The Andragogy Approach: Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory Principles

The Andragogy Approach: Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory Principles
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Andragogy is an approach to learning that is focused on adult learners. The term was first coined by educator Alexander Kapp in 1833, and it has since been used to describe a variety of educational philosophies and methods (Loeng, 2017).

Andragogy is typically contrasted with pedagogy, which is the more traditional approach to teaching children. Andragogy is built on the premise that adults are more self-directed and motivated than children, and that they need to be given the opportunity to learn in ways that are relevant to their lives. Like the ADDIE instructional model, andragogy hinges on pursuing learning past formal education.

As a result, andragogical approaches tend to be highly participatory, with a strong focus on hands-on learning experiences. While andragogy is not necessarily limited to adults, it is most often used in contexts where adult learners are the primary focus.

In this write-up, we will discuss the important aspects of the andragogy approach and the merits that its proponents promote. A few cases of its applications will also be discussed and critical analysis will be offered on how accepting the principles and precepts of andragogy can affect the future of education and industries moving forward.

The Andragogy Approach Table of Contents

  1. Roots and History of Andragogy
  2. Knowles’ Six Assumptions and Four Principles
  3. Applications of Andragogy
  4. Are there Limitations to the Andragogical Approach?
  5. Andragogy in the Unpredictable Future

Roots and History of Andragogy

Pedagogy is derived from the Greek word paidagogos, which means a slave that led boys to and back from school while also tutoring them and teaching manners (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Later, pedagogy came to mean the “art, science, and profession of teaching.” However, it became well-associated with a teacher-centric approach to education. And, many educators and thinkers feel that this outlook on education is not sufficient when dealing with adults. Hence, andragogy was conceptualized. 

Etymology and Coinage

So, what is andragogy? The term has been defined as “the art and science of helping adults learn…” (Knowles, 1980). It was coined from the Greek andr– + –agogy which literally means “leading men.” 

Practitioners and proponents emphasize the critical role of adult learners in their own education. This is because, for many adults, higher education is to be competent and competitive in their personal and specific endeavors. As Zmeyov (1998) noted, this is particular to an individual’s anthroposphere or their natural social environments. It is in this context that the andragogy definition is built, forming the base for the subsequent movement promoting the framework. 

The term was first coined by Alexander Kapp, a German educator, in 1833. The concept, however, did not become popular then. It took the work of Eduard C. Lindeman, an American educator, to extend the conceptual scope and the popular reach of the term. As noted by Nixon-Ponder (1995), Lindeman and Martha Anderson wrote about andragogy in 1920, proposing andragogy to be the real method of adult learning, subscribing to learner-centric principles. This led to the further development of adult education as we know it today. 

This involved the use of small groups and emphasis on the adult learner’s experience as the primary source of information (Nixon-Ponder, 1995). 

The Malcolm Knowles Era

In the 1970s, the andragogy theory was further developed by Malcolm Knowles. He is also credited for being the main popularizer of andragogy. He positioned andragogy as an answer to the insufficiencies of pedagogy. He felt that pedagogy’s idea of the purpose of education does not carry over to adult education.

In pedagogy, education is viewed as a passive “transmittal of knowledge and skills that had stood the test of time (Knowles, 1980).” It is content-driven and fact-laden. But, adult learners need and want applicable knowledge. Thus, they are resistant to the tactics of traditional pedagogy like drills, quizzes, examinations, fact-laden lectures, and rote memorization. 

Knowles (1980), as pointed out by Caruth (2014), viewed university administration as a laggard to management in business and industry. This is in the realm of finding the balance between human growth and organizational efficiency. Higher education, according to Knowles, lags because it overemphasizes organizational efficiency, interfering with the delivery of quality education. Those that sympathize with this view call for more focus on human growth. 

The Knowles theory of andragogy evolved into a sort of movement within academia. And, as Savicevic (1991) noted, the research body revolving around it has also been growing. He added that Knowle’s andragogy has been adopted in at least 10 European countries, including Poland, England, Germany, Russia, and Hungary, among others. Moreover, it was adopted by various disciplines, including management (in Forrest & Peterson, 2006, cited in Kenyon & Hase, 2001), medicine (in Bedi, 2004, cited in Kenyon & Hase, 2001), education (in Bolton, 2006, cited in Kenyon & Hase, 2001), and criminal justice (in Birzer, 2004, cited in Kenyon & Hase, 2001). 

