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Science of Teaching Adults – Andragogy



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    There is nothing inherent in the concept of education that links it specifically to childhood and adolescence. But the fact that it is so linked has led adult educators to define the nature of their enterprise in different terms. Some educationalists believe that teaching adults is a unique arena of professional activity, meriting specialised approaches and training so that a theory of andragogy has been developed (Knowles, 1984).

    Andragogy is the science of teaching adults. The term was originally formulated by a German, Kapp, in 1833 to describe elements of Plato’s education method. Andragogy, coined from two Greek words, means ‘man leading’, whereas pedagogy means ‘child leading’. Andragogy continued to be used in Europe but only came into vogue in the USA when Tough (1968), Houle (1980) and Knowles (1978), influenced by the writings of John Dewey, promoted it. Many educationalists have tried to adapt child learning to adult learning. Ranks of desks in a typical classroom configuration with all students at the same point in an externally derived syllabus, receiving teacherdistilled wisdom, is not appropriate for most adults returning to learning.

    In particular, the child is a dependent personality and has had limited experience of life. The dependency is reinforced as decisions are made on the child’s behalf in the home, school and playground until with increasing age the adolescent starts to make decisions and commence directing their own life. By adulthood, the person is self-directing. This is the concept that lies at the heart of andragogy, as expounded by Knowles. The following account of andragogy is based on Knowles’ writings.Knowles claimed (1978) that there are three main assumptions that differentiate andragogy from pedagogy. These are:

    1. ‘A focus on the maturing self-concept. As a person grows and matures his self-concept moves from one of total dependency to one of increasing selfdirectedness.’ (1978, p. 55). Thus a teacher-imposed traditional approach creates resentment as the adult feels their adulthood is being questioned or challenged at a fundamental level.

    2. A focus on experience. Mature persons have a store of experience which is a rich resource for learning. Adult experience increasingly constitutes who or what the adult is. Teaching should tap adult experience and involve them in analysing their own experience.

    3. Adults are more likely to be motivated or ready to learn if they perceive a learning need. Adults actually want to learn in an area that is a problem for them or which they regard as relevant. Therefore, the curriculum should aim at immediate rather than deferred application and be problem- rather than subject-centred. ‘The adult comes into the educational activity largely because he is experiencing some inadequacy in coping with current life problems. He wants to apply tomorrow what he learns today.’ (1978, p. 58). Adult orientation towards learning is problem-centred rather than subject-centred.

    From these assumptions Knowles draws some implications. The planning and evaluation of courses should be a joint act between teachers and students in a climate of mutual respect. There should be minimal emphasis on authority, formality and competition. The curriculum should be structured around problems and sequenced according to the logic of the learner not that of the subject matter. Experiential methods of teaching should predominate. Andragogy is a process model of teaching whereas pedagogy is a content model.

    Thus andragogy is based on the belief that the deepest need an adult has is to be treated as an adult, as a self-directing person. Adult education must be studentcentred, experience-based, problem-oriented and collaborative — very much in the spirit of the humanist approach to learning and education. It is not student-centred in the simple sense of using methods that allow the student considerable control over their learning but in the profound sense that the whole of the educational activity turns on the student. Unfortunately, andragogy has often been cited as the ways adults learn, but the key assumptions apply equally well to children, particularly as we enter the information age with its capacity to provide unique learning and significant experiences for those whose curiosity and motivation impel them through cyberspace.

    Training in work-related activities has often been given by people who have not really learnt how to teach people to learn. In formal institutions of learning, adults are usually placed in classes with 18- and 19-year-olds. Courses of study are watertight compartments, denying the reality of inter- and intradisciplinary learning.

    Teachers function according to a right/wrong approach rather than a maybe one. Successful learning attracts marks and vocational certificates rather than self-confidence in being able to apply knowledge as part of living. That is why adults find a return to formal learning in institutions so formidable and discouraging. They must fit in with the institution. No wonder they expect to fail, as indeed many did at school. Some adults protect themselves against more education by demonstrating an indifference to learning. This is why recognition and ownership are so important as organising principles for teachers working with adults. What institutions must do is rework their mission, objectives and methods. Institutions need to discharge their responsibility to increase knowledge, disseminate knowledge and act as the guardians of knowledge — a validating role that ensures quality while, at the same time, recognising that there are so many ways of learning open to individuals and that they do not have a monopoly on knowledge and learning.

    A class of children are at approximately the same age, with the same characteristics and levels of knowledge. A group of adults varies tremendously not only in age but also in range of experience, knowledge and reasons for study. Adults’ abilities to learn might depend as much on lifestyle, social roles, motivation, interest, attitudes and their teachers’ communication and relationship skills as on their ability to learn. Adult education is not preparatory, as with children, but lifelong — education has a mission of helping adults realise their potential and better carry out the roles and duties associated with work, home, recreation and citizenship.

    Adults can judge the value of a learning activity and its relevance to their own lives. The teacher of an adult functions best as a resource person who views the learning situation as a cooperative endeavour. That is not to say that the learner possesses knowledge equal to that of the teacher but that the teacher respects and values the experiences of the adult student and uses them as a basis to advance the learning process.

    By 1984 Knowles had altered his earlier position on the distinction between pedagogy and andragogy. The child-adult dichotomy became less marked. He even added a fifth assumption: as a person matures the motivation to learn is internal (1984, p. 12). What we describe as adult learning is not of a different kind or order from child learning. Indeed our main point is that humans must be seen as a whole, in lifelong development. The same principles of learning and education will apply to all stages in life. The differences with pedagogy are not really to do with age but with educational philosophy and aims. Children are no less motivated to learn than adults about things that are relevant to them. Children also have experiences that can be used as a resource for education. Andragogy is, in fact, similar to progressive movements in child education (such as Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Freobel), which would see the learner increasingly direct their own learning with the teacher as a resource, formulating education experience around problems rather than set pieces of curriculum that have to be taught. Perhaps Knowles overemphasised his concept of andragogy because adult education had up to then been neglected.

    All in all, the search for andragogy might well be pointless. It is an overgeneralised, humanist theory of education that can be applied at any age, based on no research. Knowles tends to ignore the contingencies that impact on the teacher-learner interaction. Individual student characteristics, teacher characteristics and context characteristics all interact to suggest to the experienced teacher ways of operating with a particular class, group or individual. Some adults have an external locus of control and low self-esteem and are far better in a teacher-directed context, certainly until their self-esteem and feelings of competency increase, before embarking on more self-directive endeavours. Some adults need to learn how to cope with independence and it is one of the functions of the educator of adults to lead some of their flock that way. In some subjects, particularly sciences like physics, experience might be of little relevance but it is vitally important in arts and personal development courses. Knowles’ theory does not specify aspects of experience that are vital or relevant nor does it generate a learning sequence.

    Andragogy can be seen as an idea that gained popularity in at a particular moment — and its popularity probably says more about the ideological times than it does about learning processes. Perhaps its strength lies in the way it forces adult and lifelong educators to re-slant their teaching approach and its humanist thrust towards the recognition of the value of the individual — a direction that is a valuable corrective to the oversold behaviourist man in a machine concept and management by objectives. It is a subjective formulation based on attempts to prevent the perceived limitations of school education, based on the banking concept of knowledge being imposed on adults. Andragogy is therefore a philosophy of education that might provide useful guidelines to a thoughtful teacher of adults.


    Knowles, M. (1978). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, Gulf Publishing, Houston.

    Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action, Jossey-Bass, San Fransisco.

    Science of Teaching Adults – Andragogy. (2016, Jun 25). Retrieved from

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