By Elaine Biech

Malcolm Knowles is considered the father of adult learning theory. Because pedagogy is defined as the art and science of teaching children, European adult educators coined the word andragogy to identify the growing body of knowledge about adult learning. It was Dr. Knowles’s highly readable book, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, published in 1973, that took the topic from theoretical to practical.

The following table compares the differences between andragogy and pedagogy. Trainers and adult educators began to implement practical applications based on Dr. Knowles’ six assumptions.

Andragogical and Pedagogical Training: A Comparison
Andragogy Pedagogy
Learners are called “participants” or
“learners.”
Learners are called “students.”
Independent learning style. Dependent learning style.
Objectives are flexible. Objectives are predetermined and inflexible.
It is assumed that the learners have experience to
contribute.
It is assumed that the learners are inexperienced and/or
uninformed.
Active training methods, such as games and experiential
learning, are used.
Passive training methods, such as lecture, are used.
Learners influence timing, pace, and location in a
learner-centered approach.
Trainer controls timing, pace, and location.
Participant involvement is vital to success. Participants contribute little to the experience.
Learning is real-life problem-centered. Learning is content-centered.
Participants are seen as primary resources for ideas and
examples.
The trainer is seen as the primary resource who provides ideas
and examples.

The following list summarizes Malcolm Knowles’ six assumptions and adds a practical application from a trainer’s perspective. Although there is some duplication of ideas, here are all six assumptions as Knowles identified them. Some authors distill the six to five, four, and even three.

  • Adults have a need to know why they should learn something before investing time in a learning event. Trainers must ensure that the learners know the purpose for training right from the start.

  • Adults enter any learning situation with an image of themselves as self-directing, responsible grown-ups. Trainers must help adults identify their needs and direct their own learning experience.

  • Adults come to a learning opportunity with a wealth of experience and a great deal to contribute. Trainers are successful when they identify ways to build on and make use of adults’ hard-earned experience.

  • Adults have a strong readiness to learn those things that help them cope with daily life effectively. Training that relates directly to situations adults face is viewed as relevant.

  • Adults are willing to devote energy to learning those things that they believe help them perform a task or solve a problem. Trainers who determine needs and interests and develop content in response to these needs are most helpful to adult learners.

  • Adults are more responsive to internal motivators such as increased self-esteem than external motivators such as higher salaries. Trainers can ensure that this internal motivation is not blocked by barriers such as a poor self-concept or time constraints by creating a safe learning climate.