Adult Education. Malcolm Knowles’ Andragogy Theory

Subject: Education
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Study level: Master


Malcolm Knowles (1913 – 1997) was, possibly “the”, fundamental figure in American adult education during the second part of the twentieth century. In the 1950s Knowles was the Adult Education Association of the United States of America Executive Director. Knowles wrote the first main accounts of adult informal education and the history of adult education in America. Besides, Knowles’ efforts to develop a distinct conceptual foundation for adult education and learning through the concept of “andragogy” became very extensively discussed and applied. Knowles’s work was an important factor in reorienting adult educators from “educating people” to “assisting them to learn” (Knowles 1950). In this study paper, we shall review and assess his adult learning theory of “andragogy” with respect to informal adult education.

Andragogy theory

Andragogy theory assumes that the stage at which a person attains a self-concept of indispensable self-direction is the stage at which the person psychologically becomes an adult. An incredibly vital thing occurs when this happens: the person develops a profound psychological want to be seen by other people as being self-directing. Consequently, when the person finds himself in circumstances in which he is not permitted to be self-directing, the person experiences uneasiness between that circumstance and his self-concept. The person’s reaction is bound to be stained with resentment and opposition. (Knowles 1950)

Adult learning

According to Knowles adult learning was unique in various ways. For instance:

  • Adult learners come with a lot of experience in the learning setting; Educators can apply this experience as a resource.
  • Adults look forward to having a high amount of influence concerning what they are supposed to be educated, and the way they are educated.
  • The active involvement of learners ought to be encouraged in formulating and implementing learning programs.
  • Adults want to be able to perceive applications for fresh learning.
  • Adult learners look forward to having a lot of influence on the manner of evaluating learning.
  • Adults expect their reactions to being acted on when there are asked for a response on the progress of their education program.

Inputting focus on the idea of informal education, Knowles was focusing on the “friendly and informal climate” in numerous adult learning circumstances, how flexible the process is, and the application of experience, and the eagerness and dedication of participants (teachers included!). Candy (1991) notes that Knowles did not define informal adult education; other than he uses the phrase to refer to the application of informal programs and, to some degree, the learning achieved from associational or club membership life. Knowles remarked that an organized lesson is typically a better tool for “new learning of an intensive nature, while a club experience provides the best opportunity for practicing and refining the things learned” (Knowles, Elwood, and Swanson,1990). He also notes that clubs are also helpful tools for arousing interest. Knowles contrasted formal and informal programs as follows:

  • Formal programs; are programs that are in most part sponsored, by well-known educational institutions, for example, universities, colleges, high schools, and technical schools. Whilst countless adults partake in the educational courses not working for credentials, they are organized fundamentally for credential students.
  • Informal classes; are ordinarily fitted into more general programs of organizations such as the YMCA, YWCA, community centers, industries, labor unions, and churches. (Knowles,1950)

This education program distinction is suggestive of that later on employed by Coombs and others to make a distinction of formal and non-formal education.

Malcolm S. Knowles suggests that Informal programs are more likely to utilize a group and also forum approaches. A number of significant differences can be found among the interests in an organized class and the interests found in lecture, a forum and club programs. In the first position, the previous is possible to have stable and long-term interests, whereas the latter are highly transitory. Secondly, forums, lectures, and club programs are very flexible as opposed to organized classes.

In a program sequence, the topics can vary from full entertainment to more serious lectures, whereas organized classes are necessarily limited to a specific subject-matter part. Thirdly, the forum, lecture, and club kinds of programs, in general, require little commitment in terms of time, finance, and energy from those participating compared to organized classes. Consequently, they are most likely to be attractive to people with somehow less powerful interests. (Knowles, Elwood, and Swanson,1990)

Malcolm Knowles aspects on informal adult education

Malcolm Knowles underscored that the main problems regarding our age concern human relationships; the solutions to the problem can only be found in education. Human relations skill is a skill that has to be learned; human relations are learned in the homes, in the schools, in the churches, on the job place, and anywhere people get together in small groups.

