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Looking to Learn: Investigating the Motivations to Learn and the Barriers Faced by Adults Wishing to Undertake Part-Time Study



1.1 This chapter provides an overview of the more influential theories of why adults participate and do not participate in education. These theories have all shaped the way that researchers address some of the most basic questions about participation, such as who participates or what counts as participation. The theoretical lens of the researcher directly affects both the results and the meaning given to those results, and so it is important to understand the perspectives lying behind the current body of research on participation. For the purposes of this discussion, participation in lifelong learning means being involved in an activity leading to new information or understanding, either alone or in an organised setting, after the age of compulsory school attendance.

1.2 One major difficulty with applying this body of work to the evidence base for policy making is that there are so many theories, all of which have at least some degree of empirical support. The main challenge is finding an approach to understanding participation that will lead to the kind of broad and pragmatic insights needed by policy makers. Any one of the perspectives discussed in this chapter could provide insights into participation decisions, but the aim of this study was to find an approach that could be used to develop useful implications at the policy level.

1.3 Despite the huge amount of research on the topic there is little solid data on participation in adult learning. Tikkanen (1998) argues that 'after more than two decades of intensive research on the subject, we ought to have progressed at the level of theory building' but suggests that few models have very much predictive utility. In other words, the theories are unable to identify which people in which circumstances will participate in which kinds of education. As Valentine and Darkenwald (1990) suggest:

The practical import of such scholarly activity is hard to gauge . . . the most that a conscientious and well-informed programme planner could possibly learn from dimensional analyses [looking at barriers and motivations] is that there are x number of negative forces in the broader environment that actively work against educational participation. (p.29)

1.4 It seems that it is possible to identify some reasons to explain why people may not participate in learning, but harder to show why they choose to participate despite the barriers. With this caution in mind, we can now define the focus of this study, discuss the background of participation as an aspect of lifelong learning and examine the most influential theoretical approaches to participation in education for adults.

Participation and lifelong learning: Significant issues

1.5 Lifelong learning is generally not regarded as the cradle to grave activity the name suggests-the majority of discussion concentrates on post-compulsory education, and frequently on the informal aspects of that provision. In the current discussion 'lifelong learning' is used as a generic term for all activities beyond the age of compulsory school attendance that result in learning. This includes adult education (informal learning provision for adults such as evening classes), formal education (such as colleges or universities), and informal education (such as a book group). As lifelong learning has gained policy importance all of the terms have become more ambiguous, making the notion of participation much more complicated.

1.6 It is helpful to be clear about the forms of lifelong learning and the types of participation that policy can usefully address. This topic is examined in more depth in the following chapter, but as a general guideline 'lifelong learning' will be used as the generic phrase for the scope of this discussion and more specific phrases such as 'adult education' used only to refer to specific activities which will be defined as they arise.

1.7 At the end of the twentieth century there was a remarkable upsurge of interest in lifelong learning as a way to deal with a range of economic and social issues (McGivney, 2003). Unemployment, social inclusion, and national productivity were among the areas where policy linked lifelong learning to positive outcomes. Adopting a lifelong learning perspective in policy and practice raises some important questions about the nature of participation, many of which are significantly different from conventional ways of looking at the subject.

1.8 Traditionally, studies of adult participation in learning adults have focused to a large degree on involvement in some sort of structured provision, such as an evening class or college, but lifelong learning is not limited to involvement in classes of some sort. Given the desire to place learning at the centre of policy and society it is helpful and sensible to consider all forms, locations, and outcomes of learning, but many of these forms do not involve participation in any external activity beyond the actions of an individual. In effect the current drive towards inclusive models of learning as pervasive (a central life activity) and perpetual (continuing throughout life) make it far harder to locate the boundary between participation and non-participation. For example, if an individual attends yearly upgrading courses on the software they use everyday, does this count as participation? Older institutional models of education would say not, but it is very hard to justify not counting it as participation within the more open lifelong learning framework.