Moving Forward: Andragogy to Heutagogy

The development and popularization of the Malcolm Knowles adult learning principles and practice does not stop at Knowles himself. Scholars like Kenyon and Hase (2001) proposed that andragogy practice is a step towards heutagogy, which is the study of self-determined learning.

Heutagogy, the researchers state, a natural progression from the traditional teacher-learner approach. They noted that this framework is highly applicable to the world today where information is easily accessible and very dynamic. They contend that it is because traditional discipline-based knowledge is insufficient to prepare people for living in contemporary communities and workplaces. 

Moving to the future requires greater participation from adult learners and workers themselves. With the emergence of distance and elearning, heutagogy might just be the natural progression of andragogical practice. It can also be a good follow-up program to substance abuse counseling to help the participant get back on his or her feet.

But before discussing the next evolution of andragogy, let us first take a look at the assumptions and basic principles of andragogy stemming out from the works of Lindeman, Knowles, and other scholars. 

Knowles’ Six Assumptions and The Basic Andragogical Principles

Kenyon and Hase (2001), citing Merriam and colleagues (2007) and Forrest and Peterson (2006), outlined the six main assumptions in Knowle’s andragogy learning theory. They are:

  • Self-concept. Adult learners have a self-concept. This means that they are autonomous, independent, and self-directed. 
  • Learning from Experience. Experience as a rich resource of learning. Adults learn from their previous experiences. Thus, it is a good repository for learning. 
  • Readiness to Learn. Adults tend to gravitate towards learning matters that matter to them. Their readiness to learn things is highly correlated with their relative uses. 
  • Immediate Applications. The orientation of adult learning is for immediate applications rather than future uses. The learning orientation of adults tends to slant towards being task-oriented, life-focused, and problem-centric. 
  • Internally Motivated. Adults are more motivated by internal personal factors rather than external coaxes and pressures. 
  • Need to Know. Adult learners have the need to know the value of what they are learning and know the why’s behind the need to learn them. 

These Malcolm Knowles 6 principles of learning guide practitioners of andragogy in delivering learner-centered education. And, these are consistent with the observation of Rogers (1951, cited in Kenyon & Hase, 2001) that learning is natural just like breathing in the way that it is an internal process totally controlled by the learner. In this view, it is by fiat that the learner is the real center of education. Hence, it is prescribed that educators accept and operate within this premise. Thus, educators should not really “teach.” Instead, they should facilitate learning. 

Moreover, practitioners of the andragogy approach advocate a negotiated design of relevant assessment between learner and facilitator. Also, the “guru factor” is removed (Kenyon & Hase, 2001). This is deemed critical when you really want to be person-centered. 

And, in order to achieve these, Knowles, according to Galustyan and colleagues (2019), highlighted the following basic principles: 

  • Adult education must focus on solving specific problems
  • Adult education must rely on the experience of teachers
  • There should be significant knowledge and experience gained by teachers from training
  • Teachers should be able to analyze and check teaching material 
  • Teachers should receive feedback about their progress

Andragogical principles require the collaboration of both teachers and learners to actively carry out learning processes. Also, it is not only the learner that needs a course correction. The educators are also required to improve their performance relative to the needs of the learner. 

Moreover, in relation to the tendency of adults to be more ready to learn about things that matter to them and have immediate applications in their lives, Galustyan and colleagues (2019) asserted that education should provide a learner with the opportunities to solve societal problems. Thus, they should be equipped to be able to: 

  • Learn to Know. A person should have the tools to be able to understand the affairs of the world. 
  • Learn to Do. A person should be equipped with the skills and knowledge to be able to produce the changes they want in their environment. 
  • To Learn Modern Life. A person should be able to take part in various kinds of human activities cooperating with other people. 

Andragogical approaches emphasize the practical nature of education and the future-centric and purpose-driven applications.  Thus, it is not just limited to traditional higher education. It can be applied to associate degrees, where adults can pursue new careers at a shorter time than a university degree. How much does an associate’s degree cost? Certainly, more affordable than a bachelor’s degree.