This reality makes the duty of each head of an adult group real, precise, and clear: each adult group, whatever its nature, ought to become an examination room of democracy, a location where individuals might have the experience of being able to learn to live cooperatively. Mind-sets and opinions are shaped chiefly in a study group, a workgroup, and also in a playgroup in which adults associate voluntarily. These specific groups are the foundation basis of our own democracy. The goals of these groups principally determine the overall goals of the society we live in. Adult learning must at least produce these outcomes:

Adults should achieve a mature recognizing of themselves

They ought to understand their own needs, interests, motivations, capacities, and goals. Adults should be capable of looking at themselves in an objective and mature manner. They ought to accept themselves, respect themselves as they are, and strive earnestly to improve themselves better. (Knowles, Elwood, and Swanson, 1990)

Adults should build up an attitude of acceptance, respect, and love toward others

According to Knowles, the above attitude is on which all human beings’ relationships depend. Adults should learn to differentiate between individual and ideas and to challenge ideas and not too threatening individuals. This attitude ideally, will go further than acceptance, respect, and love to compassion and the earnest desire to assist others.

Adults should build up a dynamic attitude to life

Adults should admit the reality of change and ought to think about themselves as constantly changing. They must acquire the tradition of viewing every single experience in their lives as an opening to learn and must become experts in learning from such experiences.

Adults ought to learn to respond to the causes, not symptoms, of behavior

Solutions to any problem lie in its cause, not in its symptoms. Humans have learned to apply this important lesson in the physical world, except have not yet learned to relate it in personal relations.

Adults should attain the skills essential to achieve their personality’s potentials

Each individual has capacities that, when realized, will make a contribution to the welfare of himself and of also the society. To accomplish these potentials requires skills of several types: vocational, civic, social, recreational, artistic, and many more. It is supposed to be an objective of education to provide each individual with those skills essential for him/her to make complete use of his/her capacities.

Adults should comprehend the essential ideas in the capital of a person’s experience

Adults should be recognizable with the inheritance of knowledge, be familiar with the great inspirations, great traditions, of this world in which they reside. They must understand and also respect the values which unite men together.

Adults should know their society and must be skillful in directing societal change

In a democratic society, people take part in making decisions that affect the whole social order. Thus, It is vital, that each factory worker, salesman, politician, all housewives, know sufficient information concerning government, economics, civic, international matters, and other issues of the society to be able to participate in them intelligently. (Knowles, Elwood, and Swanson,1990)

Malcolm Knowles’s andragogy notion

Knowles had a conviction that an adult learned differently from children, to him this offered the foundation for a distinct field of study. Knowles’s earlier studies on informal adult education underscored some aspects of development and setting. Equally, his records on the growth of the adult education progress in America had assisted Knowles to arrive at some conclusions concerning the outline and course of adult education. What Knowles now required was to merge together these aspects. The mechanism Knowles used was the concept of “andragogy”. (Knowles, Elwood, and Swanson, 1990)

Whereas the notion of andragogy had previously been in occasional usage ever since the 1830s, Knowles is the one who popularized the usage of the term for English language users. Though like Lindeman, Knowles recognized the significance of encouraging community participation, Knowles was also more concerned with establishing the theory and principles of adult education. Knowles did this by outlining five approaches in which andragogy differs from the long-established forms of pedagogy. According to Knowles, andragogy was founded on no less than four essential assumptions regarding the features of an adult learner that vary from the assumptions regarding child learners on which conventional pedagogy is founded. A fifth assumption was added at a later stage.

  1. Self-concept: As an individual becomes more mature his self-conception moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed person
  2. Experience: As a person matures he/she accumulates an increasing pool of experience which becomes a growing resource for education.
  3. Readiness to learn: As an individual matures his/her readiness to be taught becomes increasingly oriented to the developmental duties of his/her social roles.
  4. Orientation to learning: As an individual matures his/her time viewpoint changes from that of postponed knowledge application to the immediacy of knowledge application, and consequently his orientation to learning changes from that of subject-centeredness to that of problem centeredness.
  5. Motivation for learning: As an individual matures his/her motivation to learn becomes internal (Knowles, Elwood, and Swanson,1990).

