Throughout George Spear’s noteworthy career in adult education, he has tirelessly promoted adult education as a field of scholarship and practice. Through his own example, he has encouraged the continuing study of non-formal and self-directed learning in order to gain deeper theoretical understanding and how it shapes practice. Spear’s concept of the organizing circumstance has influenced adult education research and practice in many fields.
Spear’s scholarly contributions to the field have significantly added to the body of knowledge in adult and continuing education. His research helped shape the field’s understanding of community education, including issues associated with urban education and extension education. From 1966 to 1975, his efforts yielded research grants totaling more than $500,000 for studies and projects of such diverse areas as a National Feasibility Study of Alternatives for Adult Basic Education Teacher Training, a Missouri State Department of Education study examining certification sources for teachers of the blind and partially sighted, and a three-year project supporting the Center for Resource Development in Adult Education. In 1969, he participated as a doctoral fellow in the highly selective Mott Inter-University Clinical Preparation Program for Educational Leadership.
This program brought to the forefront the critical need for adult educational programs in depressed urban communities, where education had not previously been a priority. Additionally, as co-editor of Lifelong Learning: An Omnibus of Practice and Research, Spear led the reshaping and publication of the journal inherited by the newly created American Association for Adult and Continuing Education following the merger of its predecessor associations, Adult Education Association and National Association for Public and Continuing Adult Education.
His most significant contribution to the field is in self-directed learning. Building on the works of others, Spear and Mocker (1984) re-examined the process that learners follow in planning self-directed learning activities. Their seminal qualitative study contrasted with previous studies that attributed the organization of informal learning activities to discrete, sequential preplanning steps consciously undertaken by the individual. Instead, they found that the actual process is more often influenced by external, organizing factors of which the individual is often unaware. This “organizing circumstance” was a profound new insight regarding self-directed learning and one that opened new areas of additional research. Widely cited by their fellow scholars, their work helped enhance the prominence of self-directed learning as an important adult education area of study.
One area of particular pride for Spear is his commitment to serving military learners. His experience as an adjunct faculty member for Kansas State University Adult Education gave him the opportunity to teach graduate courses for military members and spouses connected with Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Recognizing his important contribution in this area, a scholarship fund established by the first Ft. Leavenworth graduate of the K-State Adult Education Program was renamed in honor of Spear. The George E. Spear Adult Education Scholarship has received more than $50,000 in contributions, much of which go to help fund military learners and spouse’s complete master’s degrees.
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