Knowles M., et al (2005) The Adult Learner (6th ed.)

Knowles M., et al. (2005) The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. 6th edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Although this is a recent edition of the book, the content doesn’t appear to have changed much. As a first-time reader, I’m disappointed by this.  I was interested in the concepts being presented, and in the discussion of various theoretical approaches to education (both of children and of adults); however, the references are primarily from the 1970s & 1980s, which became frustrating to me.  As a contemporary reader (and adult, self-directed learner), I would like to be informed of the latest thinking on the questions that the author(s) explore. Even if they didn’t choose to update Knowles’ original chapters, they could have included a list of further reading based on publications from the past 10 years.  As it is, I am left with the sure knowledge that things have developed in the past decade or two, but no guidance as to where to continue my reading.

The authors make a sharp contrast between the concepts of ‘pedagogy’ and ‘andragogy’ (adult education); I wonder to what extent this contrast still holds in the present day.  From my small knowledge of current trends in teaching & learning at all levels, it seems to me that educators (pedagogues) in general are moving towards learner-directed, problem-solving-oriented approaches which seem to have much in common with the teaching philosophy advocated in this book.  My daughter’s school, for example, seems to me to be following what the authors would call a more ‘andragogical’ teaching style, although the students are far from adults. I personally do not find the distinction between “adult” and “non-adult” learners useful; yes, there are of course differences, but I have not found the generalization convincing.  I do agree that the ideas they are presenting under the heading of ‘andragogy’ are important and compelling, and they resonate with my prior experience and learning, but I am not convinced that they apply only or principally to adults.

Beyond this is the question: what is an adult, anyway? and what constitutes adult education? I teach at a college, following a college-determined course outline, but with considerable freedom to teach in the way (and based on the philosophy) that I wish.  My students are all adults (in that they are over 18), but there are significant differences in their professional experience, motivation, personal backgrounds, academic skills, and so forth.  This book’s principal focus is on continuing education experiences and organizational development, and they have very little specific content related to college-level teaching.  I found many of the recommendations  and ideas to be difficult to fit into the context in which I teach.  Most of my students are novices, and cannot (for example) be expected to identify their own learning needs and set learning objectives. The authors do point out that ‘andragogy’ and ‘andragogical’ principles much be applied in a situationally-relevant manner; some adult students in some settings need to be approached from a more ‘pedagogical’ model.  This definitely applies to my students, as in one classroom I may have an 18-year-old with no interpreting or college experience, a middle-aged adult with college experience in another country a couple of decades ago, an experienced professional interpreter who has never been to college, and a college graduate seeking a change in career. Their level of self-motivation may vary immensely (some may have been sent by their employers, some may be testing out the waters of a new career that they may or may not take to, some may be genuinely motivated but face difficulties related to lack of time and other resources). All of this, together with the fact that I am working in a community college system, affects my approach to designing and teaching classes.

Some notes on the content:

Core Adult Learning Principles (pp. 64-68)

1. The (adult) learner needs to know why s/he needs to learn something.

2. The learner knows that s/he is responsible for his/her actions & decisions. This self-concept is described as “autonomous and self-directing.”

3. The learner brings valuable experiences (context) to the learning experience; learning activities need to capitalize on (or sometimes to overcome) these previous experiences/ knowledge.

4. Learners are ready to learn; they want to learn about things that are relevant/useful to them. Trainers may also act to create a readiness to learn.

5. Learners are task- or need-oriented (rather than subject-oriented); new knowledge should be presented in the context of something that the learner needs to do.

6. Learners are susceptible to outside motivation.

Chapter 6 (pg. 115) provides a process model (contrasted with “content models”) for the use of andragogical principles:

1. Preparing the learners

2. Creating a positive learning environment

3. Providing for mutual planning (between teachers and students)

4. Identifying learning needs

5. Drafting learning objectives to meet needs

6. Planning learning activities

7. Using adequate materials and exercises to carry out the activities.

8. Evaluation

In their model of Andragogy in Practice, the authors surround these principles with two layers of factors that influence each other and the application of the principles (p. 4).  One is Individual & Situational Differences, including subject matter differences, individual learner differences, and situational differences. The other is Goals and Purposes for Learning, including societal growth, individual growth, and institutional growth.

