[1608151] Understanding Adult Education and Training


Erwin Ananta

Just who is the adult learner and how is that learner best understood? Are adult learners defined by their intelligence (IQ), practical skills, knowledge, expertise or wisdom? What impact does stage of life and past experience have on the learner and learning, and just what status should be given to the prior learning adults bring? What distinguishes the adult learner from the child and at what point (if any) can we confidently separate our conception of the two? How do adults approach learning and in what ways might the findings of disciplines such as lifespan-development psychology and sociology inform the work of adult educators and trainers? These and other similar questions provide an introduction to the project of understanding the cognitive and developmental attributes of the adult learner, an essential study for those who wish to facilitate learning in the post-school years. As lifelong learning becomes the norm, the issue takes on an increasing urgency.

In attempting to further the understanding of the adult learner, this chapter examines recent research on the nature of adult intelligence, the acquisition of expertise and adult life-span development psychology. First, we explore the development of adults’ capacities as learners, outlining the cognitive dimensions of adults, including the psychometric and cognitive structuralist views on adult intelligence. We then discuss more recent formulations of adult cognitive abilities, including the development of expertise, so-called ‘practical intelligence’ and wisdom. Our fundamental conclusion here is that adults’ thinking and cognitive structure are far more complex than was once commonly accepted. In the following section, we explore the conceptions of adulthood and life stages as social constructions. In the conclusion, we draw together these strands and provide some suggestions for further research.



In the past it has been customary to distinguish between two domains of theory and research in adult development: the development of intellectual or cognitive functioning and the development of personality and social roles. In the former domain two models dominated in early research: the first, the ‘stability’ model, assumed that adult cognition remained essentially the same after the attainment of maturity; the second, the ‘decrement’ model, assumed a gradual decline in ability, probably due to biological effects of ageing. Neither promised a basis on which a robust postadolescent learning theory could be built. Recent theory and research reject both these models and advance a far more complex view of adult learning capacities. It is these findings which we examine first.


It has been understood for quite some time that psychometric, or IQ, tests are culture-specific, largely school-based, measure academic prowess and are even racially biased, but there is a growing view that they are also age-specific. Early studies postulated a decline in adult intellectual capacity with age. The work of Baltes (1968) and Schaie (1975) has shown that the supposed decremental differences in intelligence from younger to older age groups found by earlier researchers were in fact generational differences. That is, the negative findings were the result of measuring extraneous factors such as education, whose availability has grown over the past 50 years. The increase in the level of education is a key point, as there is a direct correlation between level of education and IQ. When Schaie and his colleagues designed studies which controlled for age, cohort (year of birth) and time (the year the tests were administered), they found that intelligence does decline with chronological age, but not until relatively late in life. In addition, it was found that such a decline could generally be reversed with training (Baltes & Willis 1982; Schaie & Willis 1986).

Along similar lines, Cattell (1971) and Horn (1970, 1982) separated intellectual abilities into two general clusters, which they labelled ‘fluid’ and ‘crystallised’ intelligence. The fluid component of intelligence revolves around the capacity to process information in the form of complex reasoning, memory and figural relations, while crystallised intelligence is measured by tests of information storage, verbal comprehension and numerical reasoning. From the teenage years, there is a decline in fluid intelligence and a concurrent rise in crystallised intelligence. Howard (1988) notes similar independence between the functions of explicit and implicit memory among the aged: explicit memory declines with age while implicit memory remains stable.

A parallel concern with the inadequacy of past formulations of adult cognitive development is reflected in the writings of cognitive structuralists such as Piaget (1972). Piaget’s earlier work theorised six stages of cognitive development through which every person was said to progress, the penultimate stage being ‘formal operations’, which commences in early adulthood. At the achievement of formal operations, thinking is characterised by the ability to reason and think abstractly. The available data on the acquisition of formal operations would suggest that it is not a single unified capacity operating independently of content and context, but may in fact be acquired in certain domains and not others, depending on the individual. Thus, as with IQ, formal operations has come to be seen as abstract and removed from the everyday nature of problems and problem solving. In response to this dilemma, there have been attempts by cognitive structuralists to extend the six-stage model. For example, Kohlberg & Ryncarz (1990) posit a seventh ‘metaphoric’ stage. On the whole, though, cognitive structuralism has not been successful in providing a convincing account of postadolescent adult cognitive development.

