Learning Theory Comparison

Adult Education Defined

It is remarkable to think about the extent to which andragogy can be claimed as the distinctive characteristic of adult education as a field. Though Knowles moved from a belief in andragogy as the exact opposite of education for children toward the idea of a continuum, he presented andragogy as “very anti-schooling, seeing as an important part of its mission…‘liberating’ adult learners from its unhappy consequences” (Usher, Bryant, and Johnston, 2002, p. 81). This implies that the boundary between the education of children and that of adults is very important for pedagogues. However, some of the most productive ground for andragogy has been K-12 education and the strongly linked arena of the community college (Guffey and Rampp, 1997; Robles, 1998). Although it can be claimed that within a greatly formal educational environment andragogy must certainly be watered down, the line between the practices of child and adult education are distorted to make andragogy almost ineffective as a way to define what is adult about adult education.

It is also maintained that andragogy marks the boundary between adult education and human resource development (HRD)—as some would claim, between the education and the training of adults (Galusha, 1998). Adult educators frequently take the moral high ground here and maintain that their work is devoted to the development of people rather than the profit of organizations. Once again this distinction proves to be misleading. In recent years adult educators have accepted increasing degrees of control over their work and accountability on measures that would have been disagreeable in the 1980s. For instance, U.S. adult literacy funding now comes from money allocated for workforce development, meaning that all literacy provisions must show vocational outcomes. Although adult education programs have become more influential and employment-focused, training and development in the business world have increasingly emphasized the holistic development of workers, the effect is to move the two fields closer together. This convergence is further emphasized by the way HRD practitioners have worked to deal with the limitations of the andragogical model by modifying it to recognize contextual factors more fully (Holton and Swanson, 1999). The andragogical approach does not provide a clear explanation of what can be considered adult education and what cannot.

Andragogy: An Introduction

The most influential form of instruction in Europe and America is pedagogy, or what some people refer to as didactic, traditional, or teacher-directed approaches. A challenging idea in terms of instructing adult learners and one that assumed impetus within the past three decades has been described as ‘andragogy’.

The increase and development of andragogy as an alternative model of instruction has helped to remedy the situation and improve the teaching of adults. However, this change did not happen suddenly. Indeed, an important event happened some thirty years ago that influenced the direction of adult education in North America and, somewhat, elsewhere as well. Malcolm Knowles pioneered Andragogy as a system of ideas, thoughts, and methodologies to adult learning to adult educators in the United States. His contributions to this system have been many (1975, 1980, 1984; Knowles & Associates, 1984), and have inspired the thinking of numerous educators of adults. Knowles’ discourse, debate, and subsequent writings related to andragogy have been a strong stimulant to some of the development of the adult education field during the past thirty years.

The original use of the term “andragogy” to catch the extensive notice of adult educators was in 1968, when Knowles, then a professor of adult education at Boston University, introduced the term (then spelled “andragogy”) through a journal article. In a 1970 book (he defined the term as the art and science of helping adults learn. His thinking had changed to the point that in the 1980 edition he suggested the following: “… andragogy is simply another model of assumptions about adult learners to be used alongside the pedagogical model of assumptions, thereby providing two alternative models for testing out the assumptions as to their ‘fit’ with particular situations. Furthermore, the models are probably most useful when seen not as dichotomous but rather as two ends of a spectrum, with a realistic assumption in a given situation falling in between the two ends” (Knowles, 1980, p. 43).

Malcolm S. Knowles Andragogy

As Malcolm Knowles introduced the language of andragogy to North American adult educators, there have been constant discussions about whether it is an adult learning theory, a teaching method, a theoretical statement, or all of the above. It is useful to take the development of andragogy into account when taking into account this question.

When Knowles began writing about andragogy, he was already a well-respected figure in the adult education establishment. He had contributed to the creation of the Black Book (Jensen, Liveright, and Hallenbeck 1964), a compilation of writing setting out to define adult education as a subject. Establishing adult education as a distinct area of academic study was an important aim for Knowles and many of his contemporaries (Damer, 2000). As early as 1962, Knowles wrote that “the adult education field is in the process of developing a distinctive curriculum and methodology” (Knowles 1962, p. 255)—a process in which he played a central role. The development of andragogy was an important component of broader efforts to position adult education as a profession and academic field.

Knowles was of the view that adults learned in a different way than children and that provided the basis for a distinct field of inquiry. His previous work on informal adult education had emphasized some elements of process and setting. In the same way, his study of the development of the adult education movement in the United States helped him to come to some conclusions about the shape and direction of adult education. What he now wanted to do was to bring together these elements. The methods he used were the idea of andragogy.

