feature key processes practiced by process educators. It identifies the respective contributors and ways they offer resources for the respective practices.

Concluding Thoughts

Researching and writing this module has been humbling, discouraging, encouraging, and inspirational. It is humbling in that it points to the high-quality work and thinking of some of the most prominent educators of the latter half of the twentieth century. It is discouraging when one reflects upon the profoundness of the work and sees so little evidence that it is incorporated into the thoughts and practices in the culture of higher education. It is both encouraging and affirming to see the astonishing synergy of this work with Process Education. It validates the feeling that process educators are engaged in good work. It is inspiring when one is aware of entire communities of colleagues with whom Process Educators can design and conduct research and mutually learn. Stephen Brookfield provides focus for such sharing as he describes current primary areas of research needed by the adult learning community, i.e. self-directed learning, critical reflection, experiential learning, and learning to learn. With the exception of experiential learning, three of these areas would also be described as primary to the process education community. Two places to begin such shared learning are with the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education and its Commission of Professors of Adult Education (CPAE). The Academy of Process Educators’ goal to help transform higher education may have a higher chance of success if it builds collegial bonds with this wider range of partners.


Boyd, R. D., & Myers, J. G. (1998, October, December). Transformative education. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 7(4), 261-284.

Brookfield, S. (1995) Adult learning an overview in A. Tuinjman (Ed.). International Encyclopedia of Education. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Friere, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. (Translated by Myra Bargman Ramos) New York: Continuum.

Grow, G. O. (1994). In defense of the staged self-directed learning model. Adult Education Quarterly. 44(2), 109-114.

Kegan, R. ( 2000). What “form” transforms? A constructive-developmental perspective on transformational learning. In J. Meizrow & Associates (Eds.). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. New York: Association Press.

Knowles, M. S. (1988). The modern practice of adult education: Andragogy versus pedagogy (Revised edition). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.

Merriam, S. (2001). The new update on adult learning theory: New directions for adult and continuing education (No. 89). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perry, W. G., Jr. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Pratt, D. D., & Associates. (1998). Five perspectives on teaching in adult and higher education. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Rogers, C. R., (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: Merrill.


Table 1  Shared Assumptions About Learning and Implications

Process Education: Tenets & Practices

Adult Learning Theories: Scholarship & Concepts


Self-Directed Learning

Transformative Learning

Acceptance of responsibility

Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own learning. (Knowles)

Those grounded in the humanistic philosophy posit that the goal of self-directed learning should be to develop the learner’s capacity to be self-directed. (Merriam)

Nine-position scheme for cognitive & ethical development lays a foundation for the ability to assume greater independence. (Perry)

Help others, and perhaps ourselves, move toward a fuller and more dependable understanding of the meaning of our mutual experience. (Mezirow)

Challenging, emotional readiness to learn

Internal motivators are the most potent; adults need to know why it is important to know something before they engage in learning it. (Knowles)

Staged Self-Directed Learning involves a matrix which learners use to locate themselves in terms of their readiness for and comfort with self-directed learning; instructors can match the learner’s stage with appropriate instructional strategies. (Grow)

Questioning assumptions, beliefs, and values, and considering multiple points of view, while always seeking to verify reasoning. (Boyd and Myers)


Adults have a rich reservoir of experiences that provide meaning to learning. (Knowles)

Frequent self-assessment is critical when fulfilling and modifying one’s own self-directed plan. (Knowles,1975)

Sociocultural experiences cause
learning to have meaning. (Friere)

Transformative learning involves becoming more reflective and critical. (Mezirow)

Collaborative learning

Because of their rich reservoir of experience, adult learners have much to teach one another. (Knowles)

Learning may be done independently but usually involves others; the individuals or groups are likely change as the learning tasks change. (Knowles,1975)

When groups of people have common needs, it significantly increases their potential for learning and viewing the world differently; this leads to transformation. (Friere)

Being more open to the perspectives of others. (Mezirow)

Experiential learning

Learning must be problem-centered and linked to real life tasks. (Knowles)

Learning contracts written by the learner usually incorporate strategies that involve extensive experiential learning. (Knowles,1975)

Learning has to be tied to real-life needs
that are not being met. (Friere)

Facilitation of learning

Instructors follow nine guidelines to facilitate others’ learning rather than imposing learning upon them. (Rogers)

The instructor’s role is that of a coach, resource, and mentor; the learner executes his or her own learning contract. (Knowles,1975)

Help learners focus on and examine the assumptions that underlie their beliefs, feelings, and actions. (Mezirow)

Assess the consequences of these assumptions

Identify and explore alternative sets of assumptions

Test the validity of assumptions through effective participation in reflective dialog