Tag: andragogy

Great and small

English is a funny language.

Coloured by countless other languages over centuries of war, politics, colonialism, migration and globalisation, many words have been lost, appropriated or invented, while others have changed their meaning.

In Australian English for example, fair dinkum means “true” or “genuine”. Linguaphiles speculate the phrase originated in 19th Century Lincolnshire, where “dinkum” referred to a fair amount of work, probably in relation to a stint down the mines. Add a tautology and 10,000 miles, and you have yourself a new lingo.

Thousands of other English words have their origins in ancient Greek. One pertinent example for L&D practitioners is pedagogy (formerly paedagogie) which derives from the Hellenic words paidos for “child” and agogos for “leader”. This etymology underscores our use of the word when we mean the teaching of children.

And yet our language is nuanced. We may alternately use pedagogy to mean the general approach to teaching and learning. Not necessarily teaching, not necessarily children. In this broader sense it’s an umbrella term that may also cover andragogy – the teaching of adults – and heutagogy – self-determined learning.

For example, when Tim Fawns, the Deputy Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education at the University of Edinburgh, blogged his thoughts about pedagogy and technology from a postdigital perspective, he defined pedagogy in the university setting as “the thoughtful combination of methods, technologies, social and physical designs and on-the-fly interactions to produce learning environments, student experiences, activities, outcomes or whatever your preferred way is of thinking about what we do in education”.

When Trevor Norris and Tara Silver examined positive aging as consumer pedagogy, they were interested in how informal learning in a commercial space influences the mindset of its adult patrons.

And when I use the word pedagogy in my capacity as an L&D professional in the corporate sector, I’m referring to the full gamut of training, coaching, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, on-the-job experiences and performance support for my colleagues across 70:20:10.

A standing businessman facilitating a training session with a group of colleagues seated in a semi circle.

So while I assume (rightly or wrongly) that the broader form of the term “pedagogy” is implicitly understood by my peers when it’s used in that context, I spot an opportunity for the narrower form to be clarified.

Evidently, modern usage of the word refers not only to the teaching of children but also to the teaching of adults. Whether they’re students, customers or colleagues, the attribute they have in common with kids is that they’re new to the subject matter. Hence I support the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of pedagogy as the practice of teaching, regardless of the age of the target audience.

If pedagogy includes adults, then logic dictates we also review the exclusivity of the term andragogy. Sometimes children are experienced with the subject matter; in such cases, an andragogical approach that draws upon their existing knowledge, ideas and motivations would be applicable. Hence I dare to depart from the OED’s definition of andragogy as the practice of teaching adults, in favour of the facilitation of learning. Again, regardless of the age of the target audience.

With regard to heutagogy, I accept Hase & Kenyon’s coinage of the term as the study of self-directed learning; however in the context of our roles as practitioners, I suggest we think of it as the facilitation of self-directed learning. That makes heutagogy a subset of andragogy, but whereas the latter will have us lead the learners by pitching problems to them, hosting Socratic discussions with them and perhaps curating content for them, the former is more about providing them with the tools and capabilities that enable them to lead their own learning journeys.

A tree structure flowing from Pedagogy down to Pedagogy, Andragogy and Heutagogy; with Instructivism, Constructivism, Connectivism and Novices, Intermediates, Experts aligned respectively.

This reshaping of our pedagogical terminology complements another tri-categorisation of teaching and learning: instructivism, constructivism and connectivism.

As the most direct of the three, instructivism is arguably more appropriate for engaging novices. Thus it aligns to the teaching nature of pedagogy.

When the learner moves beyond noviceship, constructivism is arguably more appropriate for helping them “fill in the gaps” so to speak. Thus it aligns to the learning nature of andragogy.

And when the learner attains a certain level of expertise, a connectivist approach is arguably more appropriate for empowering them to source new knowledge for themselves. Thus it aligns to the self-directed nature of heutagogy.

Hence the principle remains the same: the approach to teaching and learning reflects prior knowledge. Just like instructivism, constructivism and connectivism – depending on the circumstances – pedagogy, andragogy and heutagogy apply to all learners, great and small.

