A Perspective on Adult Education Research
Huey B. Long
One's perception of a phenomenon is determined in part by the angle and distance at which the phenomenon is viewed. Because perspective has such an important effect on one's mental images of phenomena, this chapter is designed to help readers establish a common position from which they can view adult education research. Accordingly, it has a fourfold mission: to look briefly at research incentives in adult education, to define adult education research, to discuss its special characteristics, and to review the relevant literature.
Several elements are interacting to generate incentives for inquiry into adulthood and all of its social, psychological, economic,
and political significance. These elements include our limited knowledge of adulthood; the peculiarities of adulthood, which suggest that a subtle distinctiveness characterizes research on this subject; and the rapid expansion of programs designed specifically for adults.
Formerly, adults were often viewed in an undifferentiated manner. Too little thought was given to how they differed from one another or from children. And even with the. phenomenal increase in research concerning the human life cycle, we still know little about the life stages; our knowledge of the transitions from adolescence to middle age to senescence remains embarrassingly limited. We are also insufficiently informed about how the concepts of adult learning and continuing education have changed, as well as about the changing cultural influences on adult behavior. We are even short on information concerning how behavior is culturally conditioned. Because of the significance of adulthood and the extent of our ignorance of important life roles having to do with leisure, family life, and work, substantial research is needed.
However, in seeking to answer questions about adulthood, we cannot just shift labor and research instruments from a child population to an adult population. The ways in which adults differ from children, the conditions under which the study of adults is usually conducted, and the character of the field in which the researcher is working (adult education as opposed to psychology, for instance) all make research on adulthood subtly unique. For one thing, researchers concerned with adult behavior-more than researchers dealing with childhood-frequently have some kind of relationship with the individuals from whom data are collected. In addition, the questions investigated in adult education and related human resource development fields are usually embedded in a complex content. And the variables one wants to examine are often particularly difficult to isolate and to observe in adult research. yet despite the challenges posed by these characteristics, or perhaps because these qualities also provide incentive, adult education researchers and others have been making substantial progress.
Additional incentive is being offered by the elaboration and expansion of programs intended to serve adult needs. The aspiration to provide exemplary programs has focused attention on the limita-
ions of the research results available to help program specialists make sound decisions. Professional adult educators, trainers, and others want to know more about the motives and goals of specific adults; about how adults in certain age ranges handle interpersonal relations and conflicts; about how they can more efficiently and effectively help an adult to develop a new skill or understanding. Others are interested in improving delivery systems and procedures, methods of finance, administrative procedures and the like. The consequences of these developments is clearly a growing demand for more and better information and therefore also for more and better research, using methods specially suited to the study of adults.
Defining Adult Education Research
Definition is a device used to sort things into categories for purposes of identification and communication. The more precise the definition, the greater the restrictions on what can qualify for inclusion in any category and the greater the possibility that different individuals will have the same understanding about the identity of a phenomenon. Mental convergence, then, is assisted by definition and contributes to improved communication. Unfortunately, the term adult education research lacks a commonly accepted precise definition. Each word in the term has been variously defined, and perhaps no diverse absolute consensus is possible. Thus, rather than attempt to explicate any of these words, I will merely provide a few examples of definitions and share my own views.
Adult Education. Taking first things first, let us examine what is meant by adult education. Adult education has been both narrowly and broadly defined according to a variety of criteria, from the way it functions to the characteristics of its clients. The interested reader is referred to Verner (1964, p. 30), Schroeder (1970, pp. 25-44) and Spence (1955) for more detailed discussions.
Of the efforts to distinguish adult education from other kinds of education, those of Bryson (1936) and Verner are noteworthy. according to Bryson (1936, pp. 3-4), adult education is all activities with an educational purpose carried on by people in the ordinary business of life who use only part of their time and energy to
acquire intellectual equipment. Verner's definition (1964, p. 32) is more restrictive: "Adult education is a relationship between an educational agent and a learner in which the agent selects, arranges, and continuously directs a sequence of progressive tasks that provide systematic experience to achieve learning for those whose participation in such activities is subsidiary and supplemental to a primary productive role in society."
