Knowles’ concept of andragogy, developed in the late 1970s and 1980s, put forward the idea that adults have different learning needs to students.
He postulated, based on personal experience rather than empirical data, several key principles of adult learning. These included the ideas that adults need autonomy, desire self-directed learning, are intrinsically motivated, are problem-oriented learners, should have their real-life experiences acknowledged, and desire just-in-time learning (Bowling & Henschke, 2021; Knowles, 1984).
In this article, I will present the supposed differences between andragogy and pedagogy, but I ultimately argue that Knowles’ idea of andragogy offers a distinction without a difference. Children, too, deserve learning environments that integrate all of these key principles, in equal measure to adults.
Knowles is, simply, repackaging constructivist learning principles, and proposing – for reasons beyond me – that they’re somehow more pertinent to adult education than child eduation.
Pedagogy vs Andragogy
Definition of Pedagogy
Pedagogy tends to be used as an umbrella term that refers to the art and science of teaching and learning. In most contexts, we can use the term to refer to teaching and learning across all ages: for children and adults.
But, specifically in the context of andragogy, pedagogy is returned to its etymological roots, referring specifically to the art of teaching children.
When teaching children, there is often greater burden put on the educator to take a role of authority figure, not least of all because adults need to ensure environments are safe for children and out of recognition that children are not fully developed cognitively and emotionally, and therefore a responsible adult must act as a guide in a way that they do not have to with adult learners (Ozuah, 2016).
Furthermore, children are compelled to attend school by their parents and the state, rather than out of free will, which creates a different power dynamic than the one we generally see in adult learning. Enter: Andragogy.
Definition of Andragogy
The term ‘andragogy‘ is old, dating back to at least 1833 in Germany, but is most widely known to be connected to Malcolm Knowles, who in the 1970s and 1980s proposed that adult learners have unique needs, requiring a unique approach to adult education (Blondy, 2007; Knowles, 1984.
Central to Knowles’ argument were several principles of adult learning:
- Self-Concept: Adults see themselves as autonomous and self-directed individuals, and desire to see this reflected in their educational experience.
- The Role of Experience: Adults have more experiences than children, which can be leveraged in the adult classroom.
- Orientation to Learning: Adults prefer to learn through a problem-oriented rather than subject-oriented approach.
- Motivation to Learn: Adults are more intrinsically motivated while children are more extrinsically motivated.
- The Need to Know/Readiness to Learn: Adults approach learning when they have a need to know something, aka just-in-time learning (Blondy, 2007; Knowles, 1984).
Table of Differences
The differences between pedagogy and andragogy are summarized below:
|Definition||The art and science of teaching children.||The art and science of helping adults learn.|
|Learner’s Role||Dependent on the teacher.||Self-directed.|
|Motivation to Learn||Often external (grades, parental pressure).||Often internal (personal or professional growth).|
|Experience of Learner||Limited; used as a starting point for lessons.||Rich and varied; used as a resource in learning (Machynska & Boiko, 2020).|
|Readiness to Learn||Based on age and curriculum level.||Based on life needs or interest.|
|Orientation to Learning||Subject-centered; follows a curriculum (Edosomwan, 2016).||Problem-centered; seeks solutions to real-life challenges (Edosomwan, 2016).|
|Teacher’s Role||Authority figure; controls the learning process.||Facilitator or guide; supports the learning process.|
|Evaluation||Primarily by teacher; formal assessments.||Self-evaluation often emphasized; may also include formal assessments.|
Critique: Does Knowles have a Point?
1. Orientation To Learning
Claim: Adults are problem-oriented learners.
Assumption: Children are subject-oriented learners.
Knowles proposes that adults are problem-oriented learners. They should not, therefore, be exposed to subject-based learning environments. Rather, they should be exposed to problem-based learning (Blondy, 2007; Edosomwan, 2016).
Adults often enter the classroom because they are “ready to learn.” There is something specific they want to learn, and therefore, they have sought higher education in order to learn that thing, which will solve an immediate need in their lives (Holmes & Abington-Cooper, 2000).
This might be, for example, and adult who has returned to university in order to figure out how to become a better engineer, or a student at university with the intention of becoming a nurse.
As a result, Knowles proposes that adult classrooms should be problem-based, focusing on developing the skills they need to solve problems in the workforce (Fornaciari & Lund Dean, 2014).
Commentary and Critique: This commentary will set out a theme throughout my critique of the theory of andragogy: this idea is equally relevant for children. Indeed, the concept of project-based learning (and, moreover, problem-based learning) undergirds much of what we teach to budding elementary school teachers. Just because schools are set out in subject format doesn’t mean that it’s ideal for children: One would think Knowles would be on sturdier ground critiquing the very idea of subject-oriented learning itself, rather than making a false distinction that adults need problem-oriented education, while implicitly indicating that children do not.
2. The Role of the Learner (Self-Concept)
Claim: Adults are problem-oriented learners.
Assumption: Children are subject-oriented learners.
