Philosophies of Adult Education

Below you'll find three tables which compare five kinds of educational philosophies (Liberal, Behaviorist, Progressive, Humanistic, and Radical).

Table One includes: Information on the purpose of each philosophy and the roles of learners and teachers.

Table Two includes: Information on what source(s) the philosophy derives its authority from, key words and concepts associated with each philosophy, and the methods commonly used for each.

Table Three includes: People and practices that are often associated with each philosophy and a general time-frame for each philosophy which states when each movement began.

These tables will not provide you with everything you need to know about educational philosophy, but they do allow you to see a lot of stuff at once in order to compare and contrast these ideas for yourself.


 Table 1

Adult Education


(Classical, Trad.)






To develop intellectual powers of the mind; to make a person literate in the broadest sense--intellectually, morally, and spiritually.

To bring about behavior that will ensure survival of human species, societies, and individuals; to promote behavioral change.

To transmit culture and societal structure to promote social change; to give learner practical knowledge and problem-solving skills, to reform society

To develop people open to change and continued learning; to enhance personal growth and development; to facilitate self-actualization, to reform society.

To bring about fundamental, social, political, economic changes in society through education; to change culture and its structure.


"Renaissance person"; cultured, always a learner; seeks knowledge rather than just information; conceptual; theoretical understanding.

Learner takes an active role in learning, practicing new behavior, and receiving feedback; strong environmental influence.

Learner needs, interests, and experiences are key elements in learning; people have unlimited potential to be developed through education.

Learner is highly motivated and self-directed; assumes responsibility for learning and self-development.

Equality with teacher in learning process; personal autonomy; people create history and culture by combining reflection with action


The "expert"; transmitter of knowledge; authoritative; clearly directs learning process.

Manager, controller; predicts and directs learning outcomes, designs learning environment that elicits desired behavior.

Organizer; guides learning through experiences that are educative; stimulates, instigates, evaluates learning process.

Facilitator; helper; partner; promotes, but does not direct learning, sets mood for learning, acts as a flexible resource for learners.

Provocateur; suggests but does not determine direction for learning; equality between teacher and learner.



 Table 2






Source of Authority

The Western canon

The environment

Situations that learner finds him/herself in; culture

The self/learner

Socioeconomic and sociopolitical imbalances

Key Words/ Concepts

Liberal learning, learning for its own sake; rational, intellectual education, general education; traditional knowledge; classical-/rational humanism.

Stimulus-response; behavior modification; competency-based; mastery learning; behavioral objectives; trial and error; skill training; feedback; reinforcement.

Problem-solving; experience-based education; democracy; lifelong learning; pragmatic knowledge; needs assessment; social responsibility.

Experiential learning; freedom; feelings, individuality; self-directedness; interactive; openness; co-operation; authenticity; ambiguity; related to existentialism.

Consciousness-raising; praxis; noncompulsory learning; autonomy; critical thinking; social action; de-institutionalization; literacy training.


Dialectic; lecture; study groups; contemplation; critical reading and discussion.

Programmed instruction; contract learning; teaching machines; computer-assisted instruction; practice and reinforcement.

Problem-solving; scientific method; activity method; experimental method; project method; inductive method.

Experiential; group tasks; group discussion; team teaching; self-directed learning; discovery method.

Dialog; problem-posing; maximum interaction; discussion groups.

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 Table 3






People/ Practices

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas Adler, Friedenberg, Kallen, Van Doren, Houle, Great Books; Lyceum; Chautauqua; Elderhostel; Center for the Study of Liberal Education

Skinner, Thorndike, Watson, Tyler, APL (Adult Per-formance Level); competency-based teacher education; behavior modification programs

Spencer, Pestalozzi, Dewey, Bergevin, Sheats, Lindeman, Benne, Blakely, ABE, citizenship education; community schools; cooperative extension schools; schools without walls, Participation Training.

Erasmus, Rousseau, Rogers, Maslow, Knowles, May, Tough, McKenzie; encounter groups; group dynamics; self-directed learning projects; human relations training; Esalen Institute.

Brameld, Holt, Kozol, Reich, Neill, Freire, Goodman, Illich, Ohliger; Freedom Schools; Summerhill, Freire's literacy training; free schools.

Time Frame

Oldest philosophy of education in West. Roots in the Classical Period of ancient Greece.

Founded by John B. Watson in 1920s.

Origins can be traced to 16th c. Europe. Based on empiricism and pragmatism (1870s U.S.). Began as a serious movement in U.S. in early 1900s with Dewey.

Roots go back to classical China, Greece, and Rome, but became a movement as we know it in the U.S. in 1950s-60s through work by Maslow and Rogers.

Origins are found in the 18th c. anarchist tradition, Marxist thought, and the Freudian Left. Modern movement began in early 1960s in Brazil with Freire.

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These tables are based on those presented by Lorraine Zinn in chapter three ("Identifying Your Philosophical Orientation") of Adult Learning Methods: A Guide for Effective Instruction (1990). The tables were edited and expanded during a discussion in ADE 5080 Spring 1997.