Published on 2015/04/06
The EvoLLLution | Five Characteristics Core to Continuing Education’s DNA
As the role of continuing education transforms with the growth of the adult student population, it’s critical to take a moment to assess the root characteristics that define a successful CE unit.

In 1926 Eduard Lindeman, a member of the faculty of the New York School of Social Work, wrote “The Meaning of Adult Education.” Influenced by the progressivism of John Dewey, Lindeman postulated that the purpose of adult education was to enable the learner to better understand the world and, in turn, reform society where needed. That same year, the American Association for Adult Education was formed, sharing a broadened definition of adult education that encapsulated the liberal and cultural arts, recreation and vocational education. As adult education morphed into continuing education in common nomenclature over the past 89 years, a search for its fundamental building blocks—its DNA—requires us to return briefly to its embryonic cell, to define what we set out to do in the first place. This piece will briefly outline the five characteristics inherent in continuing education’s DNA.

1. Pragmatic

Continuing education’s intellectual heritage is one of pragmatism. Its most readable apostle William James defined the truth of an idea as its utility or practicality. Inherent in a continuing educator’s DNA is the trait of applied problem solving. Our reasoning is inductive, moving from the particulars to the whole. Our thought processes are heuristic, ever ready to suggest alternative hypotheses to a question. An ultimate test is what solves the problem—what given means most expeditiously meets the intended end. Praxis, or the dialectic fusion of theory and practice, is the manifestation of this process in our work. The ultimate intent of continuing education is to overcome the historic theory/practice dichotomy that challenges education at all levels.

2. Learner-Centered

Our field of practice and study is learning-centered, not knowledge-centered. Guided for nearly 50 years by Malcolm Knowles’ andragogy, learning is rooted in the adult’s independent self-concept, need for self-direction, readiness to learn, and experiential ontology. For continuing educators, learning is internal maturation for the student, not their receipt of transmitted knowledge. Continuing education is learner-centered; faculty, institutions and policies are designed to facilitate learning rather than stand in its way. This learning occurs through a transformative process in which the learner’s interaction with knowledge and context leads to their “reconstruction of experience,” to channel Dewey once again. At times this humanistic psychology poses challenges to our pragmatism along the contours of time and place as the learning process is evolutionary.

3. Innovative

Our DNA is entrepreneurial and innovative. Our epistemology is not bound by conventional disciplines guided by distinct world views. Rather, we move along tactical and strategic decision-making tracks with tolerance for risk and concerns about what might be, more than what is. Those working in traditional bureaucracies like postsecondary education, large corporations and government departments often find their status defined problematically as “change agent” or (more derisively) “renegade.” That said, we often accomplish our most rewarding and worthwhile work while working at institutional boundaries rather than the core.

4. Mission-Driven

We are mission-driven, not status-driven, with a value construct to serve while we lead. We keep any ego concerns in check since our focus is the “other.” We serve students who often are not reached through traditional higher education organizations based on social and economic hierarchies, esteem, and externally-measured prestige. Intrinsic motivation is critical to realizing our vision in the face of competing agendas based in organizations marked by competition and “zero-sum” wins and losses.

5. Nimble

Fifth and finally, continuing education’s DNA is nimble and adaptive to ever-changing exogenous circumstances. Forming a double helix with innovation, we pursue numerous strategies simultaneously and are always ready for satisfying decisions—those that meet a minimum acceptability threshold—to maintain our forward momentum. This characteristic is evident in our rapid response to client and constituent needs and in continuing education’s tendency to view change as a constant fact of professional and organizational life. While being grounded in certain values, the continuing educator is ever adaptive.

Bringing the Five Characteristics Together

Knowing the five characteristics of continuing education’s DNA is essential: pragmatic, learner-centered, innovative, mission-driven and nimble. Of equal importance is an appreciation of how they bond to create the life form of continuing higher education.

Our practical focus demands that we understand that there are many roads to the same destination—learning. Learning is our raison d’être because it empowers learners to take control of their own life. The movement toward self-actualization begins with the freedom to learn. Just as there are multiple learning or cognitive styles, so too are there myriad strategies to facilitate learning. Building, and working within, a culture of innovation with a climate of entrepreneurship affords this opportunity.

Continuing education remains true to its fundamental DNA while adapting its scope and methods to changing demographics and evolving societal expectations.

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