Tag: pedagogy

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.

Instructivism, constructivism or connectivism?

Instructivism is dead. Gone are the days of an authoritarian teacher transmitting pre-defined information to passive students.

Empty lecture chairs

In the 1990s, constructivism heralded a new dawn in instructional design, turbo-charged by the rise of Web 2.0. Students morphed into participants, empowered to seek new knowledge and understanding for themselves, in the context of their own unique, individual experiences.

In turn, teachers enthusiastically transformed themselves into facilitators, guiding and coaching the participants to inquire, explore, discover and even generate new learnings.

Fast forward to today and connectivism is all the rage. In this digital era, we recognise that there’s simply too much knowledge to take in – and it changes too quickly anyway. So forget about trying to “know” everything; instead, build your network of knowledge sources, and access them whenever you need them.

Slippery slope

The popular sequence of events that I have recounted is often represented pictorially as a gradient, accompanied by that ubiquitous table comparing various aspects of the three pedagogies.

Evolution of Instructivism through Constructivism to Connectivism

But is this gradient a fair representation?

Certainly it’s accurate in terms of chronology: the concept of constructivism was conceived after instructivism, and connectivism was conceived after that.

However, I think the diagram misleadingly suggests an evolution of instructional design. In other words, constructivism was so intellectually and pedagogically superior to instructivism that it replaced it, and connectivism is so intellectually and pedagogically superior to constructivism that it, it turn, has replaced that.

Sure, the gradient reflects a wonderful growth of ideas, but I think it’s a trap to conclude that the latter pedagogies supersede the former.

The real world

My view is informed by observation.

Yes, workplace learning has thankfully become more constructivist and even connectivist over time, but we all know that instructivism is still alive and well.

For example, face-to-face classes with monologous trainers and one-to-one coaching sessions remain popular modes of delivery. Even in the e‑learning space, online courses are typically linear, virtual classes frequently replicate their bricks-and-mortar antecedents, while podcasts, of course, are quintessentially instructivist.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Why is this so? Why, in the midst of ever-advancing learning theory and progressive instructional design, does such rampant instructivism persist? Why haven’t constructivism and connectivism blown it out of the water?

The answer, I believe, is because instructivism remains relevant.

The three amigos

Allow me to elaborate my argument in the context of the financial services industry.

When a new employee is recruited into the organisation, there are certain things they just need to know. For example, it might be imperative for the employee to understand how the superannuation system works, or a particular taxation regime, or the regulations that govern a particular investment option.

Not only does a sound understanding of the fundamental concepts have an obvious bearing on the employee’s ability to do their job properly, but leaving such learning to chance could have serious risk management and compliance ramifications.

This is where an instructivist approach proves useful. Whether in a classroom setting, via an online course or otherwise, the resident subject matter expert (SME) within the organisation typically provides the learner with a programmed sequence of knowledge, carefully scaffolding their learning and – to adopt a cognitivist view – construct a basic framework of knowledge in the learner’s mind.

As a novice in the domain, the learner is unlikely to know what it is they need to know. The SME transmits this necessary information quickly and efficiently.

Next, a constructivist approach empowers the learner to expand and deepen their knowledge at their discretion. For example:

  • Discussion forums (synchronous or asynchronous) allow the learner to ask questions, clarify concepts and share experiences.
  • Wikis act as non-linear knowledge banks to be mined as necessary.
  • Search engines allow the learner to follow their own trails of inquiry.

No longer a novice, the learner has the tools to drive further learning in the context of their existing knowledge.

As the learner acquires expertise, we must recognise that in this digital age, no one person can ever be expected to know it all. At this point, a connectivist approach empowers the learner to extend their knowledge by proxy.

In a previous article, I provided the following examples of potential information sources that the learner could incorporate into their personal learning network:

  • Social bookmarks
  • News feeds, podcasts, blogs, wikis and discussion forums
  • Social and professional networks such as Facebook and Twitter
  • Industry conferences and other external events

In today’s environment, I see an expert as one who couples a rich foundation of knowledge with the capability to connect to new knowledge at a moment’s notice.

A new representation

In the workplace, it’s clear that instructivism, constructivism and connectivism are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The astute e-learning practitioner will apply principles of all three, as circumstances change and their respective relevancies rise and fall. As I have suggested, this may align to the learner’s transition from novice to expert in a particular domain.

From a practical perspective then, is the popular “evolution” of instructional design from instructivism through constructivism to connectivism a furphy? All three pedagogies build on one another to provide a rounded theoretical toolset for the modern professional to exploit.

Therefore, I propose to replace the traditional left-to-right gradient with a new representation:

Concentric ovals covering Instructivism, Constructivism and Connectivism.

This diagram acknowledges the chronology of instructional design theory, with the earliest pedagogy occupying the centre circle, and the later pedagogies occupying the outer rings. Yet it does not suggest that one pedagogy supersedes the other; instead, they complement one another.

Balancing act

It’s important to point out that in any organisation, different employees will be at different stages of learning across multiple domains. The instructional designer will need to balance all three pedagogical approaches to support everyone.

For example, while an online course may be purposefully instructivist to support novice learners, it’s important that a learner-centered approach be adopted to serve others who may also use the course (or parts thereof).


In short, if someone asks me “Instructivism, constructivism or connectivism?”, I say “All three, where relevant”.

