Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Knowles (1913 - 1997) - Adult learning… Andragogy… lifelong learning...

We learn most of what we know, not as children but as adults, yet adult learning, sometimes called ‘Andragogy’ receives a tiny amount of attention in learning theory. Malcolm Knowles didn't give is the word, which goes back to the 19th C but he did give us a set of adult learning principles, a good counter to the clearly false idea that education and learning is confined to one’s youth. Knowles was not dogmatic about the word or his principles, but thought they were an adequate framework for dealing with adult learners. His theories have endured.

Six adult learning principles

Andragogy, meaning ‘man-led’ is to be distinguished from Pedagogy, meaning ‘child-led’. His core adult learning principles (andragogy) are:
1 Need to know – why, what, how
2 Self-concept– autonomous, self-directing
3 Prior experience – resource, mental models
4 Readiness to learn – life related, developmental task
5 Orientation to learning – problem-centred, contextual
6 Motivation to learn – intrinsic value, personal payoff
Adults differ in that they need to be more self-directed, driving their own learning with a focus on connecting new learning to prior knowledge. They need to see the relevance to their one work or life, with an emphasis on problem-solving not memorisation, with internal motivation being a more important factor.

Lifelong learning

What Knowles does reveal is the weakness of lifelong learning when seen as extended schooling. The answer to bad schooling is always more schooling. We may even want less learning. Yet for adults we may want less schooling and courses. As Bryan Caplan has argued, more people are getting ‘schooled’ for longer and longer. But to what end? Signalling. Credential inflation is the wasteful result. Academic qualifications are not the solution to adult learning and the dismantling of vocational learning has meant a surfeit of such courses at the expense of actual skills.
Life, for most, is for living, not learning. We learn to learn without formal structures, following our interests and curiosity, that was Knowles insight. Lifelong Learning is a phrase that appears in lofty reports, grant applications or by organisations that no one has even heard of. Nobody calls themselves a Lifelong Learner. It is a sort of educational conceit, often a hollow appeal by professional ‘educators’. Adults do not want to be infantilised by this sort of jargon. They are adults not learners. The older you get the less inclined you are to want to cram and sit exams, as you know you’ve forgotten most of what you previously learnt. People remain curious throughout their lives but life is not a course.


Some question whether adult learning really is so separate that it deserves a separate learning theory. Knowles actually presents very little evidence for this bold assertion, Darbyshire (1993). Indeed, he compares adult learning with a rather outdated account of children’s learning, seeing children as resistant learners, when they’re actually just in a different context with different goals. It is not at all clear that adults are different in having the qualities Knowles claims. It seems odd that there is some boundary between childhood and adulthood where a different set of rules suddenly apply. Adults can be as stubborn, inactive and procrastinate as children. 

The recent emphasis on cognitive psychology suggests that efficient learning may not be that very different, even in adults. Others think that the assumptions are too strong and structured and that directed learning is still necessary. It may be the case that adults do not have the drive and motivation to learn without structured help.


The word Andragogy has gained some currency but mostly at an academic level. Adult learning still tends to be an orphan in the learning community, despite the fact that the vast majority of learning takes place by adults, a huge amount of it in the workplace. Knowles provides a welcome balance to learning theory. With an increase in the need for reskilling, a focus on lifelong learning, perhaps more leisure time due to automation and an ageing population, we may well have more time as adults to learn.


Knowles, M.S., Holton III, E.F. and Swanson, R.A., 2012. The adult learner. Routledge.
Knowles, M.S., 1980. The modern practice of adult education.
Tennant, M., 1986. An evaluation of Knowles’ theory of adult learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education5(2), pp.113-122.

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