I prefer to remove the part-time and agent restrictions and define adult education as any planned learning activity engaged in by and for anyone who possesses the biological, civil, and cultural characteristics of an adult. Admittedly, this definition is extremely broad, but so is the field of adult education. Adding restrictive elements appears to be desirable only when we want to specify certain kinds of adult education activities. Such a procedure parallels the classification system used in biology: education is the kingdom, adult is the phylum; the class, family, genus, and species are to be determined through greater specification.
Research. The definitional range of this word reflects the varying levels of sophistication and complexity of the process and the research experience of the individual using the word. For example, research may be broadly defined to include any procedure used to collect information for the purpose of making a decision. A more precise definition is the careful, disciplined, organized, and exhaustive investigation of all ascertainable evidence bearing on a definable problem (Hillway, 1974, p. 5). Other restrictions also are frequently placed on the definition. Two such limitations concern the generalizability of the findings and the purpose of the inquiry. That is, research findings are expected to be generalizable to large populations or to other similar phenomena, and research consists of inquiries that attempt to assess the scientific truth of a thing as opposed to inquiries designed to evaluate the worth of something (Glass, 1970).
Some writers suggest, however, that the crucial question is not whether or why differences among definitions exist but what, if anything, is common to all the activities defined as research. Thus the answer to the critical question is to be found not in what is studied but in how the inquiry is conducted (Aker and Schroeder, 1969). Research can then be distinguished from other means that
are frequently used to answer a question or solve a problem, such as simply letting change occur, adopting trial-and-error procedures, generalizing from experience, or depending on mysticism, tradition, and custom.
To answer the more important questions of reality, mankind has attempted to develop more dependable ways than those noted above to determine truth. Consequently, several methods for determining reality, resolving issues, and answering questions have evolved, including appeals to authority, philosophical and religious systems, and the scientific method. Each has its adherents and detractors, of course, who emphasize either its strengths or weaknesses. Though it is not the purpose of this chapter to examine and discuss the relative merits of the different modes, a few comments drawn from the literature that relate to the issue are included. Other chapters in this book also touch on the reliability and status of different systems of inquiry or problem resolution.
The Scientific Method. This book is concerned with the scientific method of determining what is real as opposed to the other means mentioned above. The scientific method has several definite and identifiable steps: (1) identifying the problem to be investigated, (2) collecting the essential facts related to the problem, (3) developing tentative explanations of the problem, (4) evaluating the explanations to determine their relative congruence with the observations (facts), and (5) selecting the most likely explanation (Hillway, 1974, p. 12). Important assumptions on which scientific research is based are discussed in Chapter Two.
Diverse problems have been solved by the use of the scientific method. In pure research the investigator uses the method to discover new knowledge about the universe. It is used in applied research to develop a new product or process. And recently educators have used the scientific method in what has been labeled action research to resolve practical problems encountered in the learning environment.
Adult educators have found the scientific method helpful in improving the concepts used in the field. For example, until about 1940 many adult educators perceived adult education to be primarily for those people with limited previous educational opportunity. The studies of Boshier (1971), Johnstone and Rivera
(1965), and others have demonstrated overwhelmingly that the reverse is true, that the extent to which people participate in adult education is positively correlated with the level of their educational achievement. Londoner (1974) presents evidence that weakens another previously held assumption, this one concerning the motivations of students whose fees are paid by an agency. His findings cast doubt on the assertions of some administrators that persons who have their fees paid by an agency are unmotivated and generally unresponsive to academic programs in the adult secondary schools and that their main reason for attending is to receive financial aid. Of course, additional study is required to support or refute his findings.
Thus, as the use of the scientific method provides new knowledge, it concomitantly challenges old ideas and thereby makes humans more humble when facing the unknown. No longer are they likely to believe they possess a corpus of absolutely reliable knowledge that will provide complete, authoritative answers to questions. Consequently, contemporary investigators are generally openminded, for they are aware that revolutionary advances made by science in the past century have challenged and overthrown some long-accepted beliefs. Knowledge of those developments has encouraged a flexible spirit of inquiry that makes it easier to question accepted theories. Furthermore, such a spirit contributes to the investigators' humility, as they recognize that their own discoveries too are fallible.
