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date: 24 February 2020

Commentary: Adult Learning in a Lifespan Context

Abstract and Keywords

This article presents an overview of Section 3 of the Oxford Handbook of Music Education, Volume 2. The contributions demonstrate how adult music learning covers the entire life span after age 18, comprises diverse personal and professional motivations, and includes a wide cross-section of performing, creating, and listening experiences. It may be formal, non-formal, or informal; it may occur in explicitly educational venues or in a variety of individual, social, and community contexts; it may be self-directed or collaboratively pursued; it crosses cultural boundaries; and it may accommodate a broad range of learner interests, needs, and preferences.

Keywords: adult learning, music learning, music education, adult education

The words of James Taylor's 1977 hit song aligned well with growing interests at the time in adult learning: “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. . . . It's a lovely ride.” Across cultures and societies, music participation is considered an important element of making the life course a lovely ride. This fact has long been acknowledged by the music education profession, yet only in the last two and a half decades have serious research and pedagogical attention been devoted to fulfilling the music learning needs and interests of adults. Providing opportunities for lifelong music learning is now a recognized important dimension of the work of professional music educators.

The standard goal of formal school programs growing out of the industrial era was to prepare students with sufficient knowledge and skill to become successful, productive, and satisfied adults. For music educators, that generally meant equipping students to make informed choices regarding the types and levels of music engagement they would pursue through adulthood. Outside professional preparation, adults’ music activities were of interest largely as a manifestation of the success of school programs and as an indicator of musical life in communities.

Though music educators were encouraged to extend their work to adults in areas such as private lesson teaching, church choirs, and community ensembles, there was little, if any, interest in understanding adults as continuing music learners. Just as educators came to consider children's developmental learning needs after many years of emphasizing technical aspects of the subject of music, teaching (p. 224) adults was practiced either as an extension of activities used with children, or as an amateur imitation of professional ensembles. In Western culture, music education was frequently promoted as a way to advance a more literate and culturally aware society, preparing miniature adults for future activities such as listening to classical music by purchasing recordings, accessing radio and television music programs, and attending concerts.

Learning through adulthood gained increasing attention from professional educators in the latter half of the twentieth century, as greater numbers of adults began participating in adult education services. Between 1978 and 1981, participation in adult education programs in the United States increased by 17% (U.S. Department of Education, NCES, 1983). Reasons for this trend included: (1) a demographic shift toward a greater percentage of adults in society; (2) an increase in availability of programs; (3) a need for professional updating relating to rapid change; and (4) pursuit of personal interests, such as financial management, health, sports, cooking, and the arts. In 1981, the National Research Center of the Arts, Inc., noting a rise in arts participation, concluded that “the arts are now earning a special place in the lives and consciousness of the majority of the people in [the United States]” (pp. 6, 10). This report did not address arts learning; however, when combined with the National Center for Education Statistics data, it did suggest a potential for growth in arts education among adults.

Expanding international interest in adult learning and education was reflected in a statement by UNESCO's General Conference in 1976:

the term “life-long education and learning” . . . denotes an overall scheme aimed both at restructuring the existing education system and at developing the entire educational potential outside the education system; education and learning, far from being limited to the period of attendance at school, should extend throughout life, include all skills and branches of knowledge, use all possible means, and give the opportunity to all people for full development of the personality; the educational and learning processes in which children, young people and adults of all ages are involved in the course of their lives, in whatever form, should be considered as a whole. (Annex 1, p. 3)

K. Patricia Cross's seminal book Adults as Learners (1981) was intended “to preserve the concept of lifelong learning as involving learning on the part of people of all ages and from all walks of life using the multiple learning resources of society to learn whatever they wanted or needed to know” (p. x). Cross urged educators of adults to move away from a “consumer orientation,” that is, basing experiences on simple surveys of what adults say they want and like, and toward increased sensitivity to the complex nature of learning through adulthood and the “physical/psychological/sociocultural characteristics of older learners” (p. 247).

