Adult Learning and Development

Androgogy as a model for adult development

In 1968 Malcolm Knowles introduced the “concept and philosophy of andragogy” (Knowles, Holton III, & Swanson, 2005, p. 231) that focused on adults as learners. Defining an adult as an individual who takes responsibility for self and who fills the roles society typically associated with adults, Knowles (1968) argued that adults are simply different from children and proposed that adult education should be differentiated from child education. Knowles defined andragogy as “the art and science of helping adults learn” and proposed a set of assumptions to serve as a model for designing adult education programs. Andragogy was the antithesis to “pedagogy”, the science of teaching children, which is the model that dominates American education today.


Knowles proposed the following assumptions about adult learners (Knowles, Holton III, & Swanson, 2005, pp. 64-68):

Learners’ need to know

Before engaging in learning activities, adults need to know why the learning is important, suggesting that adult educators should help learners recognize gaps between where they are and where they want to be, and to understand how material is relevant to helping them achieve goals.

Self-directed learning

Adults perceive themselves as being responsible for their own decisions and lives. A strong need to be seen as autonomous and self-directed causes an adult individual to be resentful when he or she perceives that others are imposing their wills or otherwise disrespecting the autonomy. This implies that adult educators should create an environment through which adults can move from dependent to self-directed learners.

Prior experience of the learner

Adults enter learning situations with quantity and quality of experience that children do not have, ensuring that a wider range of individual differences exists in groups and requiring a greater emphasis on individualization of learning strategies. Proposing that “the richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves” (p. 66), Knowles emphasizes that adult educators should

  1. avoid the pedagogical approach of transmitting knowledge to passive learners, and;
  2. encourage collaborative experiential techniques like group discussions, simulations, problem-based learning, and case studies.

Readiness to learn

Adults become ready to learn when faced with life situations. This implies that educators should time learning experiences to coincide with developmental needs of the learner and to “induce readiness” by exposing the learner to models that motivate the learner to develop proactive coping skills for addressing life challenges. For example, career counseling can motivate the learner to engage in learning to prepare for the future.

Orientation to learning and problem solving

Adult learning is oriented around solving problems and completing tasks. Adults are motivated to learn when they confront life situations and will learn when they understand how material is relevant. This implies that educators should design learning programs around helping adult learners acquire knowledge and skills necessary for coping life situations at work, home, and school.

Motivation to learn

Internal motivators like self-esteem and satisfaction tend to be more potent than external motivators like money and promotions. While personal growth is inherent in adults, factors like a negative self-concept, lack of resources, and time constraints can block progress. This implies that adult learning programs should foster a supportive environment that reduces barriers to success.

Critical perspectives

Critics argue that andragogy is not a fully developed theory, that Knowles’ assumptions seem to be more situational than universal (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007), and that andragogical practices can be applied to children as well as adults. Following are summaries of each of these criticisms:
Incompleteness. Preempting criticisms about the incompleteness of the theory, Knowles, (2005) himself pointed out that andragogy is a “conceptual framework that serves as a basis for an emergent theory”, not a complete theory. He also says that andragogy needs further research (p. 231). Knowles proposed that researchers should establish a clear theoretical definition and a measurement tool to empirically demonstrate the validity of andragogy.

However, given the challenges of measuring interactively dynamic processes like environment, learners, and learning, empirical validation will likely remain elusive. Following are critical perspectives on each of the assumptions of andragogy.


Rather than being universal, each assumption of andragogy seemingly depends on situational factors; none seems to serve as a universal state of adulthood. For example, considering self-direction as a characteristic of adult learners, Merriam, et al, (2007) Even the most mature adult may need hands-on remedial training if he or she lacks experience in a given area, while Piagetian practitioners may quickly point out that even children engage in self-directed learning tasks (Piaget & Inhelder, 2000).

Need to know

While some adults may engage in needs based learning, they are also likely to engage in learning activities because they want to fulfill wants of self or others. For example, the adult may just like to learn for the sake of learning or may learn something to satisfy the wishes of a partner or a boss.


