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Adult Learning: Education and Training

Adults certainly can learn throughout their lives. If that were not the case, there would not be a 55.8 billion dollar industry that supports adult learning in its many forms (Annual Industry Report and ASTD annual survey, 2007), from adult education classes offered at the community college to the corporate training departments in Fortune 500 companies. Learning doesn’t stop when people leave high school or college. For more than 20 years, I have been training and developing adults in both the military and business world, developing and delivering learning solutions ranging from the formal to the informal and traditional to non-traditional. This required extensive experience determining the appropriate learning solution given the audience, environment and technology available. For adults, learning can take on many forms. “Adult education has been variously divided into formal, nonformal, and informal learning activities” (Merriam, Baumgartner, & Caffarella, 2007 p.24).

Delivering or developing traditional classroom instruction has formed the basis of what many people call formal learning. Formal learning is we all remember from our childhood school days. Formal education is “highly institutionalized, bureaucratic, curriculum driven, and formally recognized with grades, diplomas or certificates” (Merriam, Baumgartner, & Caffarella, 2007 p.28). Elementary, through high school and college are examples of formal education experiences most adult learners in developed nations can relate too. In contrast informal learning often refers to learning that happens outside of a formal education setting, such as learning opportunities found in libraries, museums and civic organizations (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007 p. 30). In addition to those mentioned above, many adults are familiar with training on the job.

Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) provide current research and thinking on adult learning today and integrate other important contributions to adult learning in the last decade in their comprehensive work. Merriam et al. (2007) support the idea that learning in adulthood is a deeply personal activity. It is important to first understand who the adult learner is, why adults get involved in learning activities, how adults learn, and how a person’s age affects their learning ability. Only when learning professionals understand these things will they be able to create effective solutions tailored to meet individual needs of a multigenerational workforce.

The corporate world uses formal and informal as well as traditional and nontraditional learning modalities to accomplish business goals. They make use of Learning Management Systems, web based training and good old-fashioned instructor led training. Performance support is another area that is simpler, less time consuming and more workflow related than even your traditional elearning or instructor led training solutions. Learning in the business world is quickly moving toward using social networking tools such as Wiki’s, LinkedIn and others. The business world uses learning in two significant ways, one to train individuals in performing tasks and the other to help build competencies that relate to leadership and management behaviors or what is sometimes called soft skills. Corporate training tends to be more focused on the here and now and less so on building future potential. In the corporate world, it is more about what have you done for me lately rather than what will you do for me in the future.


Annual Industry Report and ASTD annual survey. (2007). Training Magazine. 9.

Merriam, S., Baumgartner, L., & Caffarella, R. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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