Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Malcolm Knowles publishes The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy vs. Pedagogy

Although the term andragogy has been in use since 1833, it was Malcolm S. Knowles, who in his 1970 book, The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy vs. Pedagogy, first popularized the term in North America and organized the concepts into a comprehensive theory. Knowles devised a set of four assumptions that differentiated adults from children as learners. Knowles' four assumptions necessitated an entirely new approach to teaching adults and were hailed as groundbreaking in the field of adult education at the time. The four assumptions are self-concept, experience, readiness to learn and orientation to learning (Knowles, 1970, p.39). This essay will examine how different or new Knowles' theory of andragogy was compared to the progressive education theorists such as John Dewey, Maria Montessori and Alexander Neill.

The progressive education theorists were influential in the early part of the twentieth century, long before Knowles, but their ideas centered on children rather than adults. Comparing and contrasting Knowles' four main andragogical assumptions with the ideas of Dewey, Montessori and Neill reveals the extent to which andragogy contributed new approaches to the field of adult education. An in-depth comparison of Knowles' andragogy with the progressive education theorists also reveals the extent to which Knowles' theory is specific to adults. In the end, Knowles' ideas did not offer anything new to the field of adult education nor did they contribute useful information as to how adults learn differently than children.

Knowles is often closely associated with andragogy, but in fact, it originated much earlier. Alexander Kapp, a German grammar school teacher, first introduced the term andragogy in Germany in 1833, but it referred broadly to adults as learners rather than to any specific style of learning (Draper, 1998). Pedagogy was the common term used for teaching at the time. Pedagogy means "the science or art of teaching" and a direct translation of the term from the Greek root of "peda" means a "boy" or "child"(Selman et. al, 1998, p.19). Andragogy, as a term, was developed in reaction to pedagogy in order to move away from its close association with children. Andragogy means "the science or art of teaching adults" because the Greek root of "andra" means adults (p.19). Knowles, however, was the first to develop the ideas of andragogy into a detailed strategy for teaching adults and to popularize the term in North America (Draper, 1998).

Knowles felt that pedagogy was "based on a now obsolete premise - that is, the idea that the purpose of education is to transmit culture" (Draper, 1998, p.14). Knowles believed that an andragogical approach to teaching adults was vitally important in order to take the adult's learning needs into account and to "teach adults how to learn" (Knowles, 1970, p.39). The transmissional modes of pedagogy were not considered as sufficient in enabling adults to deal with the rapid change going on in our society. The result of the "timespan of major cultural change" changing more than once in one's lifetime called for a new and more successful approach to adult learning (p.39). Knowles' felt this development necessitated a new approach to learning based on a more accurate set of assumptions of adults as learners.

The four assumptions Knowles uses to distinguish adults from children as learners produced a split between andragogy and pedagogy. The self-concept principle reflects the self-directing character of the adult learner rather than dependent nature of the child. The principle of experience simply acknowledges the need to draw on the adult's rich source of experience. In contrast, the pedagogical framework perceives the child as not possessing sufficient life experience to effectively incorporate into the learning environment. Readiness to learn indicates that adults differ from children in their developmental stage and as a result have special learning needs. The assumption implies that adult learning needs tend to focus more towards their social roles. On the other hand, pedagogy claims that the learning needs of children are geared towards physiological and mental development stages. Orientation to learning assumes that adults put more value on being able to practically apply their learning while pedagogy suggests that children naturally focus on postponing immediate application for future needs. These four sets of assumptions establish significant guidelines for creating adult learning environments (Knowles, 1970, p.39).

The concept that learning can be made more effective by taking advantage of the innate ability of learners to be self-directed did not originate from Knowles' theory of andragogy in 1970. Montessori, Dewey and Neill had all proclaimed the advantages of recognizing the self-directing capacity of learners and focused their attention on children as learners. Their arguments seriously undermine one of the key assumptions of andragogy; the assumption that adults are more self-directed than are children. Montessori felt that learners were predominantly self-motivated and that they generally learned by themselves (Montessori, 1955). She also acknowledged that the teacher only played a small part in the learner's overall environment (Montessori, 1955). Dewey felt it was important that the educator did not impose a direction on the student, but acted as more of a guide and an assistant (Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum, 1902). Montessori argued that, because of old prejudices, adults fail to recognize the self-directing capacity of children (Montessori, 1955). The oppressive and controlling habits of traditional education prevent adults from observing the child as an individual. Neill also believed strongly in the self-directing capacity of the child. In his experimental Summerhill School in the 1920s, Neill went so far as allowing children to choose whether to attend school (Neill, 1962). Therefore, the progressive education theorists believed that both children and adults are innately self-directing, but that it is our societal prejudices that prevent us from tapping into the self-directing nature of the child.

