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The Changing Landscape of Adult Learning Theory

Volume 4: Chapter Six
Sharan B. Merriam

In Chapter 6, Sharan Merriam reviews three major periods in the study of adult learning. She begins with a brief look at early research on adult learning, which explored whether or not adults could learn and focused on intelligence, information processing, memory and cognitive development. Merriam then turns to efforts at mid-century, when adult educators recognized the need for their own particular knowledge base. Efforts at this time were made to differentiate adult learning from childhood or school-based learning and to develop models, principles, and theories to explain adult learning as unique and meriting its own methods and strategies of instruction. Out of this period came the notions of andragogy, self-directed learning, and transformational learning. For each area of theory, Merriam outlines key elements and assumptions, as well as criticisms and challenges. 

Merriam next discusses a number of more recent contributions to the development of adult learning theory as adult educators have turned to other fields to help shed light on the process of adult learning. The most recent additions to adult learning theory focus on the role of emotions in learning, the body as a site of learning, and the relationship between spirituality and learning. These new perspectives can help to expand our understanding of the holistic and complex nature of adult learning. As Merriam points out, the development of adult learning theory over time has revealed that learning is not solely a cognitive process operating in the learner's mind, and that the learner has a more complex, multi-faceted relationship to learning than previously thought. Moreover, rather than a simple list of learner characteristics, adult learning is influenced by the learning environment and the social, economic, political forces that shape it. As the author concludes, it is likely that no single theory can capture the complexity of the phenomenon of adult learning. 

  Appendix to Chapter 6   arrow

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL