Adult education, self-direction, and andragogy
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Although the theory of Andragogy is a complex one, this article attempts to outline the main points of Malcolm Knowles. As educators are always looking for helpful ideas to implement in the classroom, some of his ideas and suggestions can be found below.
Similar to the term pedagogy, which addresses the method of teaching in children, andragogy examines the process by which adults learn. While Malcolm Knowles’ theory initially focused on adults, the term andragogy has broadened to include any education practice with a student-driven approach.
Andragogy is a relatively new concept that was created less than 200 years ago. Many professionals, including educators and philosophers, have debated whether there is a difference between pedagogy and andragogy. The idea that adults require a unique approach to learning has existed for less than 100 years, which also leads to questions regarding the conclusions around its methods. There have been many critiques of the theory, including the individualistic approach. Focusing too much on the learner’s experiences has called into the question the validity of the processes, and whether they exist at all.
See also: Social Learning Theory: Albert Bandura
Background on the Concept and the Educator
Andragogy can be traced back to 1833, but little is known about the use of the concept at this time. Alexander Kapp, a German teacher, used the term andragogy to support his explanations of Plato’s Theory of Education. The term disappeared somewhat from mainstream scientific terminology and did not surface again until almost 100 years later. Eduard Lindeman and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, educators from the United States, revived the term when they used it in reference to adult education. They used the concept of andragogy to describe their philosophy and teaching methods specific to adults.
However, it is Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) who is credited for the popularity of the term andragogy as we know it. An educator in the central 20th century, he focused on the science behind adult education in the United States.
In 1935, Knowles began to work under Lindeman, who had recently revitalized the idea of andragogy. Knowles further explored the term throughout his lifetime; delving into processes and methods as he led programs for the YMCA, became executive director of the Adult Education Association, and worked for 20 years as a university faculty member. As he aged, Knowles focused increasingly on informal adult education, seeking a more comprehensive and thorough approach to adult learning. Knowles recognized the distinction between formal and informal educational settings and the benefits of learning in each. He felt that formal settings, which included educational programs and institutions, were best for learning new, intensive material. Informal settings, including community centers, workplaces, and houses of worship were best for the application of practical skills and development of interests.
Knowles’ Assumptions about Adult Learners
As a teacher, it is expected that you make specific assumptions about adult learners. Knowles’ Theory of Andragogy outlines the five assumptions below:
- Self-concept: Adults move from being dependent on others to self-direction as they mature.
- Experience: Adults gain experience as they grow that, in turn, becomes a valuable tool in learning.
- Readiness to learn: The priorities of adults shift as they begin to increasingly value and are therefore more ready to learn about his or her role in society.
- Orientation to learning: Adults change their perspectives on learning as they grow, moving from procrastination to immediate application and from subject interest to problem-solving.
- Motivation to learn: Adults move from extrinsic towards intrinsic motivation as they grow and mature.
Educators are inherently responsible for putting these assumptions into practice in the classroom. Knowles had 6 suggestions on how to do so:
- Promote a positive classroom climate centered around cooperative learning;
- Research the interests and the needs of each adult learner;
- Create learning goals based on the interests and needs outlined above;
- Build on each subsequent activity to achieve the learning objectives;
- Co-create strategies, resources, and methods for instruction;
- Review each activity and make modifications where necessary, while continually evaluating the next steps for learning.
Adult learners retain information best when it is relevant and useful. Therefore, it is imperative for teachers to explain the reason for learning a specific skill. As they possess a mature mindset, adults are often better at creating solutions to real-life issues as opposed to simply memorizing information. Problem-solving, immediate application, and performance-based tasks are all pillars of effective instruction.
See also: Problem-Based Learning (PBL)
Desired Outcomes of Adult Learning
Our education system aims to create productive, contributing members of society. Knowles recognized that critical skills and abilities were ultimately formed in various educational settings, which, in turn, allowed for everyone to get along. These adults, also called “citizen-rulers,” are necessary for a democracy. Knowles had seven desired outcomes:
- Self-knowledge. Knowing their “needs, motivations, interests, capacities, and goals” allows adults to better understand themselves, which leads to personal growth, self-knowledge, and self-respect.
- Global citizenship. Ideally, adults should learn to differentiate between people and ideas and learn to respect others while allowing for mutual disagreement. Ultimately, the goal is to promote acceptance, show empathy, and help others in need.
- Positive attitude. Being open and accepting changes develops resilience in adults, which allows them to see each moment as a learning opportunity.
- Seeking truth. Often people react to the outcome, or symptom, of a situation. Mature adults seek to understand the root of the behavior and, therefore, find a solution that addresses the cause of the behavior.
- Personality. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and adults should capitalize on their strengths by learning skills that support their role. Education can offer many avenues that support each individual to their fullest potential in society.
- Essential values. Adults should not only respect the common values of the society in which they live but understand that they are binding. Shared ideas and traditions are a key component of “the heritage of knowledge” and are collectively valued by each community.
- Social order. Not only is it important to understand the rules and values of the society in which we live, but adults must also contribute as productive citizens. Demonstrating intelligence and being able to mobilize social change show that you are an effective contributor to that society.
In the case of “self-directed learning,” adults are active participants in their own learning journey. Knowles defines “self-directed learning” as taking the initiative to assess one’s own needs, create goals, and seek out appropriate strategies on their own. This is unlike a “typical” classroom, where students engage much more passively with the instructor. In a “normal” classroom, students take notes while the educator delivers a lecture or explains the material in some way. Usually, the teacher is at the front while the learners try and absorb the content, literally hoping their brains soak up the information. In a “normal” classroom, the teacher would also choose the learning goals, success criteria, and evaluate the learning outcomes without student input.
See also: The ADDIE model
Key Factors Found in Successful Adult Learning Programs
- A safe environment that supports individual needs while honoring the uniqueness of each person. This means that every skill level is respected and the educator also acknowledges the life achievements of each individual.
- An environment that promotes creativity and experimentation while encouraging intellectual freedom.
- An environment in which each adult is honored, appreciated and respected as an intelligent being. Educators listen to each student as they would their peers, which shows appreciation for their life experience and allows mutual learning to happen.
- An environment that promotes self-directed learning, as outline above. Educators co-create lessons with their students based on each individual’s needs in order to help them reach their fullest potential for success in their field.
- An environment that challenges adults at their intellectual ability level. Finding the optimum pace at which each individual learns is crucial to success in the classroom. If they find it too easy, they will be bored, but if they find it too hard, they will give up.
- An environment that promotes active participation in learning. Synchronous activities, where the educator and the students interact equally in tasks and exercises, promote more growth than asynchronous tasks, such as when the instructor delivers a lecture.
- An environment that implements feedback from students. Educators who take the time to listen to feedback from their students and implement the changes create a classroom in which students are willing to learn.
In the event that these key factors are not implemented, adults tend not to thrive in the learning programs. Self-respect, confidence, and self-concept suffer if the students do not feel welcomed, accepted, or safe. In studies comparing adults in student-centered programs and faculty-centered programs, more personal growth is observed in programs revolving around students.
Ultimately, Knowles sought to understand the uniqueness of adult learners. Whether you examine his educational assumptions or his desired outcomes, you can see how they would be put into practice in the classroom. As you reflect on his theory, consider some of the questions asked and how you would implement his ideas yourself.