The perception that an adult's experience should be made a central part of the learning process did not derive from Knowles. The progressive education theorists were far ahead of Knowles in developing thoughts on recognizing the learner's experience. Their work also supports the claim that the child's experience is equal to that of an adult's. John Dewey, in particular, was of the opinion that for learning to be effective it needs to be based on the learner's experience (Dewey, 1902). Dewey maintained that learning is merely symbolic if there is no relation to learning and a person's experience. Dewey criticized the tendency of "old education" to ignore the child's experience and to compare the child as immature in comparison to the adult (Dewey, 1902, p.12). Montessori's opinions support Dewey. Montessori argued that "we form a barrier not paying attention to the inner power of the child or what they can teach us" (Montessori, 1955, p.47).

A comparison of Knowles' third assumption with the ideas of the progressive education theorists makes it clear that Knowles did not come up with anything original. The progressive education theorists do not specifically focus on the concept of readiness to learn in the same manner as Knowles, but an overview of their writings reveals the similarity of their thoughts on the subject. In Neill's Summerhill School, for instance, some classes were organized according to age, but others according to interests (Neill, 1962). It is logical to agree with Knowles that adults differ from children in their developmental stage, but this does not necessarily entail that adults require a different approach to teaching.

The concept that learners learn best when they are able to apply learning did not begin with Knowles. Montessori and Dewey advocated the need for practical application of learning long before Knowles and again focused their thoughts on children as learners. Dewey felt that "the divorce between learning and its use is the most serious defect of our existing education. Without the consciousness of application, learning has no motive to the child." (Dewey, 1966a, p.73) Naturally, the same principles can be extended to all learners regardless of age. Neill also claimed that education should involve real doing (Neill, 1962). Dewey strongly believed that the educational system needed to better represent life. He also criticized the preoccupation with subject centered learning in "old education". He felt that the constant state of change in our society rendered much of subject centered learning obsolete (Dewey, 1966b). Curiously, his ideas of preparing people to deal more effectively with a continuously changing world is similar to Knowles' theory of "helping people to grow in their ability to learn" (Knowles, 1970, p. 34). Dewey thought that the prevalent thinking that adults are more suited to practical application than children reflects the beliefs of the "old education" system more than the actual needs of the learners. According to Dewey the child learner would be perfectly content to apply their learning to specific problems (Dewey, 1966b).

We can easily conclude that age is no longer an adequate means of distinguishing andragogical from pedagogical assumptions. Many theorists, including Knowles in his later writings, argue that new definitions are needed to erase some of the confusion in the debate. The most common opinion, now held by Knowles among others, is to portray andragogy as self-directed learning and pedagogy as teacher directed learning (Rachal, 1983). This new and more accurate distinction brings us right back to the progressive education theorists. It was the progressive education theorists who first came up with the idea of distinguishing between progressive education and traditional education. In summary, their idea of progressive education represented self-directed learning and traditional education represented teacher-directed learning. We cannot ignore the impact of Knowles' theory on the field of education, but we can benefit from ignoring the confusion it created and focus on the ideas put forth by the progressive education theorists. UNESCO echoes a similar sentiment and now discourages use of the term andragogy (Draper, 1998). Comparing Knowles' andragogy with the ideas of the progressive education theorists also makes it clear that the main assumptions of andragogy are not specific to adults and that andragogy as a theory explaining adult learning did not contribute anything new to the field of adult education.


Dewey John. (1902). The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, John. (1966a). "The Dewey School." Dewey's Educational Writings. Ed. by F.W. Garforth. London: Heinemann.

Dewey, John. (1966b). "My Pedagogic Creed". Dewey's Educational Writings. Ed. by F.W. Garforth. London: Heinemann.

Draper, James. (1998). "The Metamorphoses of Andragogy". Canadian Journal of Studies in Adult Education. Vol. 12 (1), May.

Knowles, Malcolm S. (1980) The Modern Practice of Adult Education. Revised and Updated. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Regents.

Knowles, Malcolm S. (1970). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy. New York: Association Press.

Montessori, Maria. (1955). Childhood Education. Translated by Joosten A.M., Chicago: Henry Regnery Co.

Neill, Alexander. (1962). Summerhill. Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Rachal, John. (1983). "The Andragogy - Pedagogy Debate: Another Voice in the Fray". Lifelong Learning: The Adult Years. Vol.6 (9), May.

Prepared by Jay Friedman (OISE/UT)

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