Building on an earlier call to provide “opportunity to move as far in depth or in breadth as each [person] can” (Choate, 1968, p. 115), the Music Educators National Conference (MENC) issued a 1974 position paper listing self-realization, human relations, enrichment of family life, sustaining and improving health, and improvement of occupational competence as objectives for adult and continuing music education.

(p. 225) In 1981, MENC's national conference focused on the theme of lifelong music learning, giving tangible form to President Mary Hoffman's belief that “A personal commitment to music education implies having the ability to understand fully the way students of all ages learn music (Music Educators Journal, 1978, pp. 100–101).

Though age is the most convenient and obvious indicator of one's stage in life, developmental researchers understand that age-related characteristics are far more complex than the number of years one has lived. Historically, the years of adulthood following formal education were commonly viewed, both in lay and scientific terms, as a lengthy period of relative stasis and decline as one moved through the stages of occupational endeavor, into retirement, and then into the final years of life. This decline mentality was equally applied to both the physical and mental trajectories of adulthood. Today, the work of developmental psychologists such as Erik Erikson, a vast array of research publications in a variety of disciplines, and books and articles in the popular press have essentially laid that perspective to rest. Though acknowledging the reality of change associated with increasing age, some of which inevitably involves lessened capacities, adulthood is nevertheless seen as a passage of time involving a complex of characteristics, traits, and influences that reflexively interact with the ways one pursues meaning and productivity across the life course. Mental agility in younger adulthood may facilitate rapid processing of new information, while the accumulated experience and wisdom of older adulthood may yield deeper processing and richer meaning making. Younger adults may focus on problem solving, while increasing maturity may be associated with a greater ability to foresee emerging problems. Active engagement in learning through adulthood may nurture confidence, self-efficacy, more self-initiated learning, and effective compensatory strategies for declines in memory, visual and auditory functioning, and physical capacity. And continued learning at later ages may encourage the growth of dendrites, support nutrition and physical conditioning, and encourage creativity and generativity.

In a compelling work, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years after 50 (2009), Harvard professor Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot tells the story of a decorated journalist, now retired, who at age 60 decided to study jazz piano. Placing himself in the vulnerable position of pursuing study that didn't feel like it came to him naturally, “Josh” nevertheless embraced this new challenge. Not only did he find that he was able to learn to play jazz, he also learned a lot about music learning itself: understanding the relationship between technique and creativity; the place of patterns and protocols; the intervals and symmetries of jazz; the elements of expectation and surprise; and, most important, that music is about “thinking with your body” (p. 184). Lawrence-Lightfoot observes that Josh independently spends long hours practicing, having discovered the joy of learning for learning's sake and achieving personal incremental goals through collaborative work with his mentor. Moreover, learning in this new field contrasts markedly with the kinds of verbally dependent learning that had marked his earlier career.

As the following chapters in this section make clear, adult music learning covers the entire life span after age 18, comprises diverse personal and professional (p. 226) motivations, and includes a wide cross-section of performing, creating, and listening experiences. It may be formal, non-formal, or informal; it may occur in explicitly educational venues or in a variety of individual, social, and community contexts; it may be self-directed or collaboratively pursued; it crosses cultural boundaries; and it may accommodate a broad range of learner interests, needs, and preferences.

A variety of factors points toward the need for continued serious attention to music education for adults. More music is more accessible to more people today than at any time in the world's history. Earphones, connected to devices holding downloaded music, are ubiquitous in airports and offices, and on jogging paths and hiking trails. A recent study (2009) by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the United States found that of those adults who went online at least once a day for any purpose, nearly 40 percent used the internet to view, listen to, download, or post artworks or performances. Of these, about 30% pursued such activities at least once a week. Many community music schools are seeing increased enrollments by adults; neighborhood and workplace performance groups and music lessons are growing; and creativity, which ought to be inherently associated with arts experience, is cited regularly as a chief requirement of today's leaders and executives in both profit and nonprofit sectors. According to Capitalizing on Complexity, an international study based on over 1,500 interviews with leaders, the complexity of challenges facing global business and public sector leaders requires “unprecedented degrees of creativity—which has become a more important leadership quality than attributes like management discipline, rigor or operational acumen” (IBM, 2010).

