The adult learning sciences: What does it look like?

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For a while now, I have been advocating for the emergence of a new field, a field unique from what has been traditionally called adult education or adult and lifelong learning. It is a field I call the adult learning sciences. This field shares with the former a focus on adult learning and the practices used to facilitate that process. However, it diverges in some clear ways: it is grounded in scientific epistemology and its analytic aims are primarily functional, aimed at prediction and influence, rather than description and understanding (see Fox, 2006, for a discussion of these different aims). It strives to construct functional models of how adults learn, and to identify the policies and practices that best facilitate learning and the contextual factors that moderate the learning process.

The adult learning sciences take the position that to make scientific advances in adult learning, a community of researchers is needed whose a priori analytic aims are not explicitly emancipatory and thereby functioning as the agenda of a political “interest group.”

Apart from a scientific epistemology, a significant point of departure from adult education is its position on political activism. While it acknowledges that knowledge is never “value-free” and that activism is historically a part of education, it takes the position that to make scientific advances in adult learning, a community of researchers is needed whose a priori analytic aims are not explicitly emancipatory and thereby functioning as the agenda of a political “interest group.” In short, it acknowledges the problems imposed by the naturalistic fallacy: one cannot reason from “what is” to “what ought” to be. And more importantly, it acknowledges the problems for science when one does the reverse (reasoning from an “ought” to an “is”). By uncoupling the adult learning sciences from adult education, the two fields can pursue different analytic aims while working to inform one another. The learning sciences can provide rigorous empirical findings, which adult education can use to pursue its emancipatory aims. And adult education can highlight areas of inequality and social need, which the adult learning sciences can use to direct its scientific inquiry. The key idea here is that they can inform one another, but they don’t have to.

To begin a discussion of what the adult learning sciences might look like, I offer the following suggestions. Some are drawn from the excellent work of Summerhoff et al. (2018), who analyzed over 75 learning sciences programs for commonalities. Importantly, none of these programs identified specifically as the adult learning sciences, but they still offer relevant insights.

From my vantage, the adult learning sciences should be focused on adult learning as an area of inquiry while committing to:

  1. Replication and extension of research,
  2. Interdisciplinary research teams (psychology, computer science, sociology, economics, educational policy, etc)
  3. Measurable outcomes and testable theories,
  4. Data-based decision making,
  5. Creation of generalizable knowledge,
  6. Identification of contextual moderators and nested data structures,
  7. Innovative uses of technology to support learning,
  8. Functional models of cognition and metacognition,
  9. Design of learning environments and scaffolding,
  10. Use of experimental, quasi-experimental, and design-based research methods (i.e., testing educational interventions in authentic settings), and
  11. Contemporary and advanced uses of statistics and quantitative reasoning.

These are only a start–suggestions meant to further discussion. A field that embraced these ideas while examining adult learning would be very different from the field of adult education as it exists today. As we move into the 21st century and the role of data and science evolves, so too must our field. Its future success depends on it.


Fox, E. (2006). Constructing a pragmatic science of learning and instruction with functional contextualism. Educational Technology Research and Development, 54(1), 5-36.

Sommerhoff, D., Szameitat, A., Vogel, F., Chernikova, O., Loderer, K., & Fischer, F. (2018). What do we teach when we teach the learning sciences? A document analysis of 75 graduate programs. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 27(2), 319-351.

Author: Kevin M. Roessger

I am a research and educator interested in advancing the adult learning sciences. I blog about evidence-based practices and policies for adult and lifelong learning.

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