Adult and Continuing Education: Its Professionals


Who Is An Adult and Continuing Education?

The question raised by this sectional heading is not an easy one to answer. When one hears the term doctor, lawyer, engineer, schoolteacher, or bus driver, a fairly stable picture of a role and task comes quickly to mind. However, an adult educator or a trainer can be thought of as a county agent, a teacher who works with illiterate or foreign-born adults, a private dance instructor, a staff developer in a large organization, or often as a "what?"

One of the difficulties in describing a professional educator or trainer of adults is the fact that so many people are now working with adult learners in different capacities, as could be seen from the discussion in Chapter 4. Consequently, one person who is considered as a professional adult educator might have an entirely different kind of position than another person who is considered an educator or trainer of adults.

For example, Figure 5.1 lists numerous professional positions held by various graduates that the author advised over the years. It should be noted that a variety of agencies, institutional forms, and professional roles are represented. In addition, many adult education positions throughout the United States are filled with capable people who do not have a formal college degree or who have degrees in other than adult education. In addition, many positions as teachers, counselors, and learning resource center personnel are available to bachelor and masters degree holders in adult education. The point in illustrating the range of positions available in the education or training of adults is to show that tremendous opportunities do exist. Thus, anyone who finds satisfaction in working with the adult learner can usually obtain part or full-time employment doing just that.

Assistant to Vice President for University Extension
Director of Administration and Finance in a Community College
Associate Professor, University Graduate Program of Nursing
College Dean
Command Chaplain in the Air Force
Associate State Leader of Cooperative Extension
Senior Vice President in an Insurance Company
Early Childhood Coordinator in a Canadian College
Director of Conferences in a University
Private Consultant in Adult Education
Assistant Director of Continuing Medial Education at a University
Director of Student Services at a Community College
Program Coordinator for Community Services in a Community College
Assistant Professor of Agricultural Education in a University
Director of Adult and Continuing Education in a Community College
Television Broadcaster
Director of University Information
Assistant Director of Programs and Conferences at a University
Area Director of Extension for a University
Associated Dean in a University
Director of an Employee Development Unit for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service
Director of Distance Education for a University
Extension Area Specialist
Associate State 4-H Leader
Minority Student Counselor at a University
Special Assistant to a University President
Director of Evaluation for a Learning Resource Center
Director of Adult Education at a Foreign University
Director of Emergency Planning for a Public Utility
Vice President for Instructional Design in a Private Company
Director of Instructional Technology for a Public School System
Dean of Continuing Education at a University

Figure 5.1. Positions Held by Some Graduates from Various College or University Adult Education Graduate Programs

Because a variety of opportunities related to the education or training of adults exist and because so many people have found special satisfaction in working with the adult learner, a number of people working in the field have arrived there "through the back door." This last phrase is an oft-used one in adult education circles to refer to the many people who find themselves professionally responsible for adult learners without having had any training directly related to adult education.

Such a situation has often meant that additional training and knowledge were acquired through formalized programs or through intensive self-study efforts. Fortunately, as the number enrolled in formal adult education graduate programs and the awareness of adult education opportunities have increased, those professionally trained in adult education have also increased, providing a large corps of people with a good understanding of the adult learner and knowledge of how to develop effective programs for such learners.

The purpose of the next section is to describe the most common types of roles performed by individuals known as educators of adults. In addition, the particular requisite skills for each type is included in the discussion.

Types of Educators or Trainers of Adults

There are various types of roles performed by individuals who consider themselves to be professional adult educators. The variety of roles is increasing as the profession matures. However, there appear to be three fairly distinct categories or types. They are described in the following subsections, with a fourth subsection added to describe the remaining mixture of positions.

Administrative Roles

One very significant role in organizing and implementing adult education efforts is that of administrator. Whether it is a community college, a learning resource center, a YMCA, or a voluntary agency, someone must administer the programs, be in charge of teacher and student recruitment, work with the board or council, develop a suitable budget, and give the basic program leadership. In addition, most state departments of education have one or more adult education specialists who administer the state ABE or GED programs and who provide general adult education leadership to local communities.

Consequently, adult education administrators must have many of the same skills as any other type of program administrator. A problem to be faced, though, is that adult education is often in a marginal or supporting role, with scarce resources, an evolving "territory," and an ever-changing clientele base. In addition, adult participants seldom are enrolled in educational programs unless they want to be. This means, therefore, that the adult education administrator must thoroughly understand how to involve the adult student in the learning endeavor, design programs based on adult needs, and set up learning activities that are based on what is known about how adults learn. Such an understanding must be the basis for program planning, training teachers, and coordinating each single effort with a workable whole.