In summary, adult intelligence as measured by IQ tests does appear to decline with age, but not until relatively late in life. Remedial training can reverse such decrements. In comparison, those components of intelligence that are based on learning from experience are maintained or even developed with age, an issue that is discussed further when we examine practical intelligence and expertise.



From around 1970, dissatisfaction with the IQ-based model of adult intelligence generated a renewed interest in alternate views of cognitive functioning. The results of empirical research into such diverse models as insight, practical intelligence, wisdom, creativity, tacit knowledge and expertise have created a whole new field of study. For the greater part of this century the term ‘intelligence’ was so closely linked to the results of IQ tests that new terms such as non-academic intelligence, practical intelligence everyday cognition and practical thinking were coined in an attempt to describe the newly emerging cognitive constructs. The underlying thread in this debate, which is reflected in the choice of terminology, is the belief that academic intelligence conventionally understood did not account for the full range of adult cognitive abilities – that there existed non-academic intelligence and cognitive skills which functioned independently of IQ.

Whereas most IQ-based testing is firmly situated in the class, room or university, much of this new research took place in ‘real life’ environments such as the workplace. It is now well-established that many adults act intelligently despite an IQ test result that predicts otherwise. Adulthood is not a period of static or declining intellectual competence but of ongoing, qualitatively different, intellectual and cognitive growth. The nature and diversity of this growth are illustrated in the following examination of three alternative cognitive constructs to IQ.

The adult learner and practical intelligence 

The concept of the existence of practical as opposed to academic intelligence is relatively new in the psychological literature. Academic intelligence relates to performance on abstract, theoretical tasks, while practical intelligence underlies skill in everyday tasks. Several recent publications have challenged previously held assumptions about the nature of adult intelligence and established practical intelligence as a legitimate field of study. Most of these studies were conducted on real-life tasks and not in a laboratory, school or university. Ceci and Liker (1985), for example, studied the intelligence of professional punters. They found no correlation between the ability to consistently predict winning horses and IQ. Dube (1982) found high levels of memory and reasoning among illiterate people. In addition, he found that capacity for story recall was higher among illiterate Africans than among comparable American students. Several studies have found that practical intelligence functions best in real-life situations. Lave et al. (1984) studied grocery shoppers and the processes they used to make mathematical calculations. They found that shoppers averaged 98 per cent correct answers on ‘situated’ calculations when actually shopping, and only 59 per cent on identical pen-and-paper problems. Carraher et al. (1985) found similar results when studying the mathematical abilities of Brazilian street children. Others have argued that practical intelligence strongly correlates with the ability to form relationships and build social networks. Ford (1982) suggests that social competence represents a domain of human functioning that is at least partly distinguishable from a cognitive or general competence domain. Goodnow (1985) found that one of the general features of practically intelligent persons is the ability to organise and reorganise plans that enable them to go about their everyday lives efficiently.

The cross-cultural psychologist Sylvia Scribner (1984, 1985) investigated and documented the practical thinking of workers in her pioneering studies of everyday thinking in a milk factory. She found that practical thought has five distinct features: it is marked by flexibility; it incorporates the external environment into the problem-solving system; expert practical thinkers adopt effort saving as a higher-order cognitive strategy which informs the way they work; practical thought is highly reliant on domain Specific knowledge; and practical thought actually reformulates and redefines problems for ease of solution.

