Adult Learning 101

A Crash Course in Andragogy

By Melissa Hite Last Updated: October 28, 2022

Over the course of your career in education, you’ve probably become extremely well acquainted with the principles of pedagogy. But you may not know as much about andragogy—the science of how adults learn.

Why does andragogy matter in K-12 education? Well, the adults in your buildings—your teachers—need to learn and grow just as much as your students do. Whether you’re guiding formal professional development sessions or mentoring less experienced teachers, understanding the principles of andragogy will help you teach adults more effectively.

Over the decades, several theories of adult learning have emerged, but we’re pulling from one of the preeminent voices in the field: the late educator Malcolm Knowles. Often considered the “father of andragogy,” Knowles published 18 books and more than 230 articles on adult learning and leadership. Here, we’ll hit the high points of his philosophy and how it can help you facilitate more successful learning for the adults in your schools.

Keep it relevant.

According to Knowles, adults learn what they need to know “in order to cope effectively with real-life situations.” In other words, we do best when we can immediately apply our new knowledge. Adults are also “problem-centered,” Knowles says, meaning they’re especially receptive to learning that addresses their current struggles and challenges. Training that doesn’t directly relate to your adult students’ situations—or help them solve their problems—won’t be nearly as effective.

As you facilitate adult learning, take a look at your material and ask yourself: How is this relevant to my adult learners? How will this help them deal with the problems they’re currently facing? If definitive answers don’t immediately spring to mind, you might need to rework your plan. If they do, be sure to provide that context for your students. They may not see the immediate application on their own—so show it to them.

Let them direct their own learning.

It probably comes as no surprise that adults are, by and large, very independent—especially when it comes to learning. “Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, for their own lives,” Knowles writes in The Adult Learner. “They resent and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them.” Unlike children, we’re accustomed to making all our own decisions. It makes sense that we learn best when we’re given some choice in what, when, and how we learn.

On the other hand, a lack of choice can actually inhibit adult learning. There’s a psychological reason why, according to Knowles. When we reach adulthood, we develop “a deep psychological need to be perceived by others as being self-directing.” Basically, we don’t want others to think we can’t be responsible for ourselves. Feeling as if we’re being treated like children is “bound to interfere with learning,” Knowles says.

Interestingly enough, this principle conflicts with the ways we typically try to teach adults. Traditional “sit-and-get” learning opportunities leave almost no room for any kind of self-direction—and may even give participants flashbacks to their childhood experiences in the classroom. Instead, try giving your adult learners more autonomy over their learning.

Build on existing experience.

Adults are not beginners when it comes to learning. All of us have had a variety of life experiences and have acquired our own unique knowledge bases. Make yourself aware of what your adult students already know. Otherwise, you risk wasting your time and theirs—or even insulting their intelligence.

It’s also important to honor and elevate the experiences your adult learners already have. In a pedagogical setting, the instructor is expected to be more knowledgeable than the children they’re teaching, but in adult learning, this isn’t the case. Every adult in the room has a rich background of life experience that others in the group—even the facilitator—can learn from.

In that same vein, it’s crucial to recognize how vast the difference between two adults’ experiences can be. “A group of 50-year-olds is more different from one another than a group of 40-year-olds,” writes Knowles, ”who in turn are more differentiated than a group of 10-year-olds.” These differences of experience present a great opportunity for adult students to learn from one another.

Tap into internal motivation.

When we’re children, much of our motivation to learn is external. We feel pressure from teachers and parents, worry about college and careers, or compete for the top spot in the class. But once we become adults, most of those external motivators have melted away. Knowles argues that adults learn best when their prime motivation is internal, rather than external.

We could write a whole article about how to tap into intrinsic motivation. As a matter of fact, we have! Flip the page to see how the principles we’ve covered—especially the need for internal motivation—can transform professional development opportunities in your district.


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