Regarding readiness to learn, relating learning only to immediate and relevant needs can lead to a myopic view that misses vital context, while limiting learning to symptoms that do not address the complexity of a situation.


More experience does not necessarily translate into better experience, and often serves as a barrier to learning. Adults may need to unlearn habits, behaviors, and attitudes before they can experience new learning. For example, an individual who is conditioned to believe that all white males are racists who oppress minorities might have difficulty learning with and from white males until he can unlearn his prejudice.


While some adults are intrinsically motivated in some situations, research generally finds that adults can meet learning goals and achieve satisfaction whether they are motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic factors (Locke & Latham, 2002). For example, few adults are likely to be internally motivated to attend driving school, sexual harassment training, and prison education; but, effective learning can still occur in these mandated environments.

Likewise, an adult can be intrinsically motivated but still not able to learn if he or she lacks the ability or resources to learn. Further, while educators generally hold that motivation is an essential ingredient of learning, researchers at Université Paris X Nanterre were surprised when their research into motivation in adult education seemed to point to a negative correlation between initial motivation and performance. “The very few links established were mostly negative, as if the more motivated one was at the onset of training, the worse training results tended to be” (Carré, 2000).

Finally, diminishing external motivators may be shortsighted. When asked their primary motivation for returning to school, adult management students in introductory courses that I have taught almost unanimously cite extrinsic factors, specifically money and career advancement. From an applied psychology perspective, Concluding that extrinsic factors, like money, are not important motivators is a “misconception”, according to Jex (2002) “To the contrary, few people would work for no salary” or other extrinsic motivators. Both intrinsic and extrinsic factors seem to dynamically interact to motivate the individual learner.

Applicability to children

In response to criticisms that androgogical assumptions could be also apply to children, Knowles (Knowles, Holton III, & Swanson, 2005) adjusted andragogy from a model to differentiate adult-learning from child-learning to a practice on a continuum between teacher-directed and self-directed learning depending on the situation. In other words, andragogy became situation-specific not unique to adults (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).

For example, a child who is naturally curious about bees may become entirely self-directed in exploring learning outside of school, and may even be able to direct the learning of classmates when the subject arises in school. Likewise, an adult who enters a university-level math course after a 20 year absence from formal education may need careful guidance to learn the basics of math before he or she can apply statistics to solve a business problem.

Radical perspectives

More recent criticisms of andragogy come from the radical adult education perspective, and seem to fall in line with the classical political debate between individualism and collectivism. Looking through critical, feminist, and Africentric philosophical lenses, Sandlin (2005) identified five criticisms of andragogy:

  • Andragogy is value-neutral and apolitical.
  • As a value-neutral framework, andragogy sees all people as equals and does not differentiate among race, class, and culture.
  • Androgogy does not promote alternative ways of learning like those under the radical or progressive education perspectives.
  • Andragogy puts individual development above societal development, which supports established “systems of privilege and oppression” (p. 28).
  • Andragogy supports the status quo by centering learning activities on the needs of the individual learners rather than on the needs of the collective.

Extrapolating the positions from the criticisms, seems to suggest that adult education programs should do the following:

  • Impose values and politics of the institution or educator on the learner;
  • Evaluate and judge learners and situations by the race, class, and culture of the participants;
  • Suppress the interests of the individual for the interests of the group; and
  • Work to tear down existing societal structures that are not aligned with the objectives of the educators.


Criticisms aside, Merriam, et al (2007) asserts that the assumptions of andragogy not only provide adult educators with “a helpful rubric for better understanding adults as learners” but also offers best practices for effectively developing learners of all ages. Andragogy has offered a set of assumptions that differentiate adult learners as being different from child learners, laying a foundation for emerging adult education programs in the United States in the latter part of the 20th century. However, under scrutiny of critical perspectives and the challenges of validating interactively dynamic processes, the assumptions of andragogy seem to be more situational than prescriptive. Like all other theories, andragogy is by no means the definitive framework for adult education, but it does seem to provide a set of tools for facilitating adult learners toward autonomy in perpetual learning, while offering best practices for actively engaging capable learners of all ages in self-directed learning.