Knowles’ Model of Andragogy and a Glance into Sexual Orientation: A Literature Review   Leave a comment

Knowles’ Model of Andragogy and a Glance into Sexual Orientation

A Literature Review


            This paper is a literature review of the adult learning theory, andragogy and its systematic development which began in the 19th century. A secondary analysis will discuss the connection of sexual orientation to the theory. Malcolm Knowles who is the father of andragogy describes it as, “…the art and science of helping adults learn” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p.84). It is a guided activity that produces change in the adult learner. Foundational questions arise such as, in the debate of the differences between learning of an adult compared to the learning of a child (pedagogy) and two, is it a theory? Knowles (1984) commented, “Andragogy now appears to be situation-specific and not unique to adults” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p.87). This philosophy can be explained through different assumptions, perceptions and beliefs. The research incorporated in this paper will focus on the dependency to self-directedness, viewing injustices related to the learning experience, and exploring different approaches to teaching adult learners.

Definition of an Adult Learner

            How is an adult learner identified? A researcher examines their social roles in society, their biological age, the time when self-concept and acknowledging responsibilities comes into place, and even takes note if one is married or driving. It is the social definition that Knowles (1978) discussed regarding andragogy and the adult learner

            Andragogy assumes that the point at which an individual achieves a self-concept of essential self-direction is the point at which psychologically becomes an adult…It is my   own observation that those students who have entered a professional school, or have a job have made a big step toward seeing themselves as essentially self-directing. (Tennant, 2011, p. 114).

Andragogy: A theory in waves


            In order to understand the theory behind the liberal humanism aspects it is important to explore the beginning or the history of the viewpoint. Alexander Kapp, a German high school teacher in 1833 examined the educational theory of the Greek philosopher Plato and coined the phrase andragogy during the enlightenment movement. Kapp based his opinions on the first values in human life including self-reflection and educating. He justifies andragogy and the education for adults. It was unfortunate or maybe fate that a German man, John Frederick Herbert, disapproved of the term which resulted in andragogy fading for almost a century, although adult learning continued, but without a name.  (Henschke, 2009, para. p. 2).

            The theory found a second life when it reappeared in 1921in a report by Rosenstock-Huessy, a leading force in the first theoretical, academic reflections on adult pedagogical issues in the 1920s in which he argued, “…‘adult education required special teachers, methods and philosophy, and he used the term andragogy to refer collectively to these special requirements (Henschke, 2009, para. p.1).

            In 1926, Lindeman, an American theorist reexamined the nature of andragogy. In addition, Anderson and Lindeman (1927) reiterated the concept as it was brought to the new land of America although no development was done on the theory, there was an emphasis on, “…a commitment to a self-directed, experiential, problem-solving approach to adult education” (Holmes, G. & Abington-Cooper, M., 2000, para. p. 1).

            Then there was a third wave of andragogy in the 1950’s and it wasn’t until 1968, a time of social and political movements when people were finding their voices that Malcolm Knowles, a theorist in adult education wrote about and reported on andragogy.  Sopher & Henschke (2011) noted, “The social movements which provide context of Knowles’ times included: the humanistic adult education movement, the human services movement, the group dynamics movement, and the human resource development movement” (p. 1).

            Also incorporated in the setting was the addition of creating a knowledge base “…the context in which two of the field’s most important theory-building efforts-andragogy and self-directed learning-emerged” (Merriam, 2001, p. 4). Knowles theory led to the popularizing of the term while creating disputes and controversy within the field.

Knowlesian assumptions of andragogy

            Knowles theory in adult learning was concerned with the theoretical and practical aspects and concluded that it also needed to be applied to the educator and even beyond (Sopher & Henschke, 2011, para p. 1). Within the work was a need to distinguish between adult and child learning. One underlying principle is revealed in examining the learning environments which are different between formal and informal learning in adult learning as Patterson & Pegg, (1999) noted, “Because adults regard education as a life-time activity, they are able to learn more effectively in a self-directed environment, which is quite different from the environment of traditional students” (Thompson, & Clayton, 2004, p. 108).