Regrettably, the NEA report (2009) also documents a steady decline since the 1980s in participation among adults attending concerts and musical events. The lowest 2008 attendance rates across all art forms, not just music, were in classical and jazz music, Latin or salsa music, and opera. Opera and jazz attendance rates fell below those of 1982, and classical music attendance dropped 29% from 1992, with the steepest decline occurring in the last six years. Attendance among adults between 45 and 54, traditionally a large component of the arts-attending public, showed the greatest declines among all age groups for most arts events; and those in the 18- to 24-year-old category declined in attendance at jazz and classical music events. Moreover, performing arts attendees increasingly represented ages older than the average U.S. adult.

In contrast to these discouraging attendance data, Ivey and Tepper (2006) have written in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a growing renaissance of personal art making and creative practices made possible by new technologies, the explosion of cultural choice, and the growth of a do-it-yourself ethos. In Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life (2008), Tepper and Gao contended that data on artistic practice, as opposed to attending events and observing artists, show less negative relationships with barriers of age, income, and education than attendance data. In other words, attendance data may not be offering a realistic picture of the extent to which people are endeavoring to engage with the creative practices involved in making music.

(p. 227) There is little question that adults, like children, are innately intrigued with music and seek to gain a better understanding of it. The challenge to the music education profession is to provide universally available, sustained opportunities to systematically nurture intuitive music interests through learning experiences that enrich understanding and build perceptions of music's value in personal and social contexts. As Christopher Small (1998) has suggested, music is an active representation of personal relationships, and it is our responsibility to assure access to the value of this particular kind of relational experience for as many people as possible.

As we come to understand the nature of adult music learning more fully, we must exercise circumspect judgment in planning experiences that are consistent with a growing body of knowledge in the wider arena of adult learning and adult education design. Stephen Brookfield (1986) has pointed out, for example, that adult learning, though often voluntary, may not necessarily be a joyous, self-directed experience. Anxieties and frustrations may arise, learners may have unrealistic goals for themselves, and, particularly in music, there may be ambivalence regarding a desire for musical independence in light of ensemble experiences that often place learners in teacher-dependent situations. In many ways, best practices for teaching adults are similar to those for teaching children. However, adjustments of these principles to accommodate physical and mental changes that occur through adulthood, the ability of adults to commit fully to classes or lessons given the obligations of career and family, and the collaborative kind of learning experience adults tend to prefer with their teachers are important aspects of implementing successful music education programs for adults. There are many other considerations as well, and music educators will do well to acquaint themselves more generally with the field of adult learning as they endeavor to provide worthy opportunities for adults.

Among the most important concerns music educators must address are broadening access, conceptualizing adult education within a lifelong learning context, and assuring high-quality teaching and learning. At present, structured adult programs, particularly in the Western world, tend to serve homogeneous populations of middle- and upper-class individuals with discretionary time and financial resources. A cardinal principle of the field is to assure the relevance of programming to the needs and characteristics of a diverse array of learners, including locations and times when they are able to participate, finding avenues of financial assistance, and recognizing sociocultural factors that may influence participation.

In its multiple reports on adult education over several decades, UNESCO has emphasized the importance of an overriding context of lifelong learning. For music educators, the goal must be to think in terms of a music learning society, where adult education is not peripheral to the priority of precollegiate music education but is seen as an integral piece of a composite music education vision for the good of society. Such thinking will open many possibilities for ways music education for adults and youth may be intersecting and complementary, including intergenerational programs, programs that engage with distinctive dimensions of particular communities, programs that honor music legacies and traditions, and adult music education as an assumed piece of a lifelong music education paradigm.

(p. 228) Finally, today's career-aspiring musicians must be educated toward the opportunities associated with initiatives to advance music learning among adults. As they move into the profession with open minds and a sense of initiative for adult music education, they must be equipped to provide the highest possible level of instruction, combining the best principles of music learning and teaching with those of adult learning and teaching. Mindsets, attitudes, and commitments that view adult music education as an integral dimension of music educators’ work will lead toward continually improving programs and access to a lifetime of music learning for all.


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