Teaching Roles

By far the largest category of adult educator is that of teacher or trainer. These positions range from full-time Adult Basic Education teachers, to teachers of noncredit evening classes such as quilting, oil painting, or wills and estate planning, to vocational teachers in a trade or proprietary school, to trainer in a large company. However, many adult education teachers do not earn their primary incomes in such roles.

Consequently, one of the problems is how to distinguish between a teacher who simply has the adult as student and a teacher who is trained specifically to facilitate learning for the adult as student. Because the field of adult education is in an evolving stage compared to most other professions, probably the largest share of adult education teachers or trainers have had very little specific training related to the adult as learner. Hopefully, as the field matures, as it gains better financial support, and as adult teacher-training programs are more fully developed, this situation can be reversed.

Professorial Roles

Numerous institutions of higher education throughout the United States (as well as many other countries) have either departments of adult education or training or at least offer classes, primarily at the graduate level, for prospective adult educators. Those individuals who subsequently undertake an adult education professorial role will typically divide their time between (a) teaching and working with students who are wanting to become adult educators or to become at least acquainted with the field, (b) carrying out research and scholarly pursuits related to adult education as a profession, and (c) carrying out a variety of service activities that attempt to extend the resources of the department and university beyond the campus walls.

The following section relates to describing several positions or roles emerging in a variety of agencies. Much of the training and preparation required for people in these roles is carried out by professors and graduate departments of adult education.

Miscellaneous Roles

There are several other recognizable roles that do not fall neatly into any of the above three categories. A rapidly developing area of interest, for example, is that of counselor for adult education students. An adult education counselor or career advisory no doubt needs many of the skills required for any of the other roles described above; in addition, such a person needs to be able to adapt general counseling and testing techniques to adult learners.

Another role somewhat different from the others described to date is that of learning resource center facilitator. Such individuals need teaching skills, counseling skills, and administrative skills; however, they also need to be skilled at directing individualized learning, discovering various resources for learning outside the normal classroom setting, establishing technology-based learning efforts, and coordinating the learning efforts of several learners progressing at various rates.

Somewhat related to several of the roles already described but still different enough to require explanation is that of the non-traditional "mentor." The continuing evolvement of non-traditional forms of learning and distance education programs has created the need for faculty leadership somewhat different from what has been typical. These can be mentors who work with learners primarily on a one-to-one basis, on-line teachers who use computer mediatiated communication techniques, or instructional designers who develop individualized learning materials. Such individuals must serve as teachers, helpers, designers, and advisors, as well as being a contributor to program-planning effort and a developer of learning resources. Such a person not only needs to thoroughly understand how to work with the adult learner, but also how to discover and coordinate a variety of resources for learning that are available in most communities or through electronic means.

A final professional role to be discussed in this section is one that cannot be described easily by a recognizable title. Consequently, for lack of a better title the term "consultant" will be used. Consultants often serve in program planning, evaluation, or research positions, frequently on a part-time or short-term basis, and increasingly in federally funded projects. A person in a consultant role might also provide leadership for workshops or conferences. Increasingly, individuals earn their entire income through consulting activies.

There is a fairly recognizable pattern to the nature of training received in adult education. One or more courses built around each of the following competency expectations usually serve as a base for the training effort:

Obviously, doctoral degree expectations will be greater than bachelors or masters degree requirements. Such expectations usually include greater exposure to the behavioral sciences through course work outside of adult education, practical experience in adult education through internships or practicums, and demonstrations of scholarly abilities through advanced research-related course work, independent research activities, and published materials.

In-Service Training

In-service training related to the education of adults serves an important role because, as was described earlier, so many people find themselves carrying out responsibilities related to working with adults almost accidentally. Consequently, many individuals increase their skills and knowledge through a variety of in-service means.

One very common means of obtaining help in working with the adult learner is through short-term workshops. Often for two or three weeks and sometimes for graduate credit, these workshops provide a concentrated exposure to some aspect of adult education. The largest share of such workshops is usually concentrated on the improvement of skills, such as in selecting appropriate methods and materials for the adult learner, designing instructional settings for adults, and developing more effective communication skills in working with the independently inclined adult person.