The black hole of adult education

So the Russians want to build a research base on the moon, and they want NASA and the European Space Agency to help them.

Anyone who has read Off The Planet by Jerry Linenger knows that this idea has about as much chance of getting up as Vladimir Putin has of winning American Idol.

Linenger knows better than most: he spent 5 months on Mir. Despite the years of training and the millions of dollars poured into the program, he and his two cosmonaut colleagues had to rely on their collective ingenuity, tenacity and sheer luck to remain alive.

Endangered on a daily basis by the incompetence of the Russian Federal Space Agency and the political expediency of the US Government, he was caught between a rock and a hard place – while floating between the third rock and outer space.

Mir space station with Earth in the background.

One of the most shocking parts of the story takes place in Star City – the cosmonaut training compound located outside Moscow. Linenger was sitting in a classroom, struggling to interpret both the Russian language and the technical complexity of the subject matter…

My only saviour was oftentimes an outdated, hand-drawn engineering diagram hanging in the classroom beside the instructor’s blackboard … During many of my one-on-one lectures, I would block out entirely what the instructor was saying and memorize the diagram hanging on the wall. The diagrams themselves were outdated — showing only the original configuration of the Mir and not the myriad modifications made over the eleven-year lifespan of the station — but so were the lectures. Most of the instructors looked as if they had been teaching the subjects since the time of Yuri Gagarin. They had not kept abreast of the changes on Mir.

Furthermore I had the impression that my understanding the material presented was almost irrelevant to the lecturer. What was important was that they got through the canned lecture word for word, just as they had for the past ten years.

It gets worse…

What struck me as different about the training sessions, as compared to all the schooling I had ever received, was the lack of written materials or handouts. All of the material was presented orally … instructors realized that their job security, to a large extent, hinged on their knowledge of a system or component of the space station. Write the information down and their corner of the market would be lost.

For a fledgling language student like myself there is no more difficult way of learning space systems than by lectures delivered entirely in Russian … I learned very little during the 4:00PM to 6:00PM lecture time-slot, other than how to appear attentive while daydreaming. I spent much of my time asking myself, “What am I doing here?”

And yet it gets worse…

After hearing pleas for assistance from every astronaut training in Star City, NASA shuttle-Mir program managers finally sent over American trainers to help produce some translated, written materials … The Russians were uniformly uncooperative … The goal of helping cosmonauts and astronauts better prepare for a mission was not a shared goal.

The Russians were being paid to train the American astronauts. Each minute of training was paid for. If written materials — clear, understandable, and readable — were made available, we would eventually require less instructor time. Less time, less money. The Russians finally agreed to at least explore the possibility of making training manuals, but insisted that they be paid handsomely for their “vast knowledge and experience”.

Linenger goes on to describe the continuing obstructiveness of the Russian administrators, their exorbitant fees to accommodate minor requests, his interrogation-style exams, the futility of his complaints, his frustration over the lack of change, and how the astronauts on a subsequent mission threatened to leave Space City en mass.

If you think I’m just picking on the Ruskies, you’re missing my point. Some of my best friends are Russian.*

* To be read as per Tallulah Bankhead in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.

On the contrary, I could write a book about all the parallels I can draw between Linenger’s mission and the state of education in the West today. I’m thinking along the lines of:

  • Organisational culture
  • Activity vs outcome
  • Formal vs informal learning
  • Instructivism vs constructivism
  • Andragogy
  • Learning styles
  • Authenticity
  • Flipped classrooms
  • Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing
  • Motivation
  • Special needs
  • Kirkpatrick’s levels of evaluation
  • Academic tenure

… the list goes on.

If you haven’t read Off The Planet, I highly recommend you do so.

Furthermore, I challenge you to apply Linenger’s experiences to your own working environment, and to consider how you can effect positive change.

It’s not rocket science.

Taxonomy of Learning Theories

Academia is teeming with learning theories.

Some of them are old, some of them are new. Some are flash-in-the-pan, others stand the test of time and remain applicable to this very day. Some of them are controversial, while others have assumed the aura of conventional wisdom. Some of them are simple, while others are incomprehensible to mere mortals.