Although the notion of andragogy had been in irregular practice since the 1830s it was Malcolm Knowles who popularize its practice for English language readers. For Knowles, andragogy was based on at least four fundamental notions about the characteristics of adult learners that are different from the assumptions about child learners on which conventional pedagogy is based. A fifth was added later. Those are:

  1. Self-concept. As a person matures his self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-governing human being
  2. Experience. As a person matures he gathers a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
  3. Readiness to learn. As a person matures his willingness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his social roles.
  4. Orientation to learning. As a person matures his time perception changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and thus his course toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem-centeredness.
  5. Motivation to learn. As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal (Knowles 1984:12).

Each of these statements and the claims of difference between andragogy and pedagogy are the subject of extensive debate. Positive analyses of the conception can be found in Davenport (1993) Jarvis (1987a) Tennant (1996). Here are some general comments about Malcolm Knowles’ approach.

First, as Merriam and Caffarella (1991: 249) stated that Knowles’ conception of andragogy is an attempt to build a broad theory (or model) of adult learning that is based on the characteristics of adult learners. Cross (1981: 248) also uses such supposed characteristics in a more restricted attempt to offer a ‘framework for thinking about what and how adults learn. Such approaches may be compared with those that focus on:

  • An adult’s life situation.
  • Changes in consciousness (Merriam and Caffarella 1991).

Second, Malcolm Knowles makes wide-ranging use of a model of relationships derived from humanistic clinical psychology – and, particularly, the qualities of good facilitation argued for by Carl Rogers. Nevertheless, Knowles includes other elements, which are indebted much to scientific curriculum making and behavior modification. These support the learner to recognize requirements, set objectives, enter learning contracts, etc. In other words, he uses thoughts from psychologists working in two quite different and contrasting traditions. This means that there is a rather unprincipled deficit model lurking around this model.

Third, ‘it is not clear whether this is a theory or set of assumptions about learning, or a theory, or model of teaching’ (Hartree, 1984). Thus there is something concerning the way Malcolm Knowles defined andragogy as the art and science of helping adults learn as against pedagogy as the art and science of teaching children. Yet there is a contradiction here. Hartree (1984) then goes on to ask: whether Knowles provided people with a theory or a set of rules for practice. ‘The assumptions can be read as descriptions of the adult learner… or as prescriptive statements about what the adult learner should be like’ (Hartree 1984 quoted in Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 250). This links with an argument made by Tennant (1988) – ‘there seems to be a failure to set and interrogate these ideas within a coherent and consistent conceptual framework.’ As Jarvis (1987) comments, ‘throughout his writings, there is a propensity to list characteristics of a phenomenon without interrogating the literature of the arena or looking through the lens of a coherent conceptual system. Undoubtedly Malcolm Knowles had several important insights, but because they are not tempered by thorough analysis, they were a hostage to fortune – they could be taken up in an ahistorical or atheoretical way.’

From these theories flows everything else that comprises andragogy, from seating plans to assessment methods. One important notion is learning contracts, a process in which learner and educator together discuss what the result of the learning /teaching transaction will be and how it will be recognized. The conception of adults working together to design the educational process sums up the fundamental values of andragogy in many ways. Nevertheless, andragogy is not all about learning—the notions show how the theory presents a humanist view of learners and their prospective for growth, with inferences for teaching, social philosophy, and human relationships. Andragogy can be considered an approach to the education and development of adults firmly based upon the disciplinary requirements of adult education in the 1960s, however providing little insight into learning other than a set of notions about learners.

Knowles at first placed his work as generally applicable, arguing that “in the world of the future we must define the mission of education as to produce competent people” (Knowles 1980, pp. 18-19), and he put andragogy further as the means to this end. It is indistinct however whether he retained this position. In the late 1990s, he wrote of his belief that andragogy presents basic principles of adult learning that in turn enable those designing and performing adult learning to construct more successful learning processes for adults. It is a transactional model in that it speaks to the characteristics of the learning transaction, not to the objectives and aims of that transaction. As such, ‘it is relevant to any adult learning transaction.’ (Knowles, Holton, and Swanson 1998, p. 2). It is difficult to know whether this statement argues for andragogy as a theory of learning, an approach to teaching adults, or just a useful set of assumptions. If it is an assertion for andragogy as a worldwide adult learning theory Knowles was not accepting major concerns expressed about his work. Probably the most influential critique was Pratt (1993), who argued that ‘Knowles think all adult learners were willing to engage in a highly participatory and democratic teaching/learning transaction grounded in a Western male concept of individuality. This overarching assumption is a significant weakness of Knowles’ portrayal of andragogy, and it has been criticized by feminists for overlooking gendered structures of power in education (Tisdell, 1998) and by important theorists for putting forward an oversimplified view of individual freedom (Grace, 1996). There are also concerns about whether the six postulations are based on firm evidence and how extensively varying their explanation can be (Rachal, 2002).

