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The Adult Learner – Andragogy

You may be familiar with the term pedagogy which is used to describe the ‘traditional’ methodology of child education. Quite often it is used as a synonym for ‘teaching’ and certainly represents learning focused on the teacher. In other words, in the pedagogic model of learning, the teacher decides what is learned, how it is learned and when learning takes place.

Whether or not this is the best model for child education, it is clearly inadequate for adult learning, particularly when it comes to work or career-related learning within the process of human resource development. HRD requires a more active approach from the learner which takes account of individual experience.

The term ‘andragogy’ was publicized by Malcolm Knowles, initially in his book, “The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy” published in 1970.  

“The teacher finds a new function. He is no longer the oracle who speaks from the platform of authority, but rather the guide, the pointer-outer who also participates in learning in proportion to the vitality and relevancy of his facts and experiences.”

Andragogy has been extensively used as a term for adult education in continental Europe. In the English-speaking world, however, it was not commonly used until Malcolm Knowles began to write on the subject. Knowles used andragogy to define and explain the conditions that adults required for learning. Initially defined as ‘the art and science of helping adults learn,’ the term has taken on a wider meaning and now refers to learner-focused education for people of all ages.

For Knowles, andragogy is process-based rather than content-based (pedagogy) and anchored on four (later, five) main assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners which, arguably, make them different from child learners. But even Knowles agrees that (the first four, at least) differ only in degree between adults and children.

1. Self-concept: As people mature, each person’s concept of self moves away from being a dependent personality towards being a self-directed human being.

2. Experience: As people mature they accumulate their own individual, growing reservoirs of experience that provide an increasing resource for learning.

3. Readiness to learn: As people mature their readiness to learn becomes increasingly oriented to the developmental tasks of their social roles.

4. Orientation to learning: As people mature their time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and, as a result, they shift from a subject-centered to a problem-centered orientation toward learning.

5. Motivation to learn: As people mature the motivation to learn is internal 

“As people move through life, new information and skills are imprinted in the brain by linking what is learned to the rest of the learner’s past experience, prior knowledge and current experiences. In fact, learning doesn’t happen without these connections. The creation and access of memory are a chemical and electrical process that links new pieces of information to existing pieces. While this may seem obvious, many trainers do not appreciate its importance”.

“The brain has a predisposition to search for how things make sense and automatically looks for meaning in every experience. This quest for personal meaning translates directly into the search for common patterns and relationships. The essential function of adult learning is to find out how what is being learned relates to what the learner already knows and values and how that information and the learner’s prior experiences connect.”

Jane Vella (2002) sets out 12 principles for adult learning:

1. Needs assessment – participation of the learners in naming what is to be learned.

2. Safety in the environment and the process. We create a context for learning. That context can be made safe.

3. Sound relationships between teacher and learner and among learners.

4. Sequence of content and reinforcement.

5. Praxis – action with reflection or learning by doing.

6. Respect for learners as decision makers.

7. Ideas, feelings, and actions – cognitive, affective, and psychomotor aspects of learning.

8. Immediacy of the learning.

9. Clear roles and role development.

10. Teamwork and use of small groups.

11. Engagement of the learners in what they are learning.

12. Accountability – how do they know they know?

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