Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Frontiers of Adult Education: Methods in Adult Education

by Lyman Bryson - 1939

Most of the practices that are important to the teacher of adults are important also to anyone else who gives instruction. The emphasis is somewhat different, however, and the teacher of adults is subject to sanctions on the part of his students which other teachers do not need to fear.

WE may well begin any discussion of method by admitting that good teaching is always good teaching no matter at what level. Most of the practices that are important to the teacher of adults are important also to anyone else who gives instruction. The emphasis is somewhat different, however, and the teacher of adults is subject to sanctions on the part of his students which other teachers do not need to fear. Adult students are by definition pursuing voluntary education and they can walk out whenever they please. No matter how we may disguise it or soften the fact, it remains true that students in most other forms of education have to take what they get whether they like it or not. They may not "take it" in the sense of learning anything, or even by paying any attention to what is going on, but they continue to be counted on the attendance rolls no matter how bad the teaching may be. Adult students just disappear.


This makes it necessary for the teacher of adults to provide experiences that give real learning satisfaction. It is not, however, a simple matter of "giving the people what they want." The concept of "interest" is too complicated for us to examine here. But any educator who sees the possibilities of his own profession will be ambitious to produce not complacence, but discontent, in those who study with him. He will try to meet the needs of which they were aware when they came, but at the same time he will endeavor to arouse in them much deeper cultural and personal needs of which they were not aware—making them discontented with the narrowness of their own educational demands.

Any teacher who undertakes to do this is struggling against handicaps which do not stand in the way of teachers who work on other levels. His methods must be adapted to these circumstances. Most adults who have undertaken to enlarge their knowledge and improve their skills are much more easily discouraged in the learning process than are children. They have, it is true, come to school on their own volition; they are undertaking to learn what they themselves have chosen. They have maturity of purpose and a clearer knowledge of the uses of learning. In spite of these advantages they are still more easily discouraged than children are. The reasons for this are partly psychological, partly social.

In simple learning power, as we now know from the studies of Thorn-dike and others, and especially from the recent work of Lorge, the adult is quite capable of learning anything he really wants to know, limited, of course, by his structural capacity and his previous educational experience but not limited by age. It is not true, however, that the mature person, past the physical prime of the early twenties, can depend upon his senses to work with the same speed and efficiency as they did when he was young. He cannot see, or hear, or manipulate as well as he could when he was younger. The result, as Lorge has pointed out, is that he learns as well but more slowly.

The adult must learn more slowly because he cannot see or hear or move as quickly—but learning is not a simple process of addition by which unchanging units of information or skill are added to a sum of unchanging personal traits. In some ways, the greater experience of the older person makes him the more ready to understand new materials; in other ways, he is slowed down in learning by the fixed patterns of his present knowledge. Persons of all levels of innate power and with all kinds of experience differ greatly in the relative importance of these factors. Consequently, while all adults must learn at their own pace and must not be hurried, each adult person has his own ways of learning. He must make his own individual adjustments between present attitudes and new facts. He requires teaching that takes into account not only his general difficulties but also his peculiarities. Personal attention and the closest understanding between teacher and student are immensely valuable in quickening the adult student's powers and in holding him to the task. This, we may note in passing, is one of the chief reasons for the informality which is usual in adult education.

The loss in the acuity of the senses which slows down the learning powers after early maturity makes it helpful also to divide material for mature students into brief, clearly articulated units. And the good teacher helps the student to see at every moment the bearing of what he is then learning upon the general problem which he is trying to understand.

It will be said that this is good teaching in any case. It is, of course. But the younger student is more patient with bits of knowledge that are vaguely "preparation for life." To him the future is at the same time more vague and more exciting. The mature student wants to see immediate relations. The adult must learn slowly and he must be shown that each particular step leads toward his goal. This is less true, of course, in liberal studies than it is in some of the more pragmatic phases of self-education but it is relatively true for any subject on any level and for any technique of teaching, informal or orthodox.


The mature student's handicaps in learning power are thus to be met by adapting the material to his speed and holding his attention by making relationships clear. But there are other handicaps which he faces, partly social in their origin, partly produced by his own adult idea of himself. Unfortunately, our folkways encourage a concept of maturity which implies that nothing further needs to be learned. The child learns; the man knows.

On the upper levels of professional life this has, of course, no meaning. In general, it may be said that those who have a good deal of education are most anxious for more. But on the occupational and social levels where wage-earning maturity comes early, a combination of forces within himself and in the minds of all his friends makes an adult ashamed of his desire to learn. The child accepts learning as his life's business. The adult, if he is to admit ignorance, must have courage. A concrete illustration is found in the experience of CCC camp advisers. The boys who are discovered to be illiterate can often be persuaded to learn to read and write, but only when the other comparatively ignorant boys in the camp do not make too much fun of them.

These difficulties in the path of the learning adult are increased, of course, by the fact that most adult study is done with the fag end of a ; day's energy. Again, by definition, adult education is the learning activities of those to whom learning is not at the time their chief occupation.


Consideration of these things compels the teacher of adults to be patient, not to put pressure on his students to learn more swiftly than they can easily do, above all to keep alive in them the learning impulse. The capacity to encourage or to inspire is important in all teachers. In adult education it is a basic necessity. In my opinion, however, a mere sentimental interest in the struggles of adult students, a so-called "liking for people," is a poor substitute for the real teacher's inspiration. This, I believe, is more an interest in the ideas and intellectual problems of students than it is a concern for their personal welfare. Above all it is a capacity for making meanings and values explicit, no matter what the material may be. Perhaps it can be summed up methodologically by saying that a good teacher of adults encourages his students by showing them at frequent intervals just what it is they have learned and how it can be useful to them. On the elementary levels where all the handicaps are present in their worst form, a good teacher would never dismiss a class without being sure that every person in it was triumphantly aware of what had been learned and why. On the higher levels and especially in more informal situations, the teacher cannot so easily satisfy this need for reassurance but he can do his best toward meeting it.