1.9 Adopting this more open definition of participation (such as 'undertaking any form of learning') raises significant issues. For example, if I learn how to fix my washing machine by going on the internet at the library I have clearly learned something of great potential and actual value to me, but with trivial public cost and little public benefit. Including such activities within the conception of learning tells us very little about the kind of policies that are needed to support learning and the potential social benefits of the learning. It would be useful to be able to discriminate between learning which consumes and produces public benefits, and that which is entirely individual or private in scope. However, since the majority of data on lifelong learning does not discriminate between these two categories of activity it is not possible for the current study to do so. I will discuss the meaning of participation in more depth in chapter 3, but there are a few points that are useful to highlight from the outset.

1.10 Firstly, what counts as participation is changing over the years, with the current widely accepted definition (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, 2004) being extremely inclusive-having learned anything in the last three years in any context counts as participation. Given the inclusiveness of this approach it is interesting that the reported participation rate is only around 40%. It would be reasonable to have some concerns about the validity of this figure, and it is difficult to turn to international comparisons to get a sense of its accuracy since the definitions of lifelong learning and measurement of participation vary widely even across Europe (see Coffield, 1999a). One study in Canada (another OECD country) suggests that around 20-25% of adults participate in learning (Rubenson & Xu, 1997) but uses a more formal definition of participation relying on course enrolment. This highlights the extent to which the approach to participation taken in any particular study affects the amount and type of participation found.

1.11 Secondly, there is an assumption that any participation in learning is always a good thing, irrespective of purpose, content, or context. To some extent this may be justified, in that involvement in learning helps to create a learning culture, but this needs to be balanced against the cost of learning for individuals and wider society. It may be helpful at some point to examine the limits of learning - where and for whom participation in learning is most valuable, and how that value is expressed.

1.12 Thirdly, there is another assumption that participation inevitably leads to progression up the 'educational hierarchy', that is, that literacies lead to further education then to higher education and so on. This is often an unrealistic assumption, if for no other reason than the long-term nature of educational participation means that it may take adults many years to progress through the various levels of education and there may not be sufficient motivation to do so. For people whose interest in education is instrumental, short term participation that meets their goals may be more attractive than long-term progression.

1.13 The fourth complexity is that learners' own notions of their own progress and participation are often different from the views of policy- makers, funders, and educational practitioners (McGivney, 2003). It is very difficult to get at the ways real people make real decisions about participating in real adult learning provision.

1.14 These factors combine to make it difficult to develop a clear view of participation patterns and their meaning. The drive towards a Learning Society does not lend a great deal of clarity to the situation since there is no agreed definition of a Learning Society. It may well be that a participation rate of 40% is an excellent benchmark. One of the tasks lying ahead for educational policy makers, nationally and internationally, is to develop a set of benchmarks representing the steps towards an acceptable Learning Society.

1.15 Lifelong learning has been used as a means to move towards a wide range of policy objectives that are not inherently educational, such as social inclusion. In this guise it illustrates some of the emerging issues of participation very clearly. One insightful report on further education and lifelong learning (Gallacher, Crossan, Leahy, Merrill, & Field, 2000) suggests that among the critical challenges for learning as a means to enhance social inclusion are widening participation to non-traditional students; strengthening and supporting local communities; promoting social justice and equality of opportunity; and strengthened inter-agency working. Each of these challenges contains implications for who is, and who is not, engaged in education, and the nature of that engagement. In other words, understanding how learning affects social inclusion relies on a clear model of participation.

1.16 One of the most remarkable aspects of the growing interest in lifelong learning and the associated ideal of the 'learning society' is the consistent tone used to talk about lifelong learning has been framed. It has tended to be both highly optimistic about the effects of lifelong learning and vague about how those effects come about. As Merricks puts it in her analysis of the politics of lifelong learning in the 1990s:

All these reports- EU, Labour Party, and Conservative Party-have common elements. All stress that education is a 'lifelong' process continuing long into the post-compulsory period. However, all equally appear to regard 'learning' in terms of the economic advance of the individual and then of society (although this relationship remains untested). Strikingly, all three use the phrase 'learning society' without any real thought of what that means beyond some vague notion of 'everyone learning.' (2001, p.11)

1.17 The idea of 'everyone learning' continues to dominate thinking around lifelong learning. While different people make different arguments for educational participation, the basic idea of universal participation does seem to be accepted very widely. Accompanying the belief in the desirability of universal participation is the view that it may not matter a great deal what kind of learning is participated in. Tight (1999) suggests that three basic tenets shaping the work of educators of adults are that adults are volunteers for learning, education/learning/training is good for you, and that all participation is of value. As Tight argues, this blurred thinking is a significant challenge to developing clear understanding of participation and its value.