Andragogy and its principles are being applied by researchers to continuous employee learning in industries. It has been applied to adult software training, among others (see Hurt, 2012). 

Moreover, the Knowles adult learning principles do not exist in a vacuum nor similar lines of reasoning were not developed by other thinkers. In fact, as pointed out by Hurt (2012), Knowles’ andragogy is consistent with and is complemented by other frameworks and approaches, especially situated cognition and the minimalist approach.

The situated cognition theory, as noted by Hurt (2012) citing Merriam and Caffarella (1999), states that learning and the situation surrounding cannot be separated and are closely related. Learning, in this theory, is considered to be inherently social (in Hansman, 2001, cited in Hurt, 2012). It involves the activity, tools, and interaction among learners. All of these are integrated to create a context conducive to successful learning. Hence, adult learners are elements and extensions of their environments. Thus, their environments and artifacts therein should be finetuned in the service or facilitation of learning. 

The minimalist approach gives this further direction in relation to problem-centric learning in Knowles’ andragogy. The framework supposes that instructors should teach students problem-solving skills and not just fact-laden knowledge. This is consistent with Knowles’ assumption that learners are independent, self-directed, and more interested in solving problems with immediate implications. 

Both of these allied approaches are deemed to improve the execution of adult learning. And, applications range from institutions for higher education to workplaces in competitive industries that encourage employees to continuously learn. Also, If the principles behind these theories are indeed true and their approaches are the aptest, then the current educational practice based on the traditional teacher-centric framework is detrimental to the future of work and education. 

In the next section, we will explore the current and possible applications of Knowles’ adult learning principles in different contexts and fields. In this way, we will be able to see its practical merits, insufficiencies, and measurable effects. 

Sources: LinkedIn & Census Wide, 2019

Applications of Andragogy

Andragogy, broadly construed, is an entailment of adult life as learning is an integral part of existing. And again, as noted by Rogers (1951), it is as natural as breathing. Living beings, in a strong sense, continue to exist by getting acquainted and dealing with both internal drives and external scarcities. And, adult humans have to deal with such in an ever dynamic way. 

Knowles (1968), as mentioned by Caruth (2014), in an awards banquet, stated that the very survival of civilization requires continuous learning even after a person’s formative years. 

The modern world presents many unpredictable challenges. Adults embedded in it have to deal with changing market conditions, dynamic work requirements, and inconstant social relationships. 

Content-centered education focusing on teaching facts is not enough, especially when facts about the state of the world are changing constantly. Successfully navigating the modern world requires skills to deal with unpredictability. Knowle’s adult learning theory and adjunct approaches seek to evolve adult education to provide adult learners with such skills. And, it is being applied in various fields and contexts. 

General Higher Education

In the general context of higher education, many scholars and educators find the need to approach it andragogically. Caruth (2014) noted that it was found by Altbach and colleagues (2005) that half of today’s college student body are adult learners. But, as Caruth and others noted, higher education is not fulfilling its role in adult education (see Harper & Ross, 2011; Pew, 2007, cited in Caruth, 2014). 

There are, however, signs of adoption. For instance, the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at the University of Southern Mississippi allowed students to take initiatives in building their own degree plans with broad boundaries (Caruth, 2014). 

This allowed students to enjoy their learning by having control of their training. And, citing Harper and Ross (2011), Caruth noted that students also renewed their love for learning. Moreover, the faculty benefited from this setup too. This allowed them to examine their values, practice, and scholarship. Also, they found it rewarding that this approach encouraged adult learners to become more autonomous learners.

The andragogical approach has also worked for the law students in the Third and Fourth Districts of Idaho (in Taylor, 2010, cited in Caruth, 2014). These adult learners claimed that they learned the most when educators delivered course content by relating them to experiences. This made the classes “come alive.” The students claimed that the application of the Knowles adult theory principles and assumptions was the most helpful in preparation for practice law. 