Research concerning the ability of adults to learn provides a quintessential illustration of the scientific method in action. Beginning with the classic work of E. L. Thorndike .and others (1928), a series of investigations spanning more than half a century has answered various questions on this subject. And each major study has tended to generate more positive findings and more generous interpretations concerning the adult's ability to learn.
The scientific method of inquiry is not infallible, nor does it lead to absolute certainty; but it is more reliable than some other means of answering questions, which have been characterized (Cohen and Nagel, 1934, p. 195) as inflexible, as containing no provision for error and correction. The scientific method, in contrast, encourages doubt in order to make sure that what is left after such critical assessment is supported by the best available evidence. In
addition to its fallibility, however, the scientific method has other limitations. It is slow, it is not a perfect method for discovering truth, and it is limited in application to certain kinds of questions. Conant (1947, p. 10) has declared that "only an occasional brave man will be found nowadays to claim that the so-called scientific method is applicable to the solutions of almost all the problems of daily life in a modem world."
The rather lively debates that appear in the learned journals, including Adult Education, reveal the controversy concerning the scope of the applicability of the scientific method. Some analysts suggest, for instance, that the scientific method is primarily suited to the natural sciences and that its use should be limited accordingly. Others question the concept of a single scientific method. There is rather general agreement that one cannot establish a single rigid set of logical rules for natural science, anthropology, mathematics, history, and education. Certainly these fields differ; nevertheless, they have enough in common to reach a unified scientific approach.
In spite of its limitations, the scientific method is one of the most promising tools available to humankind to extend the frontiers of knowledge and to increase the accumulation of tested and verified truth. In the following discussion, therefore, adult education research is conceptualized as the application of the scientific method to discovering new knowledge about learners, content, curricula, activities, institutions, and similar topics of concern to adult educators.
Special Characteristics of Adult Education Research
Just as a range of differences distinguishes research in the natural sciences from inquiry in the social sciences, so certain special characteristics of research concerning adult education distinguish it from other educational research. Investigators seeking to establish a data base for adult education theory and practice soon become aware that their research problems are not usually the same as those faced by other educational researchers. Some of the questions may be similar, but both the populations and the educational practices are often sufficiently different from those that most educators and psychologists study to require modification of the research activities.
I have selected six characteristics of adult-education research to illustrate this idea.
First, research that focuses on the adult period of life is complicated by its relative length, with its attendant variables. Major research issues may easily stretch across a population with a fifty-year range of experience and cultural differences, in contrast to the much more restricted age range studied by other educators. It should be obvious that the challenge of designing appropriate investigations to comprehend such a span of time adequately is not to be taken lightly. The confounding and complex research issues are reflected in one of the oldest subjects of scientific inquiry of interest to adult education, the problem of adult learning ability or adult intelligence. Inquiries on this topic are replete with ambivalent, equivocal, and apparently contradictory results and interpretations. Findings are either supported and explained or discounted by various investigators because they are longitudinal, cross-sectional, or cross-sequential. Each design contains weaknesses that seem to be complicated by the combined length and nature of this life period.
A second distinguishing characteristic is the lack of agreement on what constitutes an adult. This lack of consensus interferes with communication and the interpretation of data. For instance, the differing opinions concerning the rates of participation in adult education activities can be traced directly to this characteristic. Failure to agree on the definition of an adult has contributed to large sample differences, and subsequently to substantial differences among the estimates of participation. Three studies of adult education participation reported in the literature use no fewer than four different definitions of adults. Houle (1973, p. 66) cites an unpublished work of Abraham Carp and Richard Peterson in which they define their subjects as "eighteen through sixty living in their own homes and not in full-time residence at a school or college." Johnstone and Rivera (1965, pp. 31-32) used the following aggregates: "( 1) all householders twenty-one years of age or over; or (2) under twenty-one but married; or (3) under twenty-one but the head of a household; plus (4) all persons twenty-one or over who live on an armed forces base and have close family ties with some adult members of an American household; and (5) anyone twenty-one or over and living in a school residence or dormitory and closely
related to some household member." Finally, the survey data of the U.S. Office of Education (USOE) cover all participants who are beyond compulsory school age, seventeen or over, who are not enrolled beyond full time in a regular school or college program and are engaged in one or more activities of organized instruction (National Center for Education Statistics, 1975).