The assumption of andragogy is that the teacher and learner hold fundamentally different roles, depending on whether the learner is a child or an adult.
Fundamental to this assumption is that adult learners are more agentic and self-directed than children. They desire autonomy and have the learning skills required to seek out knowledge on their own rather than relying on the teacher.
You may have experienced, for example, in university when teachers pontificate that university is not like high school. You must self-regulate your study time, seek out information on your own, and guide yourself through the learning process.
Hence, we regularly see a key complaint from university students: “lack of accessibility and responsiveness of the instructor” (Blondy, 2007).
Adult learners, like children, often desire clarity and support on the one hand, and the freedom to explore, create, and experiment on the other (Robinson, 1992; Schapiro, 2003; Williams, 2002).
Commentary and Critique: Implicit in the idea that adults seek autonomy and self-directed learning is that children do not. Of course, children – like adults – can thrive when they work autonomously. At the same time, adults, like children, may desire additional structure and support at times. Key here, I would think, is the atmosphere created by the educator, and whether the learners have been provided with the clear supports, skills, and tools required to learn without constant supervision and hand holding. This, I would think, is less a factor of age than Knowles suggests.
3. Sources of Motivation
Claim: Adults are intrinsically motivated.
Assumption: Children are extrinsically motivated.
Knowles proposes that adults tend to be more intrinsically motivated than children.
Adults are mainly motivated to learn by internal factors such as self-esteem, curiosity, desire to achieve, and satisfaction. External motivators like promotions, salary increment, or career advancement, while influential, often rank lower in driving motivation, according to Knowles (Knowles, 1990).
Of course, this claim directly contradicts Knowles’ claim that adults are problem-oriented learners (presumably approaching learning to solve a specific, extrinsic, problem in their lives).
And furthermore, it contradicts plenty of research, such as this study, which demonstrates that 70.96% of students cite “to make more money” as a key reason for going to college, and 76.57% citing “to get a better job.” Oops.
Commentary and Critique: It seems, throughout the andragogy concept, that there is an assumption that children are less agentic than adults – less capable of self-directed learning, and now, less capable of having intrinsic desires. In my estimation, the concept of andragogy’s key flaw is that it undervalues the complex lives, motivations, and abilities of children.
4. Past Experience
Claim: Adults have more life experiences to bring to bear in the classroom.
Knowles also argues that a unique feature of adult learning is that adults bring more past experience into the classroom than children.
Of course, this is beyond debate. Adults have had more time in this world to garner experiences, which would mean they will have more experiences to bring to bear when learning (Holmes & Abington-Cooper, 2000).
As a result, proponents of andragogy argue that adult learning environments should involve regular seminar discussions where students share how theory connected to lived experiences as practitioners, and should involve a wide range of lifelike case studies to be discussed and explored.
Commentary and Critique: This argument is perhaps the most stable of those presented by androgogy advocates. There is clearly much more scope for adults to present, use, and share their vast lived experiences when learning. However, this principle creates a distinction without a difference, given that pedagogy should also integrate children’s prior knowledge into the classroom – in all lessons. Further, we should not devalue the fact children, too, have much to contribute in the classroom, and I hope that this point by Knowles is not taken by anyone as an assumption that children’s experiences and opinions have any less validity than adults’. As educators, we should value adults’ and children’s perspectives in all instances.
I have taken a rare strong stance in this article. And I’d caveat all these comments with the point that I think the concept of andragogy is an excellent topic for seminar discussions specifically because it can stimulate the sorts of debates I’ve put forward here.
I also think the concept does highlight some key desires we as adults have when we come to lifelong learning.
But, to take my teacher hat off for a moment and put my scholar hat on, I’ve got to admit – the concept feels a bit like pop psychology.
Blondy, L. C. (2007). Evaluation and application of andragogical assumptions to the adult online learning environment. Journal of interactive online learning, 6(2), 116-130.
Bowling, J., & Henschke, J. A. (2021). Pedagogy and andragogy: Intersection for learning. In The Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education (pp. 158-167). Routledge.
Edosomwan, S. O. (2016). Childhood learning vs. adulthood learning: The theory of pedagogy and andragogy. US-China Education Review A, 6(2), 115-123.
Fornaciari, C. J., & Lund Dean, K. (2014). The 21st-century syllabus: From pedagogy to andragogy. Journal of Management Education, 38(5), 701-723. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562913504763
Holmes, G., & Abington-Cooper, M. (2000). Pedagogy vs. andragogy: A false dichotomy?. Pedagogy, 26(2). doi: https://doi.org/10.21061/jots.v26i2.a.8
Knowles, M.S. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Machynska, N., & Boiko, H. (2020). Andragogy–The science of adult education: Theoretical aspects. Journal of Innovation in Psychology, Education and Didactics, 24(1), 25-34.
Ozuah, P. O. (2016). First, there was pedagogy and then came andragogy. Einstein journal of Biology and Medicine, 21(2), 83-87.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]