These, and other applications of andragogy principles in general higher education, are deemed promising. Thus, it is encouraged by adult learning researchers that andragogy be formally taught to university administrators and staff members (see Tannehill, 2009, Chan, 2010, and Yow, 2010, cited in Caruth 2014). Educators are also encouraged to apply andragogy methods to help students become competitive in modern workplaces (Chan, 2010, cited in Caruth, 2014). Moreover, if adult learners make up the fastest-growing segment in education, then it can be profitable for private institutions to cater to the needs of these individuals. 

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 2018

Police Training

Birzer (2003) applied the theory of andragogy to police training. Citing Palmiotto and colleagues (2000), the researcher noted that police training in America does not have uniform content and requirements. For instance, the number of hours required to certify an officer may differ. This non-uniformity poses an opportunity to apply the principles of andragogy further. 

It has been noted that the traditional training of the police force takes the form of paramilitarism creating a warrior-like mentality (Birzer, 2003). Quoting McNeil (1982), Birzer notes that this type of training influences police officers to have enemies to hate, fear, and destroy. Many people (and, likely, due to the current zeitgeist) may find this counter-productive to the role of the police as enforcers of justice. This may encourage violence and promote a hostile orientation among officers. 

Furthermore, as Birzer (2003) noted, it is quite paradoxical that in order for trainees to do police work in a democratic society, they train and learn to do their jobs in a paramilitary, authoritarian, and punitive setting. And, in light of the current evolution of police work to be community-oriented, the researcher proposed to adopt a more andragogical approach. 

Community policing has different requirements than traditional law enforcement. It requires the police to partner up with the community in maintaining social order (Birzer, 2003). This also expands the role of the police. And, this gives the police force the “freedom to expand the scope of their jobs.” This requires them to learn a new set of skills. So, further training is required. 

Moreover, community-oriented police strategies are best executed when police officers are self-starters. So, the Knowles adult learning principles of self-directedness and the tendency of adults to learn what is applicable to the works here. Moreover, the assumption that adults learn better from experiences when applied to police training, can lead to the use of case studies and simulations. 

This experience-based learning technique is being implemented in training in both medical and legal scenarios. The use of such techniques has been proposed to be used more extensively in police training. As Birzer (2003) stated, andragogy offers an opportunity to better “facilitate police subjects in a real and experiential way.” 

A substantial amount of experiential adult training is being conducted in police training (Codish, 1996, cited in Birzer, 2003). This includes simulation exercises and other activities involving problem-solving. Role-play can help trainees connect theory to practice. Furthermore, it can help them develop more empathy with citizens as they have, to a degree, experienced being in their shoes. Also, these participatory-learning techniques are claimed to help trainees develop their language and communication skills useful to de-escalate or prevent criminal scenarios.

Of course, systematic formal teaching of laws and criminal procedures cannot be avoided (Birzer, 2003). However, a good mix of experiential techniques can help learners retain knowledge. 

The conscious use of andragogy principles in police training is not that popular yet. There is still room to grow. With the increasing acceptance of the andragogical approach, police training can become a fertile ground for andragogical practices. 

Business Management 

In ever-changing markets, business leaders and workers are required to be flexible and have the problem-solving skills to deal with unpredictability. Content-based and fact-laden education is not enough. Learners must be armed with critical thinking, creativity, and being able to think on their feet. Thus, training needs to incorporate experience-based elements like business scenarios and case studies. 

And, to a great extent, they do. 

As Caruth (2014) observed, management training in higher education fits well with andragogy principles. He even stated that it can be called andragogy. He added that as Forrest and Peterson (2006) maintained, the strategies used in management courses are effective for adult learners. 

And, many management instructors who do not know of andragogy are, in fact, using andragogical principles. It is not common knowledge that the American Management Association’s master’s degree program in management was structured around competency-based education and andragogy (see Knowles, 1984, cited in Caruth, 2014). 

Management education involves real-life cases and analysis. Instructors with professional experience can share these with their students. Plus, those who are seeking a master’s or doctoral degree in management are usually professionals themselves with rich industry experience. Thus, it is easier for management educators to relay applicable knowledge and facilitate the development of problem-solving skills. They can relate with students better. 

Are there Limitations to the Andragogical Approach? 