Connectivism and the modern learner

Recently, I read a blog article about connectivism by Debora Gallo. Soon after, I attended a presentation about m-learning by Jan Herrington, in which she too mentioned connectivism.

This got me thinking… I don’t know anything about connectivism!

So after several hours of unenlightened googling, I decided to bite the bullet, go back to first principles and read George Siemens’ seminal paper, Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.

Time lapse photography of blue lights.

Theoretical foundations

Siemens describes connectivism as “the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organisation theories”.

According to Chaos Theory, everything is connected, as illustrated so eloquently by the Butterfly Effect. While chaos may appear a random mess at first glance, the theory holds that order does in fact exist.

So if we view chaos through the lens of Network Theory, we see the universe as a massive, complex network. While the millions of nodes may appear disparate and unrelated, they are all indeed connected (however indirectly).

The point for the learner is whether you can recognise the underlying pattern. Meaning already exists in the world… but can you see it? Mother Nature hasn’t drawn any lines for you: you have to join the dots yourself.

Learning in the digital age

Siemens bills connectivism as “a learning theory for the digital age”.

The amount of knowledge in the world is growing exponentially – and to make matters worse, it’s superseding itself quicker than ever before. So while it’s one thing to join the dots, new dots are popping up all over the place!

In this context, the idea of connectivism re-defines what it means to “learn”.

These days, we can’t know it all. There’s simply too much to internalise and it changes too quickly. Instead, we need to exploit technology to extend our knowledge beyond our own brains.

Specifically, we need to connect to sources of information, and to form connections between them. In other words, we need to recognise meaningful patterns among distributed sets of information. This is the new process of “learning”.

In a sense, connectivism is about self-organising our personal learning networks. We don’t have all knowledge in our heads right now, nor do we necessarily want it. Most of it is hosted elsewhere, but through judicious networking we assume it as our own. In this way, we have access to it whenever we need it.

In fact, Siemens maintains that “the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing”. I interpret this to mean that as time goes by, new knowledge becomes more relevant in the real world, while existing knowledge becomes obsolete. Therefore we need to maintain our connections to the new knowledge.

That’s why connectivism focuses on the sources of information, rather than on the information itself. Information comes and goes, but the source of the information will always provide you with the latest and greatest. (That’s the idea, anyway.)

Hence, connectivism represents a major shift in instructional design. Rather than continually feeding learners static information, we need to support their evolution in becoming their own personal knowledge managers.

The hornet’s nest

I didn’t realise that connectivism was so controversial, eg Pløn Verhagen, Downes.

I must admit that I struggled with some of the basic concepts when I first read Siemens’ paper, and I found the lack of practical examples frustrating. A part of me found solace when I realised that others with impressive academic credentials were also questioning various aspects of the theory.

However, I accept Siemens’ subsequent point that the discourse since his article was published has helped to create a context of understanding. As I have not participated in those discussions, I shall try to limit my own “unsubstantiated philosophising”.

Moving on

It seems to me that the academic argy bargy has focussed on the epistemology of connectivism.

The constructivist approach to learning, for example, can still involve the same sources of information as the connectivist approach; so the argument isn’t about how or where the learner accesses information, but what they do with it in order to “learn”.

As far as I can gather, no one’s arguing about the pedagogy of connectivism.

It’s universally accepted that the practice of learning has changed in the modern world. To keep up to speed in the knowledge economy, we need to connect to sources of new information. These days we have many excellent tools to do just that, and the modern learner is using them.

So regardless of our theoretical biases, connectivism informs us that we need to supplement the learner’s “know-how” and “know-what” with “know-where”.


One of the ways we can apply connectivism in the corporate sector is by enriching our employees’ PLEs with relevant, high-quality sources of new information. Consider the following:

  • Create a social bookmarking account to share useful websites.
  • Recommend news feeds, podcasts, blogs and discussion forums.
  • Use Twitter and Facebook to foster social/professional networking.
  • Maintain wikis as JIT knowledge repositories.
  • Promote industry conferences and other external events.

But facilitating connections to good sources of new information is only part of the solution. The learners also need to form the connections between them to drive self-organisation.

Context setting is particularly important. Don’t just insert a simple hyperlink to an information set: explain its purpose. For example, “this website contains full-text copies of the legislation that governs the financial services industry”; “this wiki hosts our product information”; “this news feed informs you of our daily interest rates”.

Let the learners know that they don’t need to remember every clause of every act of law; nor do they need to learn the obscure details of every product the company sells; nor do they need to memorise the company’s interest rates, which are prone to change anyway. However, they do need to know where to get this information when they need it.


Finally, connectivism demands some serious meta-learning skills.

Not only must learners identify and self-organise sources of information in the wider world, but they must also continually evaluate the contents. The digital age has set off an avalanche of information: learners need to distinguish between what’s important and what isn’t.

To support the development of connectivist meta-learning skills, consider the following:

  • Encourage your learners to find further sources of information for themselves.
  • Encourage them to share these sources with their colleagues via Web 2.0, and to explain their relevance.
  • Run exercises or workshops to develop their content evaluation skills.
  • Provide case studies illustrating how new information has affected existing situations in the real world.

Our role, therefore, is not only to assist our colleagues in sourcing new information, but also in managing it effectively. Only then can they become self-directed, self-regulated and, ultimately, self-made in the knowledge economy.