Book | Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning by Stephen Brookfield


Brookfield, Stephen. Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices. 1st ed. The Jossey-Bass Higher Education Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.

The Author

20130726-085408.jpgSince beginning his teaching career in 1970, Stephen Brookfield has worked in England, Canada, Australia, and the United States, teaching in a variety of college settings. He has written fifteen books on adult learning, teaching, critical thinking, discussion methods and critical theory, six of which have won the Cyril O. Houle World Award for Literature in Adult Education (in 1986, 1989, 1996, 2005, 2011 and 2012). He also won the 1986 Imogene Okes Award for Outstanding Research in Adult Education. His work has been translated into German, Korean, Finnish, Chinese, Japanese, and Polish. In 1991, he was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree from the University System of New Hampshire for his contributions to understanding adult learning. In 2001, he received the Leadership Award from the Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE) for “extraordinary contributions to the general field of continuing education on a national and international level.” In 2008 he was awarded the Morris T. Keeton Award of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning for “significant contributions to the field of adult and experiential learning.”

He currently serves on the editorial boards of educational journals in Britain, Canada and Australia, as well as in the United States. During 2002, he was a Visiting Professor at Harvard University. In 2003, he was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree from Concordia University (St. Paul). After 10 years as a Professor of Higher and Adult Education at Columbia University in New York, he now holds the title of Distinguished University Professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota where he recently won the university’s Diversity Leadership Teaching & Research Award and also the John Ireland Presidential Award for Outstanding Achievement as a Teacher/Scholar. In 2008 he also received the Morris T. Keeton Award of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning for his outstanding contributions to adult and experiential learning. In 2009 he was inducted into the international Adult Education Hall of Fame and in 2010 he received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Muhlenberg College.[1]

My Thoughts

Brookfield’s basic argument is that facilitators of adult learning should not view themselves simply as program managers that convey the knowledge of institutional technical skills that meet the felt needs of the student. Rather, the facilitator is involved in transactional dialogues in which the facilitator and the students continually negotiate the purpose, scope, and curricula of the learning environment.

Brookfield challenges some common assumptions among adult educators. One of these assumptions is that of a monolithic understanding of andragogy as exemplified by Knowles and Tyler. First of all, andragogy is not a proven theory, but is more of a set of working assumptions that have not been proven to be exclusively adult in nature. Most of the assumptions of andragogy have proven to be contextually bound to white American males who have experienced class privilege.

Secondly, Tyler developed instructional methods that highlighted the teaching of psychomotor skills and program development. In these methods teaching is not referred to as teaching but as “management of learning experiences, instructional management, or implemenation of the insturcitonal plan.”[2]

This is a very practical book in which Brookfield spells out a methodology in which the facilitator of adult learning can create a democratic environment that both transmits needed skills and challenges the adult learner to question the status quo and expand her horizon of possibility. This democratic environment is at the heart of learning for Brookfield. He expounds the theory behind this methodology—Critical Social Theory—in his 2005 book The Power of Critical Thinking.

Purpose of the Book

Brookfield wrote this book in 1986 when he was professor of adult and continuing education and associate director of the Center for Adult Education at Teachers College, Colubia University, in New York City.[3]

“A major purpose of this book is to examine critically the notion that facilitating learning is a smooth voyage along a storm-free river of increasing self-actualization that excludes elements of conflict, anxiety, self-doubt, or challenge.”[4]

“it argues that facilitating learning is a transactional drama in which the personalities, philosophies, and priorities of the chief players (participants and facilitators) interact continuously to influence the nature, direction, and form of the  subsequent learning.”[5]


Brookfield’s Chief Argument

“The chief argument proposed here is that effective facilitation is present when adults come to appreciate the relative, provisional, and contextual nature of public and private knowledge and when they come to understand that the belief systems, value frameworks, and moral codes informing their conduct are culturally constructed.

It is also evident when adults are enabled to create meaning in their personal worlds through a continual redefinition of their relationships with other. Following on from this exhibition of personal autonomy and the realization that individual circumstances can be consciously altered comes the insight that it is possible, in concert with others, to change cultural forms, including attitudinal sets, role expectations, conventions, and folkways, as well as social structures.”[6]

Key Principles of Facilitating Adult Learning

  1. Participation in learning is voluntary.
  2. Effective practice is characterized by a respect among participants for each other’s self-worth.
  3. Facilitation is collaborative.
  4. Praxis is placed at the heart of effective facilitation.
  5. Facilitation aims to faster in adults a spirit of critical reflection.
  6. The aim of facilitation is the nurturing of self-directed, empowered adults.

On Praxis

“In the education and training of adults, the term praxis is closely associated with the ideas and literacy activities of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. In several works, he discusses a number of specific techniques that were used to help South American illiterates acquire literacy skills. In developing these skills, learners would gradually become aware of forces and structures that were keeping them in a position of dependence. Central to this concept, however, is a process long ago recognized as fundamentally educational by such philosophers of education as Dewey (1916) and Neill (1960). This process centers on the need for educational activity to engage the learner in a continuous and alternating process of investigation and exploration, followed by action grounded in this exploration, followed by reflection on this action, followed by further investigation and exploration, followed by further action, so on. This notion of praxis as alternating and continuous engagements by teachers and learners in exploration, action, and reflection is central to adult learning. It means that explorations of new ideas, skills, or bodies of knowledge do not take place in a vacuum but are set within the context of learners’ past, current, and future experiences. In settings where skills are being learned, whether literacy skills, craft skills, or political advocacy this praxis is easily observable. Learners become acquainted with skills, apply these in real life settings, reflect with other learners on their experiences in these settings, redefine how these skills might be altered by context, reapply these in other real settings, and so on. This is the familiar mechanism of internships and field experience as used in numerous training settings.”[7]

Two common approaches to thinking about the facilitation of learning:

1. operational. “any activity in which adults are being taught how to acquire certain skills and knowledge, irrespective of content and context. If adults are learning, and others are arranging the conditions of instruction, then we are witnessing effective facilitation.

2. intrinsic. education is essentially a transactional encounter in which learners and teachers are engaged in a continual process of negotiation of priorities, methods, and evaluative criteria. [this means that] the sole responsibility for determining curricula or for selecting appropriate methods does not rest either with the educator or with the participants.”[8]

Participatory Action Research

“In participatory research projects, as well as in community action efforts, certain priniples of practice are repeatedly found:

  • The medium of learning and action is the small group.
  • Essential to the success of efforts is the development of collaborative solidarity among group members.
  • The focus of the groups actions is determined after full idscussion of participants’ needs and full negotiantion of all needs, including those of any formal ‘educators’ present.
  • As adults undertake the actions they have collaboratively agreed on, they develop an awareness of their collective power.
  • A successful initiative is on in which action and analysis alternate.[9]

Perry’s Nine Positions of Learning

“Put simply, Perry’s nine positions represent a move from an initial dualist perspective in which the world is perceived as comprised of black and white, mutually exclusive polarities to one in which the individual has come to a realization of the contextuality and relativity of the world and has then gone on to make a conscious commitment to one of many possible identities.”[10]

I found this report on Perry’s positions (


[1] (accessed July 25, 2013)

[2] Stephen Brookfield, Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices, 1st ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986), 141.

[3] Ibid.,  xv.

[4] Ibid.,  vii-viii.

[5] Ibid.,  viii.

[6] Ibid.,  293.

[7] Ibid.,  15-16.

[8] Ibid.,  20-21.

[9] Ibid.,  114.

[10] Ibid.,  144.

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