The adult then will learn by small increments and must be constantly encouraged to go ahead. Many a teacher is well aware of these methodological necessities, however, who still will fail because he approaches grown people as if they were children. It is very difficult to define exactly the subtle errors in attitude which make a class of adults restless and unresponsive. Teachers who have been successful for years in dealing with children seem more likely to make mistakes than inexperienced beginners. This leads to the paradox that young teachers are often better with adults than are the more mature. Little tricks of calling a class to attention or commenting on personal habits, even the tone of voice, betray the teacher who has so fixedly acquired the habits of teaching children that he is vaguely offensive to grown men and women.

It helps sometimes to remind the teacher that his students may possibly know more about many things than he does, and that it is only in the subject matter of the course that he is wiser than they. At the same time, mature students often behave with deceptive docility. They may be merely showing the evil effects of what school did to them, or perhaps merely acting out more or less unconsciously their idea of the role of the student. In fact they do often complain of teachers who are not as systematic and formal as teachers are supposed to be. Paradoxically enough, the teacher of adults may have to persuade some members of his group to accept informality and assert themselves, while he is at the same time struggling with others who want to make the class session a mere casual conversation.

The teacher of adults, however, has some advantages over one who has to deal with children. Men and women are not sitting on school benches as a matter of routine or convention. They have overcome obstacles to get into the class or the forum or the studio. They want to learn something because they believe they can put knowledge to use. By the familiar law of learning, that the best time to learn something is just before you expect to use it, adult students are ideally motivated. And this also helps to explain why informal and flexible methods are effective even though some of the students may have to be persuaded that informality and intellectual effort are not incongruous.


Several specific methods are worth discussing. Since we want informality when we can get it, we do not follow fixed classroom routines when they can be avoided. In fact, "classes" are often turned into "discussion groups," and the lecture is more customary than the recitation.

As far as the lecture is concerned, it is again very likely that a good lecturer is good for a miscellaneous "adult education" audience for the same reasons that would make him good in dealing with undergraduates. But here arrangement of material comes into our ken once more since undergraduates are committed to a "course" and expect grades or credits. Adults generally expect immediate values. One might say that the ordinary classroom situation is one in which the teacher gives the lecture in order to judge by their responses the abilities of the students. In the ordinary adult education program, the lecturer speaks in order to be judged by his listeners and they are very little concerned with his opinion of them.

This makes it much easier for the academic speaker to be systematic in his treatment of his substance. An illustration will make this clear. In a western forum series, a very distinguished scholar from a great university was asked to give a six weeks' series of lectures on economics. He was famous for his classroom skill, his wit, and his easily borne erudition. He had a crowded auditorium for his first lecture, less for his second, and at the end of six weeks he had a handful of hearers left. Any experienced teacher of adults could have told him what was the matter.

Another much less famous and probably less well-equipped speaker, familiar with forum audiences, came soon afterward. He covered much the same ground and was a great success.

The difference between the two that really counted was this: The first speaker followed his college outlines. He began at the beginning of his subject with no concern for the questions or the various backgrounds of his listeners. He took it for granted that they wanted the whole subject and that they were all prepared to follow through.

The second man, the successful one, made no effort to force the thinking of heterogeneous crowds into academic molds. He took his texts from the news; in fact, he followed carefully the subjects on the front pages of the newspapers. He started each meeting without presuming that his hearers had ever heard him before. But he taught a good deal of systematic economics in terms of each day's special problems. This meant that he was never talking about something that seemed to his listeners to have no bearing on anything they were interested in.

These two men were extreme types. The contrast shows, nevertheless, the chief difference between success with college students and success with the haphazard collections of people that constitute the forum audiences.

In discussion—which has come to be the adult method most in vogue—academic pressures must be still further relaxed and academic system suspended. There are doubtless very vigorous and frank discussions in many college seminars, but there the leader, if he is also the teacher, cannot divest himself of hampering authority. In discussions of the many types that are set up with or without professional leadership in adult education, the leader must earn his authority.

This point is important. Any good teacher may know all he needs to know for the teaching of adults except the special skills and attitudes that make a good discussion leader. These are known only by those who have taken the trouble to learn them.

This does not mean that the only good discussion leaders are those who have "taken courses." As a matter of fact, there is still little systematic knowledge of this difficult art and few places where it can be really studied. But good leaders have been "made," nevertheless, if only by careful study of their own experience.

This is no place for the analysis of the practical dialectic of discussion. Like all processes in which learning is involved, discussion has elements which are primarily intellectual or logical in their nature, others that have to do with the psychology of communication, and still others that are social. None of them has been much examined. The logic of discussion is very different from the logic of formal exposition and argument. We are only beginning to look scientifically at communication. Social skills can be learned as they always have been—by imitation.

If a conscientious, able, and well-trained teacher sets out to discover how he can become a good teacher of adult learners, he can be told that he will have to adjust himself to a new kind of student and take on at least one new method of procedure. The more he knows of sound method, the better. At the same time, practice to a point of automatism of even the best method will be a handicap. Above all, he must be himself both learner and adult.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 41 Number 1, 1939, p. 51-57
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 8776, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 4:32:10 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue