THEORY NAME: Andragogy

THEORIST NAME: Malcolm Knowles; 1984.

Adult learning; constructivist.


The notion of andragogy has been around for nearly two centuries. It became particularly popular in North America and Britain as a way of describing adult learning through the work of Malcolm Knowles. When adult education first became popular in the early 1900s, it was assumed that the same methods and techniques used to teach children could also be applied to adults. In fact, pedagogy has come to mean the art and science of teaching, even though its Greek root words actually mean leading children

The term andragogy was first used by a German grammar school teacher named Alexander Kapp in 1833 to describe the educational theory of the Greek philosopher Plato. He used it to refer to the normal process by which adults engage in continuing education (as opposed to basic remedial education for disadvantaged or handicapped adults.)

Kapp does not explain the term Andragogik, and it is not clear, whether he invented it or whether he borrowed it from somebody else. He does not develop a theory, but justifies ‘andragogy’ as the practical necessity of the education of adults. This may be the reason why the term lay fallow: other terms and ideas were available; the idea of adult learning was not unusual in that time around 1833, neither in Europe (enlightenment movement, reading-societies, workers education, educational work of churches, for example the Kolping-movement), nor in America (Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Lowell Institute in Boston, Lyceum movement, town libraries, museums, agricultural societies); all these existing initiatives had important dates between 1820-40 and their terminology, so a new term was not needed.

Kapp's use of andragogy had some currency but it was disputed, and fell into disuse. In the 20th century, John Dewey, Eduard Lindeman, and Martha Anderson all pursued theories of andragogy, but were largely ignored in the US. European educators were quicker to pursue andragogy than educators in the US, and by the early 1970's had many universities offering degrees with andragogy as a major specialization.

It reappeared in 1921 in a report by Rosenstock in which he argued that 'adult education required special teachers, methods and philosophy, and he used the term andragogy to refer collectively to these special requirements' (Nottingham Andragogy Group 1983: v). Eduard Lindeman was the first writer in English to pick up on Rosenstock's use of the term. The he only used it on two occasions.

In the 1920’s Germany, adult education became a field of theorizing. Especially a group of scholars from various subjects, the so-called ‘Hohenrodter Bund’, developed in theory and practice the ‘Neue Richtung’ (new direction) in adult education. Here some authors gave a second birth to the term ‘Andragogik’, now describing sets of explicit reflections related to the why, what for and how of teaching adults. But Andragogik was not used as “the Method of Teaching Adults”, as Lindeman (1926) mistakenly suggested in reporting his experiences at the Academy of Labor, Frankfurt, Germany. It was a sophisticated, theory-oriented concept, being an antonym to ‘demagogy’ - too difficult to handle, not really shared. So again it was forgotten. But a new object was shining up: a scholarly, academic reflection level ‘above’ practical adult education. The scholars came from various disciplines, working in adult education as individuals, not representing university institutes or disciplines. The idea of adult education as a discipline was not yet born.

It is not clear where the third wave of using andragogy originated. In the 1950’s andragogy suddenly can be found in publications in Switzerland (Hanselmann), Yugoslavia (Ogrizovic), the Netherlands (ten Have), Germany (Poeggeler). Still the term was known only to insiders, and was sometimes more oriented to practice, sometimes more to theory. Perhaps this mirrors the reality of adult education of that time:

There was no or little formal training for adult educators, some limited theoretical knowledge, no institutionalized continuity of developing such a knowledge, and no academic course of study. In this reality ‘Adult Education’ still described an unclear mixture of practice, commitment, ideologies, reflections, theories, mostly local institutions, and some academic involvement of individuals. As the reality was unclear, the term could not be any clearer. But the now increasing and shared use of the term signaled, that a new differentiation between ‘doing’ and ‘reflecting’ was developing, perhaps needing a separating term.

Knowles published his first article (1968) about his understanding of andragogy with the provocative title “Andragogy, Not Pedagogy.” Knowles’ concept of andragogy - ‘the art and science of helping adults learn’ - ‘is built upon two central, defining attributes: First, a conception of learners as self-directed and autonomous; and second, a conception of the role of the teacher as facilitator of learning rather than presenter of content’. Providing a unifying idea and identity, connected with the term andragogy, to the amorphous group of adult educators, certainly was the main benefit Knowles awarded to the field of adult education at that time. Another was that he strengthened the already existing scholarly access to adult education by publishing, theorizing, doing research, by educating students that themselves through academic research became scholars, and by explicitly defining andragogy as science

Knowles' andragogy is an attempt to develop a theory specifically for adult learning. Knowles emphasizes that adults are self-directed and expect to take responsibility for decisions. Adult learning programs must accommodate this fundamental aspect.

Andragogy makes the following assumptions about the design of learning:

Adults need to know why they need to learn something.
Adults need to learn experientially.
Adults approach learning as problem-solving.
Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

In practical terms, andragogy means that instruction for adults needs to focus more on the process and less on the content being taught. Strategies such as case studies, role playing, simulations, and self-evaluation are most useful. Instructors adopt a role of facilitator or resource rather than lecturer or grader.



1. Self-concept: As a person matures his self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being
2. Experience: As a person matures he accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
3. Readiness to learn. As a person matures his readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his social roles.
4. Orientation to learning. As a person matures his time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly his orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem centeredness.
5. Motivation to learn: As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal

Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities.
Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.
Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.


Learners should know why they are studying something.
Instruction should be task-oriented, and it should take into account the wide range of different backgrounds of learners.
Learners should be able to relate what is being studied to their personal/professional experiences.
Learners should be motivated and ready to learn.
Learners should be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction. Instruction should be problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

Basically teachers should be aware that their role has been changed. Learner-centred classes will stimulate dialogue and knowledge construction. Learners will benefit from a scaffolding approach to learning where the teacher provides more support in the early stages of the course; this support is gradually faded until learners become self-reliant.

In a constructive approach teachers should see themselves as facilitators and co-learners. Teachers must bear in mind, however, that learners are individuals with different life experiences and learning preferences. Some adult learners will still prefer the traditional pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. Teachers should respect that, and at the same time gradually try to push learners away from their comfort zone in the direction of a deeper approach to learning.








RESOURCES (APA Style Citation)
Brookfield, S. D. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. A comprehensive analysis of principles and effective practice. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Cooper, Mary K. & Henschke, John A. (2003): An Update on Andragogy: The International Foundation for Its Research, Theory and Practice (Paper presented at the CPAE Conference, Detroit, Michigan, November, 2003).

Cross, K. P. (1981) Adults as Learners. Increasing participation and facilitating learning (1992 ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Henschke, John (2003): Andragogy Website
Jarvis, Peter (1987): Towards a discipline of adult education?. P. Jarvis (ed): Twentieth Century Thinkers in Adult Education. London: Routledge, p. 301-313.

Kapp, Alexander (1833): Platon’s Erziehungslehre, als Paedagogik für die Knowles, M. (1975). Self-Directed Learning. Chicago: Follet.

Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd Ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M., & Associates. (1984). Andragogy in Action. Applying modern principles of adult education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Knowles, Malcolm S. (1989): The Making of an Adult Educator. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lindeman, Edward C. (1926). Andragogik: The Method of Teaching Adults. Workers’ Education, 4: 38.

Merriam, Sharan H. and Caffarella Rosemary S. (1999). Learning in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Zmeyov, Serguey (1998): Andragogy: Origins, Developments, Trends. International Review of Education, 44 (1), p. 103-108.

Return to Database Home