It can be quite a challenge for the modern learning professional to identify an appropriate learning theory, draw practical ideas from it, and apply it to their daily work.

Where do you start? Which theory do you choose? What is its central premise? How does it relate to other theories?
Frustrated man with post-it notes stuck to his face.


To clear some of the obfuscation that surrounds learning theory, I have developed the following Taxonomy of Learning Theories.

Tracey's Taxonomy of Learning Theories

This taxonomy identifies key theories that apply to workplace learning, categorises them according to common properties, and illustrates the relationships among them.

I hope that this taxonomy, along with the corresponding notes below, will assist you in using learning theory to inform your instructional design decisions.

Close up of The Thinker by Rodin

Overarching themes

Almost all learning theory is derived from one or more of the following psychological schools of thought:

  • Behaviourism
  • Cognitivism
  • Constructivism
  • Connectivism

These four psychologies form the overarching themes of my taxonomy.

Cartoon of one dog dog saying to another 'Watch what I can make Pavlov do. As soon as I drool, he'll smile and write in his little book' while Pavlov looks on.


Classical conditioning maintains that a neutral stimulus can be associated with another stimulus that elicits a particular response. This concept was demonstrated in the early 1900s by Ivan Pavlov, who reported that after a period of conditioning, a dog will associate the sound of a beating metronome (neutral stimulus) with food, and respond to it in the same manner (salivate).

Operant conditioning maintains that behaviour is controlled by its consequences: behaviours that are rewarded are likely to be repeated, while behaviours that are punished are unlikely to be repeated. This concept was demonstrated by Edward Thorndike, who placed a cat in a “puzzle box”. The cat discovered that by pulling a ring, a side door fell open which allowed it to escape. So when Thorndike put the cat back in the box, it pulled the ring again.

Social Learning Theory is another theory that has its roots in behaviourism. I somewhat amateurishly consider it operant conditioning by proxy, whereby the learner (especially a child) observes the rewarded actions of someone else, and thus behaves similarly. It’s important to note that Social Learning Theory now extends beyond the behaviourist domain to encompass cognition, particularly through the work of Julian Rotter and Albert Bandura.

Stylised x-ray of a brain in a skull.


Since behaviourism focuses on external behaviour, it considers the mind a black box. In contrast, cognitivism peers inside the box to explain the inner structures and processes of learning.

Models of memory

Numerous cognitivist learning theories derive from the Modal Model of Memory developed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin since 1968. They proposed that human memory comprises three components: (1) Sensory memory, which perceives the information that is collected by our senses, such as visual information (eg a drawing) and auditory information (eg a bell toll); (2) Short-term memory, which processes the information that has been supplied by the sensory memory; and (3) Long-term memory, our more-or-less permanent knowledge storage area.

The original Atkinson-Shiffrin memory model, lacking the sensory memory stage which was devised later, showing incoming information going to short-term memory storage then to long-term memory storage.

Atkinson & Shiffrin’s concept of short-term memory was superseded in 1974 by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch’s concept of working memory, which comprises the central executive and three slave systems: (1) The phonological loop, which processes verbal information; (2) The visuospatial sketchpad, which processes visual imagery and spatial information; and (3) an integrative component called the episodic buffer.

Baddeley's model of working memory in which the phonological loop, the visuospatial sketchpad and the episodic buffer connect to the central executive.

In 1956, George Miller reported that the “span of immediate memory” is limited to the magical number 7±2 items. From this, he deduced that the amount of information that could be processed at any one time could be increased by “chunking” it.

In the 1970s, John Anderson started to develop ACT-R, which maintains that long-term memory comprises declarative memory which is explicitly stored and retrieved (eg crashing your bike into a tree on your birthday when you were a child) and procedural memory which is unconsciously stored and retrieved (eg the motor skills required for riding a bike generally).

Stylised neurons

Schema theories

Models of memory provide the foundation for subsequent cognitivist theories that (arguably) have more direct implications for instructional design.