Each one of these contentions and the argument of variation among andragogy and pedagogy has become the topic of extensive debate. Helpful critiques of the concept can be found in Jarvis (1977) Davenport (1993) Tennant (1996).

Review of Malcolm Knowles’s adult learning theory

According to Conner (2007) t point out that, Knowles’ concept of andragogy is an effort to formulate a comprehensive model (theory) of adult learning which is affixed to the features of adult learners. Also Brandford, et al (2000) uses such observed features in a more limited effort to provide a “framework for thinking about what and how adults learn”. Such methods might be compared with those which focus on:

  • A mature person’s life situation;
  • Adjustments in consciousness (Brandford, et al (2000)

In addition, Knowles makes widespread usage of a concept of relations obtained from humanistic medical psychology, and, specifically, the qualities of fine facilitation which Carl Rogers argued. Nevertheless, Knowles includes in other aspects which are indebted greatly to scientific curriculum formulation and behavioral modification (and thus are somewhat parallel with Rogers). Knowles’s aspects encourage a learner to identify requirements, set aims, and get into learning contracts, etc. that is to say that, Knowles uses suggestions from psychologists who are working in two relatively varying and opposing practices (humanist and behavioral practices). This implies that there is a somewhat dodgy insufficiency model lurking around Knowles’s model.

Furthermore (Brandford, et al (2000) observes that it is not apparent if this is “a theory or set of assumptions about learning, or a theory, or model of teaching”. One can observe something of the sort in regard to the manner Knowles described andragogy “as the art and science of helping adults learn as against pedagogy as the art and science of teaching children”. Conner (2007) states that there is an inconsistency in the definition, he further goes on to inquire: has Knowles offered us a theory, or is it a set of guiding principles for practice? The assumptions stated by Knowles ‘can be comprehended as explanations of the adult learner or as dogmatic statements regarding what the adult learner ought to be like.

This connects with a point stated by Brandford, et al (2000) that states that it appears there is a failure to set and cross-examine these ideas in an articulate and consistent conceptual structure. Brandford, et al (2000) further comments that throughout Knowles works there is a tendency of listing characteristics of an occurrence with no interrogation on the text of the arena (for example in the case of andragogy) or by looking via the lens of a logical conceptual system. Undoubtedly Knowles had several important insights, however since they are not tempered by meticulous analysis, they appeared to be a prisoner to fortune – they may perhaps be taken up in a historical or a theoretical manner.


Malcolm Knowles was fundamental in establishing of andragogy theory which outlines the practice of adult learning. Through establishing the manner in which andragogy varies in practice from the traditional ways of teaching, Knowles assisted to solidify the andragogy theory of adult education and offered a basis from which the approach of teaching adults could be developed. Classes in society colleges, the length and width of America and other countries nowadays, are teaching adults in a manner that respects their maturity as adults and exploits their life experiences.

Knowles’s thoughts on self-directed learning are significant to understanding approaches to adult education. Individuals seek out learning to improve their lives; these people are motivated, and their initiative ought to be met by a very flexible and democratic arrangement of adult education that provides courses in accordance with public demand. (AAACE, 2004)


Andragogy theory is a theory for adult learning formulated by Malcolm Knowles which makes the assumption that the point at which an individual attains a self-concept of indispensable self-direction is the stage at which the person psychologically becomes an adult. At this particular point, an individual is profound of the psychological needs and wants to be seen by others as self–directing. According to Knowles Adult learning must at least produce these outcomes: Adults should achieve a mature recognizing of themselves, Adults ought to learn to respond to the causes, not symptoms, of behavior, Adults should know their society and must be skillful in directing societal change, and many more other aspects.

Knowles, andragogy was founded on no less than five essential assumptions regarding the features of an adult learner that varies from the assumptions regarding child learners on which conventional pedagogy is founded. These assumptions include self-confidence, experience readiness to learn among others. In the words of Brookfield (1994), Malcolm Knowles was fundamental in establishing of andragogy theory which outlines the practice of adult learning.


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