Lastly, modern learning theories such as “communities of practice” (Wenger, 1998) directly challenge Knowles’ approach by de-emphasizing individual learners. Despite Knowles’ claim that the framework could be applied to any adult learning setting, the researchers make it fundamental to recognize that andragogy only focuses on particular types of learning at definite times.

Jerome Bruner & Andragogy

Bruner’s (1987, 1990) constructivist theory includes many of the thoughts offered in earlier theories. His thoughts can also be related to those who propose information processing models in that he proposes development takes place as mental structures become more complex and mature through interaction and experience: “learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so” (Kearsley, 2001a, p.1). Besides, his work is considered interactional in a manner like that proposed by Dewey and Vygotsky. He is concerned with the series of representations, however, he is equally concerned with the role of culture on cognitive development.

Bruner says that a theory of instruction should address four major features: (1) predisposition towards learning, (2) how a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner, (3) the most effective sequences in which to present material, and (4) the nature and pacing of rewards and punishments. Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying, producing new propositions, and increasing the manipulation of information. Bruner has expanded his theoretical framework to include the social and cultural aspects of learning. Bruner‘s constructivist theory is a general framework for instruction based upon the study of cognition.

The learner should, by observing and self-testing, assess and analyze the quest for the objective. Learners should become responsive to the way they learn. Constructive learning is a process. It’s rational to identify the importance of the learner himself. One can’t force the person to learn unless he is eager to. The only learner can be constructive. Constructive learning is self-regulated learning. Students see learning differently. Some see learning as the reproduction of facts and ideas and others feel the construction of knowledge representations most important.

Thus there are three different student views on learning: reproduction, construction, and use-orientation. One can also find a strong relationship with learning styles and strategies namely surface learning, deep learning, and concrete learning, though no relationship was found with learning outcomes and styles. The learning styles are very personal and stable, and cannot be changed easily. The interactivity patterns do not essentially develop constructive learning. Assessment and reflection in general are also important features of self-regulated learning. Bruner´s constructivism is in this sense very similar to the andragogy of Knowles.

Carl Rogers & Andragogy

In his book “Freedom to Learn” Carl Rogers (1969) classified two kinds of learning: cognitive (meaningless) and experiential (significant). Cognitive is seen as academic knowledge while experiential equates to learning by doing.

Rogers saw the qualities of experiential learning as personal involvement, self-initiated, assessed by the learner, and has pervasive effects on the learner. To him, experiential learning is comparable to personal change and growth.

According to Rogers, the adult learning process is made easy when:

  • The student takes part completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction.
  • It is mainly based upon confrontation with practical, social, personal or research problems.
  • Self-evaluation is the principal method of assessing progress or success.

Rogers also underlines the importance of learning to learn and an openness to change. Rogers associates many factors to successful adult education:

  • Important learning happens when the issue is related to the personal interests of the student.
  • Learning which is ominous to the self is more easily understood when external pressures are at a minimum.
  • Learning proceeds faster when the threat to the self is low.
  • Self-initiated learning is the most durable and persistent.

Festinger’s Theory and Andragogy

Festinger worked out how social scientists explained the relationship between people’s behavior and the attitudes and/or elucidation that they hold about them. Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance provides a new method to study the relationship between attitudes and behaviors.

One method to solve internal conflict is to rationalize the attitude and behavior so they become harmonious. ‘Rationalization is a process by which reason is used, and relied upon in forming a theory, belief, or attitude’ (Festinger, 1957). Reasoning, as a result, can be defined as the process of deciding what to believe. When people analyze, they use information that is known or assumed to be true to support a belief. Beliefs about the world direct the observations they make, while their observations, in turn, transform their beliefs. According to cognitive dissonance theory, holding contrasting attitudes or an attitude that is conspicuously in disagreement with a resulting behavior creates conflict (Festinger, 1957; Harmon-Jones, 1999). On the other hand, a behavior can be reorganized to become more in tune with an attitude.

Gagne Theory and Andragogy

In 1965 Robert Gagne published his book entitled ‘The Conditions of Learning’. In his book, Gagne (1965) explained the study of learning objectives, and how these different classes of learning objectives concern the appropriate instructional designs.

Gagne classified two types of conditions i.e. internal and external. The internal conditions can be described as “states” and include attention, motivation, and recall. The external conditions can be thought of as factors surrounding one’s behavior, and include the arrangement and stage of stimulus events.