            There are six assumptions of the theory based on humanism, self-identity, and growth as Pratt (1993) reported, “…as an ideology, andragogy promotes individualism as a virtue and individual growth as the purpose of education and emphasizes self-fulfillment and private interests over public ends” (Sandlin, 2005, p. 26). The principles include: self-concept: going from having a dependent personality to a self-directing personality as one matures according to Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner (2007), “… self-directed learning is a natural part of adult life (p. 110), experience: the expectation that adult learners have a growing reservoir of experience which provides a “rich resource for learning”, readiness to learn: there is a connection between the readiness of an adult to learn and the developmental tasks of his or her social role, orientation to learn: adult learners are more problem-centered than subject-centered in learning, motivation to learn: the most critical learning comes from internal motivation and desire to learn rather than external motivation, need to know: adults need to know why they need to learn something before the process can begin (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, para. p.84).

Themes and patterns in andragogy

            There are two central themes, one of which is the definition of the role of the teacher as being a facilitator rather than just presenting information to the adult learner and second, with an emphasis on the adult learner within the process of going from dependent to self-directed and autonomous. Learning is a repetitive patterned process that creates changes in the adult leaner going from dependent on educators to taking responsibility for how and why they learn. According to Caffarella (1993), “the focus of learning is on the individual and self-development, with learners expected to assume primary responsibility for their own learning. The process of learning, which is centered on learner needs, is seen as more important than the content (Alfred, 2004, p. 1).

            From these attributes and assumptions, Knowles theory is linear in nature and moves through steps suggesting a program planning model for, “…designing, implementing, and evaluating educational experiences with adults (Merriam, 2001, p. 4). There are many other patterns that are perceived in andragogy such as, being learner centered, the perspective of the inner and outer self, being self-directed, learning occurring with or without educators, life experiences count resulting in reflection, and becoming self-actualized and autonomous.

Principles of Self-directed Learning & Autonomy

            The terms andragogy, self-direction, and independence are all intertwined and yet the goals may be different. Self-directed learning has three goals: (1) which is grounded in humanistic philosophy, posits personal growth and to enhance learners to be self-directed, (2) to foster transformational learning as central to self-directed learning, and (3) promoting emancipatory learning and social action (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, para.p. 107-108). To define autonomy is say that it combines adult learners with their inner will to do or not do with the freedom to act and be independent leading to reflection as one takes control of their learning. It is about being proactive in learning and growing while relying on oneself and not an educator. According to Knowles (1975, 1980) who explained that context plays an important role in autonomy, “…people move toward self-directedness at differing rates and not necessarily in all dimensions of life, and that in some situations adults may need to be at least ‘temporarily dependent’ in learning situations” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p.123).

            There are four assumptions influencing autonomous behavior for instance, an adult learners personal sense of their capabilities (role as a learner), the adult learners understanding and knowledge of a subject matter, at any time in an adult learners life there is revealed a commitment and a desire to learn, and the adult learners learning process is related to their technical skills (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, para. p.123). An adult learner goes through stages to reach a level of self-direction. Knowles staged self-directed learning model starts with stage one, being dependent followed by becoming interested then involved resulting in being self-directed. Benson & Voller (1997) reported on Knowles five step model of self-directed learning term autonomy has come to be used in at least five ways: (1) for situations in which learners study entirely on their own; (2) for a set of skills which can be learned and applied in self-directed learning; (3) for an inborn capacity which is suppressed by institutional education; (4) for the exercise of learners’ responsibility for their own learning; (5) for the right of learners to determine the direction of their own learning. (Thanasoulas, 2000, p. 1).

            After reviewing the assumptions, stages, and principles of andragogy, there is a fire that sparks the value system through three features of individualism as Tennant (2011) stated, “…the dignity of the person, autonomy and self-direction (Tennant, 2011, p. 120). Does autonomy mean freedom from an educator? It appears that the bottom line regarding independent and dependent learners is that they need to be both when exercising their autonomy (Zoghi & Dehghan, 2012, para. p. 23).

