Teaching an adult is not the same as teaching a child. This may seem obvious, but the interest in the specific way adults learn and the teaching methods that work best for them is fairly recent. One of the pioneers of this branch of education is the American Malcolm Knowles. From the 1970s to the 1990s, he developed an educational model based on the characteristics of the adult learner. The research has since progressed, but its hypotheses, some of which have been confirmed by neuroscience, are still relevant.

Andragogy: the “pedagogy” of adults

“Pedagogy,” as a term, is well known, coming from the Greek paidagōgia and meaning, “to lead the child.” In turn, we know a little less about “andragogy,” which translates as “to lead the man*” and was introduced in 1833 by the German teacher Alexander Kapp. This neologism was not used in ancient Greece, although its philosophers were already wondering about education after “youth.”

A century later, Malcolm Knowles, who had laid the foundation for the theory of adult education, revives the term and makes it known, considering essential that the adult learning is identified distinctly from that of children.

Knowles taught at Boston University in the late 1950s before joining the faculty of the University of North Carolina in 1974. He is credited with more than 200 articles and 18 books, including his fundamental texts: The Modern Practice of Adult Education and The Adult Learner.

*The term refers to the male human being, which is why some people today prefer to use the term “adult education, training or learning.” Although this may seem questionable, the term “adult pedagogy” is also used.

The precursor to learner-centered learning

Online training promotes learner-centered as opposed to teacher-centered learning. This approach, increasingly popular today, is also called “active” learning, in reference to the fact that the learners are actively involved in their process of acquiring knowledge, approaching it more experientially.

However, the Malcolm Knowles model represented a small revolution in the field of education, among other things, because it marked a break from the traditional, teacher-centered pedagogical model. Knowles was inspired by the current of contemporary humanism, having emerged in reaction to behaviorism, arguing that the human being is “subject” in the center of his life, that he acts on the world around him, and that he can change himself and everything he touches.

Knowles’ proposal was also at odds with education trends in America at the time because it was based on the idea that the adult learners have their characteristics – different from those of the child – and that those should be taken into account in order to develop an effective pedagogical approach. In the same tone, the researcher was convinced that an informal, comfortable, flexible and secure learning environment was the most conducive to adult learning.

The model

The Knowles model has 5 postulates about the characteristics of the adult learners and 4 principles to consider in any training that is intended for them.

The 5 postulates about the characteristics of the adult learner:

  1. The concept of self

Unlike the child, the adult is an autonomous and independent individual who needs to make his or her own choices, to feel in control. As a result, he/she expects to be considered capable of self-management.

  1. The experience of the adult learner

Every adult has a definite identity, a lived experience that significantly influences his/her personality and his/her path. In addition, the adult learner has a sum of knowledge and skills.

  1. The will to learn

The adult has the will to learn if the knowledge and skills to acquire allow him to address better the real issues he/she encounters. The social dimension occupies an important place in adult life, not only in the private sphere but also professionally. Developing social skills and making contacts is essential for certain professional functions. In addition, since we are social beings, it allows every adult to have a more satisfying life overall.

  1. The orientation of learning

The adult learner is rather pragmatic. His time is precious, and before embarking on training, he wants to know its implications and benefits. He expects the learning to concretely, effectively and quickly fulfill his real needs.

  1. The motivation to learn

With maturity, the motivation to learn becomes especially intrinsic: it comes more from within, i.e., from oneself than from external factors.

The 4 principles of adult education:

  1. The adults must be involved in their learning

The adult learner must be involved, to a certain extent, in the planning of his/her learning experience as well as in the evaluation of his/her learning. This means that he/she must be consulted, for example, on the reasons that will drive him/her to follow the training, on what he/she expects as well as on his/her objectives.

  1. Learning activities should be based on experience and the right to make mistakes

As we explain in the article Neuroscience: Learning in 4 steps, neuroscience has demonstrated in recent years that experimentation and the right to make mistakes are necessary for the learning process in adults. To “encode” new knowledge, the mature brain needs feedback on its predictions. More precisely, in order to form the neuronal connections that underlie new learning, the learner needs an error signal which, by creating a surprise effect, allows him/her to note the discrepancy between his/her predictions and his/her observations.

  1. The knowledge and skills taught must be related to the professional or personal life of the adult and have a tangible impact on it, in the short term

The adult is more willing to become involved in learning if he/she knows that it will provide him/her with concrete tools to face real issues.

  1. Learning should focus on problem-solving rather than memorizing content

On this principle too, the neurosciences have enlightened us by confirming that the more learning arouses the curiosity of the learner, the more his/her memory is willing to retain it. As a result, the use of “riddles” or questions about knowledge that the learner possesses are recommended. Thinking, seeking to understand and making predictions would also contribute to better retention of learning.

The adult learners are very complex. For them to be truly receptive to learning, one must not only consider all of their needs but also their resistance, which comes from their life experience, their knowledge, and their well-defined personality. One of the best ways to help them achieve their goals is to show them how they can concretely apply the knowledge they are taught.

Anik De St-Hilaire, KnowledgeOne’s VP of Academic Development

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.