Adult Education Approaches in Industrialized Countries

As we stated in the introduction to this chapter, the field of educational AR is huge and heterogeneous. In many ways, the theorists and synthesizers in adult education have gathered the many threads into an overall picture that is more synthetic than those provided by educational action researchers, who may have a more limited institutional focus. But now we move on to discuss what is more conventionally and narrowly called adult education approaches per se.


A popular general term for adult education in industrialized countries is andragogy; it is heavily associated with the names of Malcolm Knowles (Knowles, 1990; Knowles and others, 1984) and, more recently, Jack Mezirow. Mezirow ( 1991) defines it the following way: “Andragogy is the professional perspective of adult educators. It has been defined as an organized and sustained effort to assist adults to learn in a way that enhances their capability to function as self-directed learners” (p. 199). On the European continent, andragogy is widely used as a term for adult education, with a number of uni­versities issuing degrees that use this name.

The core of adult education is a view of learning as situated in social, cultural, and material contexts within which individual experiences arc transformed into emancipatory actions through critical reflection. Mezirow’s transformation theory represents a dialectical synthesis of the objectivist learn­ing assumptions emerging from the rational modernist tradition and the con­cept of meaning coming from symbolic interactionism. His transformation theory focuses on critical reflection anchored directly in the structures of inter­subjectivity and communicative competence (Mezirow, 1996, p. 165).

In recent years, the approach has moved much closer to a professional position parallel to AR. Later writings by Mezirow (for example, 1996) build on Habermas’s (1984) critique of the scientific tradition and his work on com­municative actions. The full step into the world of AR is taken by Wilfred Carr and Stephen Kemmis, both professors of education. In their book, Becoming Critical: Education, Knowledge and Action Research (1985), they provide an epistemological grounding for AR based on pragmatic philosophy.

A central concept in Western andragogical thinking is the focus on critical reflection and thinking. Brookfield ( 1987) devotes a whole book to expanding the concept of critical thinking and showing how to facilitate processes that enhance participants’ ability to think critically. Brookfield identifies four com­ponents in critical thinking:

  1. Identifying and challenging assumptions is central in critical thinking.
  2. Challenging the importance of context is crucial to critical thinking.
  3. Critical thinkers try to imagine and explore alternatives.
  4. Imagining and exploring alternatives leads to reflective skepticism. (p. 7)

An important element in Brookfield’s (1986, 1987) work is his focus on the facilitator as a key person in the adult education process. He points to an important contradiction between using power to have students see and reflect on specific issues and then letting go of control over the learning process when the critical thinkers are ready to take over. This contradiction or tension is also discussed in the work of Levin and Martin ( 1995); they argue that it is neces­sary to apply power in a learning situation to be able to gain emancipation.

There are some overlaps and linkages between Southern popular educa­tion and Northern andragogy. Two books, both written in a dialogical format, create a reflection on the relationship between the two positions: Myles Horton and Paulo Freire’s ( 1990) We Make the Road by Walking and Ira Shor and Paulo Freire’s ( 1987) A Pedagogy for Liberation. Both books show how lively and rewarding the relationship between practitioners in the South and the North can be. An excellent summary and analysis of these positions can be found in Finger and Asun (2001, Chap. 3).

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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