Adult Education Philosophy Informs Practice

By Tisdell, Elizabeth J.; Taylor, Edward W. | Adult Learning, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Adult Education Philosophy Informs Practice


Tisdell, Elizabeth J., Taylor, Edward W., Adult Learning


So, what is "philosophy"? And what does it have to do with adult education the one hand, it seems like a subject for elite academics, far removed from the everyday practices of adult educators. On the other hand, ask any adult educator what the purpose of education is, or what they are trying to do in class, and therein lies something of their espoused educational philosophy Look at their practice, and that tells you even more. One's educational philosophy is imbedded both in what one believes about teaching and learning, and what one actually does in their practice. All adult educators have an educational philosophy; we may not be able to articulate it well, but we all have a belief about what we should be doing in the adult education classroom. Further, adult learners in our classrooms also have an educational philosophy--a belief about what we should be doing. Sometimes these philosophical beliefs clash and result in conflict. Knowing one's educational philosophy and how it relates to our practice and to those beliefs of adult learns in our classrooms can help us better negotiate the everyday realities of life with adult learners.

We believe that defining one's educational philosophy is important--not only because our beliefs impact what we do in the classroom, but in defining our educational philosophy, we must examine our practice critically In so doing, we often become conscious of some of our unconscious beliefs or behaviors that affect our practice.

Critically examining our practice makes apparent some of the discrepancies between what we say we believe and what we actually do. For example, one colleague said that she believed in treating all students "equally" as part of her educational philosophy. But after a closer look at her practice, she found that she unconsciously gave more validation to some over others based partly on their gender, race and class. This became apparent by observing who she gave more attention, affirmation and mentoring to in the instructional setting (partly because some were more demanding than others), and by noting who was most often represented in her curriculum. After critically examining her practice and curriculum, she reasoned that if required authors and classroom examples were primarily whites and/or males, it perhaps sent a message about whose knowledge was really valued; it might appear that she believed some were "more equal" than others. As a result, she had to rethink the notion of what she really meant in regard to "treating all students equally." Thus, she began to change some of her classroom practices and also began to redefine her educational philosophy In short, as we have seen in this example, an examination of one's educational practice and one's beliefs about practice inform each other--our philosophy informs our practice, which in turn informs and helps develop our philosophy. And, so, the cycle continues. In order for this cycle to be set in motion, we must make conscious our underlying educational philosophy and how it is reflected in our practice. Thus, our intent in this article is two-fold; to discuss some different adult educational philosophies, and to help readers explore their own educational philosophy in light of their adult education practice. In particular, we invite the reader to reflect on the following questions in relationship to their own thinking about their adult education practice:

1. What is the purpose of education?

2. What is the role of the adult educator?

3. What is the role of students or adult learners in the classroom?

4. What is your conceptualization of differences among adult learners?

5. What is your worldview, or the primary lens you use in analyzing human needs?

To be sure, not all adult educators have the same answers to these five questions, or the same philosophical orientation. Elias and Merriam (1995) discuss a number of philosophical orientations to adult education including liberalism, progressivism, humanism, behaviorism and radicalism. …

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