1.18 Within lifelong learning models, people do not divide neatly into participants and non-participants as they have been treated by most of the traditional, institution-centred studies. As one Rowntree Foundation report (Bowman, Burden, & Konrad, 2000) argues:

The data from the interviews and focus groups suggest that the classification of people into categories such as participants and non-participants, learners and non-learners, achievers and low achievers, or even reluctant learners and whoever their 'opposites' are, is an oversimplification. The evidence suggests that these dualisms do not reflect the role of education and training in people's lives, nor the various ways in which people perceive and experience the relationships between education, training and work throughout their lives. (p.7)

1.19 Among the ways to draw a boundary around what counts as participation is to decide what counts as more or less valuable participation, and one common approach is to separate vocational and non-vocational forms of learning. This approach often assigns higher value to vocational then non-vocational learning, and Merrick (2001) raises a concern about the extent to which vocational goals are seen as the key outcomes of lifelong learning, with participation often strongly linked to - or even exclusively portrayed in terms of - economic benefits. Carried to a logical conclusion, this suggests that participation, in the learning age, is a perpetual process of work- centred learning (Coffield, 1999). However, it is misleading to see lifelong learning as entirely concerned with vocational areas, and much more useful to take other forms of learning, such as parenting or personal interest learning, into account. As the Scottish Forum on Lifelong Learning (2000) argues:

The concept of lifelong learning has emerged to describe the process of maintaining learning throughout life in both formal and informal learning environments. At present two major strands can be discerned within the current lifelong learning agenda. The first relates to its role in social inclusion and encompasses debates on equity, social justice, personal development, social learning, and active citizenship. The second relates to the need for economic competitiveness and emphasises the role of lifelong learning in the formation of a skilled and flexible workforce, ready and able to compete in the global economy. (p. 1)

1.20 One of the key documents in the UK government's strategic thinking on lifelong learning, known as the Kennedy Report (1997), warns of the dangers of an overly economically focused approach: 'Prosperity depends upon there being a vibrant economy, but an economy which regards its own success as the highest good is a dangerous one. Justice and equality must also have their claim upon the arguments to educational growth' (p.6). Later in the report there is restatement of this position: 'Learning for work and learning for life are inseparable. Our work over the last two years has convinced us that learning is central to both economic prosperity and the health of a society.' (p.16).

1.21 As one well known researcher on participation has noted:

After 1997 participation became a major theme in policy, the expectation being that if individuals from the groups under-represented in organised learning could be encouraged to participate, structural progression in the sense of a linear upward movement would eventually follow (McGivney, 2003, p.2)

1.22 Participation, then, becomes the key to advancement on social, collective, and individual levels, and in terms of progress towards economic and equitable goals. This is an enormous burden for learning to carry, especially when the links between participation in learning and specific social goals are not clear. However, it also underlines a broad commitment to the idea that many diverse forms of learning must be valued in the creation of a true learning society.

1.23 A further consideration in participation is the nature of demand for learning. The assumption that everybody should be learning seems to slide quite easily into the belief that everybody wants to learn all the time. A framework developed to examine widened participation in higher education in Scotland (Murphy, Morgan-Klein, Osborne, & Gallacher, 2002) usefully reminds us that not everybody wants to be a perpetual consumer of education. The authors consider three broad categories of demand:

Existing demand: People want to participate, but may lack qualifications or self-confidence
Latent demand: People might participate if the opportunity arose, but it is not a priority at the current time
Non-existing demand: People have no desire to participate, for a wide variety of reasons (p.112)

1.24 In this section I have laid out some of the complexities surrounding the idea of participation, and shown the difficulties associated with the idea that everybody should want to learn all the time, and should progress through all possible levels of learning. The biggest challenge for researchers and policymakers is the fuzziness of the boundaries around participation, and the lack of clarity regarding the goals of a learning society. I have also suggested that the use of lifelong learning as a tool for increased social inclusion or other policy ends also depends on having a clear definition of participation.

1.25 In the following chapter I lay out the model of participation used in the current discussion. Before moving to that model it is useful to review the most influential theories of participation.

