Motivation and adult learning
The author of this report, Helene Ahl, is a researcher at Encell, (National Centre for Lifelong Learning), at the School of Education and Communication, Jönköping University. Encell works within the field of adult education, broadly defined. In our contacts with people in the field, both educators, employers and union representatives, we constantly face the same question: How do you motivate adults to take part in continued education? Motivating adults seems to be a problem.
This report originates in an attempt to find an answer to the question. The book starts with definitions of motivation, most of which say that motivation is “what makes people act”. This is followed by a review of classical theories of motivation, starting with theories of humans as rational decision makers, continuing with theories about instincts and drives, theories of humans as socially motivated, and theories about behavior as learned. There are several theories about motivation as need driven. Maslow, McClelland and Herzberg are familiar names in this tradition. The report further reviews cognitive theories, as for example those put forward by Piaget, Lewin and Vroom. Later theories are mentioned in brief as they are mainly elaborations of earlier ones.
The review shows that there is no clear answer as to what motivates adults to continue their education. Theories of motivation and learning build on general theories of motivation. Theories specifically about motivation and adult learning are chiefly concerned with obstacles for such motivation. They rest on humanistic psychology and assume that adults have a natural disposition to learn, which will flourish once obstacles of various kinds have been removed. Such obstacles could be dispositional, such as those caused by negative school experiences, or they could be situational or structural, such as availability of courses, financing or information.
The theories are very optimistic (too optimistic in this author’s view) about the prospects of a model adult pedagogy in removing such obstacles. The review gives reason for a critical look at the motivation concept. The final chapter argues that most of the motivation theories privilege a western, androcentric and individualistic outlook on people, while marginalizing women and community values. The theories hold a power dimension. They stigmatize those held “unmotivated” as for example adults who desire to do other things than continue their education. It is all too easy for those who formulate problems of various kinds, as “the problem with adults unwilling to study”, to locate the problem to the individual, while taking the grounds on which the problem is formulated for granted and making those who formulate the problem invisible.
The conclusion is that motivation is better seen as a relational concept than as something situated within the person. Adults’ motivation, or lack there-of, is best understood in relation to those who formulate the problem. This means that the question put forward above also holds a power dimension. Instead of asking what motivates adults to continue their education one should ask who says that this is a problem, why and on which grounds
Content updated 2020-09-28