Learning is learning

I got embroiled in a Twitter discussion today with Mark Childs and Fred Garnett on whether the word andragogy is actually helpful to our understanding of learning. I'm not convinced. As ever, I like to promote argument, so here on this blog, I offer you my own views on what is quite an old debate. For the uninitiated, Andragogy (from the Greek Andros, meaning man) was a term made popular in the education world by Malcolm Knowles. It refers to learning strategies and experiences that are for adults rather than children. Knowles had made the distinction between children's learning and adult learning on the basis of adult motivation for learning being different from that of children. Pedagogy, another term used widely in education, derives from the time of the house slaves in Ancient Greece, known as pedagogues, who were tasked to either train their masters' children, or in many cases, to 'lead them to education'. Pedagogy is sometimes erroneously applied only to children's education, but is best applied to all forms of teacher directed learning.

The main problem with Knowles's concept of andragogy is that it is intended to be different to pedagogy, which implies that adults learn differently to children. But is there any evidence for this? How does Knowles differentiate between adult and child learning? Here are his four main tenets for andragogy (in italics), accompanied by my own critical commentary:

1) Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction. This is problematic on several levels. Firstly, the term instruction implies that the teacher is directing the process of learning, which undermines the whole point of the autonomous learning andragogy is meant to epitomise. Secondly, should children not also be involved in the planning and evaluation of their 'instruction' or do they not have the same human rights as adults? Thirdly, if we believe that children don't really know what they need to learn, then we should concede that many adults don't either. However, taking this stance denies that many adults and children are actually much more astute at knowing what they need to learn than teachers give them credit for. Either way, this first distinction is meaningless.

2) Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities. Adults make mistakes and learn from them, but so do children. All we are talking about here is the length of time it takes to accumulate 'experience'. How much time on this planet does an individual need to accrue before they can in Knowles's terms be accepted as 'experienced'. If this is an indication of how adult learning differs from children's learning, it is tenuous indeed.

3) Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life. This statement is actually more descriptive of the differences between compulsory and elective education than it is about any differences that may exist be between child and adult learning. True, many adults study disciplines to gain qualifications so they can either secure a career, or enhance their position within their present employment. When they leave school they have a choice what they wish to study. In school, children are still fed the 'just in case' curriculum, which not only wastes a great deal of contact teaching time, but also ultimately turns many young people off learning for good. Furthermore, although most children don't have jobs, they are constantly and informally acquiring knowledge and learning many skills that have immediate relevance to their personal lives. So what is the difference?

4) Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented. This is also more a commentary on the nature of state-funded schooling than it is on the nature of learning. Any learning can be supported through problem-centred methods regardless of whether it is adult or child oriented. I would even go farther to suggest that presenting any learner, whether adult or child, with a problem can deepen their understanding of concepts, content and context. In reality within the current western education systems, we find elements of problem based and content based learning in both adult and child contexts.

So does the concept of Andragogy add any value to our understanding of learning? For me, the answer is no.  Learning is learning. Does it really matter whether you are an adult or a child as you learn? Are different processes at work, or is Knowles unwittingly describing the differences between the environments within which adults and children learn? Am I right or am I missing something? Please feel free to enter the debate in the comments box below.

Image from Justin Chadwick's The First Grader

Creative Commons License
Learning is learning by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


martin king said…
I agree with you - andragogy Vs pedagogy is less helpful than talking about styles of learning rather than the learner.

Better a debate on pedagogy Huetagogy and paragogy
Steve Wheeler said…
Good point Martin. Heutagogy - self determined or self directed learning, and paragogy, which is the act of peer-to-peer or scaffolded learning (Vygotsky, Bruner) are probably much more apposite approaches in the current technology supported, social networked learning environments.
Ove Christensen said…
I'm on your side in this debate. And I think you hit the nail by suggesting that Knowles is actually addressing something beside the learning/teaching in it self: the teaching environment and the situation for learning/teaching.
For me that suggest that the difference between teaching/learning for children and adults are a didactic question on how to facilitate learning activities and what kind of activities that will do the trick.
Of course there will be differences in teaching style if the group of students differ.
For me it has more to do with establishing meaningful activities for whatever group or individual the educator interact with.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Ove. If Knowles was actually describing contexts rather than differences between the motivations of children and adults, then there is a real problem with the theory. Changing contexts, where new methods and technologies are introduced to blur the boundaries between contexts, may have rendered the theory of andragogy obselete.
Felix said…
I do think that there are differences between learning by a child and an adult, deriving from prior experience of learning. However, those changes are not such as to divide learners in a binary way ... they are progressive with time, and different for every learner. For that reason, I always doubted the practical value of a separate label for adult learning.