Selected theories of participation

1.26 The most inclusive and detailed review of participation theories and empirical research on participation was conducted in the late 1990s (Silva, Cahalan, & Lacerino-Paquet, 1998) as part of the review of the US 'National Household Education Survey ( NHES).' The aim of this document was to look at the theories of participation in adult learning, and the studies that either used or underpinned them, with the intention of examining how a large scale survey could capture some of the variables that seemed to be the most critical. Altogether 23 different theoretical frameworks for participation were included, organised into 9 categories by approach: economics, social psychology, leisure studies, health, adult education, change theories, education drop-out and student attrition, time allocation, and consumer behaviour.

1.27 The earliest framework dated from 1963, and most of the significant approaches from the last four decades are included. The most commonly applied theories are discussed at more length below, but it is useful to begin by examining the field on a broader level. In their conclusion, the authors state:

Two things are clear from the research studies that we reviewed. First, a myriad of factors have been hypothesized, and empirically shown, to be important in explaining participation and non-participation in AE [adult education, equivalent in this case to adult learning]. The reasons why people do or do not choose to participate in adult education are multi-dimensional; the decision is a complex one, influenced by factors ranging from self-perceptions and attitudes to the costs and timing of available courses. Second, different groups or types of people may face different barriers to the same activity.

As for the implications of the findings in the studies we reviewed, many authors agree on the importance of trying to reduce barriers to participation by developing policy responses that reflect an awareness of how different types of people are affected by different barriers. However, there was no consensus on what types of barriers could or should be the focus of such ameliorative efforts. (Silva et al., 1998, p.103).

1.28 The report goes on to discuss, in some detail, how the participation theories should be used to shape the questions asked in future iterations of the survey. The authors argue for the NHES to include factors identified in a number of different frameworks and not just limited to, for example, the psychological or economic aspects of participation. In addition, for the NHES the factors have to be measurable in a telephone survey. While at first glance this might seem to be a significant limitation on the sort of questions that can be asked during data collection, telephone surveys can often lead to richer data than the written surveys more often used in large-scale participation studies. The factors identified as critical were:

  • Demographic/background characteristics
  • Life events and transitions
  • Past participation in adult education
  • Other participatory behaviour
  • Co-participants (the others in the programme)
  • Physical and mental health
  • Intentions (regarding education)
  • Perceptions of barriers
  • Perceptions of benefits
  • Motivations
  • Reference group opinions (peer group influence)
  • Attitudes/opinions towards education
  • Role of technology and availability of other options to formal adult education courses

1.29 It is sobering to note that there are few leverage points for policy intervention in this list of factors. They are predominantly subjective in nature, based in people's attitudes and their experience more than their abstract knowledge about education or the nature of educational provision. Lifelong learning models are likely to emphasise subjective factors even more than the traditional models of participation in learning reviewed in Silva et al. because lifelong learning is a highly personal activity, not requiring institutions or classes. However, other research has identified a range of factors more amenable to policy level modification and potentially fruitful to explore as part of a broad understanding of lifelong learning.

1.30 The single most influential approach to accounting for broader influences is Cross' (1981) 'Chain of Response Model,' which has been described as one of the major undeveloped models for adult learning (Hiemstra, 1993). Cross offered a way of understanding participation that was complex enough to recognise the broad array of factors bearing on participation decisions, and also began to work towards an approach able to bridge agency (the areas individuals can control) and structure (more socially regulated aspects). The model takes into account self-perceptions; attitudes towards education; life transitions; value of goals (and expectations that participation will meet goals); information; and opportunities and barriers. The aspect of this model most appropriate for policy intervention are the barriers.

1.31 Cross (1981) suggests that there are three types of barriers likely to discourage participation:

  1. Situational, arising from life circumstances at a particular time, such as elder care
  2. Institutional, arising from organisational arrangements such as time and place of classes, availability of childcare and so on
  3. Dispositional, arising from the attitudes and opinions of learners

1.32 Whilst dispositional barriers may, once more, be beyond the scope of policy, it is likely that educational providers can offer a response to Institutional and Situational barriers. Over the last few years, institutions have generally become more flexible in their delivery, allowing more part-time study at unconventional times, for example. Technology has extended the reach of education beyond traditional geographical limits.