Connection between Andragogy and Sexual Orientation

            Knowles views of adult learning are humanistic. According to Sarapin & Vorvoreanu (2000), “Although Knowles’ definition of andragogy focuses on the teacher’s role, his andragogical theory is based on characteristics of the adult learner” (p. 1). Is there a connection between andragogy and the sexual orientation of an adult learner? Certain stages and assumptions come to light for instance the third goal of self-directed learning which states, to help free social restraints. Second, when adult learners reach a developmental stage of readiness to learn adults are prepared to learn specific knowledge in order to act, think, and cope in today’s contemporary world in real life situations. What Knowles does not incorporate in his theory is the socio-cultural characteristics, the spiritual, the sexual orientation, or gender which affects the autonomous learner as Grace (1996b) noted, “He chose the mechanistic  over the meaningful” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 88).

            Social inequities (and sexual-minority oppression) is found in educational settings and stem from power-based relationships (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, para. p.249). Within the social context of a learning environment educators and adult learners unite and with them follows the hierarchies from the outside world, including sexual orientation, race, gender, class and disability…. enacting the facilitation role will reproduce the power structures that privilege some, silence some, and deny the existence of other learners (Johnson-Bailey, & Cervero, 1997, para. p. 1).

            Ignoring context is a critique. How is autonomy to be reached if there are missing pieces to the puzzle? As Sandra Kerka (2002) noted

            The emphasis on autonomy and self-direction is criticized for ignoring context. Adults in higher education can be marginalized and deprived of voice and power…Power         differences based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation,      and disability can limit adults’ autonomy and ability to be self-directed (Johnson-Bailey and Cervero 1997; Leach 2001; Sheared and Sissel 2001, as cited in Kerka, 2002, p.1).

Viewing Injustices and Oppression

            Throughout history bias and prejudice behavior against lesbians, bisexuals and gay men have found its way into the learning environment creating an inner fear in the adult learner. There has always been a stigma against non-heterosexual individuals, those who do not conform. Within formal and informal education there are forms of privilege and oppression that are reinforced because the logic that maintains those structures becomes a commonsense lens through which people view and interpret their everyday experiences (Tisdell, 1998, as cited in Merriam 2001, para. p.55). It’s the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice as Friere (1993) remarked, “…to recover their lost humanity” (Freire, 1993, p. 44). It is here that Knowles’s third goal of self-direction can be utilized in respect to supporting social action and making a positive change with the readiness to learn.

Teaching methods for adult learners

            Knowles’s informal learning theory focuses on a community based environment for instance, online learning where adult learners are self-directed. He concluded that teaching adults is to teach them to be lifelong learners. It is up to the educator to connect with adult learners on their level, to build a curriculum in which it is relatable to their experiences, opening discussions, resulting in reflection, confronting differences and bringing together theory and practice (Caffarella, 1992; Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995, as cited in Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, para. p.319).

            In order to break down the wall and open up discourse certain learning methods could be utilized in order to educate others about sexual orientation and reduce the fear factor while creating a safe environment. Films could be watched followed by an open discussion for example, with coming out themes, papers could be written giving critical reflection, speakers from organizations of the LGBTQQ community, and reading literature giving the topic new lenses to view sexual orientation. It is through learning that positive social action takes place and where change is possible.

            In summation, linking theory to practice can be seen in today’s contemporary world. Knowles believed in online learning, lifelong learning and human resource development. These are major facets in an adult learner’s personal, professional and private life, but where does autonomy fall for the adult learner. It appears that at one end of the spectrum there is dependency and at the other is self-directed. The autonomous adult learner falls in the middle. The philosophy of andragogy has been debated in the past and the present in the field of education and will continue far into the future to cause controversy and debates.

            …if we know why we are learning and if the reason fits our needs as we perceive them,     we will learn quickly and deeply… Malcolm Knowles


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Malcolm Knowles quote:


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