Similarly, the third distinguishing characteristic, lack of agreement on the properties of adult education, presents difficulty for the investigator and scholar. The differences among the definitions contribute to difficulties in communicating, comprehending, interpreting, and applying the findings of various studies. For example, Verner's definition of adult education, cited earlier, seems to exclude the self-directed learning activities studied by Tough (1971); hence, using Verner's definition, we would eliminate the independent learner from the concerns of adult education. If people do not agree about what constitutes either an adult or adult education, there is bound to be some disagreement also on what constitutes appropriate inquiry, observation, and interpretation in the field.
A fourth distinguishing characteristics of adult education research relates to questions of ethics and values. For example, investigators who believe that the experimental research method manipulates people and that such manipulation is always inappropriate will need to discover and use different techniques, such as grounded theory. Investigators are thus challenged to test their research objectives against philosophical and ethical principles as well as the canons of logic.
The nature of the samples selected in the study of adult behavior is another element that makes such research distinctive. Investigators interested in adult behavior, like most researchers, have to be concerned with both internal and external validity. The character the adult population, however, presents particular difficulties. Researchers who seek a "normal" sample have some novel challenges, as do their colleagues who require a homogeneous sample. Because the normal adult population contains persons of widely different behavior, age, background, and so on, it is not easy to obtain what might be considered a normal randomly selected sample. Consequently, researchers often resort to one of two different strategies. They select subjects on the basis of their availability--that is,
members of existing groups, clubs, or organizations, and students--or they use extremely small samples. And not infrequently they use both.
An analysis of a sample of eighteen studies using adult subjects reported in volumes 24-27 of Adult Education revealed the following. The sample size in the studies ranged from 11 to 728; seven investigations were based on data from 200 or more subjects, and four of the studies had a maximum of 20 subjects. Ten of the samples were composed of students. Nurses made up the sample in three investigations, physical therapists in one, and pharmacists in one. Former prison inmates and the alumni of a graduate program in adult education were the subjects in two studies. Another investigation reported a sample composed of members of six preexisting groups.
If the frequent use of students, health care personnel, and other available clusters of individuals, combined with small samples, is characteristic of adult education research, this phenomenon may threaten the external validity or generalizability of the research. However, new methods of statistical analysis and interpretation may eventually strengthen our confidence in small-sample studies. McKeachie and Kulik (1975) describe one recent innovative procedure referred to as "vote counting" that may interest adult educators. Vote counting is designed to further analyze studies comparing the lecture and discussion methods of college teaching. Using this procedure, McKeachie and Kulik (1975) went beyond an earlier review that considered only the mean score on the final examination. They based their analysis on three criteria: an examination, a measure of retention and higher level thinking, and measures of attitudes and motivation. Disregarding statistical significance levels, they compared the similarities and differences of the two methods. Their results provide a picture different from the one presented by the original analysis, which offered only the statistically significant result. Another procedure that may prove useful to adult education researchers is recommended by Gage (1978). This procedure, attributed to Karl and Egon Pearson, tests the significance of combined results as a way of overcoming some of the effects of small-sample studies.
Diversity, a recognized characteristic of any group of adults,
presents a unique contrasting challenge to the person trying to select appropriate samples that will protect the internal validity requirements of scientific investigations. For example, investigators may find it extremely difficult to obtain a large sample matched on selected characteristics or to obtain homogeneity desired within a specific group of available adults. Faced with such a predicament, investigators have only a few options, and according to strict research canons, some of these are not desirable, In such cases researchers
may proceed and ignore the question of homogeneity; they may continue the research on the assumption that the members of the sample are similar; they may use a statistical procedure such as analysis of covariance; or researchers may resort to using an extremely small, but matched, sample and run the risk of a "type II error"--failing to reject a null hypothesis that should be rejected.