1.33 Situational barriers can be addressed by targeted programmes that take the specifics of such barriers into account in design and delivery. Lone parent status, for example, can be made less of a barrier with effective and affordable childcare, and through strategies to ensure that the educational process leads to a more stable living situation for the family. Basically, the aim is to increase the benefits of participation while reducing the difficulties.

1.34 Another model, from the formal study of adult education, is the psychosocial interaction model (Darkenwald & Merriam, 1982), which sees the participation decision as the product of internal and external pressures. The model has been developed since its original publication, and has led to a list of six general factors likely to act as deterrents to participation. These are:

  1. Lack of confidence
  2. Lack of course relevancy (or questions of quality)
  3. Time constraints
  4. Low personal priority
  5. Cost
  6. Personal and family

1.35 These variables are influenced by the prospective learner's perception of their importance and will change as the life situation of the learner changes (Scanlan, 1986). Another, very similar, approach (Young, 1999) suggests that there are 4 types of barrier preventing participation in adult education: informational (where the potential learner does not know about opportunities), financial, institutional, and motivational. While similar to Cross' model, it is worth noting that this approach does not recognise situational barriers.

1.36 The final example of this style of participation study was recently published by Smith and Spurling (2001). The fundamental assertions of their approach are:

  1. The levels of learning motivation displayed by individuals reflect their social and economic experience in general, and their family experience in particular
  2. Despite this experience every healthy person can, in principle, rise to high levels of motivation to learn
  3. At every point in our society, practical steps can be taken to improve learning motivation significantly (p.1)

1.37 This perspective, and many others like it, can be seen as representing the 'classic' style of participation study, all of which are lodged within a similar view of participation as involvement in structured provision and which dominate attempts to understand educational participation. One weakness of this style of study is the difficulty of actually knowing what to do in order to reduce barriers and increase motivation. While Smith and Spurling (2001), for example, talk about the necessity of taking practical steps to increase motivation, their 'Agenda for Action' includes items such as 'Learning provider organisations to prepare wide ranging motivational strategies' (p. 116) without identifying those strategies specifically or explaining how a provider level strategy can affect learners' subjective decisions about participation.

1.38 The critical point is that only some barriers can be addressed through policy. The traditional approach to participation research generally does not identify those particular barriers as the most important. The converse is that the barriers and positive motivational factors identified by the classic studies as the most influential are often beyond the reach of policy. A common example is previous educational experience, which seems to make an enormous difference to participation in lifelong learning. There is no clear means by which policy can directly influence that factor.

1.39 There are two other bodies of work that are worth mentioning in a summary of participation theories. The first of these is economic theory, and the insights it offers into individual motivations (Osberg, 2000). One aspect is captured by a measure called internal rate of return, which works well as a way to demonstrate the thinking involved in an economic approach. Internal rate of return tries to model the decision-making involved in investing in education as opposed to an alternative activity-for example, going to university vs. staying in a secure job. Cohn and Hughes (1994) suggest that for undergraduate study, important variables include age, race, marital status, location, parent schooling, parents' social class, siblings, religion, and education. A second set of variables covers employment issues, and a third addresses macro-economic issues such as wage rates. The economic work on participation is well-developed and complex (see, for example, Harmon, Oosterbeek, & Walker, 2003).

1.40 Economic analysis may well hold some important pointers, but it is unlikely to be the whole story behind participation decisions. It is unlikely that people consistently make rational decisions about learning as well as having sufficient information (and enough knowledge to understand that information), suggesting that there may be many cases where people make decisions not consistent with self interest and a high internal rate of return. People could think 'I'll get paid more if I participate in skills upgrading,' but it is unclear how that is weighed against the many other factors that have to be taken into account.

1.41 Finally, it is important to acknowledge the new work being done in the UK, and particularly in Scotland, on learning and identity (Crossan, Field, Gallacher, & Merrill, 2003; Schuller, Brassett-Grundy, Green, Hammond, & Preston, 2002). This approach is distantly related to German research on adult education that begins from a biographical perspective, but is even more concerned with the identity formation of the individual learner. In other words, the central idea is that people develop social identities as learners in the same way as they develop identities as grandparents or football fans, and these identities shape their actions and decisions. Once the individual has developed the learner identity they are more likely to maintain their learning in order to maintain that identity. The notion of learning careers is related to the idea of learning identity, with the two areas mutually informing each other. As the individual's learning career unfolds, it shapes their identity as a learner, in turn affecting the learning career.

