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Critical Thinking 1

Running head: Critical Thinking Components of Adult Learning

Critical Thinking Components of Adult Learning

Critical Thinking 2


This essay examines the effects of critical thinking on life-long learning. Critical thinking is

an activity that questions the assumptions underlying our personal ways of thinking and

acting and then prepares us to think and act differently. This essay describes the key

ingredients of critical thinking and identifies ways these ideas may be in adult learning.

Critical Thinking 3

Critical Thinking Components of Adult Learning

Much of the research information that examined critical thinking and adult learning

points to theories developed by Malcolm Knowles. Mr. Knowles popularized the theory of

andragogy which uses four basic assumptions that distinguishes adult learners from

children. These four theories are self-concept, experience, readiness to learn and

orientation to learn. (Lee,1998, p. 50). The work of Stephen Brookfield also dominates

much of the literature of adult learning. Brookfield’s main research activities have been in

the field of adult learning (particularly self-directed learning), community education,

comparative adult education, the application of qualitative research approaches to

studying adult learning and education, and political and philosophical aspects of adult and

continuing education (Galbraith 1990).

Critical thinking is defined by many notable sources as the ability to move beyond

what is obvious; to look at things in a greater context and make rational assumptions. Part

of teaching critical thinking necessarily involves challenging students? implicit and teaching

them new perspectives for interpretation (Myers 1988). How adult learners see things are

crucial. They must analyze the subject, the situation, the people involved, and most

importantly, themselves. If they believe everything they see or hear, then they will soon

be unable what is true and not true in their eyes. What this addresses is critical thinking.

Critical Thinking 4

Learning is a cumulative process. The more knowledge and skills an

individual requires, the more likely it becomes that his new learning will be

shaped by his past experiences and activities. An adult rarely, if ever, learns

anything completely new; however unfamiliar the task that confronts him,

the information and habits he has built up in the past will be his point of

departure. (Postman, 1972).

There is no real sign that any of the skills of critical thinking learned in

schools and colleges can be used in adult life. In adulthood, we are thinking critically

whenever we question why we, or our partners, behave in certain ways within


Alice Lee?s essay in Life Long Learning: Policies, Practice and Programs describes

life-long learning as a broad conceptual term which is used to describe the process of

continuous learning, personal enrichment and extension of a knowledge that takes place

over the course of the human life-span. This process can also be defined as adult learning.

There are several principles of adult learning that Knowles popularized in the term of

andragogy. The first is self concept. Adults see themselves being capable of self-direction.

The second is life experience. In addition to the first two concepts, adults bring previous

life experiences with them as a resource to the learning activity at hand. Adults need to

participate in setting their learning goals and they need to decide what and how they will

learn based on the challenges they face in every day life.

Critical Thinking 5

Critical thinking is essential to successful life long learning. According to Lee (1997)

there are four major roles critical thinking plays in adult learning. In this section, the

author describes the essential components of critical thinking and identifies ways these

components might be recognized in people’s behavior. These roles provide opportunities

that are central to most adults’ lives: in their intimate relationships, at their workplace, as

part of their political involvement, and their perceptions of the world as shaped by society.

It is also an activity that questions underlying ways of thinking and acting and then

prepares adults to think and act differently.

Life-long learning plays an important role in adult learning. It gives adults the

opportunity to use their skills of deduction based on prior experiences. Adults thrive in

classes that value their life experience and leave room for exploration; rather than strict

adherence to course schedules and reading lists (Lawrence 1998). Contrary to childhood

education, adults bring information from their own experience. This parallels one of the

main principles that Malcolm Knowles made popular called andragogy. This assumes that

adults have become used to learning by relating new material to past experiences.

Andragogy also assumes that adults are highly motivated, self-directed, and have become

used to learning by solving problems. (Lawrence 1998).

According to Galbraith (1991) asking critical questions about our previously

accepted values, ideas, and behaviors produces anxiety. Resistance, resentment, and

confusion become clear during many stages in the process. This can be beneficial to life

long learning. When adults think critically they gain an awareness that others in the world

Critical Thinking 6

have the same sense of anxiety about new ideas, values, and actions that are completely

contrary to their own. The anxiety that may be felt by adults displays continuous learning.

by challenging previous held belief systems.

Peterson (1977) submits that in the past major reasons for lack of participation by

adults in continuing education is that programs or courses have not been specifically

designed for them. Their needs have not been met adequately. New programs or courses

dealing with problem-solving situations on the one hand and typical educational courses

on the other hand must be offered. Adults are turning to colleges or other sources for

specific training that can help them in their jobs. There are a host of learning initiatives

which are marked innovatively from the traditional educational establishment (Lawrence

1998).Distance learning, or the Internet, for example provides many adult learners with

unique, time-solving ways to learn at an accelerated pace which can also enhance

opportunities for life-long learning.

No single profile can represent the adult learner or critical thinker but the common

denominator among adult learners is that virtually all their behavior is learned or otherwise

influenced by experience. In addition to the reading, writing, and arithmetic that was

learned in school, many academic sources state that a fourth subject should be added. The

subject is reasoning or rational thought, which may also be called: critical thinking.

Ultimately, it boils down to is making sound decisions. Adults now consider education a

lifelong process, critical to helping them get ahead in their jobs and lives in general. Once

adults add the critical thinking process to their existing knowledge base they will then have

a process that will lead to higher quality decision-making.

Critical Thinking 7


Galbraith, Michael W. (Ed.). (1991). Adult learning methods. Malabar, Florida:

Krieger Publishing Company.

Hatton, Michael J. (Ed.). (1997). Life long learning: policies, practices, and progress.

Toronto, Canada: School of Media Studies at Humber College.

Lawrence, Lee. (1998, July 14). Adult learning targets life experience. Christian

Science Monitor, pp. B8.

Lee, Chris. (1998). The adult learner: neglected no more. Training Volume 35 Issue

3, 47-52.

Myers, Chet. (1988). Teaching students to think critically: a guide for faculty in all

disciplines. San Francisco: Josey-Bass Publishers.

Peterson, D.A. 1977. The role of gerontology in adult education. In R.A. Kalish

(Ed.), The later years: socialapplications of gerontology (pp 121-141). California: Brooks


Postman, L. (1972). Transfer, interference, and forgetting. Third Edition. New York:

Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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