Another often-used means of providing training is through seminars or conferences. The typical time allotment is even shorter than for workshops, usually two or three days. The purpose is often to provide new information or to heighten awareness on such topics as the uniqueness of the adult learner, research findings related to adult education, and new approaches in adult education.

Funded projects designed to train educations of adults or to develop staff is another in-service possibility. For example, special projects aimed at increasing the skills of ABE teachers, teachers of English as a second language, or literacy volunteers exist in my communities.Various other organizations have discovered the need to employ continuing education concepts in staff development. Business and industrial groups, medical and health care organizations, and such institutions as community colleges utilize various training avenues to keep their staffs current or to retrain staffs for work with ever-changing clientele. Consequently, one or more specialists in continuing education are often available in many organizations to administer such continuing education activities.

Professional Associations in Adult Education

There is a variety of professional associations in the United States that provide support to the training and preparation of professional educators or trainers of adults. Three different types of associations are presented here as examples. The interested reader should use the World Wide Web, professional literature, flyers frequently received in the mail, and knowledgeable professional colleagues to research other possibilities or to find those that fit some personal need.

The American Association for Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE)

This organization is dedicated to enhancing the field of adult learning. With members from 60 affiliates and 40 nations, the Association represents its members from secondary and post-secondary education, business and labor, military and government and from community-based organizations. AAACE publishes two of the nation's leading periodicals in education and training: The Adult Learning magazine and the scholarly journal Adult Education Quarterly (this latter one is published by Sage Publications for AAACE). AAACE also publishes books, monographs, and booklets on various adult education topics.  For more information, view the following web site:

American Society for Training and Development (ASTD)

Founded in 1944, ASTD is the world's largest professional association on workplace learning and performance issues. ASTD provides information, research, analysis and practical information derived from its own research, the knowledge and experience of its members, its conferences, expositions, seminars, publications and the coalitions and partnerships it has built through research and policy work. ASTD's membership includes more than 70,000 people, working in the field of workplace performance in 100 countries worldwide. The association publishes the Training and Development Magazine. It also has the Human Resouce Development Quarterly, published quarterly by Jossey-Bass Publishing for ASTD. For more information on this association see the following web site:

The Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE)

This association is dedicated to promoting lifelong learning and excellence in continuing higher education. As an organization of colleges, universities, and individuals, ACHE encourages professional development, research, and exchange of information for its members and continuing higher education as a means of enhancing and improving society. The association publishes a refereed journal, Journal of Continuing Higher Education, and a newsletter, Five Minutes with ACHE. For more information see this web site:


No doubt many additional means will be required to provide not only graduate or in-service training but also the retraining and upgrading of individuals who have responsibilities in adult and continuing education programs. The shortage of trained adult educators is still a reality, despite the various graduate program opportunities. In addition, research efforts in adult education are continuously providing new information that needs to be disseminated to continuing education professionals in a variety of ways.

A related question is what effect does a teacher or trainer who possesses little understanding of the adult learner have on the learning environment? Does the disadvantaged adult learner become discouraged if a teacher fails to treat him or her as an adult? Do self-motivated, mature adults refuse to utilize available services from teachers and organized adult education programs if they sense a child-oriented classroom atmosphere? These types of questions, largely unanswered, imply that much work still remains related to teacher training and to understanding how to facilitate the learning of every type of adult.

One final implication to be drawn here is related to the future type of adult educator that appears to be needed because of the various change and growth factors suggested in this chapter. Future adult educators will certainly need to be skilled at solving various kinds of problems, especially the many problems that emerge because of growth and societal change. Adult education leaders frequently will need to be more social-action or change-agent oriented if they are to help adults become better equipped to solve various societal problems. Finally, educators and trainers of adults must become technologically adept to ensure the programs they offer meet the needs and expectations of learners. Chapter 8 contains more discussion pertaining to the future role of adult education.

Some Definitions

Adult Basic Education teacher--A facilitator of learning for adult students who typically possess less than an eighth-grade level of education. Individualized learning, small-group work, and learning resource center materials are often facilitated by the ABE teacher.

Adult and continuing educator--An educational agent who may, in dealing with an adult client, carry out one or more of the following tasks in relation to learning activities: Planning, initiating, administering, teaching, and evaluating.

Change agent--An individual who designs and/or directs educational activities for purposes of bringing about or influencing some type of change.

Facilitator--An individual who acts in a catalytic manner to make learning activity possible and learning probable.