The significance of this feature of adult-based research may not be readily apparent, however, because of the heavy reliance adult educators have placed on descriptive and correlational studies.
A sixth characteristic arises from the sophistication of an adult sample. Data based on naive responses are difficult to obtain because the educational and occupational experiences of a sizable segment of the available adult population have made them increasingly sophisticated or test-wise. Furthermore, investigators realize that adults are more likely than younger respondents to attempt to provide the correct or valued response. For example, I am familiar with a study wherein the adult respondents were requested to describe, first on a written questionnaire and several weeks later in response to in-depth interviews, the leisure activities of their neighbors. Not surprisingly, the first set of responses followed certain middle-class family-oriented values, whereas the second set of responses revealed a much wider range of activities,
The beginnings of a literature on adult education research can be traced to pre-World War II days; however, the literature of the past twenty-five years is the most pertinent for the purposes of this chapter, Several threads are discernible in the literature, Some writing relates research concerns to graduate instruction. A number
of bibliographic works identify the research publications of interest to adult educators. And finally, the more analytical and philosophical literature describes and criticizes the status of adult education research and sometimes comments on what ought to be.
Research and Graduate Study. The limited literature on this aspect of the field suggests that the development of competent researchers is an important goal of graduate work. In the late fifties Whipple (1958) identified a pair of research needs among adult educators: the need to search for truth as scientists and the competing need to improve the practice of adult education. His solution was to separate adult education from the graduate school and make it a professional element in the university structure similar to schools of medicine and law. During the early sixties, as graduate programs in adult education began to proliferate, Liveright (1964) made some observations about the nature and aims of the programs. Drawing on the work of William McGlothlin, he identified five attributes common to all programs of graduate education, one of which was that the graduate should possess enough competence to add to human knowledge through either discovery or the application of new truths. Liveright noted that all professions demand that their graduates will do some kinds of continuing learning and require at least a minimal understanding of relevant research. He then cited the expectations of the medical and social work professions and concluded that adult education "can hardly settle for less than the research requirements established by the medical profession" (p. 99).
Douglah and Moss (1969, p. 132) succinctly stated the relationship between research skills and graduate study:
The doctoral program should also be concerned with developing considerable competence in research methodology. While this is an obvious need in the case of those whose primary role will be research, it is also important for those whose future roles may be primarily teaching. As professors of adult education, their role will include advising students on research, and thus they, as well as the researcher, will directly affect the quality of adult education research performed. Since it is generally conceded that the development of a field of study is
linked to the quality and quantity of research done, the nature of graduate training in this area should receive attention.
Boyd (1969) took a more controversial position concerning the content of doctoral programs in adult education. He noted that since doctoral programs are directly concerned with adult education as a subject of study, the emphasis should be on research. Boyd noted, "our purpose is to observe, analyze, and develop evidence and theory to explain that which we are examining and studying. If by this process we develop excellent practicing professionals, all to the good. . . . But it must be remembered that this is not our direct goal" (p.190).
Research training in graduate programs is also recognized as contributing to the professional competence of the adult educator. Aker (1962) and Houle (1970) have commented on that relationship. Even though Houle's analysis of adult education leadership does not specifically cite the performance of competent research as among the four identified functions of leadership, one can infer that such skill is required by individuals who can perform his fourth function, namely, advancing adult education as a field of study. Aker points out a need for greater skill among adult educators in identifying, critically evaluating, and discussing scholarly work by investigators in adult education.
Bibliographic Literature. This category contains the greatest number of publications concerned with adult education research including articles by DeCrow and Loague (1970), Grabowski (1973), Grabowski and Loague (1970), Kaplan (1957), Thiede and Draper (1963, 1964), and Thiede and Meggars (1965, 1966). The bibliographic literature is useful to the field but has limited value in the discussion. I mention it only to ensure that the reader is aware of it.
