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Andragogy has been defined as “any intentional and professionally guided activity that aims at a change in adult persons” (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005, p. 60). In the mid-twentieth century, researchers like Bruner, Gibb, Miller, Overstreet, Savicevic—and most notably Knowles—began to use the concept to explore “the art and science of how adults learn” (Knowles et al., 2005, p. 61). The primary assumptions of Knowles’ andragogical model are:

1. “Adults need to know why they need to learn something before they learn it.”
2. Adults “need to be seen…and treated by others as being capable of self-direction.”
3. Adults bring a great deal of experience to their learning and “the richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves.”
4. Adult’s readiness to learn is triggered by their “moving from one developmental stage to another.”
5a. “Adults are motivated to learn to the extent that they perceive the learning will help them perform tasks or deal with problems that they confront in their life situations.”
5b. Adults learn “most effectively when [new learnings] are presented in the context of application to real-life situations.”
6. “Adults are responsive to some external motivators…but the most potent motivators are internal pressures.” (Knowles et al., 2005, pp. 64-68)

Theorists and disciplines influencing Knowles’ andragogical approach of adult learning were many. Knowles referenced two theories of inquiry contributing to his approach: (a) Thorndike’s scientific stream of inquiry that established adults can learn and that they have different interests and abilities than children, and (b) Dewey and Lindeman’s artistic stream of inquiry that explored how adults learn (2005, p. 37). Lindeman’s strong influence on Knowles’ approach is seen in the extensive excerpts and the summary of Lindeman’s key assumptions about adult learners included in the introduction to Knowles’ andragogical approach (2005, pp. 37-40). Knowles cites clinical psychology to reinforce the idea of adult developmental stages and to show linkage between personality development and education; key clinical psychology theorists cited by Knowles include Freud, Jung, Erikson, Maslow, and Rogers. Developmental psychology is cited by Knowles to reinforce the concept of how adults change throughout adulthood, and sociology and social psychology are cited for their contributions related to the “behavior of groups and larger social systems, including the forces that facilitate or inhibit learning and change” (2005, p. 52). After outlining the social sciences’ contributions to his andragogical approach to adult learning, Knowles then outlines the contributions of adult education. Houle and Tough were notable contributors, with Tough’s research on how adults learn and what motivates them plus Houle’s study on the types of adult learners (i.e., goal-oriented, activity-oriented, and learning-oriented). Based on these many contributing theorists, it could be argued that Knowles’ thoughts were not entirely original; however, his synthesis of these concepts has made an enduring impact on the study and application of adult learning.

In an additional chapter of the sixth edition of Knowles’ classic work (2005), Holton and Swanson addressed additional implications of andragogy for today’s world of adult learning. As stated in the chapter’s opening, “one aspect of the andragogical model that disturbs many people is that not all adults seem to fit the assumptions…adult learners are not as homogenous as the andragogical model implies” (Knowles et al., 2005, p. 204). To provide a more complete set of principles that the adult learning practitioner can apply, the authors cover such topics as individual differences in adult learners (including different cognitive and learning styles), meta-learning or learning how to learn, and developmental perspectives including life-span developmental models and cognitive development theories. While Knowles’ andragogical approach does provide useful principles for adult learning, these additional perspectives from Holton and Swanson provide a more complete view of the variations one must account for in the design, development, and delivery of adult learning.

Like any enduring theory, there has been much follow-up research and critique of Knowles’ andragogical approach to adult learning. Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner (2007) cite the critiques of Knowles’ work that question whether the theories of andragogy apply to all adults in all situations and whether they are effective with only adults. Merriam et al. point to recent critiques that have questioned the lack of consideration of “the sociohistorical context in which learning takes place” (2007, pp. 87-88)—resulting in the perpetuation of an inherently biased view that accepts an American White middle-class male perspective while ignoring other cultural and gender perspectives. Merriam et al., along with Brookfield (1995), also argue for the need to consider the potential role of social capital (including social networking, communities of practice, etc.) in creating positive learning environments in the adult workplace. Brookfield argues strongly against a theory of andragogy, stating “that the attempt to construct an exclusive theory of adult learning…is a grave error” (1995, Issues in Understanding Adult Learning section, para. 1). Rather than arguing for the truth of any one theory for adult learning, Brookfield encourages examining the insights and overlaps evident in what self-directed learning, critical reflection, experiential learning, and learning to learn have to offer adult educators; in addition, Brookfield encourages practitioners to remain aware of the impact of emerging research in the areas of cross cultural adult learning, practical theorizing, and distance learning (1995).

