Knowles’ Andragogy

Malcolm Knowles' "Andragogy" (supposedly the adult equivalent of "pedagogy") is a leading "brand" in adult education theory:

    Andragogy assumes that the point at which an individual achieves a self-concept of essential self-direction is the point at which he psychologically becomes adult. A very critical thing happens when this occurs: the individual develops a deep psychological need to be perceived by others as being self-directing. Thus, when he finds himself in a situation in which he is not allowed to be self-directing, he experiences a tension between that situation and his self-concept. His reaction is bound to be tainted with resentment and resistance.

    It is my own observation that those students who have entered a professional school or a job have made a big step toward seeing themselves as essentially self-directing. They have largely resolved their identity-formation issues; they are identified with an adult role. Any experience that they perceive as putting them in the position of being treated as children is bound to interface (sic) with their learning.

 (Knowles, 1978:56)

 Knowles' assumptions

  • The need to know — adult learners need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.
  • Learner self-concept —adults need to be responsible for their own decisions and to be treated as capable of self-direction
  • Role of learners' experience —adult learners have a variety of experiences of life which represent the richest resource for learning. These experiences are however imbued with bias and presupposition.
  • Readiness to learn —adults are ready to learn those things they need to know in order to cope effectively with life situations.
  • Orientation to learning —adults are motivated to learn to the extent that they perceive that it will help them perform tasks they confront in their life situations.

based on Knowles 1990:57

Knowles' formulation of the principles of andragogy may be taken as much as an integration or summation of other learning theorists as in its own right, and therefore represents the assumptions and values underlying much modern adult educational theory. The term was actually introduced in 1833 by a German called Kapp.

Knowles (1990) draws an explicit parallel between McGregor's (1960) "Theory X" and "Theory Y" models of management thinking and pedagogic and andragogic approaches to education, and it is clear that his sympathies lie with Theory Y. He shares his assumptions with many other current educational thinkers, but in many cases they are disguised. Consensus about implicit values or ideology, however, does not constitute an excuse for not subjecting them to scrutiny: Tennant (1997), has argued that they are meaningless, culture-bound, tautologous, or unsupported by the psychological and empirical evidence.  

More about Knowles

The sheer fact that Knowles has to make his point is some evidence that it is not yet COWDUNG (Waddington’s wonderful acronym for the “COnventional Wisdom of the Dominant Group”). It could be argued that he addresses part of the problem posed by subjecting people to educational institutions; is situated learning, in less formal settings, andragogy?

Throughout Knowles' discussion is an implicit two-valued opposition of a straw man of pedagogy (which appears to be derived primarily from the educational theories of Thomas Gradgrind) and the panacea of andragogy, although he explicitly denies this.

It is axiomatic for Knowles that the role of the teacher is to provide opportunities for individuals to learn, and that the teacher cannot accept responsibility for their failure or refusal to do so: the task of learning itself is therefore owned by the learner, and with this there can be little argument (apart perhaps from the contention of Michel Thomas, the remarkable language teacher, that the responsibility is entirely with the teacher). But there is no discussion, to take just two examples, of the phenomenon of testing-out of the course leader, or of the possibility of inconsistency between the findings of different levels of evaluation ("I enjoyed the course and I learned a lot, but no, it has not made any difference to my practice").

For a comprehensive critique see Davenport (1987) and Tennant (1997). Andragogy has also been criticised from more of a training orientation by Blake and Mouton (1984), who maintain that its emphasis on learning from peers makes it an inefficient instrument for the transmission of knowledge, although they value the way in which it avoids (or evades) the problems of resentment of authority and counter-dependence which they see as implicit in the normal "pedagogic" structure.

I am of course being seriously unfair: I just resent the smugly self-righteous way in which Knowles seems to have cornered the market in respecting and empowering adults in education. Education is as much prone to "branding" as any other product, and this is one of the more blatant brands: like most brands, however, its "unique selling proposition" is, if not spurious, at best marginal.

Bottom line: don't patronise your students!

An even-handed discussion of andragogy

A non-Knowlesian account of andragogy

And a paper by Knowles himself which I think undermines his whole point--but make up your own mind!

Aside from the specific links above, there are two definitive sites for adult learning which you should bookmark and explore:

  • a superb resource with discursive, even-handed but critical discussions of the major thinkers in the field, and
  • Roger Hiemstra's site: with a wealth of ideas and reflection informed by practice, and links to other sites (including, I'm pleased to say, this one).

An associated theme

Knowles maintains that his usage of andragogy refers to the teaching of adults. Strictly, however, it addresses the teaching of men ("andros" is Greek for "man"). That then poses the question whether there is such a thing as "gynaegogy", or the teaching of women. I hesitate to dip my male toe in such waters, but it is a legitimate question.

(Apart from passing references on my pages, the word only appears once elsewhere on the web, as of 4 May 2009)

The major text in this area is Belenky et al (1986) Women's Ways of Knowing which has been both influential and controversial. The study is based on 135 case-study interviews of women, from which the authors derive five "ways of knowing". (That link is to an adequate three-page outline, but the work is ill-served by the web; most of the sources seem to be postings of assignments by graduate students. At the time of writing, the Wikipedia page carries a "multiple issues" warning. There is a fuller account here, but that is thirty pages of a doctoral thesis and perhaps too detailed. I wonder why this is?)

Feminist thinking has also had a strong input into ideas of "transformative learning"

Up-dated 2 October 2012

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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