Philosophical and Analytical Literature. Among the contributions to this second-largest body of adult education research literature are those of Bittner (1950), Brunner and others (1959), Essert (1953), Hallenbeck (1964), Hendrickson (1960), Jensen (1964), Kreitlow (1959, 1960, 1964a, 1964b, 1970), Spence
(1953), and Verner (1956). In addition, several complete issues of the Review of Educational Research published between 1950 and 1965 focused on adult education. The 1950 and 1960 editions of the Encyclopedia of Educational Research and the chapters by Kreitlow (1960, 1970) in the Handbook of Adult Education provide a useful profile of the development of adult education research. Those publications, supplemented by Brunner's overview and the comments of Jensen, Liveright, and Hallenbeck in their outlines of the field, provide an excellent base from which to examine how research on and in the field of adult education has grown.
Review of Development
My review begins with an examination of the literature of the early 1950s, considers the predominance of descriptive research, identifies a period of transition in which research activity began to proliferate, and analyzes the dependence of adult education researchers on theory borrowed from the traditional disciplines.
Early Work. The earliest works, cited above, reflect a mixture of concern and optimism as the fledgling field of adult education struggled to establish itself. Each succeeding author generally expresses a little more optimism as research products and skills emerge over the decades. Grabowski's chapter in the present book exemplifies this attitude. Early editions of the Review of Educational Research (Houle, 1953; Spence, 1950) were less optimistic about the status of adult education research than were later descriptions and analyses. In the 1953 Review, for example, Houle observed that research had long suffered from a lack of information about activities in the field. In his opinion, even the simplest questions frequently went unanswered. Accordingly, he cited the need for basic bodies of facts that would provide a baseline for progress and a framework for more detailed study. At the same time, however, Houle was heartened by the improving quality of the literature and the increasing trend toward the replacement of conjecture and unfounded assertion by scientific studies and objective data.
Essert (1953), writing in the same issue of the Review,
described the period between 1949 and 1952 as a time when adult education was developing the broad outlines of a substantive research program with an increasing base of trained researchers and research funding. He was not completely optimistic, however, noting that with respect to many important questions in adult education there was little evidence of research and experimentation. He observed, for example, that practically no significant research had taken up the problems related to financing adult education. Essert also cited the great need for research in adult education similar to the many studies then being done on the growth and development of children and adolescents.
In the same general period, Bittner (1950) noted the absence of a clear and standard definition of adult education by any large group of investigators or leaders in the "various associated movements" of adult education. He referred to the dearth of basic research in the social sciences by specialists in selected fields such as anthropology, sociology, and social psychology as one reason for the divergence of opinion concerning the definition of adult education. Bittner identified the two publication series sponsored by the American Association for Adult Education, "Studies in Adult Education" and "Studies in the Social Significance of Adult Education in the United States," along with the Report of the Regent's Inquiry, the publications of the Employment Stabilization Institute, and The Literature of Adult Education, as examples of some of the better research reports of the period. In conclusion, he predicted that research in adult education would probably continue to be largely descriptive, derivative, philosophical, and markedly applied in its orientation. Bittner gave two reasons for his conclusions: first, the complexity and rapidity of change, and second and more important, adult educators' failure to understand the scientific method and cultural relativity (p. 32).
Approximately ten years later, the study of adult-education research by Brunner and others (1959) noted that "any examination of research in adult education reveals a rather chaotic situation. . . . A few pertinent areas, such as adult learning, have been explored far more thoroughly than others," while "some have received almost no research attention." Furthermore, they observed that, other than in the field of methods, most research of con-
sequence had been conducted by social scientists other than adult educators (p. 2).
Descriptive Research. Kreitlow (1960) followed closely, in time and content, the observations of Brunner and his colleagues. The status of research in adult education was not high, he said, in terms of either amount or quality. He closed the decade with an observation similar to the one Bittner had made ten years earlier: "The last two decades of adult education might be identified as the age of description" (p. 12). But he was not pessimistic about the possible negative effects that the descriptive studies might have on adult education research and, unlike Bittner, did not associate the descriptive studies with any basic conceptual flaw common to adult educators.
