Joachim H. Knoll

Our view of developments in the world in general, and in adult education in particular, always contains an element of comparison. We acquire information, we try to understand and we often form judgments even without intending to do so. This comparative aspect is becoming ever more important in a globalizing world, perhaps especially because it preserves variety alongside compliance with the norm. Within the educational sciences, a specific branch has developed which may be termed Comparative Adult Education. – Prof. Dr Joachim H. Knoll can certainly be described as one of the founders of this discipline. For some 30 years he paid great attention to this dimension while occupying the Chair of Adult Education and Out-of-School Youth Work at the University of Bochum. A few years ago he retired from teaching while remaining as productive as ever. More than 25 years ago he launched the International Adult Education Yearbook. Prof. Knoll is a member of the IIZ/DVV Advisory Board.

Joachim H. Knoll

Development and Fundamental Principles of International and Comparative Adult Education Research

1. Common Goals

In the following we are aiming at a descrription of the relatively short history of comparative studies in adult education, which is closely linked with comparative studies in education. Whilst the latter can trace its history for more than 100 years down to the 1840s, comparative studies in adult education were born in the 1960s and have omitted some of the phases characteristic of comparative research in education. Right at the beginning of comparative studies in adult education Roby Kidd argued about the benefits of comparative studies, and it is more than historical respect to quote his early reflections, because he already depicts some of the timeless issues of comparative studies. His respected article is entitled "Comparative Adult Education the First Decade", and he indicates that the "common goals of comparative studies" are:

  • "to become better informed about the educational system of other countries
  • to become better informed about the ways in which people in other cultures have carried out certain social functions by means of education
  • to become better informed about the historical roots of certain activities and thus to develop criteria for assessing contemporary developments and testing possible outcomes
  • to better understand the educational forms and systems operating in one’s own country
  • to satisfy an interest in how human beings live and learn
  • to better understand oneself
  • to reveal how one’s own cultural biases and personal attributes affect one’s jugdment about possible ways of carrying on learning transactions"

Roby Kidd argues predominantly under the umbrella of enlightenment, of information and understanding, while nowadays comparative studies are called on to carry the international debate into the decision-making forums of educational policy in individual countries and international organisations (e.g. EU), especially when structures and topics are under reform. We will later return to this aspect of policy-oriented comparative studies when we are talking about present issues such as literacy campaigns in developing and industrialised countries.

Our short contribution will first refer to knowledge of the historical as well as the present dimension and competence of international and comparative adult education. I use both terms – "international" and "comparative" in order to prevent a confusion which results in the tendency to call every international study on adult education immediately "comparative". In fact, very few pieces of research work that are – according to their self-definition – "comparative" really deserve this attribution. They normally approach a phenomenon in a problem-orientated or in a country-specific way without making comparisons with a third subject. Thus, I would like to advise careful usage of the term "comparative", whilst I do not think the term "international" of lesser dignity concerning quality and method.

2. International and Comparative Adult Education Research – Early Stages

In Germany – as in many other countries – comparative studies in adult education started after World War II. The mainfocus was on the comparison between East and West-Germany. In an international perspective it began to develop during the 1960s
– first in an emphatic and programmatic way
– then in the form of country reports
– finally by improving the methodical tools in order to facilitate quantifying and problem-orientated cross-national studies

As far as I understand adult education, it is closely linked both scientifically and historically to the study of education in general – as is international and comparative adult education research to comparative education.

Going beyond a mere German context I would first like to briefly mention some events and dates which are commonly regarded as the early stages of comparative research within adult education.

According to popular descriptions, comparative adult education research began at the Exeter Conference which A. Liveright organized in 1966. Even today Alexander Charters’ reflections still show the lasting impression the conference made on him.

Another milestone in development is marked by the conference in Nordborg/Denmark, which was held in 1972 and which was financially supported by UNESCO and the Danish Ministry of Science. Because of its methodological awareness, this could be seen as the beginning of comparative adult education research in a narrow sense. The conference gained importance not least due to a lecture given by George Z. F. Bereday, who tried to orientate comparative adult education research towards comparative education research. His contribution closed with the recommendation that comparative adult education research should spontaneously follow the methodical standards that comparative education research had already reached. A proof of this methodical competence of comparative educational science was given at a UNESCO Conference in Hamburg in 1971. The "International Congress of University Adult Education" followed this stimulus on the occasion of the Quinquennial Conference in Ghana in 1975. However, there were already warnings about mere adoption of the methods used in comparative education research. Looking at International Education Achievement (IEA) studies, Colin Titmus thought that quantitative empirical adult education research was limited both due to poor data gathering and because of the open structure of adult education, in contrast to school education. The guidelines for quantitative comparative educational research worked out by Noah and Eckstein could not be adopted for comparative adult education research. This opinion dates back 25 years. Today, I could not imagine any comparative research without reliable data. With the increasing establishment of databases and the improvement of cross-national studies, some of the deficiencies of comparative adult education research – especially as far as its empirical orientation is concerned – have been reduced.

