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Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning


reviewed by Carol E. Kasworm - 1987

coverTitle: Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning
Author(s): Stephen D. Brookfield
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 1555423558, Pages: , Year:
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In a skillful creation of a dialogue and a context of critical review, Brookfield offers his readers thoughtful and serious examination of the “espoused theories” of facilitating adult learning. The examination considers key concepts in the field and the programmatic learning designs that support or impede them. It also suggests several new principles that should be considered in future adult-learning facilitation. Brookfield brings key research and theory structures to this discussion, and is critical of the current inadequacy and incongruence between theory and practice in the field. From this perspective, he recommends a series of guidelines for improvement of effective practice in the facilitation of adult learning.


Although the book has broad appeal to practitioners and researchers in adult education, I found that the format and perspectives of the book assume a prior involvement in and understanding of the key theories and current mythologies of the field. This thought-provoking book is directed to those in the field of adult education who need to critically reflect on the current status of the paradigms and practices of the field. Whether you support Brookfield’s premises and analysis or disagree with him, this is a book to be thoughtfully read and digested, and perhaps one that will provoke questioning of one’s own beliefs and actions.


The conceptual framework of the book is set in a critical reconsideration of effective practice through the standard of six key principles of facilitation. Brookfield suggests that adult learning is the critical examination of one’s values, of assumptions and ways of creating meaning and action in life. He assumes that effective learning for adults is more than transmission and retention of information. The adult learner must also engage in transactional dialogue with the teacher, the learning resources and materials, and his or her own assumptions and beliefs. The learner should engage in reexamining the meaning of knowledge and its potency for action in life, of engaging in praxis (action and reflection). As Brookfield dissects each of these principles through both research and current practice, he squarely raises issue with past beliefs of a nondirective, neutral facilitator, and a nonthreatening, placid learning environment. Although the learning environment should reflect a mutual collaborative effort and should be supportive of the adult learner’s self-concept, Brookfield believes that this more passive, nonjudgmental form of practice has often been an ineffectual learning design for adults. As he explores aspects of adult learning and its applications, he builds a foundation for new concepts of facilitation that incorporate the elements of challenge, confrontation, and critical analysis of self and society.


The book features five focal areas in this examination of adult learner facilitation. The first chapter presents a succinct presentation of Brookfield’s perspective and the principles of facilitation. The next live chapters-the second focal area—consider these facilitation principles through a critical review of current key research in adult learner characteristics, self-directed learning, alternative models of andragogy, and the role of the teacher and of the facilitator.


The third focal area presents the range of informal and formal adult learning environments. This coverage of both U.S. and British settings provides a context in which to consider the diversity of human and cultural differences, which do influence the facilitation of adult learning. Brookfield then offers a fourth area, that of application of these principles to current program development defined by the “institutional model.” He critically examines the shortcomings of this model, noting its particular inadequacies in relation to the central tenets of facilitation of adult learning. Drawing on numerous theorists in program and curriculum development, Brookfield discusses the issues of prespecified learning objectives, a rational, sequential program model development decision structure, the lack of professional responsibility in relationship to learner felt needs, contextual factors of program development, and the assumed belief of a perfect model for practitioner action in program design. With this critical set of issues, Brookfield reexplores program development through the concerns of learners’ needs and abilities, and suggests that facilitators become practical theorists, using the Argyris and Schön Model II-Theory In Use concept.1 He also devotes a chapter to reviewing key models of evaluation of adult facilitation and suggests evaluative strategies supportive of this model. In these discussions Brookfield shares a number of case studies to elucidate the concerns of the institutional model as well as a “theory of program development in action” based on the premise of facilitation. The final focal area presents Brookfield’s beliefs regarding a revised and intensified series of principles of facilitation that create and reinforce good practice in adult learning.


This book was recognized in 1986 for its significant contribution to the field, receiving both the Cyril O. Houle Award for Literature and the Imogene Okes Award for Outstanding Research in Adult Education. Clearly Brookfield’s contribution opens new fields for research and also redefines the quality of practitioner action. I strongly endorse his efforts and hope to see future work exploring and expounding in greater depth his pivotal concepts of facilitation and of a transactional planning model for facilitative adult learning. Brookfield has made a major contribution in the critical evaluation of past research and practice and in defining a more incisive value and action toward effective adult learning.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 2, 1987, p. 327-329
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 551, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 1:50:42 PM

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