Mentor--Utilized primarily with non-traditional education programs, the term refers to a person who works as an educational facilitator with a learner, frequently on a one-to-one basis.

Resource person--An individual whose experiences and knowledge are the bases for information or direction sought by an adult learner.

Study Stimulators

1. What are the various terms utilized in your community or state to describe a person who works in an educational capacity with adults?

2. What kinds of training (content, duration, frequency) should a person seek who suddenly finds himself or herself working with adults but who has had no prior training or experience in adult education?

3. Should there be more bachelor degree training programs in adult and continuing education? Why?

4. What kinds of training should be offered to volunteer adult education leaders? To paraprofessional adult educators?

5. Should K-12 teachers in training at the undergraduate level receive any exposure to adult education?

6. Determine what opportunities exist in your community in the way of graduate, undergraduate, or in-service training related to adult education.

7. Are there any professional adult education associations in your state? Analyze the type of members each different association attracts.

8. What will be some future training needs of existing professional adult educators as American adults expect more lifelong learning opportunities?

Selected Bibliography

Apps, J. W. (1994). Leadership for the emerging age: Transforming practice in adult and continuing education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Apps, a prolific scholar, thoroughly examines the topic of leadership. He covers such topics as developing a personal philosophy of leadership, examining personal beliefs and values, leading in new ways, and a personal approach to leadership development.

Brookfield, S. D. (1990). The skillful teacher. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. Brookfield talks about how to build trust and responsiveness in the adult classroom. The person interested in a career as a teacher of adults will find value in examining such topics as teaching responsively, understanding the tensions of learning, facilitating discussion, and using simulations and role playing.

Cervero, R. M., & Wilson, A. L. (1994). Planning responsibly for adult education: A guide to negotiating power and interests. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. The authors divide their book into three parts: Understanding the practice of program planning, negotiating varied interests in planning practice, and guidelines for responsible planning. They help you really understand notions of power and conflicting interests that may inhibit planning efforts.

Cookson, P. S. (Ed.). (1998). Program planning for the training and continuing education of adults: North American perspectives. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company. In this huge volume, Cookson invited a number of authors to contribute to the topic. It includes such topics as alternative program planning models, philosophical and ethical considerations in planning programs, what we need to know about adult learners, and the financing of program planning.

Dills, C. R., & Romiszowski, A. J. (Eds.). (1997). Instructional development programs. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications. The editors have created a handbook for those interested in understanding or designing instruction. The numerous authors contribute such chapters as the following: humanism as an instructional paradigm, the individualizing instruction model for adult learners, applying the individualizing instruction model, computer-mediated communication, and simulation and computer-based instruction.

Gadbow, N. F., & DuBois, D. A. (1998). Adult learners with special needs: Strategies and resources for postsecondary education and workplace training. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company. The authors have created a very useful book on how to learn to work with adult learners with special needs. They talk about such topics as who are adult learners with special needs, fostering an inclusive learning environment, advocacy and self-advoccasy, and future directions. For some related discussion within the frame work of self-directed learning examine this site: /advocacy.html.

Heimlich, J. E., & Norland, E. (1994). Developing teaching style in adult education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. The authors explore three major areas in the book: The personal side of teaching, the teaching and learning exchange, and integrating teaching concepts and teaching style. Several chapters within each area flesh out the topics.

Houle, C. O. (1981). Continuing learning in the professions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Houle provides the first extensive look at adult and continuing education as a profession in this book. He covers such topics as the goals of lifelong professional eduation, people's zest for learning, the major providers of continuing professional education, and how to design programs for learning.

Knowles, M. S. (1989). The making of an adult educator: An autobiographical journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Knowles presents a very interesting account of his journey toward being a very successful adult educator. He talks about the various episodes that changed his life, his hereos in adult education, how his ideas changed over time, and even his projections for the future.

Merriam, S. B., & Simpson, E. L. (1995). A guide to research for educators and trainers of adults (2nd Ed.). Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company. To understand more about being a professional adult educator, you need to understand how to interpret or even carry out effective research. The authors do a masterful job of covering all relevant topics related to research and they are able to use examples related to the education and training of adults throughout.

Queeney, D. S. (1995). Assessing needs in continuing education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Queeney covers a variety of topics related needs assessments. She includes such chapters as the following: What is needs assessment, deciding what and how to assess, how to include needs assessment as a regular part of program planning, the relation of needs assessment to evaluation. For a review of the book, see the following site: /queeney.html.


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