Although a lot of work has been done on the development of a methodological repertoire since the early 1970s, studies of that time do not hide the fact that descriptive national studies are most likely to be regarded as comparative adult education research work; more accurately they should be classified as international adult education research. This view could be proved and supported by country descriptions and materials of the European Centre for Leisure and Education (ECLE) Project "Organization and Structure of Adult Education in Europe". The country reports to be found there are descriptive without any harmonizing scheme of categories, or previous hypothesis, and they regard themselves as a juxtaposition, which does not – for the time being – constitute a comparison. A comparative "manual" – the comparative sum of the long-term project work in the manner of the "problem approach" as it were – has been kept under lock and key by UNESCO in Paris ever since it was written.

3. International Adult Education Research – more than Country Reports?

Whenever comparative research in the field of education or adult education is brought into focus, the IEA studies are referred to as an example which could accurately and definitely be called "comparison". For financial reasons this project is unique; it could not be transferred into other areas of education. Today, this undertaking is ongoing at the initiative of T.N. Postlethwaite, as can be verified by looking at the second edition of the International Encyclopedia of National Systems of Education. Based on the material provided there, research could be undertaken on the "efficiency" of the educational system due to "social indicators". However, I doubt that this could be transferred to facts and problems of adult education that easily.

It should be added here that a definition of "efficiency" within the context of a certain system of education cannot simply be transferred to other countries. I am thinking about attempts by John Lowe to classify European systems of adult education with terms such as "traditional and non-traditional forms in adult education" or "traditional and innovative". This attempt, which ignores both the historical origins within a given situation and a certain cultural context, has failed as far as I can see.

In spite of this comment John Lowe may certainly take the credit for promoting country research within the framework of the OECD and UNESCO and for introducing both a method of describing phenomena and the "problem approach" to comparative research. I especially recall the general account Retrospective International Survey of Adult Education, which was written for the UNESCO World Conference on Adult Education in Tokyo and which was based on broad material contributed by the member countries of UNESCO. It could be remarked, of course, that the material collected for this work was often not statistically compatible so that the conclusions are mere summaries. Yet, this was partly corrected in the volume The Education of Adults in a World Perspective. Here, the main phenomena of adult education (structures, financing, legislation) are compared. Methodically these publications follow the "global approach" as propagated by Bereday (the limited validity and reliability of which has been proved adequately by now).

In a volume which was to start the American Handbook of Adult Education A. Charters further developed "Comparative Adult Education" or – according to Roby Kidd – "Comparative Studies in Adult Education" in so far as he based his comparison also on historical conditions and the socio-political environment; yet, the volume lacks the background of scientific theory needed for comparative adult education research in a historical dimension.

C. Titmus took further steps in the development of methodology. I do not want to advocate empirical comparative educational research in the distinctive style of Postlethwaite, who does not have a very high opinion of the latest developments in comparative adult education research. We should not ignore methods which have been tested elsewhere. Thus, during the early 1980s a research design created by the World Bank and based on the scheme "financial input – educational output" was adopted for adult education and it was checked whether by using "social indicators" the comparison could test questions of efficiency. Attempts to follow this line – for example with the project "Organization and Structure of Adult Education in Europe" (ECLE) have not been very convincing and have thus been given up later. Today, works by Peter S. Cookson show a revival of these approaches, however, in a more precise and changed form, which are exposed to examination in his comparison of two systems (namely Nicaragua and Costa Rica).

On the whole, comparative adult education research is on the right path as far as increasing methodological seriousness and its scientific and institutional integration into adult education research are concerned.

The value of country reports for the development of comparative adult education research should not be underestimated; undoubtedly they are juxtapositional steps towards comparison.

In general, it can be taken for granted that there is a strong link between the "problem approach" and comparative country monographs, which includes empirical elements.

