Andragogy – The Principles of Adult Learning

Andragogy – The Principles of Adult Learning


Andragogy is a term used to describe the methods and principles used in adult learning.  It is a concept defined by Malcolm Knowles.  Unlike children at school, most adults can choose whether they continue learning, whether they will embark on a course of study, or whether they will mentally switch “on or off” in a learning environment.  Knowles discovered that andragogy (adult learning) is different from pedagogy (children’s learning), and yet many so-called trainers use a chalk and talk style used in state primary education from the 1920’s. Rote learning, with the “teacher” standing at the front, as the font of all knowledge, using blackboard and chalk. Nowadays known as slides.

I attended what can only be described a soul destroying day of rote learning, with the presenter working his way through a linear, 74 slides in a day. Having asked us to complete some interesting pre-event work, we had it all regurgitated back to us. There was no real-time facilitation, all 16 of us could have sat at our desks and watched him ‘perform’. At one point, he sadly declared “we have a lot to get through”. Content driven, teacher focused chalk and talk.

So it’s worth spending some time reflecting on the principles of andragogy. Some of the most common characteristics of effective adult learning include:

  • The adult learner takes responsibility for their part in the learning process.
  • Their experience and abilities are valued, respected, and used where appropriate.
  • They are approached on “equal terms”, not patronised or talked down to.
  • Groundrules of how the learning event works are agreed between facilitator and learners.
  • Feedback is wanted by the adult learner to help development and to summarise achievement.  Encouragement and enthusiasm to continue is shown by all concerned.
  • There are opportunities to experiment, practise, and consider things at their own pace.
  • Variety of learning modes, a change of methods and pace is used to help mitigate boredom and fatigue. 
  • Adult learners do not usually spend all day just learning so shorter sessions can work better than whole days.
  • Adults relate what they are learning to what they know already. It is important to facilitate, so they can make these links to prior knowledge.
  • The learner is stretching their knowhow.
  • Their effort and input needs are recognised and appreciated.
  • The purpose is clear.  Adult learners like to know what they are going to learn, why, how it will benefit them, its relevance, what processes they will be going through.
  • They do not appreciate feeling “lost”.
  • Learning is embraced as non-linear, so the training is relevant, and paced to whatever needs arise in the room.
  • They are able to share ideas, concerns, problems, emotions and to learn from other learners experiences and ideas.

Every learner will have different characteristics, but the ones given above are some of the most commonly found ones relating to how adults learn.

In cases where adults are forced to attend a training session they do not necessarily learn anything.  Plato has an expression for this “A free man ought not to learn anything under duress. Compulsory physical exercise does no harm to the body, but compulsory learning never sticks in the mind.”

What are your thoughts on the principles of andragogy?

Have I missed anything?

How do these principles apply to the last training session you attended?

What skills do we need to embrace andragogy? Without a professional institute that regulates our industry, how do we keep presenters off out patch?

Kay Buckby
The Development Company

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