Kreitlow's sense of guarded optimism was evident in his writing four years later (1964b), even as he stated that the giant steps needed in adult education research remained to be taken. At that time, he pointed out that even though important contributions had been made, the absence of structure and lack of theory prevented the launching of new research and the integration of previous work. To illustrate the benefits of developing rigorous structures and models in adult education, he pointed to some eminently successful studies of diffusion, innovation, and adoption that were constructed on such foundations.
Later, Kreitlow (1970) indicated that although researchers were still emphasizing "what" rather than "why," he was encouraged by the increasing number and size of graduate programs. Their growth, he felt, indicated greater attention among adult educators to research and theory. Still, he noted that the research beginning to appear was "not in great quantity" nor did it have "any consistent quality" (p. 138), descriptions reminiscent of his 1960 comments.
Transition. If the two decades following World War II can be characterized as an era of descriptive research in adult education, then the era beginning about 1966 can be characterized as the period when such research began to have a real, though still relatively minor, impact on the literature and practice. Most writers cited some forces that they believed had helped to improve adult education research. These positive factors include support from certain foundations (Carnegie, Ford, and Kellogg); the support and en-
couragement provided by the American Association for Adult Education and the Adult Education Association of the U.S.A; the development of the periodical Adult Leadership, its successor, Lifelong Learning: The Adult Years, and the Journal Adult Education; the expansion of graduate instruction programs in adult education; and the size and the increased significance of the Adult Education Research Conference, a loosely structured organization of adult educators interested in research who meet annually to present and discuss their research.
At the same time, other influences have impeded the development of research. These factors include the pressures of practice, the youthfulness of the field, the variety of institutional bases, the traditional emphasis on descriptive studies, and limited theory. The pressures of practice have frequently been noted in the literature. Jensen (1964) likened them to the pressures experienced in engineering, law, medicine, business and public administration, social work, public health, and various other professions whose primary objective is coping with some unsatisfactory condition or problem. In the earlier years of development, adult educators were, perhaps out of necessity, more concerned about what worked than about why something was effective.
This practical thrust, the emphasis on doing instead of investigating or contemplating, not only affected the character of the early literature but probably continues to influence contemporary development as well. Hallenbeck (1964) described knowledge as consisting of three elements-experience, research, and theory which came into existence in that order. This sequence seems to hold true for adult education knowledge.
The tendency to do, then report, generated a number of personal narratives that lacked a high degree of generalizability. The next developmental step was the publication of numerous status reports and other descriptive studies. The movement from the experience-based personal reports to descriptive studies was a natural and orderly development because of the close relationship between description and practice. The limited generalizability and application of much of the early research was due partly to the complications caused by the variety of institutions in which adult education programs are located and to inadequate research designs. This period
of transition will end when a sufficient number of graduates of adult education graduate programs have assumed responsibility for the literature of their field.
Dependence on Other Disciplines. Adult educators have generally looked to other disciplines for their theoretical foundations. As Jensen (1964) and the Commission of the Professors of Adult Education (1961) noted, adult education has been advanced through the borrowing and adapting of knowledge, theory, and research technology from other fields. While acknowledging this dependence, however, the Commission cautioned that not all material from the social sciences is appropriate to adult education and suggested that adult education should not only test the applicability of existing knowledge but discover for itself new knowledge or new relationships within existing knowledge. According to the Commission members, adult education is original in developing special knowledge about the unique characteristics of adults as learners. Yet, the development of adequate knowledge about adults as learners and about the administration of adult learning opportunities requires the involvement of far more researchers than the relatively few who are now identified directly with the field of adult education. They also stated that our knowledge of adult education is limited because subjects of interest to adult educators were often of secondary interest to other educators and social scientists and because there was no mechanism for systematically planning, stimulating and disseminating adult education research.
The dependence of adult education on other fields within education and on the social sciences for research and theory came about for several reasons. First, for a fledgling field, it made sense to use the knowledge developed by one's parents and relatives, And second, of course, the early professors had to come from somewhere, and in this case somewhere was usually education and the social sciences. Third, because the group of scholars involved was quite small-only twenty-four professors were listed on the Commission's 1961 roster, for instance-their resources were necessarily spread very thinly.