Not all educators and education researchers are entirely sold on Knowles’ adult learning principles. Misch (2002) criticized Malcolm Knowles’ last tenet of andragogy that adult learners are internally motivated. Analyzing adult education in the medical context, he claimed that the internal and external motivations for students are not easily distinguishable and are context-dependent. He added that they interrelate in complex ways. 

Thus, the researcher rejects Knowles’ last tenet as a “simplistic, misleading, and counterproductive to developing a greater understanding of the forces that drive medical students to learn.” 

Another andragogy principle that can be put to question in some learning contexts is the tenet that adult learners learn from experience and tend to learn things that have immediate applications. But, there are disciplines and fields that arguably have no need for immediate applications. 

This is especially true in theoretical or abstract fields, such as the formal sciences like theoretical computer science and areas like recreational mathematics. Making progress in these fields is not really life-centric. The same may apply to other forms of art and music as well. 

However, one can make the argument that learning and progress in these fields are also problem-centric when the term problem is broadly construed. This is a good line of inquiry when it comes to andragogical research. But, this write-up is not the place for it. 

It is just good to note that adult learning might be more nuanced than what Knowles’ adult learning theory describes and explains. There may be explanatory gaps especially when connecting it with formal disciplines and research-heavy disciplines that value pure research over applications. 

Andragogy in the Unpredictable Future

Andragogy as a framework for adult education has its merits. Arguably, the chief of which is the emphasis on connecting theory and practice. Another is the focus on a person’s holistic improvement and the natural inclination of adults to learning things that matter to them. Lifelong learning and constant development are encouraged. 

As mentioned, Knowles asserted that the very survival of civilization requires continuous learning (Caruth, 2014). This is after a person’s formative years. It is hard to contest this as survival entails learning by experience and rolling with the punches. 

For educators, it is thus imperative to at least consider Knowles’ adult learning theory. It may have its current and potential limitations in some fields as briefly discussed above. But, for disciplines and human activities that have real-world applications, a learner-centric and experience-driven education should be given a chance in classrooms all over the world. 

It has the potential to provide critical benefits. 

As the andragogy approach prescribes that teachers must evaluate their own processes, approaches, and beliefs, it may also help improve their facilitating style. Moreover, by bridging the teacher-learner chasm through collaborative curriculum design, educators may have more opportunities to finetune course content and delivery. This may also increase the interests of students to learn. 

Knowles’ adult learning theory can be thought of as an applied theory with the goal of producing functional persons that cannot only survive the dynamic changes of the modern world but also be at the forefront of change. It is envisioned that adults become lifelong learners and become self-directed innovators. 

Additionally, some researchers like Kenyon and Hase (2001) go further by calling for a movement in andragogy towards heutagogy. This call, to some degree, prescribes that adult learners become more like autodidacts or self-taught individuals. They stay at the helm of their learning. 

The andragogy framework in the tradition of Knowles and its development is, at first glance, very individualistic and puts a high value on the self-concept and autonomy of the learner. But, in the bigger scheme of things, it is geared towards arming people with the necessary knowledge and skills not just to learn more about the world and shape it in their favor but also for the betterment of their jobs and societal roles. 

By emphasizing the development of problem-solving skills and innovations, incorporating the andragogy framework may serve as a hedge for the future of society as we know it. Of course, fact-based education cannot be disregarded. But, education, science, and academic research practice must also be rich in principles (Hutchins, n.d., cited in Rosen, 1985). 

Another great education thinker, Robert Maynard Hutchins (n.d.), who was once the youngest university president in America at age 30 stated that: 

The gadgeteers and data collectors, masquerading as scientists, have threatened to become the supreme chieftains of the scholarly world.


As the Renaissance could accuse the Middle Ages of being rich in principles and poor in facts, we are now entitled to enquire whether we are not rich in facts and poor in principles. Rational thought is the only basis of education and research… Facts are the core of an anti-intellectual curriculum.

But, of the need for facts, he stated:

I repeat, they would not cease to gather facts, but they would know what facts to look for, what they wanted them for, and what to do with them after they got them.

This, to a considerable degree, is similar to the general position of the Knowles adult learning theory. Education, research, and education research must always start from principles. And, for many educators and researchers, andragogy in the tradition of Knowles is rich in it. 

And, principles serve as a guiding light when the world is covered in unpredictability. 



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