An analysis of theoretical perspectives that define adult learners for effective and inclusive adult education policies

  • Yaw Owusu-AgyemanEmail author
Original Paper


Adult learning remains an important component of educational systems in countries all over the world, particularly because it seeks to explain how adults obtain education through formal, non-formal and informal modes. While many education providers and researchers focus on increasing resource support and the development of the knowledge and skills of adult learners, there is a paucity of studies on theoretical perspectives that define adult learners for the provision of effective and inclusive adult education. To bridge this gap, this article discusses the characteristics of adult learners based on five major theoretical frameworks – human capital, adult development, sociocultural, biographical and political perspectives – and shows how they can enhance effective and inclusive adult education policies and practices at different levels of governance. The author considers these perspectives along with the normative and ontological dimensions of lifelong learning. While the normative dimension explains lifelong learning as a concept that focuses on the development of educational policies, the ontological dimension explains how individuals learn throughout their lives within and outside of educational settings. The study concludes that if policymakers reflect on the five theoretical perspectives, and consider the normative and ontological dimensions, they can enhance the policies and practices that guide adult learners in lifelong learning environments and promote inclusive education, leaving no one behind.


adult learner adult learning theoretical perspectives lifelong learning policies learning environment 


Une analyse des perspectives théoriques définissant les apprenants adultes pour favoriser des politiques d’éducation des adultes efficaces et inclusives – L’éducation des adultes est toujours un élément essentiel des systèmes d’éducation dans des pays du monde entier, notamment parce qu’elle cherche à expliquer comment les adultes s’instruisent par des moyens formels, non formels et informels. Beaucoup de prestataires d’éducation et de chercheurs se concentrent sur l’accroissement des aides et sur le développement des connaissances et compétences des apprenants adultes, mais nous manquons d’études sur les perspectives théoriques définissant ce que sont les apprenants adultes et qui serviraient à leur fournir des prestations éducatives efficaces et inclusives. Pour combler cette lacune, le présent article examine ce qui caractérise les apprenants adultes en s’appuyant sur cinq cadres théoriques majeurs – la théorie du capital humain, la théorie du développement des adultes et les perspectives socioculturelles, biographiques et politiques – et montre comment ces cadres peuvent améliorer des politiques et pratiques efficaces et inclusives de l’éducation des adultes à différents niveaux de gouvernance. L’auteur se penche sur ces perspectives ainsi que sur les dimensions normatives et ontologiques de l’apprentissage tout au long de la vie. Alors que d’un point de vue normatif l’apprentissage tout au long de la vie est un concept axé sur le développement de politiques de l’éducation, l’aspect normatif explique comment les personnes apprennent au fil de leur existence et hors des cadres éducatifs. L’étude conclut qu’engager une réflexion sur ces cinq perspectives théoriques, en tenant compte des dimensions normatives et ontologiques, peut permettre aux décideurs politiques d’améliorer les politiques et pratiques qui guident les apprenants adultes dans des environnements d’apprentissage tout au long de la vie et de promouvoir une éducation inclusive de sorte qu’ainsi, personne ne soit laissé pour compte.



I would like to acknowledge the immense contribution of Stephen Roche whose technical advice and suggestions after my initial submission to the journal enhanced the quality of the article. I also appreciate the contributions of the reviewers and the copy-editing of Kim Woodland and Maya Kiesselbach.


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Copyright information

© UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning and Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Directorate for Institutional Research and Academic PlanningUniversity of the Free StateBloemfonteinSouth Africa

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