One of the greatest debates about andragogy relates to whether andragogy is a theory at all. Based on this author’s reading, it appears evident that andragogy is not a theory but more a set of guidelines that can be used by adult learning practitioners. Knowles himself acknowledged that he “prefers to think of [andragogy] as a model of assumptions about learning or a conceptual framework that serves as a basis for an emergent theory” (Knowles as cited in Merriam et al., 2007, p. 87). In order for Knowles’—or any researcher’s—work to be accepted as a true theory, it must pass rigorous empirical tests that validate the model’s assumptions and display the re-creatable impact of changing one or more of the model’s variables. Learning, being a largely internal process, is hard to measure. Yes, as the behaviorists argue, changes in behavior can be observed and measured. However, the same cannot be easily said for affective changes or acquisitions in tacit knowledge; self-reporting of affective changes is rife with bias, and tacit knowledge is highly difficult to access and express. So perhaps, as Gagne (as cited in Knowles et al., 2005, p. 10) suggests, learning is not something that can by theorized, but rather learning may be a set of generalizations and principles that can be applied to result in desired performance changes.

The implications of these critiques are that andragogy should not be viewed as a rigid set of guidelines to be applied to every adult in all adult learning situations. Some principles may be applicable to children as well (e.g., the benefits of learning using real examples and from one another’s experience). Additionally, practitioners should not assume adult learners are a homogenous audience but rather (a) be sensitive to cultural, social, and gender-related differences, (b) design learning that appeals to adults’ different cognitive and learning styles,
(c) consider multiple approaches and apply the principles that are the best fit for the given adult learning situation, (d) continue efforts to establish empirical evidence that validates the various learning theories, and (e) retain a critical mindset, not accepting any approach as a hard set of rules to blindly apply.

Whether termed a theory, philosophy, or set of guiding principles, Knowles’ work is still relevant in today’s world, in partnership with other theorists providing additional guidance to the practice of adult learning and education. While Knowles’ andragogical approach to adult learning may have—in the words of Brookfield (1995)—acquired the status of “myths that are etched deeply into adult educators’ minds,” it does offer principles that display face validity when applied to the design, development, and delivery of adult learning programs. Just like the different learning theories of behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, etc. all make important contributions to adult learning, so does Knowles’ andragogical approach. Moreover, just as no one of the learning theories should be applied to the exclusion of the others, the same is true of Knowles (and the other adult learning theories and theorists cited by Brookfield, Knowles, and Merriam). The majority of these theories and techniques have the potential to make valuable contributions, depending on what is most appropriate for a particular adult audience’s learning needs and preferences. Thus, for the adult learning practitioner, the critical task lies in being able to analyze the audience’s needs, the desired behavior or attitudinal change, and the context within which the learning is to happen—and then selecting and applying the theory(s) and technique(s) that will yield the best results.


Brookfield, S. (1995). Adult learning: An overview. In International Encyclopedia of Education. Retrieved December 1, 2007 from http://www.ict.mic.ul.ie/adult_ed/overview.htm

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann. (Original work published 1973)

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood (3rd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons. (Original work published 1991)

- Robin

Copyright Robin Donnan 2008. All Rights Reserved.


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Comments (1)

Thanks much for the useful information. I am about one of my biggest challenges to date in my profession and you article has provided me a clear path towards understanding adult learners. My training sessions will be enhanced now

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