In 1977, Richard Anderson extended the work of earlier theorists such as Frederic Bartlett and Jean Piaget. His Schema Theory of Learning maintains that within long-term memory (or more specifically, declarative memory), knowledge is arranged in a hierarchical network of constructs called “schemas”.

Similarly, David Ausubel’s Subsumption Theory proposes that learning involves the linking of new information to relevant points in the learner’s existing cognitive structure. During the learning process, new information is subsumed under more general information in the hierarchical arrangement of the learner’s prior knowledge.

Charles Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory complements Ausubel’s principle of ideational scaffolding. Reigeluth maintains that instruction should be organised in increasing order of complexity. In particular, the simplest (or epitomised) version of the domain should be provided initially, and elaborated upon subsequently. This approach develops a broad, meaningful context into which the learner can assimilate the narrow, detailed information.

A woman studying.

Cognitive load

In 1988, John Sweller synthesised key principles of memory and schema under a new proposal called Cognitive Load Theory.

Cognitive Load Theory maintains that the mental effort required for learning imposes a cognitive load on working memory. The total cognitive load consists of three components: (1) Intrinsic cognitive load, which is imposed by the intrinsic characteristics of the content that is to be learned; (2) Germane cognitive load, which refers to the mental effort required to organise the elements of the content into a schema, integrate it into long-term memory, and automate its processing; and (3) Extraneous cognitive load, which does not contribute to the learning process (eg the mental effort required to block out loud music).

If the total cognitive load of the learning task exceeds the processing capacity of working memory, learning fails. This suggests that instruction should be designed with a view to reduce cognitive load and thereby avoid overload.

Two workers on a construction site.


Constructivism has a rich history. Numerous theorists have contributed to its development over the last century (eg Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, Ernst von Glaserfeld), and several brands are recognised in the domain (eg cognitive constructivism, social constructivism, radical constructivism).

Regardless of the theorist or the brand, however, constructivism essentially maintains that people learn by constructing their own knowledge on the basis of their experiences. Constructivist learning theories recognise that everyone’s framework of prior knowledge is unique, thus they have their own needs, goals and contexts.

A baby playing with books.


In his study of child development, Jean Piaget posited that every learner has a mental representation of the world which he or she constructs through their experiences.

When a person experiences cognitive conflict (a discrepancy between their mental representation and what they are currently experiencing), they undergo a process of adaptation. If the new experience aligns with their mental representation, the learner assimilates it in the form of new knowledge into their existing schema. If, however, the new experience does not align with their mental representation, the learner must rearrange their existing schema to accommodate the new knowledge.

Clearly, adaptation is complementary to Schema Theory; however, the constructivist perspective emphasises the learner centredness of the activity.

A blacksmith hammering a piece of metal while his colleague supervises.

Situated Learning Theory

A valuable means by which a learner can close the gaps in their existing schema, and broaden and deepen their knowledge, is to engage with other people, ask questions, debate ideas, and share experiences.

Situated Learning Theory focuses on this social, practice-based approach to learning. The theory views learning in terms of participation in a community of practice, and considers knowledge to be highly dependent on its context.

A standing businessman facilitating a training session with a group of colleagues seated in a semi circle.


Andragogy focuses on adult learning, and it adopts a strong constructivist perspective.

It boils down to 5 assumptions about adult learners as articulated by Malcolm Knowles: (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; and (5) Adults are motivated to learn by internal factors.

I have stated previously that I believe Knowles’ 5 assumptions generally hold true – but not for all adults, and certainly not all of the time. An andragogical approach is appropriate for adults who are intellectually mature, self directed and intrinsically motivated, with time to learn and their heads in the right space.

A humanoid figure with networked nodes extended from its head.


While cognitivism focuses on knowledge inside the mind, connectivism focuses on knowledge outside the mind.

George Siemens describes connectivism as “a learning theory for the digital age”. He maintains that in today’s world, there’s simply too much knowledge to take in – and it changes too quickly anyway.

So forget about trying to know everything; instead, exploit technology to extend your knowledge beyond your own brain. Build a network of knowledge sources which you can access as the need arises.

Recognising meaningful patterns among distributed sets of information, rather than storing it all in your head, re-defines what it means to “learn”.

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.