The exploration of the nature of practical intelligence makes fascinating reading. However, little of this literature is available in conventional sources on adult education and training. Those wanting to pursue an interest in practical intelligence should initially consult Resnick (1987) and the edited volumes of Sternberg and Wagner (1985), Rogoff and Lave (1984), and Chaiklin and Lave (1993). Research into practical intelligence and practical thinking has extended our previously restricted View of the cognitive skills of adults. The study of uneducated, practical or non-academic thought in context has broadened the conventional picture of adulthood and presents adult educators with a richer and more complex View of adults than was previously conveyed in the psychological literature.

The adult learner and the acquisition of expertise

Practical intelligence, when applied in the context of a particular domain of work or knowledge, is often referred to as expertise. As noted above, many studies of expertise have been conducted independently of any theory of adult development or learning. Further, Stevenson (1994: 8) remarks ironically that the study of cognitive development (expertise) in the vocations is leading reforms in general education but is not being applied in vocational (and, in our View) adult education.

The most commonly used method in the study of expertise is the comparison of expert and novice performance at a particular task or in a certain domain. Expertise research has been carried out in many diverse areas, including taxi-driving (Chase 1983); baseball (Spilich 1979); judicial decision making (Lawrence 1988); bar’tending (Beach 1984) and medical expertise (Schmidt et al. 1990). Recent research (Stevenson 1994) has extended the expertise model into the milieu of vocational education in a series of studies, including the development of expertise in apprenticeship courses, technical and further education colleges and problem. based learning.

The original and classic experiments on expertise remain the chess studies of de Groot (1966) and Chase and Simon (1973), Who looked at the thinking of chess masters and novices. Ons of the most interesting findings in this work concerned what eventuated when the researchers asked players to memorise and reproduce the positions of chess pieces from set plays. All players Were unfamiliar with the layout of the boards, but the layouts Were all of a type that might be played by masters. It was found that experts could reproduce the boards almost without fault, While novice players wavered. Apparently, when memorising, chess masters ‘chunked’ together groups of pieces to relieve the load on their short-term memory. Novices had not developed such skills. The follow-up studies of Chase and Simon added a new twist: instead of asking players to memorise a board with the pieces logically set out, they asked them to memorise ‘scrambled’ or meaningless boards. The memory performance of the experts then plummeted to almost the level of the novices. Roberr Sternberg’s (1990s) studies of bridge yielded similar results.

What expertise research tells us is that expert knowledge is often domain-specific: when operating in the environment they know best, experts excel. When significant details change, their performance declines. Experts in one domain are not necessarily experts in another. Neither does expertise appear to be correlated with IQ (see Ceci 8: Liker 1985). The construct of expertise thus appears to complement that of practical intelligence in offering a favourable theoretical underpinning for the efforts of adult educators. Chi et al. (1988) summarised the research findings on expertise as follows. Experts:

  • excel mainly in their own domains;
  • perceive large, meaningful patterns in their domain;
  • are faster and more economical;
  • have superior memory, but memory is restricted to their particular domain;
  • see and represent a problem in their domain at a deeper, more principled level than novices;
  • spend a good deal of time analysing a problem qualitatively – this is especially the case with ill-structured problems;
  • have strong self-monitoring skills-that is, they are aware of their mistakes and of the complexity of problems facing them.

Limitations of the expertise model

Although the expertise model generates positive data on adult learning and performance which are of considerable interest to adult educators and trainers, it does have limitations. First,‘ the findings of various expertise researchers, although largely complementary, can be contradictory on specifics. Chi et al., for example, claim that experts reason and present problems at a deeper level than novices, while Schmidt et al.’s study of expertise in medicine seems to cast some doubt on this. Second, in real life the pool of genuine experts in specific domains is limited, and often not easily accessible for research purposes. Third, in some domains, expertise seems to take a lifetime to develop, and little is yet known about how it develops over the lifespan of an individual. Fourth, much expertise research has not addressed or answered some significant questions on adult development. For example, continuing to frame research as a comparison between experts (much experience) and novices (little experience) ignores the problem of non-experts (those whose level of expertise does not appear to have profited from‘ considerable experience). Finally, Sternberg (1990a) notes that there appears to be a cost of expertise, in that the very procedure-bound routines that experts develop can blind them to the insight of relative novices. Clearly, the challenge for adult educators .is to draw on the considerable literature now available on‘teaching for the transfer of expertise (e.g. Stevenson 1991; Beven 1994) so as not to narrowly confine the cognitive and or technical skills gained by learners. The complexity of this task is, however, beyond the scope of this Chapter.



