Since our context is Higher Education, we are in the adult education business, so we need to consider whether general “pedagogical” theory which is based on the education and development of the child, is applicable in our context. Malcolm Knowles thought otherwise, and developed a set of assumptions which, he theorised, distinguished adult learning from child learning. Knowles’ theory of androgogy was based on the idea that adults are more self-directed, more intrinsically motivated and have more life experience to build on, than children. His list of assumptions about adult learning is often used as a framework to approach designing learning in an adult context:
- Self-concept: As people mature, they move from being a dependent personality toward being more self-directed
- Experience: As people mature, they amass a growing set of experiences that provide a fertile resource for learning
- Readiness to learn: As people mature, they are more interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their jobs or personal lives
- Orientation to learning: As people mature, their time perspective changes from gathering knowledge for future use to immediate application of knowledge. As such, adult learners become more problem-centered rather than subject-centered (Knowles, 1980)
- Motivation to learn: As people mature, they become more motivated by various internal incentives, such as need for self-esteem, curiosity, desire to achieve, and satisfaction of accomplishment
- Relevance: As people mature, they need to know why they need to learn something (Knowles, 1984). Furthermore, because adults manage other aspects of their lives, they are capable of directing or, at least, assisting in the planning and implementation of their own learning.
These assumptions fit nicely into our discussion about levels of learning and motivation, because of course intrinsic motivation will be enhanced when the learner sees the material as somehow very relevant to their lives, particularly if it is applicable immediately to their lives and their progress in the course. Because the adult learner is self-directed and has intrinsic motivation, their learning is likely to be deep rather than surface learning. (However variations in this can occur depending on individual circumstances, which might force an individual to take a more strategic and “surface” approach). Since Knowles wrote his theory about adult learning, it has been critiqued and also developed further. The thinking is now that the characteristics of the way an adult learns as described by Knowles can be equally applied to children and adolescents.
If you would like to know more, there is a useful overview of Knowles’ life and ideas, on the Infed website page about him.
Activities that facilitate the adult learner to express and use knowledge they have developed from their own life experience will help engage them and help them see the relevance of the learning. This can include introducing a new topic by finding out what their existing knowledge is – through an activity, class discussion or similar.
Application of the learning to scenarios, work experience, or problem solving will also appeal to independent adult learners, who are most motivated when they can immediately try out ideas and knowledge with real tasks.
Independent learning as well as group collaboration are valued by adult learners who are often already working in groups and teams in the workplace.
This independent, collaborative and problem-solving approach lends itself to flexible and blended learning strategies, using e-learning platforms, wikis, blogs, and discussion boards. It may also be enhanced by mobile learning techniques using Augmented Reality tools, or using mobile devices to capture, produce and share the student’s own research. Adults particularly appreciate flexible arrangements for study as they cannot always be at face to face meetings and lectures due to work and family commitments.
Share your thoughts on one or both of the following:
- How useful do you find Knowles’ framework on Adult Learning? Do you think you can use his ideas when you are conceptualising and planning your learning programs?
- Do you feel that your students would respond well to course design and teaching approaches based on Knowles’ assumptions of adult learning, such as independence, curiosity, intrinsic enjoyment and interest, and seeking practical relevance? Or do you feel sometimes your students lack self-discipline and motivation, and require more prompting and guidance?