As the authors note in their responses to criticisms of andragogy (p. 148), not all adults (or learners) match up with the principles stated above, and these principles do not hold in all learning situations.  They discuss factors which affect the use of their model and stress that it is meant to be flexible, so that the course design and implementation are modified as needed in a given situation, while still respecting the underlying principles.  They provide a framework (pg. 156) for analyzing a learning situation or program in order to determine how the principles should be modified or applied to fit a specific context.

Chapters 2-6 provide an interesting overview of different theoretical trends in learning and teaching theory over the past 100 years (although, as noted above, the review stops well short of the present day), including brief, mostly clear summaries of the various positions taken by different groups of theorists. They also trace the development of adult learning as a separate field of study. Useful conceptualization of the connection between theories of learning & theories of teaching: “Typically, theories of learning are only useful to adult learning practitioners when they are somehow applied to the facilitation of learning” (p. 73).

Chapter 5 contains several helpful summaries of teaching theories and principles propounded by scholars.  Of note: Hilgard’s attempt to bring together principles of teaching that would be acceptable to learning theorists of different philosophies. The author also reviews principles of teaching derived learning theories about animals, children, and adults, as well as others derived from theories of teaching. This chapter offers a lot of food for thought, and I think is useful for anyone who is trying to clarify his/her own teaching philosophy. I found myself actively engaged in checking my own experiences and feelings against the various theories and concepts discussed.

pg. 101: on behaviors of teachers using the inquiry method: “His {the teacher’s} goal is to engage students in those activities that produce knowledge: defining, questioning, observing, classifying, generalizing, verifying, applying. …. Thus, our inquiry, or “inductive,” teacher is largely interested in helping his students to become more proficient users of these methods. He measures his success in terms of behavioral changes in students: the frequency with which they ask questions; the increase in the relevance and cogency of their question; the frequency and conviction of their challenges to assertions made by other students or teachers and textbooks; the relevance and clarity of the standards on which they base their challenges; their willingness to suspend judgments when they have insufficient data; their willingness to modify or otherwise change their position when data warrant such change; the increase in their tolerance for diverse answers; their ability to apply generalizations, attitudes, and information to novel situations.”

The last section of the book consists of previously-published articles or chapters about practice in adult learning.  Of these, I found chapters 12 and 18 the most helpful.

Chapter 12 presents the concept of whole-part-whole learning. The authors (Swanson & Law) present a model for structuring the design of macro- and micro-segments of training programs. The chapter provides a couple of specific examples which help the reader to conceptualize the idea.  In their view, trainers or teachers must present learners with a view of the whole (of what they are to learn), then with specific parts of it in sequence, then return to a ‘whole’ (big picture) review of the concepts or skills being learned. The purpose of the first presentation of the whole is to allow students to organize their learning in advance–knowing the big picture, or the end goal, is a form of scaffolding (and sometimes modeling) that gives the student an organizational framework and an idea of the desired end. It also provides motivation for the learner. The trainer then proceeds to present the parts of what is to be learned.  At the end, the trainer returns to the whole in some way, so as to integrate and solidify knowledge and skills. All the individual parts are linked together, and the individual is able to demonstrate mastery of the learning objectives (and transfer new knowledge/skills to long-term memory).

Chapter 18 reports on a survey (by Swanson and Falkland) of novice and expert trainers, in which the objects of study were to identify difficulties experienced by novice trainers, to find out how expert trainers handle these difficulties, and to pull together the results of both surveys into a guide for trainers.  The resulting short guide lists 12 potential problems faced by trainers (for example, fear, dependence on notes, and timing) and some practical solutions for them.