More important, I think, was the psychological aspect − emphasising to the adult learner that s/he was not to be treated childishly. In adult literacy, for example, it was important to use materials which drew on adult life, understanding and and experience rather than those drawn from reception class primary education. How far this was actually addressed to the learner, and how far to educators who needed to learn the same message, is an open question.

However ... if we are going to look at the psychological baggage of words, androgogy falls over its own bootlaces since "andros" is explicitly "man", as opposed to "woman" (gunos). That alone, for me, always made androgogy unusable as a replacement term.
David said…
I read the same paper from Knowles and had the same criticisms. I can only assume that Knowles studied adult learning a lot, and maybe didn't study child learning as much? The comparisons seemed so obvious to me on a first reading of Knowles paper.
Donald Clark said…
My comment was rather long, so I wrote a post, Andragogy vs. Pedagogy
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your considered response Donald. I have just tweeted your link out to my personal learning network.
Steve Wheeler said…
Some interesting points there Felix, and largely I agree. But my point is that the divide has narrowed to such an extent that children and adults are now encountering similar methods in their respective learning environments. I don't subscribe to the psychological argument however, because all individuals whatever their age should be treated with respect, and not childishly. I'm not so sure that Knowles would have formulated his theory today.
Felix said…
SW> I don't subscribe to the
SW> psychological argument however,
SW> because all individuals whatever
SW> their age should be treated with
SW> respect, and not childishly.

Of course, I completely agree with that. However, "beying treated childishly" is a relative term.

When I was four or five, stories of the Ladybird Adventurers, Little Bill the Mountie and Obo the Robot were appropriate to me: they gripped me, addressed my interests, talked to me in terms of my imaginative conversations with my peers. Learning to read with them was, therefore, not treating me childishly.

At around the time Knowles' The adult learner: A neglected species was published, I was a student volunteer in (yet to be professionalised) adult literacy and numeracy programmes. The materials in use were taken from surplus primary school stocks. Working with a 50 year old skilled machine setter who had played semiprofessional soccer, fought as a paratrooper, brought up two children, but happened not to be able to read ... I quickly realised that using Little bill the Mountie was treating him childishly. The psychological effect on that man of having a student half his age teach him from Little Bill the Mountie was crushing to his self respect.

Reading Knowles at that point, even though his choice of word didn't work for me, made a great impression ... he was arguing against education's failure to realise that he needed to learn through material appropriate to his present, not to his five year old, self.

Now, when all that I am saying here is so self evident that we never consciously have to argue it, it looks very different ... but Knowles wasn't writing now. And the psychological need to recognise appropriateness for different learners remains as true as it ever was.
Steve Wheeler said…
@Felix I concede the point that the recognition of appropriate contexts is a constant in all forms of education. But I would add that all learners whatever their age, need a psychologically safe environment within which they can learn effectively. I am making the point that new methods, media and devices are blurring the boundaries between adult and child education, and we are now at a point where it is hard to tell the difference unless you look at the faces of the students. Therefore, is Knowles' theory needed any longer?

I'm currently working on a new blog post which I will publish tomorrow that deals with this in greater depth, and in more space than these comment boxes can provide. Times are changing, and new theories emerge to meet the new needs, and as they become more appropriate for their times, old theories can be superceded. I will articulate my views on these new theories tomorrow, so do watch this space.
boruett said…
you have argued your topic well and your arguments surely hold water.Just like any other physiological learning is learning.
Kirti said…
Good point, I agree with you,this is not the point to make a difference on the basis of learner rather than the focus should be on the learning method and style of it.
Thanks for sharing the post.
I have read few more on this topic.
Virtualhse said…
Nice post,
I completely agree with your points.
the type of learner is not the factor for any education system and its methods.
It should be focused on the system and methods of teaching style and process made for it.
martin king said…
At what point does a child become an adult and at what point does pedagogy become andragogy.

