Adult Learning Theories

Principles of Adult Learning Theory according to Malcolm Knowles

As has already been established, Andragogy as one of the theories of Adult Learning involves a dramatic a dual shift in focus, from the trainer to the learner and from content to process. Traditionally, trainers are considered to be the experts, they possess knowledge and skills and it is their mission to pass them on to learners. As a result, trainers decide what is taught, in what order and how. This is what is known as the pedagogical approach to teaching. Taken literally, pedagogy simply means “leading children”, whereas andragogy means “leading men (= adults)”. For a long time, pedagogical principles were applied to the instruction of adults as well, without regard to the different stages of life they are at, how different they are and how differently they relate to the experience of learning.

The andragogical approach changed that: it postulates that mature learners are substantially different from younger learners and this implies a crucial difference in the way the see learning. Moreover, the andragogical approach highlights the fact that, rather than focusing merely on the acquisition of knowledge and skills, learning is indeed a broader, multidimensional process, involving the growth of the individuals and the construction of meaning in their lives, which takes place in different contexts, mobilizes past experience, involves emotional attachment, results from interaction with others and promotes critical reflection.

In the second (revised) edition of his work The Modern Practice of Adult Education, Malcolm Knowles dedicates a chapter to “a highly personal statement of a beginning theory about adult learning for which I have borrowed the label ‘andragogy’ from my European colleagues.” (1980, p.14) His approach to adult learning or andragogy is closely related to his perception of mature learners, in particular, as they differ from younger learners in their approach to learning. Knowles four crucial assumptions that form the basis of the andragogical approach to learning and teaching:

  • Mature students are more self-directed and less dependent learners, and should be considered a central part of the learning process;
  • Mature students have accumulated experience which should be seen as an important learning resource as well;
  • Mature students have a readiness to learn which is closely related to the social roles they play (professional, for instance);
  • Mature students see learning as immediately applicable and their focus moves from being subject-centred to being performance-centred.

It is very interesting that Knowles should link adult learning to lifelong learning as the organizing principle for all of education (1980, p. 19), to which he added a new concern: “for developing new ways to deliver educational services to individuals so that they can go on learning throughout their lives at their convenience in terms of time and place” (my emphasis). Indeed, placing the learner at the centre of the process, the educator’s mission is now to help learners achieve their own needs and goals (i.e. their full potential), those of institutions (i.e. improving organizational performance) and those of society (i.e. more meaningful participation in a changing, complex world). From this perspective, educators are no longer those who merely transmit knowledge to adult, but rather they must become “change agents”, and their function is increasingly to move away from bring remedial towards being developmental (Knowles, 1980, p. 37).

In 1970, Knowles started out opposing pedagogy and andragogy. Yet, as he came to realise, these two models should not be seen as a dichotomy but rather as two ends of a spectrum. “Andragogy”, he points out in the 1980 edition of his work, “is simply another model of assumptions about learners to be used alongside the pedagogical model of assumptions” (Knowles, 1980, p. 43). At any given time in the individual’s learning path, in different contexts and situations, either an andragogical or a pedagogical approach may be the best fit to ensure effective learning – regardless of the age of the learner. The consideration must always be learners’ profiles, their needs and goals.


Knowles, M. (1980). The Modern Practice of Adult Learning. From Pedagogy to Andragogy. Revised and Updated. New York: Cambridge, The Adult Education Company.


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