4. Tasks of International and Comparative Adult Education Research

If one supports the "problem approach" within comparative adult education research as a main characteristic of comparative research, a number of problems and tasks of adult education research could be named which are, so to speak, of a lasting interest. In European countries the following topics, among others, could be listed as objects of research:
– multiculturalism and intercultural education
– programmes to combat illiteracy
– the balancing of vocational and general adult education
– care for target groups such as migrants or unemployed people
– the "Europeanization" of adult education
– strategies of international and comparative research

International and supranational organizations also put their main emphasis on different tasks. I admit that the following characteristics only reflect some subjectively chosen segments:
– UNESCO puts its main emphasis on programmes to combat illiteracy and on post-literacy work;
– the OECD concentrates on educational structures and the economic role of education;
– the EU – through institutions such as CEDEFOP – mainly stresses professional and vocational education, education and training of unemployed people, politico-educational and pedagogical measures of integration for migrants, and education policy founded on cultural and geographical subsidiarity;
– years ago the Council of Europe already turned towards the broad field of telecommunication and the popularization of education; today, special emphasis is laid on "small countries and small languages".

5. Concluding Remarks

Looking at the present status, dimension and scientific quality of comparative studies in adult education, one can observe that in general pogress and improvement have taken place. Three aspects may be picked out:

  • A new branch within comparative studies in adult education has been developed dealing with subjects belonging to the historical dimension of adult education by means of comparative procedures.
  • The number of people engaged in comparative studies has been enlarged and grew constantly over the last decade, especially in Europe.
  • The resources necessary for comparative studies, have been increased, both the financial basis and data collection.

As far as the newly detected branch is concerned, I refer to publications presented by Martha Friedenthal-Haase, Stuart Marriott and Barry Hake, which have enriched the knowledge of the historical roots of adult education, of interdependencies and of the material and resources available in different countries. One has to bear in mind that in former descriptions of the adult education system in various countries the historical dimension (ECLE Project, EURO-DELPHI) was included, but the approach of the authors mentioned is more comprehensive and is strongly directed towards comparative methods.

The number of people working in the field has increased because most of the empirical research is nowadays performed not only within the traditional research institutes such as universities, but also in the agencies, institutes and working groups of the international and supranational organisations. Especially within the OECD, the research capacity is significant. Publications such as "Literacy, Economy and Society" give a notion of the possible standards in comparative studies, which no longer can be restricted to the private undertakings of single individuals. One should also include the various researchers integrated into the network of ESREA.

The resources of comparative studies have improved over the last decade. This thesis could be confirmed by the sponsoring of international projects such as the DELPHI project subsidised by the European Community, or the comparative studies in the field of vocational education which are under discussion. UNESCO has promoted several comparative studies dealing with "Education for All throughout Life", parallel to the OECD’s study on Lifelong Learning, which provides examples and data of selected member states. At the same time, methodology has been refined by data collection and books of reference. Especially, new recognition has been given to Social Indicators, a method which was primarily used by the Ribe catalogue, a list of indicators developed for the ECLE project. As a follow-up of CONFINTEA V, the UNESCO World Conference of Adult Education in Hamburg 1997, an outcome of "the network of networks committee" was just published and opens the worldwide archives for comparative research. The material and the listings reach far beyond a directory of members and aim at a research strategy which allows a more comprehensive approach and data interpretation within comparative studies.

But there are still obstacles to overcome, such as the lack of language expertise and handbooks of adult education terminology, which are needed for valid and reliable comparison. This is a subject which will require a further consideration.


Bennett, Cliff, Kidd, Roby J., Kulich, Jindra, Comparative studies in Adult Education, Occasional Papers Number 44, Syracuse University Publications in Continuing Education 1975; the same authors presented already in 1971: Readings. Comparative studies in Education. History and Methodology, Ontario Institute for the Studies in Education (OISE), Ontario 1971

Charters, Alexander. N., Siddiqui Dilnawaz, A., Comparative Adult Education. State of the Art with Annotated Resource Guide, Vancouver 1989

Cookson, Peter. S., A Comprehensive Analytical Scheme for Comparative Adult Education, Penn State University 1994

Friedenthal-Haase, Martha, Hake, Barry, Marriott, Stuart, British-Dutch-German Relationship in Adult Education, 1880–1930 Leeds Studies in Continuing Education, Leeds University Press, Leeds 1991

Friedenthal-Haase, Martha, Personality and Biography of Adult Education, Vol. I: General, Comparative and Synthetic studies, Proceeding of the Sixth International Conference on the History of Adult Education, Frankfurt 1998

Hake, Barry, Adult Education Research. Trends in Western European Countries, with Special Reference to University Based Adult Education, Leiden 1994

Lowe, John, The Education of Adults in a World Perspective, Paris 1975; Lowe, John: OECD, Education and Adult Education. Aims, Strategies, Efforts and Practice, in: Internationales Jahrbuch der Erwachsenenbildung, 9, 1981

Noah, Harold J., Eckstein, Max. A., Towards a Science of Comparative Education, London 1969

Titmus, Colin (Ed.), Lifelong Education of Adults. An International Handbook, Oxford 1989

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