Are all adults "adult like" etc etc

This is why I agree that learning is learning - its a continuum that educators and learners move back and forth along as needed.

The problem comes with adopting a rigid approach.
Simon Ensor said…
I am agog - http://tinyurl.com/5vpp2ts over learning. As for the 'ped' and the 'and' they seem pedantic distinctions.

If I am not 'agog' I won't learn much and I am a teacher...

Nevertheless, (a favourite word) I enjoying learning new words which I can bandy about in Knowledgeable company so to affect a certain ostentatious 'savoir'.

Thank you Steve! I feel much more learned than I did ten minutes ago.
Donald Clark said…
Steve, in one of your comments you note that you are not so sure that Knowles would have formulated his theory today. Actually he did change his thoughts on the subject. After being presented with evidence that adults do not always learn best with andragogy and children do not always learn best with pedagogy, and that its ofen vice versa, he wrote a new book titled, In The Modern Practice of Adult Education; From Andragogy to Pedagogy (1980), in which he concedes that four of andragogy's five key assumptions apply equally to adults and children. The sole difference is that children have fewer experiences and pre-established beliefs than adults and thus have less to relate. Thus he explained that "andragogy" should be thought of as learner-focused and "pedagogy" should be thought of as teacher-directed and that the two concepts were on a continiumm that both adults and children share.
Pedigogy is or use to be defined as the art and science of educating children and often is used as a synonym for teaching. More accurately, pedagogy embodies teacher-focused education (Merriam et al, 2007, pgs 83-87). This use to be thought of as teachers assuming responsibility for making decisions about what will be learned, how it will be learned, and when it will be learned. Teachers are the ones directing the learning.

Dewey emphasized learning through various activities rather than traditional teacher-focused curriculum. He believed children learned more from guided experience than authoritarian instruction. He ascribed to a learner-focused education philosophy. He held that learning is life not just preparation for life.

Then came the turn of the moder era…….

Andragogy, initially defined by Knowles as "the art and science of helping adults learn," currently defines an alternative to pedagogy and refers to learner-focused education for people of all ages.
The andragogic model asserts that five issues be considered and addressed in formal learning. They include (1) letting learners know why something is important to learn, (2) showing learners how to direct themselves through information, and (3) relating the topic to the learners' experiences. In addition, (4) people will not learn until they are ready and motivated to learn. Often this (5) requires helping them overcome inhibitions, behaviors, and beliefs about learning (Merriam et al, 2007, pg 84).
So does the concept of Andragogy add any value to our understanding of learning?

In my opinion it helps to clarify that as the times are changing, so is learning. Yes learning is learning, but the approaches one takes to the learning and teaching process needs to change with the times as well. I think that is what Malcolm Knowles was trying to express in his Theory on Andragogy.

Merriam, Sharan B., Caffarella, Rosemary S., & Baumgartner, Lisa M. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd Edition). CA: Jossey-Bass
Paul said…
I appreciate and largely agree with your observations on Knowles. His observations were a reflections of practices within systems of education at the time. I am prepared to abandon the term andragogy, not only because it stubs my tongue but because discovery in neuro-cognition through brain imaging have showed that "learning" happens in myriad of ways. We make connections and re-enforce connections through many different paths.
My concern is that maturity and adulthood have become conflated and we can't discount level of maturity. Our student's level of maturity - the strength of their executive functions, (simplified in this case), will affect how effective certain teaching practices will be. I have most of my teaching experience with adults (17 years plus). There can be a huge variability in the maturity of a 18 year-old. This will surely inform an educator how to approach "adults" in a learning environment.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks @Donald for your latest comments which are most helpful. It confirms my own beliefs and affirms that I am thinking along the right lines :-)
Steve Wheeler said…
@Virtualhs @Boruett and @Kirti thanks for stopping by and commenting. I genuinely appreciate your support for this blog.
Steve Wheeler said…
@Kimberly, thank you for your extended contribution to this discussion. It is most valuable as an exposition on the subject of Knowles's Andragogy theory and its current standing in the pantheon of learning theories.
Steve Wheeler said…
@Paul thanks for your contribution, and I'm now of the mind that if Knowles's Andragogy theory is fluid and adaptable to changing times and contexts, then it could also just as easily disappear if it is no longer relevant to contemporary practices.
Michelle said…
I just read this and I have to agree and disagree. I agree that andragogy is poorly defined and, as it stands, it doesn't really address the true differences between "child" learning and "adult" learning. However, I still believe that there is a marked difference between adults and children in the way that they learn.

