Adult learners keep growing, knowing, and growing

Studied anything recently? If you're like half of all Americans, the answer will be ''Yes.'' And the kind of studying/learning you've likely done is seen by some as the key to the well-being of the US.

''Half of all American adults are learning each year - sewing and sailing; sales and surgery; swine breeding and Swahili,'' reported Carol Aslanian of the College Board to 2,000 adult educators meeting here for their 29th annual national conference.

She continued, ''Learning by adults is no longer confined to schools or colleges. Most of it goes on outside of formal education: in workplaces, churches, libraries, the military, even prisons and old-age homes.''

Through interviews with a cross-country sampling of the adult US population, Ms. Aslanian discovered that most of this learning isn't for the fun of it.

''Adults typically learn in order to cope with some change in their lives. It's finding yourself in 'transition' from one role in life to another that prompts us to learn.

Examples: A recent divorcee studies single parenthood. An advertising executive is suddenly restricted physically and takes up real estate law to get licensed in rural Vermont. A machinist finds she must adjust to a new computerized die-cutting device. A mother sees her youngest child off to start first grade and registers the next week to start her own work on a master's degree.''

Such learning may hold the key to our national future, according to those who spoke at the National Adult Education Conference sponsored by the Adult Education Association of the U.S.A. and the National Association for Public Continuing and Adult Education.

''One of the highest priorities for all of us is to reverse the rate of decline and get on the high road to productivity again,'' said a Reagan administration official, Robert Worthington, assistant secretary in the Department of Education.

His message: ''We must rediscover the human aspect of productivity. Having emphasized capital-intensive high technology as the best route to successful economic competition in the postwar era, we've often forgotten that people also make a difference. That idea is now back on top of the agenda.''

He concludes, ''All Americans must learn to live and work smarter.''

In several hundred workshops and seminars the assembled adult educators shared their experiences, ideas, and techniques for helping learning happen in the lives of a wide range of Americans:

* Homeowners building their own solar energy hot water systems in a do-it-yourself workshop at the El Cajon Adult School in California.

* Elderly people in a nursing home in Connecticut, clapping when their teacher reads back to them a poem they have written together.

* Salvadoran refugees in Chicago aided in learning English as a second language and gaining job-finding skills.

* Vermonters whose lives are transformed when they learn to read at the age of 30, 40, 50, or more.

* Self-taught savants in Portland who earn college credits by taking tests to ''show what they know.''

* Nurses in San Antonio learning about new procedures which have ethical and legal implications for the decisions they must make each day in taking care of patients.

Many of these programs have been slowed down by recent cutbacks in federal support of education.

However, the nation's adult educators are continuing their work, with a resourcefulness indicated by the session titles at the Anaheim conference: ''What to Do When the Pyramid Crumbles,'' ''Take Ten Volunteers, Add a Dash of . . .,'' ''There's No Free Lunch, But . . .,'' and ''Scrambled Eggs with Salsa: How to Live with Reaganomics.''

In a significant move to combine their strength at the national level, the two sponsoring organizations agreed to consolidate and create one larger, stronger association: the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education, to come into being at next year's annual conference in San Antonio. Said AEA president William W. Metcalfe at a news conference:

''It's never easy when two organizations, each with its own proud history, decide to join forces. It's taken two years of work, but we believe the result will be a professional association which can best serve the learning needs of all Americans.''

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