Another probable cause was the great diversity of the field. Indeed, Kreitlow asked in 1960 whether this diversity was such that research might always have to be borrowed. Although Kreitlow
probably then considered a negative answer possible, believing that the borrowing might continue only until adult education was more defined in 1975 when he spoke at a panel session at the Adult Education Research conference, he seemed to have accepted the view that adult education would primarily build on a foundation of research in the social science disciplines by interpreting its implications for adult education. The suggestion made by the Commission of Professors--that the unique characteristics of adults as learners could and should be the focus of original research--appears to have been overlooked by those who were conducting research on teaching, learning, and administration of adult education or attitudes had changed in the interim.
Mezirow (1971), however, took a different position concerning the borrowing and adaptation. He indicated that adult education should have its own theoretical structure based on research. He further speculated that in the absence of theories suited to adult education as a professional field, research efforts had been fragmented. Mezirow described most of the research as (1) atheoretical or factual, (2) conceptual, (3) organizing or critically evaluating existing factors, or (4) designed to test logical deductions from assumptions, general formulations either from the literature or from some element of formal theory couched in other disciplines.
Thus, from about 1950 through 1970 much of the literature presented adult education research as an adaptation of work in the social sciences. Only a few voices were raised to argue for the development of theory that would be unique to adult education.
Newer Approaches to Research. Since the early seventies, when Kreitlow and Mezirow stated their positions, others have offered differing opinions about the nature of adult education research. Reflecting a concern similar to Kreitlow's, Beder and Darkenwald (1974) picked up Whipple's theme (1958) and described adult education as an applied professional field. As such, it needs two different kinds of studies: basic research designed to extend knowledge and theory and, equally important, research intended to help solve problems of policy and practice.
Apps (1972) called for a broader definition of research, one that moves beyond empirical inquiry. According to Apps, adult educators have been caught up in believing that all knowledge
comes from empirical research. Accordingly, he encouraged the consideration of other paths to knowledge such as thinking, synthesizing, sensing, and accepting--or, in Royce's terms (1964), rationalism, intuitionism, empiricism, and authoritarianism, respectively. Addressing himself to empiricism, Apps noted that a ritualistic approach to empirical research could be particularly limiting. "Insistence on rigor as defined by a right adherence to a ritualistic method may close off many sources of insight and information" (p. 63).
Shillace (1973), following Apps and
The statements by Apps,
Reviews of the publications of adult educators do not generally
support the charge that adult education is overly empirical. Long and Agyekum
(1974), having analyzed Adult Education over a nine-year period,
1964-1973, concluded that approximately 60 percent of the articles were
descriptive statements of personal be1ief, and program descriptions.
research. Furthermore, 48 percent were reporting on descriptive surveys. Thus, these analyses indicate that while empirical studies may have increased recently, such inquiry methods do not yet dominate the practice of research. Apps and others may have gained their impressions from hearing repeated assertions of the need for empirical studies.
Although this literature review has focused on research methods, at least one observation needs to be made concerning research topics. Kreitlow (1975), having reviewed the topics studied between 1964 and 1975, noted that unfortunately very little progress had been made in addressing the questions he had identified as priorities in 1963-64. His explanations for this limited progress suggest that adult educators responded to pressures from university administrators and federal grants. Responsiveness to funding agencies and organization leaders in identifying research problems leads to a great deal of activity but does not seem to yield much in the way of additions to the fundamental knowledge of the field. Action research in adult education has not been of much value in the advancement of theory.
To sum up, then: adult education research has been influenced by a number of factors over the past fifty years. Some of those factors have encouraged improved inquiry; others have retarded it. Positive forces such as an increase in the number of doctoral students, the stimulation provided by the increasing stability of the Adult Education Research Conference, the availability of a research publication outlet in the form of Adult Education, and a slowly accumulating body of knowledge that is expanding in depth and breadth are contending with the negative pressures of a practice-oriented discipline, the immaturity of the field, and some confusion about the source and existence of theoretical foundations in adult education In spite of, or perhaps because of, those opposing forces, adult education research has reached a level to justify the discussion of the various topics included in the following chapters.
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