Wisdom has traditionally been thought of as more interesting to philosophers and theologians than a subject for scientific investigation. Wisdom stimulated the interest of Jung in the early part of this century, and the psychologist Erikson made the attainment of wisdom the emerging value of the eighth and last stage of his lifespan system; this final stage he titled ‘integrity versus despair (and disgust)’. Neither writer advanced empirical evidence supporting the existence of wisdom as a separate entity. In recent years, however, the concept of wisdom has undergone something of a renaissance and generated continuing interest among research psychologists.

Contemporary views as to the nature of adult wisdom are varied. Some see wisdom as a high-level, peak form of expertise (Baltes 8; Smith 1990); wisdom is of interest to these writers both as an indicator of the positive aspects of ageing (the attainment of wisdom and advancing years are almost inextricably linked) and as a challenge to the past dominance of intelligence testing (1990: 95). Others, such as Chandler and Holliday (1990), reject the notion of reducing wisdom to another psychological construct, fearing the loss of the deepest sense of what wisdom is. Labouvie-Vief (1990, 1994) understands wisdom to be the integration of mythos, represented by speech, narrative and dialogue, and logos, that part of knowledge which is arguable and can be demonstrated.

Evidence for a distinct construct of adult wisdom is provided by Sternberg (1990b). In a major study, he investigated the Similarities and disparities between wisdom, intelligence and do activity. To Sternberg, wisdom has most to do with understanding; intelligence with the recall, analysis and use of knowledge; and creativity with going beyond the conventional and redefining the permissible.

As a psychological construct, wisdom complements IQ, practical intelligence and expertise, in that it furthers our understanding of the adult learner in a number of ways. First, wisdom provides a positive state to which a learner can legitimately aspire regardless of level of education or IQ. Second, wisdom provides something of a link between postmodern Western society and the historical roots of cultures, both Western and otherwise. Modern adult education and training risks drowning in the instrumentalist rush to prepare the learner for participation in society as skilled workers, parents, activists, teachers and so on. Wisdom reminds us that there is still a place in adult learning for being, not just doing-for personal growth that has no necessary extrinsic value.



As a balance to our emphasis so far on understanding adult learners in terms of cognitive constructs, we should like to probe the nature of the adult life course itself. The idea that one’s personality or identity changes and or develops during the adult years is now generally accepted. In this sense, the developmental literature parallels the cognitivist and structuralist views we dis cussed above. Each takes the stance that cognitive development continues apace in adulthood. Further, the developmental psycho logical literature contains a number of propositions about the attributes of the various phases of life, many of which have become premises or rationales for adult education practice. For example, the use of experiential and group techniques is based on the notion of the cumulative experience of adults; the use of learning contracts is related to the idea that adults desire to be autonomous and self-directing.

The developmental literature proposes a number of models of adult development, which can be broadly divided into those which take a position that the life course is normative, age-related and stage or phase-based, and those which recognise the significance of non-age-related, non-normative events. Of the former group, those most frequently cited are Havighurst, Maslow, Erikson, Levinson, Gould, Loevinger and Valiant (see Tennant & Pogson 1995). Each of these authors advances an account of development that has as its end-point the mature, psychologically healthy and balanced person. All posit life stages or phases through which they envisage adults passing on the journey to maturity.

