Adult learning shminciples

In the global game of Corporate Bingo, the term “adult learning principles” must be one of the most abused.

It’s a convenient abstract that can whitewash a range of unsubstantiated claims and half-truths.

But what exactly are adult learning principles?

The theory

Malcolm Knowles is widely regarded as the father of adult learning.

Since the 1960s, he articulated a distinction between pedagogy (the teaching of children) and andragogy (the teaching of adults). In many ways, Knowles’ description of pedagogy approximates instructivism, while his description of andragogy approximates constructivism.

In a nutshell, andragogy boils down to 5 key assumptions:

1. Adult learners are self directed.
2. Adults bring experience with them to the learning environment.
3. Adults are ready to learn to perform their role in society.
4. Adults are problem oriented, and they seek immediate application of their new knowledge.
5. Adults are motivated to learn by internal factors.

The problem is, if you work in the real world, you know this is baloney.


The real world

Laurie Blondy does a useful (if somewhat repetitive) job of reviewing Knowles’ 5 assumptions in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning. She also discusses their potential applications to e-learning, and responds to some of the criticisms that have been voiced over the years.

I don’t intend to regurgitate Blondy’s observations, nor do I wish to echo the academic world’s arguments for or against the philosophy of andragogy.

Instead, I want to expose some of the attitudes of adult learners that I have encountered over the years…

“I haven’t got time for all this. Just tell me what I need to know and let me get on with it.”

“I don’t really want to do this course, but it’s mandatory, so I’ll do the bare minimum to pass and be done with it.”

“I’ve only been with the company for a few weeks. I don’t know what I don’t know.”

“Jim’s done this course before. I wonder if he’ll give me the answers to the quiz.”

“I need to earn more points for my continuing education program. What’s quick and easy?”

“I’ll do this training so it looks good on my resume. Then I can get that promotion I want.”

As an education professional, you’re probably cringing at these attitudes. But by the same token, you know through experience that they’re alive and well in today’s workplace.

The ideal

It’s important to remember that andragogy is founded on assumption, not empirical research.

To this day there remains an intriguing paucity of statistical evidence to support andragogy, despite the litany of arguments pitched against it.

But the science doesn’t matter because the assumptions sound right. Deep in your gut, you just know that they’re true. Just like you know only Gen-Y Americans are interested in Second Life and only spammers and corporate cowboys use Twitter.

The truth is, andragogy represents an ideal. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all adult learners were self directed and ready to learn. Wouldn’t it be heart warming if they were motivated by the joy of learning, rather than by power, prestige and the mighty dollar.

To exacerbate the problem, the vast majority of education professionals want to believe the assumptions of andragogy. Some of us can’t get our heads around the notion that many people don’t love learning as much as we do. Some of us can’t accept the fact that many people aren’t altruistic or interested in collaboration. Some of us can’t appreciate that many people prioritise education a few pegs below their daily work and family commitments.

All walks of life work in the corporate sector, and the sector is subject to business realities.

The circumstances

At this point I must stress that I believe most adults value learning. In fact, I believe Knowles’ 5 assumptions generally hold true – but not for all adults, and certainly not all of the time.

Even the most motivated of learners will one day find themselves under a mountain of paperwork. Even the most collaborative of learners will one day have a deadline screaming towards them. Even the most experienced of staff will need to learn something completely new. Even the most joyful of learners will be forced to do training that they consider bureaucratic and irrelevant.

Their attitude depends on their circumstances.

The way forward

To be fair, Knowles evolved his of views of pedagogy and andragogy. In the early days he described them in terms of a dichotomy, while later on he described them in terms of a continuum.

In other words, he realised there were times when one approach might be more appropriate than the other, in light of the circumstances and the needs of the leaner. (Incidentally, this view complements my own view of instructivism, constructivism and connectivism.)

The way forward for the education professional, then, is clear:

Know your audience.

If your learners are intellectually mature, self-directed, intrinsically motivated adults with time to learn and their heads in the right space, then go ahead and incorporate the principles of andragogy into your instructional design.

If they’re not, for whatever reason, then you’ll need to modify your approach accordingly.

11 thoughts on “Adult learning shminciples

  1. I totally agree with your observations. I have been teaching adults (28+) for over 30 years (public higher ed)and have also evaluated myself as an adult learner. Early on I noted that not all adults are self-directed and most need to be assisted to get there. Because of my experiences, I believe in blended/hybrid online education. I find blended gives my students a sense of community by getting to know each other at the beginning of class. Class participation on the discussion board has improved and after awhile, the students take over.

  2. Thanks for your supportive comment, Gloria. I’m not surprised that your students are taking over the discussion board, once they have realised its utility and ease of use. I hope they are asking their colleagues deep questions, and that they are getting substantive replies in return!

  3. That’s true. While adults bring experience with them to the learning environment, they also bring their biases and prejudices.

  4. In reference to e learning’s comments I would say adult learners are more challenging because, for the same reason Ryan challenges Knowle’s theory, their observations and life experiences test those concepts and truths. While that may be nerve wrecking and somewhat disruptive to the “intended lessson for the day” it can also be an opportunity for engaging active learning dialogue. I agree adult learners (I’m one myself) may not always take what we are told or read for face value or truth. Speaking for myself, I want to know why, I want examples I can relate to, I want to dig deeper than the stated concept in my text, I want to understand.

  5. Now there’s a loaded question! May I point you to “Style counsel” –

    I maintain that VARK represents personal preferences. If you can accommodate your learner’s preference, then you are going to boost their enjoyment of the learning experience, and hence its effectiveness.

    Off the top of my head, I think VARK and andragogy interplay most obviously in the informal space. Adult learners are self directed, so if they find resources they don’t like, they simply won’t use them.

    So the L&D professional should seek to blend the resources on offer (multimedia, discussion forums, text, etc). My overarching advice is to make the learning experience as authentic as possible.

  6. I reckon VARK belongs in the same box as Adult Learning Principles. Both are interesting ideas that appeal at first glance, both generalising and simplifying the needs of learners, VARK and Adult Learning Principles both ‘seem’ to make sense. However I think it is better to spend more time and effort discovering more about actual learners, actual work environments and root causes of performance/learning gaps. Design with these in mind and you do not need to think about VARK or Adult Learning Principles.

  7. I agree with Michael!
    The 2 concepts are not comparable – Malcolm Knowles work was theoretical / philosophical approaches to learning (although with straightforward practical application). Learning Styles – like VARK – are hotly disputed and from the latest research I’ve read, pretty much de-bunked! (Try this article as a starter: )
    Here’s another good article with summaries from credible researchers:
    Or – if you’re a more visual learner – try this YouTube:
    (Just couldn’t resist that pun – apologies).

    As you say – learning styles are a preference (maybe) – and that’s it.
    Designing learning opportunities (particularly for adults) needs to consider many more variables than categorising people into learning styles.

  8. Cheers, Anne.

    “Designing learning opportunities (particularly for adults) needs to consider many more variables than categorising people into learning styles” – I totally agree.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.