I see major differences in the issues of motivation and an understanding of "the bigger picture".

Adults are able to motivate themselves to plow through a lot of boring or aggravating stuff in order to get what they want. I haven't really seen that children are able to sustain their motivation, even if they are able to generate it initially, when they're stuck in a boring class or dealing with an annoying assignment. Even teenagers find this difficult, but "adults" who are around twenty or older are generally better at this.

This is a difference in learning because an adult is willing to truly make an effort and apply every bit of whatever learning skills he or she has even on the boring stuff, even without any outside reinforcements. Children will often just give up or not try very hard on the boring/annoying stuff, unless they receive a lot of reienforcements from parents/teachers/whatnot. I have yet to see a child say "I'll put a ton of effort into this. I want to do well in , even though I hate every second of it, because I need a diploma for a good future" rather than "because I'll get that cool car toy or some other reward". Maybe that does happen, but I've never heard of it happening.

Adults can essentially motivate themselves to learn even for relatively "less" materialistically satisfying rewards, such as a piece of paper with their name and degree on it, or even just the feeling of having succeeded in an intellectual challenge.

Implied in this, although not always obvious, is how adults are able to find motivation from within themselves, without always relying on either external rewards, peer pressures or significant figures in their life for encouragements. Children are rarely the same, since they're still in the stage where they're trying to learn everything from everyone and peer pressure and authority figures play very heavily into that.

So, adults don't have to have materialisic, instant rewards, but children often do, and their learning process is affected by that.

Regarding the "bigger picture", adults are often able to suppress boredome or annoyance by thinking about the bigger picture... "when I graduate, I'll be able to afford this cool thing or support my family better". Kids don't really think of their future all that much, and not in very realistic terms. They're unsure about it, because it seems very far away to them. And school doesn't seem directly connected to their future in their minds - sometimes not even in high-school. But they just seem to often lack the ability to plan out their lives. They can give you a general estimate ("I want to be an astronaut", "I want to go to MIT", "I want to sing in front of everybody"), but I don't think they can really do an itemized plan on how to get there. Adults can, and it reflects in their learning as well.

This bit makes the first item in Knowles' Andragogy definition make a little bit more sense (but not complete sense, sadly). If adults are involved in their learning procedure (and they don't have to be), they have a better ability to see the purpose of each step in the plan and not be overwhelmed by it as much as kids might be. Children can be made involved in their own learning procedures, but it seems to me that they'll have a harder time understanding why certain things are the way they are in the plan (especially the boring or annoying ones).

My 2 cents.
Mark Childs said…
Since it was my (unconsidered and kneejerk) distaste for the word andragogy that started off the original twitter debate, I thought I'd try thinking through my resistance a bit more. I was actually only familiar with Knowles's original application to adult learning, and had the same opposition to the position as Steve mentions above. I particularly find the idea that adults are only interested in education that has immediate relevance a repugnant one. Are adults really so lacking in curiosity that they are only willing to acquire information that has material value to them? Well obviously not. However, if people are now using “andragogy” to stand for learner-centred pedagogies (even if applied with children’s learning) and interpret the word “pedagogy” to mean teacher-centred pedagogies, and (like Donald) want to hang on to the terms because of their history, then I have a bit more sympathy with that position. The debate then becomes one merely of semantics – which terms actually describe the concepts more appropriately? If we’re getting hung up on etymology enough that we resist just using the word pedagogy because it has a history of teaching (or leading) children, then an andragogue is literally someone who leads men. Not knowing a lot about Roman leaders here, but that really brings to my mind a bunch of despots and perverts, so that’s not so great either. So a few people built careers on inventing a new term; do we really need to carry on false dichotomies just because they’ve been around for a few decades? Maybe we should focus on adopting words that communicate our ideas, not on what their derivation is. From now on, could we just stick to “teacher-centred pedagogy” and “learner-centred pedagogy” etc. and avoid words that really seem to only have value in trapping the unwary or non-specialist?

