Demystifying Andragogy/Adult Learning Theory


Andragogy is one of the pivotal theories that educational leaders integrate into their Learning & Development (L&D) programs. However, there are several dominant questions that remain a mystery to many educational practitioners such as who brought Andragogy to the forefront in the United States, how is it different from pedagogical principles, what are andragogical principles, and how andragogical principles are evolved? This post will demystify these questions and thus equip you with the knowledge that allows you to comfortably navigate Andragogy in your L&D initiatives.

Demystifying Andragogy/Adult Learning Theory

Andragogy, the art and science of helping adults learn (Knowles, 1968, 1980), has been alternately described as “a set of guidelines” (Merriam, 1993), “a philosophy” (Pratt, 1993), “a set of assumptions” (Brookfield, 1986), and “a theory” (Knowles, 1989; Knowles et al., 2015). It is not solely limited to one particular field of study or even the classroom context. It has been used in almost any context where an adult may be conceived as a learner, including business, education, religion, athletics, and law (Shostak et al., 2022).

Alexander Kapp, a German high school teacher, first used the word “Andragogy” in 1833 to describe lifelong learning and the importance of self-reflection and life experience in learning. In the United States, Lindeman was the first to write about Andragogy and its application to teaching adults (Shostak et al., 2022). Malcolm Shepherd Knowles, the executive director of the Adult Education Association of the United States of America, was the first to bring Andragogy to the forefront in the 1960s in the United States (Shostak et al., 2022) in an attempt to document the differences between the learning approaches of adults and children (Knowles et al., 2015). Observing an unusually high rate of school dropout for adult learners motivated him to study the  roots and causes of learners’ dissatisfaction in adult education programs. He noticed that learners’ self-concept was a dependent recipient of information and teachers were continuing to use pedagogical approaches (Knowles, 1984).  Given the tremendous contributions of his work, Knowles is often considered the father of adult education (e.g. Fornaciari and Lund Dean, 2014; Giannoukoset al., 2015; Watts, 2015).

Knowles considered teachers as a facilitator of learning, rather than an oracle of learning who pass down knowledge passively. Based on Pashko (2013) and Shostak et al. (2022), a comparison of the main provisions of Andragogy and pedagogy can be summarized in Table 1.

Table 1

Based on the characteristics of adult learners, Knowles et al., (2020) posited a set of assumptions about adult learners, which constitute the andragogical model. The assumptions of Andragogy include:

 (1) The need to know. Adults need to know the objective of learning a subject matter prior to undertaking its learning.

(2) The learners’ self-concept. “Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions and for their own lives, which helps them to make the transition from dependent to self-directing learners”. 

(3) The role of the learners’ experiences. Adults participate in learning activities with a great reservoir of life experience which is a valuable resource for the learner and their peer cohort. New information is processed through the lens of life experiences. 

(4) Readiness to learn.  As adults mature, they tend to learn knowledge associated with their particular social roles and developmental tasks. The readiness to learn varies as they move from one life stage to the next. 

(5) Orientation to learning. “In contrast to children’s and youths’ subject-centered orientation to learning (at least in school), adults are life-centered (or task-centered or problem-centered) in their orientation to learning. Adults are motivated to learn what they perceive will help them perform tasks or deal with problems they confront in their life situations”; 

(6) Motivation to learn. It is the intrinsic motivation that drives adults to learn, despite the responsiveness to external incentives (Knowles et al., 2020, pp. 44-46).

The number of andragogical principles has grown from four to six over the years as Knowles refined his thinking. Originally, Andragogy presented four assumptions (b-e  Knowles, 1975, 1978, 1980b). The motivation to learn, the last assumption, was added in 1984 (Knowles, 1984), and the first assumption, the need to know, in more recent years (Knowles, 1987, 1989, 1990). These assumptions are not intended to be viewed as a universal recipe applicable in all situations, but rather as a set of flexible assumptions to be adopted, adapted, or altered depending on the situation.

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