Gagne’s (1965) theory of conditions of learning has several implications for instructional technology. The design of instruction should involve: analyzing requirements, selecting media, and designing the instructional events. Moreover, the instructional technologist must consider the following learning concepts when developing methods of instruction:

  • Skills should be learned one at a time and each new skill learned should build on formerly acquired skills.
  • The analysis phase must identify and describe the precondition lower-level skills and knowledge required for an instructional objective.
  • Lower level objectives must be mastered before higher-level ones.
  • Objectives must be stipulated in real behavioral terms.
  • Positive reinforcement should be used in a repetitive manner.

Gagne’s (1965) work has made major contributions to the scientific knowledge base in the field of instructional technology especially in the area of instructional design. He outlined several steps that should be used to plan and design instruction; these include:

  • Classify the types of learning outcomes.
  • Each outcome may have prerequisite knowledge or skills that must be identified.
  • Identify the internal conditions or processes the learner must have to achieve the outcomes.
  • Identify the external conditions or instruction needed to achieve the outcomes.
  • Spell out the learning context.
  • Record the characteristics of the learners.
  • Select the media for instruction.
  • Plan to analyze the learners.
  • The instruction is tested with learners in the form of decisive evaluation.

After the instruction has been used, cumulative evaluation is used to assess the efficiency of the instruction.

Adult Education: Literature Review

As said by Lindeman (1926) adult education is “a process through which learners become aware of significant experience. Recognition of significance leads to evaluation. Meanings accompany experience when we know what is happening and what importance the event includes for our personalities” (p. 169). This includes inference to self-direction and significant evidence, both of which have since become considerable aspects of adult learning theory. The definition was strengthened by Knowles (1978), although the greater stress of his work lay in upholding the notion of andragogy, which he describes as the center of learning of adults rather than children (pedagogy). He suggests that “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 an adult” (p. 56), as a result taking responsibility for his/her learning, and capable of becoming a self-directed learner. It is this aspect of self-direction, which supports much of the work of Knowles (1970; 1978) and is strengthened through the work of Freire (1974; 1976) who supported current education as a means of conscientization, empowerment, and self-direction.

More recent research which re-examined the andragogical approach supported by several analysts in the field of adult education e. g: Freire, Dewey, Bruner, Rogers, and Knowles suggests that rather than being a theory, andragogy is more “a philosophy of education which provides useful guidelines to the teaching of adults” (Burns, 1995, p.251). Drawing on the theories of these analysts, Burns (1995) propose that the agreement of major concepts of the andragogical model include:

  • Adults need to know why they are required to learn something before being forced to learn it.
  • In any group of adults, there will be a greater range of individual differences than among a school group.
  • Contrary to subject-centered learning in childhood, adults are task and problem-centered in their approach, especially to those problems, which they face in daily life in work, home, and free time.
  • Adult inspiration generally appears to be founded on inherent factors namely quality of life, self-respect, and job satisfaction, therefore adult education should make the best provision for differences in style, time, place, and pace of learning.
  • Adults are responsible for their own learning decisions and their own lives (summary, Burns, 1995: 333-336).

Despite the fact trainer/educator awareness of knowing about these main concepts, however, it is not enough to ensure that all adult learners will learn.

Yet, adult Education is not a new concept. It has been considered by Dewey (1925) and Lindeman, (1926) and received improved attention in the 1970s, particularly through the work of Freire (1974; 1976) and Knowles (1970; 1978). In recent years then again, this subject and its literature appear to have been considered, even lost, in the broader literature and related discourse of organizational learning, the learning organization, transformation theory, and action learning. Amongst this broader literature and discourse there is increasing evidence, which shows that the learning organization is, for many organizations, an indefinable goal; an ideal rather than reality (Daft, 2001; Dennis, 1998; Dixon, 1999; Garavan, 1997; Marsick, 1997).

Organizations aim for improved productivity, with learning recognized as an important factor in achieving higher output objectives, yet, there is promising support, which shows that training and related activities are in decline in the workplace (Kramar, 2001; Voisey, Baty & Delaney, 2003).

Acknowledging and building on the work of Freire, Dewey, Bruner, Rogers and Knowles, Mezirow, (1978; 1981; 1990; 1996; 1999) expanded the concept of self-direction in adult learning by considering the psycho-cultural and psychosocial contexts in which the adult learner has been socialized. He argues that in learning situations, the current attitudes, values, and assessments of the adult learner may not always be correct in the light of new information or with new situations and changes. Mezirow (1978) further maintains that the capacity to unlearn, update, or reframe previously acquired attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behavior to accommodate “new” information or new situations as a pre-requisite to a new frame of reference will be an increasingly common life event, and particularly concerning becoming a self-directed learner.


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