Andragogy Research Paper Starter


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This article discusses the history and application of the theory of andragogy, a teaching theory for adult learners in which the educator's role remains meaningful but less instructive, involving coaching, facilitating, and guiding. Today the learner-centered assumptions and practices of andragogy have proven sufficiently effective to filter into many educational settings, including pedagogy, professional development, staff trainings, and service learning. Although it functions as a highly influential guide to practice, some educational theorists find that the claims of andragogy remain insufficiently verified in higher education.

Keywords Andragogy; Adult learning; Experiential learning; Inquiry-based learning; Pedagogy; Problem-based learning; Prior Learning assessment; Transformative Learning; Self-directed learning

Adult Education: Andragogy


In contrast with traditional pedagogy in which the teacher transmits knowledge to receptive but passive children, andragogy, or the "art and science of helping adults learn" (Knowles, 1970), offers an appropriate and viable alternative. Malcolm Knowles, andragogy's most famous proponent, argued that adults were self-directed, problem-solving learners whose life experience constituted a significant learning resource. Thus, instead of the traditional hierarchical relationship between the teacher and pupil, the adult learner participates fully in his or her education, influencing the curriculum and determining learning objectives.

Andragogy is perhaps most clearly understood, as Knowles has suggested, in contrast with pedagogy, a distinction that highlights the stark difference between a teacher-dominated form of education, long regarded as appropriate for children's learning, and a learner-centered one, now viewed as particularly relevant for non-traditional adult learners.

During the first half of the 20th century, European wars and other disruptions prevented large numbers of students in eastern Europe from completing even a primary education. In peacetime, recovering industries were met with a large but uneducated labor supply. Demand grew for adult education — a new concept — and new teaching methods. Andragogy became an important field of both research and practice (Krajnc, 2011).

The history of this coined term as it moved from Eastern Europe to the United States is instructive. If pedagogy is the art and science of teaching children (from the Greek paid, meaning "child," and agogos meaning "leader of"), andragogy was intended as a parallel term with its root of the Greek aner (from the stem andra) meaning "man, not boy." In his writing about the workers' movement, the German educator Alexander Kapp coined the term (Andragogik ) in 1833 to clarify Plato's educational approach. It reappeared in 1921 when German social scientist Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy made use of the term to call attention to the need for special methods and teachers to be used with the blue collar workers (Loeng, 2013). Then, Eduard Lindeman, a colleague of James Dewey who shared his commitment to progressive education, first introduced the term into English (1927), emphasizing the informal, experiential, and lifelong nature of the andragogical orientation (Davenport, 1985). Lindeman had been studying the German Folk High School, a form of which continues today in Norway: it is a residential educational environment for adult learners whose instruction is a general civic education with no standard curriculum but a wide, free range of courses appropriate for adults (Brookfield, cited in Heimstra & Sisco, 1990). Soon after, Malcolm Knowles, who, like Lindeman, had worked with adult learners at the YMCA, was exposed to the term by the visiting Yugoslavian adult educator Dusan Savicevic (Carlson, 1989).

Thus, Knowles, whose name dominates the field of andragogy in American education, is indebted to an Eastern European ancestry in its attention in the mid-twentieth century to the learning of the adult worker which, in turn, calls for an action-oriented, non-traditional education. Perhaps not coincidentally, Knowles' young adulthood too was devoted to working with adults as he moved from service in the National Youth Administration to become director of adult education for the YMCA of first Boston, and later Detroit and Chicago. Although ultimately Knowles earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and established a graduate program in adult education, his early years of working in informal and civic adult education, which avoided didactic lecturing in favor of a more democratic involvement with students to address their interests, formed a significant autobiographical foundation for his continued work (Carlson, 1989).

His pragmatic, goal-oriented approach, so attractive to practitioners, may have in part accounted for his widespread success in promoting this field throughout the world, but may also have finally put him at odds with the academy, which still today questions whether his theory of andragogy is empirically valid. His character - service-oriented, admittedly imperfect, self-reflective, and pragmatic - seems at odds with an academic scientific approach in which a concept is carefully scrutinized, tested, and verified. Nonetheless, Knowles' influence remains profound, both in practice and in the academy.

When andragogy was effectively introduced by Malcolm Knowles to the American educational scene in 1968, it was welcomed as an appropriate counterpoint and necessary relief to the presumptions of pedagogy; moreover, it proved immediately successful. Previously, the focus on the child's learning was so dominant that few psychologists had considered that adults might be able to learn (Merriam, 2003). The possibility that they might learn well but differently from children rested upon the then surprising notion that adults too continued to develop psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally in keeping with their age. This differentiation between adult learners and younger learners is crucial to andragogy, with its attention on the adult as a whole person with specific developmental needs.

Thus, in contrast to the passive child who is receptive to the teacher's transmission of knowledge, the adult learner was presumed to be self-directed and eager to initiate inquiry into knowledge that was particularly meaningful to him or her. In place of a one-directional communication from teacher to pupil, the andragogical model involved participatory learning with the adult assuming increasing responsibility.

By 1980, Knowles had refined his definition of andragogy and clarified its relation to pedagogy, formulating a distinctive set of assumptions about mature learners:

  • Their self-concept moves from dependency to independency or self-directedness. Although pedagogy may have made learners dependent, the adult educator (or andragogue) can help to move adults to self-directed learning in which they assume primary responsibility for their learning and its direction.
  • They accumulate "a growing reservoir of experiences" that can be used as a basis on which to build learning. The adult's life experience becomes an invaluable learning resource, as valid a mine of riches as an academic library.
  • Their readiness to learn becomes increasingly associated with the "developmental tasks of social roles." In other words, adults are not as motivated as children to learn due to external academic pressure; rather, they learn best in response to their own sense of what they need to know in order to grow.
  • Their time and curricular perspectives change from postponed to immediate application of knowledge and from subject-centeredness to problem-centeredness.
  • Their motivation to learn becomes internal (Hiemstra & Sisco, 1990).
  • The first two assumptions, which recognize that an adult is an independent individual with a fully formed, unique personality, are drawn from humanistic psychology, while the second two assumptions, which attend to an adult's readiness to learn, rely on a psychosocial development perspective (Holmes & Abington-Cooper, p. 4). The final assumption regarding internal motivation was added later.

    In his work entitled "Modern Practice of Adult Education" (1970) Knowles presented a practical "technology" of andragogy which flows logically from these assumptions (although published earlier). In a seven-step process, adult educators should accomplish the following with their students:

  • set a cooperative learning climate
  • create mechanisms for mutual planning
  • arrange for a diagnosis of learner needs and interests
  • Enable the formulation of learning objectives based on the diagnosed needs and interests
  • Design sequential activities for achieving the objectives
  • Execute the design by selecting methods, materials, and resources,
  • Evaluate the quality of the learning experience while rediagnosing needs for further learning (Carlson, 1989).
  • Understanding Knowles' assumptions in conjunction with his "technology" gives a clear sense of the core of his theory of andragogy. As evident and appropriate as these assumptions and practices may seem to us today, they pose profound implications, particularly in the areas of curriculum and the educator-learner relationship.


    With the recognition of the adult learner's rich and varied life experience as a learning resource, the "curriculum" shifts from a pre-ordained set of truths collected and sustained by tradition to a process of inquiry initiated and directed by the learner. Instead of the learner beginning at point zero (the mind as a tabula rasa or "blank slate") to subsequently master a body of knowledge, the adult student is able to rely upon his or her experience and maturity to catapult him or her into a process of new learning. Lindeman, who protested that "too much of learning consists of vicarious substitution of someone...

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