The second group of writers point to the tremendous variation in adult experience, and are not content with invariant sequences. Baltes and his colleagues, for example (Baltes 1987; Baltes et al. 1980), recognise three influences on development: those which are normative and age-related; those which are normative and historically graded such as epidemics, wars and depressions, which may influence entire generations; and non-normative influences, such as parenting a child born with a disability, or winning a lottery. Riegel (1976) argues for a dialectical understanding in which there is a constant interplay between the changing and developing person and the changing and evolving society. A third View holds that the life course itself is a social construction: that is, that the way in which we frame and understand the very notion of life course cannot be removed from the time, place and culture in which we live. For example McAdams (1996) sees identity as reflexively self-authored or constructed. This leads him to examine the life course as a narrative or story. He defines the life story formally as: ‘an internalised and evolving narrative of the self that incorporates the reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future’ (1996: 307) McAdams thus sees identity as a psychosocial construction, jointly authored by the person and his or her defining culture. Life stories are based on fact but they go beyond mere facts by rendering past, present and future meaningful and coherent in sometimes imaginative ways. The basic function of a life story is integration-it binds together disparate elements of the self. Contrast this conception with the more postmodern view of selves as residing in narratives which surround and define them (1997).

The significance to the adult educator of developing an understanding of the life course and its social construction cannot be overestimated. First, we need to recognise that certain adult education practices are based on what are often unspoken suppositions about the nature of adulthood. When working, say, with persons from non-Western cultures, such assumptions could bring educators unstuck. Second, adult educators need to distinguish between significant life events which are normative and age-related and those which are not. Finally, an understanding of the adult life course and its social construction can help the educator to frame learning more appropriately and to respond with grace and Wisdom to the variety of experiences adults bring to any learning environment.



In an overview of complex fields such as those we have scrutinised in this chapter, it is difficult to do justice to the subtlety and diversity revealed in the literature. We hope that adult educators will be stimulated to continue developing their understanding of the adult learner. In the past 20 years or so the scientific understanding of adulthood has undergone a profound and radical shift. No longer constrained by the IQ paradigm, adulthood is now understood as a period of ongoing, constant growth and change. In addition, some formerly ‘commonsense’ appreciations of adults have been confirmed. It has always been recognised that some adults have a practical rather than a theoretical bent. Now studies of everyday skills and everyday thought have opened up the ordinary aspects of life and disclosed complexity and creativity in the execution of even simple tasks. As a result, the unfortunate historical bias towards the theoretical and academic aspects of cognition has been somewhat redressed.

Much of the research we have drawn on in our exploration of adult intelligence, the development of adult cognitive skills (including the development of expertise) and lifespan-development psychology comes from the USA. To complement this work there is a need for a serious commitment among adult educationalists to undertake original work on their local situations. For example, edited volumes such as those of Stevenson (1994) on the development of vocational expertise, and Evans (1991) on learning and teaching cognitive skills, go some way to filling the gaps in our knowledge, but much more systematic investigation is needed.

It is also likely that there is much relevant research on adult intelligence, the nature of adult learning, and the nature of adulthood itself being conducted in the psychology and sociology departments of universities around the world which is not neces~ sarily contributing to the knowledge of adult education practitioners. In addition, the body of work undertaken for Masters’ and PhD theses is not being accessed and applied. The dissemination of these data is a challenge for the future.

In an era of radical economic and social change, the workplace is once again becoming a place of serious and important learning. So far it is one about which we know too little, although interest is growing (see Goodnow 1990; Billett 1993, 1994, 1996; Stevenson 8: McKavanagh 1992). In addition, there is the question as to how effective vocational education and other professional development providers are in preparing employees to grasp the cognitive demands of the workplace of the future. Such questions provide a starting point for developing and enhancing our understanding of the adult learner.


Philip Pogson & Mark Tennant in Understanding Adult Education and Training. 2000.



Chaiklin, S. & Lave, j. (eds) 1993 Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chi, M.T.H., Glaser, R. & Farr, M.J. (eds) 1988 The Nature of Expertise. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gilligan, C. 1986 In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Stevenson, j. (ed) 1991. Cognitional World. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education Research.

Tennunt, M. 1997 Psychology and Adult Learning, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.