Comparative and international research in adult and lifelong learning

I’m currently working with some German colleagues on a paper about comparative adult education research. Our starting point is our impression that this area of study is not in great shape. And this is in spite of the funding available through European Commission sources to support international and comparative activities.

As a quick way into this area, I carried out a simple search of article titles in three journals. First, I looked for the word “comparative” in titles in the International Journal of Lifelong Education and Adult Education Quarterly; then I searched for “lifelong learning” and “adult education” in titles in Comparative Education and Compare. I confined the search to articles published between 1999 and 2015, and excluded book reviews and short notes.

The first thing to say is that this is a very rough and ready measure. Even though I think these are decent journals, there are many others that I could have chosen. And my search terms meant that I missed some important contributions, including an analysis of the OECD’s PIAAC survey of adult skill, while the dates excluded a European comparative study using fresh survey data. But this was only ever meant to provide a starting point, as well as a simple test of whether our hunch about the poor health of the area is accurate.

Second, there are many more papers on adult learning in the two comparative education journals (42) than papers on comparative studies in the adult education journals (9). Compare came out top with 27 papers, thanks partly to special issues on lifelong learning in 2006 and 2009; Comparative Education also had a special issue on lifelong learning, in 1999. AEQ came bottom, with 2, and neither of the adult education journals published a special comparative issue. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to find it an interesting pattern.

New Picture

Annual totals of relevant titles in all four journals

Third, if the trend data don’t show a decline, neither do they suggest an area in rude health.  What they do show is the importance of special issues devoted to research on adult learning; and it is worth bearing in mind that as well as the direct boost of a special issue, the articles that feature in it will then generate furthe debate and in turn stimulate more papers. Given this, it is a bit worrying that the last special issue in  these four journals appeared in 2009.

It’s wise not to over-generalise on the basis of limited data and a simplistic analysis, but let me hazard some informed suppositions. I think the special issues were probably largely a response to the rise of policy interest in lifelong learning. It strikes me that the adult education journals aren’t as open to comparative research as the comparative education journals are to studies of adult learning. There is little evidence here of a European effect, though some of the papers may well have drawn on evidence that was provided through EC funding.

All in all, people who care about comparative adult education research have a bit of a challenge on their hands. Or perhaps this is something that we are happy to leave to the OECD and European Commission, who will then undertake surveys that we can contentedly critique, without actually doing much comparative research ourselves?