Strictly for adults?

This is number 23 in my series on learning theories. I'm working through the alphabet of psychologists and theorists, providing a brief overview of each theory, and how it can be applied in education. The last post featured David Kolb and his cyclical model of experiential learning. In this post, we review the andragogy theory of Malcolm Knowles. As usual, this is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the associated literature.

The theory

Andragogy is a well known theory of learning for those working in further and higher education, because it focuses on the supposed differences between adults' and children's learning. When Malcolm Knowles first proposed his model, he argued that the greater experience of adults makes a difference, and that problem centred learning dominates adult learning, when compared to the content centred learning of school age children. Other distinctions are also offered between adult and child learning, including the need for relevance due to adults being employed, and involvement of adult learners in the planning of their own education. Essentially, adult learning is different to children's learning, because it is largely self directed and self-regulated. Adults have skills children are still developing, so the approach should be different, says Knowles.

How it can be applied in education

A few years ago I wrote a critique of the theory of andragogy which can be read at this link. The essence of my argument was that there are fewer differences between adult and child learning than we have been led to believe. Although Knowles tries valiantly to delineate some important distinctions between the strategies and approaches of children and adults, the distinctions he makes are either meaningless or poorly defined.

Clearly, andragogy is a theory that is best located in the adult education sector. It can enable teachers in this sector to plan and implement programmes of study that lock into the needs and cultures of adults. However, some of the principles of andragogy arguably have just as much relevance in the compulsory education sector. Children can be, and often are, involved in the planning of their own learning. In fact, involving children in planning programmes of study will probably help them to learn more than if they were passive recipients of content. One thing we might concede is that many children are not able to direct their own learning, and need some firm scaffolding to enable them to focus. However, many are also able to regulate their own learning, especially if they are inspired and motivated by the subject. Furthermore, many adult learners I have encountered are less able to direct their own learning than Knowles would have us believe.

It is a nonsense to suggest that andragogy is exclusively concerned with relevance of learning because of the needs of adults to focus on their work and careers. Clearly, children also need relevance in their learning, because, although they don't necessarily have jobs, learning that is not relevant is simply a waste of time. And how can you measure relevance? Is learning for adults only relevant if it relates directly to their employment. Of course not. My argument is that learning is learning - and that we should not distinguish between adult and child in this respect. Many of the pedagogical models and theories I have featured in this series (see list of links below) are equally relevant to adults' and children's learning.

Take one of the key tenets of andragogy - problem based learning. If teachers conduct children's education by providing them with learning experiences that are problem based, oriented toward challenge and in which they are actively involved, they will inspire their students to become lifelong learners. If we ignore this, we are missing a huge opportunity.


Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., and Swanson, R. A. (2005) The Adult Learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th ed.), Burlington, MA: Elsevier

Previous posts in this series:

1.  Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
2.  Argyris Double Loop Learning
3.  Bandura Social Learning Theory
4.  Bruner Scaffolding Theory
5.  Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
6.  Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
7.  Dewey Experiential Learning
8.  Engeström Activity Theory
9.  Ebbinghaus Learning and Forgetting Curves
10. Festinger Social Comparison Theory
11. Festinger Cognitive Dissonance Theory
12. Gardner Multiple Intelligences Theory
13. Gibson Affordances Theory
14. Gregory Visual Perception Hypothesis
15. Hase and Kenyon Heutagogy
16. Hull Drive Reduction Theory
17. Inhelder and Piaget Formal Operations Stage
18. Jung Archetypes and Synchronicity
19. Jahoda Ideal Mental Health
20. Koffka Gestalt theory
21. Köhler Insight learning
22. Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle

Photo by Norwood Adult Services on Wikimedia Commons

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Strictly for adults? by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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