1.42 The identity based work in Scotland is based on earlier work that started to present participation as a more complex phenomenon than suggested by the classic barriers and motivation models. For example, one report (Gallacher et al., 2000) emphasises the complexity of the participation decision, and points to the importance of critical incidents. If the decision to learn is based on the coincidence of, for example, meeting a friend who is enjoying her experience in adult education, then it presents some real challenges in terms of finding systematic ways to increase participation.

1.43 Ideas such as critical incidents and learning identity have enormous potential. The models based on identity go beyond the slightly mechanistic push and pull models of barriers and motivations, and also manage to avoid the normative assumption that everybody should be learning all the time. However, they are still in a very early stage of development, and the implications for lifelong learning and participation policy are unclear. As Crossan et al. (2003) argue,

Participating in organised learning as an adult serves as a strategy for coping with the risks associated with contemporary career trajectories and at the same time, by enabling greater mobility, it gives rise to further instability and fragmentation of established occupational structures (pp. 65-66)

1.44 This suggests that participation in adult learning is not just a response to changing economic structures, but a contributory factor to those very changes. If this represents a truly circular scenario, the appropriate role of a policy intervention is not obvious. Will increasing breadth and depth of participation simply increase the speed of change, exacerbating once more the economic divisions between those with and without access to learning?

Difficulties with participation theories

1.45 There are a substantial number of theoretical approaches to adult participation in education, rooted in a variety of disciplines. While they all appear to point in the same direction when it comes to knowing what matters in participation, they consistently fail to suggest concrete policy options based on these insights. In addition, two of the uncontested assumptions mentioned earlier are extremely common within theories of participation (Silva et al., 1998; Tight, 1999). These are:

  1. Participation is good. There is an unquestioned principle that participation is in some way more virtuous than non-participation. While an argument based on human capital theory could be made (on the basis that participation is equivalent to investment in the nation's human capital equity, and hence productivity) the situation is not as clear cut as it appears at first glance. The decision not to participate in education may well be a conscious strategic choice rather than failure to engage in what should be a default activity.
  2. Participation leads to articulation. Less so in the adult education theories, but certainly dominant in the theories on participation in formal education is the assumption that entering basic skills education, for example, should lead to an ever increasing depth and level of involvement in learning. Recent policy documents on lifelong learning also seem to accept this assumption.

1.46 Many different questions can be asked about these assumptions. Among the most obvious is whether some forms of participation are more 'productive' than others, both at an individual and societal level. The answer to this question is largely unknown because human capital models of education (where education is viewed as an investment) tend to use years of formal schooling as the independent variable rather than a more incisive or nuanced measure. However, it does seem reasonable to expect that not all education is created equal in terms of effect and potential value. Whilst all participation may help to build confidence regarding learning, for example, surely not all learning is inherently good. It would be better to offer learners opportunities with both substantive and affective value - in other words, that offered high quality content as well as an opportunity to gain confidence in learning. Working towards this aim requires substantial understanding of why adults participate.

1.47 Similarly, it is far from obvious that all adults should be involved in articulating 'upwards' through the educational system. Whilst evidence suggests that the benefits of educational participation are maximised at degree level within OECD countries (Sianesi & Van Reenen, 2003) it does not follow that all adults have to attain degree level qualifications. It is quite likely that the point of maximum return to education would move upwards with the average level of educational attainment in a continual spiral of credential inflation. Again, predicting who will benefit from what education requires strong theoretical and pragmatic knowledge of participation issues (McGivney, 2003).

1.48 Finally, the breadth and depth of participation have to be taken into account. Broad participation means that many people are taking part in learning, whereas deep participation means that they are undertaking substantial amounts learning. From the perspective of the learning society, it seems likely that participation should be both broad and deep. What forms and formats of learning meet these requirements is far from clear.


1.49 This chapter reviews the context of the present study, including the current emphasis on lifelong learning and the dominant theories of participation. It suggests that there are some significant issues in understanding participation, including assumptions that participation in learning is normal rather than a special situation, and that learning should progress over time. This discussion sets the stage for the approach developed in the current study.