Exploring learning theories: Andragogy

One of the goals I have at work is to explore three learning theories that I can embed into the design of the courses I’m developing. The first theory I’m exploring is andragogy. I’m focused on andragogy first as it’s supposed to be the adult equivalent, if you like, of pedagogy. Where pedagogy is focused on the child (‘paed’ is Greek for child), andragogy is focused on the adult (‘andros’ is Greek for man). Since I’m working now in a tertiary institution, most of what I do is for adult learners so I figured it would be a good theory to explore as an alternative to pedagogy.

What I found, however, was perhaps not much of a difference.

Much of what we know of andragogy is based around the work of Dr Malcolm Knowles. While Knowles was not the first to use the term andragogy, his research into adult education is well established.

Knowles’ theory of andragogy is based around six assumptions of adult learning.

  • Need to know: Adults want a reason to learn something
  • Foundation: Adults bring life experience to their learning
  • Self-concept: Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction
  • Readiness: Adults require what they are learning to have immediate relevance to them
  • Orientation: Adult learning should be problem-centred rather than content-centred
  • Motivation: Adults are internally motivated and self-directed.

The thinking behind these principles is that they are different to what children bring to the learning experience. It suggests then that:

  • children don’t need a reason to learn something
  • children don’t have life experience to bring to their learning
  • children don’t need or want to be involved in the planning of their learning
  • children don’t care if the learning is relevant to them
  • children don’t need problem-based learning
  • children are only externally motivated and cannot be self-directed (and adults are not externally motivated).

From my experience and the research I’ve carried out with school children I would have to argue that these suggestions I have just listed are wrong. The very nature of learning, particularly as a child, comes through wanting to find something out due to their current experience. While they might not have a lot of life experience compared to an adult, the experiences they have had impact on their learning. Children can gain a lot from being involved in the planning and evaluation of their learning. They definitely want learning to be relevant to them. Children also benefit hugely from problem-based learning and while children do respond well to external motivation and rewards, so do adults (we work for money after all, and as adults a lot of our formal learning is based around our work). Children can definitely be self-directed and if they have a passion will be intrinsically motivated.

I do, however, definitely agree that these are all important considerations for designing and facilitating learning with adults.

What this means for me as an educational designer is that I need to ensure these six assumptions of Dr Knowles are carefully considered in the courses I design.

One area that I believe is important is that there should be opportunity for the learners to bring their own experiences into their learning. Within an online course this could be, for example, in the form of discussions or reflections linking back to prior knowledge and experiences. Pre-assessments help to see prior-learning, however it can be very difficult to then use this information to tailor a course appropriately for a learner, particularly if there are many of them. I think where pre-assessments are used there needs to be a way to guide learners to what the next steps are to ensure that what they are learning is relevant to them.

It’s important also to consider problem-based learning and ensure the activities and tasks learners are given have some meaning rather than simply being theory based. These activities could be case studies, for example, or perhaps even better could tackle some of the big (possibly global) issues around. In a real situation, these issues wouldn’t be solved by a single person but would be a collaborative effort, therefore an online activity such as this should reflect this and be collaborative also.

In summary, while I don’t really see a lot of difference between andragogy and pedagogy, in practice, I do believe there is a place to ensure that Knowles’ six assumptions are front-and-centre when designing and developing learning.

Nathaniel Written by:

Nathaniel is passionate about people reaching their full potential. He has expertise and experience in education, e-learning, face-to-face and online facilitation, virtual mentoring, training, leadership and school governance.