On another point, in response to Michelle, I was one of those children who ploughed through a lot of boring stuff because I wanted the qualifications, because even then I bought the PR that they were a ticket to a life that was something more exciting than I had. As an adult I have far less tolerance for being bored (I’m inclined to be really affronted that someone would dare to be that dull) and have realised that getting qualifications doesn’t in itself change anything. So that in itself indicates the distinctions aren’t really that strong.
Eduplanet said…

Your first point hits the nail on the head: Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction. What strikes me is that e-learning for educators should be embraced for all the reasons you listed, but also because adults (and children) want to be in the driver’s seat of their learning path and make decisions about the best way to do so. E-learning IS HOW our students are learning. It would make sense that educators learn the same way in order to bridge learning/generational gap.
Anonymous said…
just a short comment...

Andragogy is NOT a theory of (human) learning by any means.

It is rather an attempt to conceptualise the "art and science of helping adults learn" (or rather change, grow, develop, etc.) as a field of study (and practise) in its own right...
and to distinguish it from educating children.


Dialogic said…
I thought that andragogy had really reached its zenith in the 1970s and 80s but that since then there has been a shift in focus to lifelong learning and this has reduced the separation between pedagogy and andragogy (Brookfield, 2003; Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007)
Brookfield, S. (2003). Adult cognition as a dimension of lifelong learning. In J. Field & M. Leicester (Eds.), Lifelong learning: Education across the lifespan. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
houshuang said…
This discussion was very useful for me, and it also brought home a bigger point. I've been reading a ton of articles lately preparing for my PhD lit review, and looking at various ways in which people have researched and analyzed learning in open environments, open courses, peer-learning etc. In some of the MOOC articles I came across Knowles and his principles, although I hadn't yet read his original text. However, my point was just how much more to the point a good blog entry can be - if this had been an article, it would have needed a large literature review, and because the reviewers would need some empirical data, maybe you had done a survey or something... Yet in this blog post we get the ideas very clearly, and in a very useful way. (And some of the points raised in the comments were very useful too).

I'm not saying that all blog posts are like this, and certainly I see the value in very rigorous empirical studies, or even very deep theoretical articles that are improved as they go through cycle after cycle of revisions. But many of the articles I've read in this field are essentially content-wise very similar to this blog post - someone stating their ideas or principles, with very little to go on. Yet, spending 25 pages with lot's of padding and tons of references, because that is the academic way...

Of course, I could never cite this blog post in my PhD thesis so now I have to find someone who said the same thing, in 25 pages, so I can cite them :)

Ah, academia
houshuang said…
I tried to summarize the points raised here, and some other places, on my wiki: http://reganmian.net/wiki/Andragogy
houshuang said…
Did a blog post about some tools I used to summarize this specific post: http://reganmian.net/blog/2012/05/10/using-web-clipping-and-sidewiki-to-gather-and-synthesize-information/
frankrennie said…
yup Steve, but after all is said and done, are you really telling me that a 45+ year old adult does not learn differently from a 5-year-old primary one child?... and if you are not, then the concept of andragogy is valid...!
Steve Wheeler said…
Nice try Frank, but you won't catch me out with that kind of binary argument. We all learn differently, whether adult or child, so why have any of these categorisation theories in the first place?
Surf Movies said…
how to facilitate learning activities and what kind of activities that will do the trick.
Of course there
Steve Wheeler said…
It's a real shame that the old version of his theory is the only one trotted out these days then ;)
Brano said…
Oh dear, Andragogy is not only Knowles theory. Let me recommend something for you :) http://www.lindenwood.edu/education/andragogy/andragogyConcepts.html

Popular Posts