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What is Andragogy?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Andragogy is a philosophy of teaching that focuses on instructing adults, rather than children. It is seen as a different methodology than pedagogy, which focuses on ways to best instruct children. It was developed in the early-part of the 19th century, as a response to the failure of traditional pedagogy to best instruct adults later in life.

The term originated with a German educator, Alexander Kapp, but it was the American Malcolm Knowles who truly elaborately the idea and developed the foundation for modern andragogy. Knowles developed his system based on four foundation ideas: firstly, that adults want to be fully involved in the development of their own education, that they have a strong sense of self-concept, and their motivation grows from this; secondly, that experiential education is the strongest form of adult education, which includes allowing learners to make their own mistakes; thirdly, that for adults to have a true readiness to learn, they need to feel what they are learning is directly relevant to their own lives; and lastly, that adults learn things from the relationship of solving problems, rather than passively acquiring new content.

Even a quick glance at these shows how drastically andragogy differs from many traditional forms of pedagogy, although it does share many elements with more modern forms of pedagogy. One of the most important ideas is that, while children are in many ways viewed as empty vessels with a strong innate desire to acquire new information in a wide range of fields, embracing a love of learning for the sake of learning, the same is not necessarily true of adults. Adults are viewed as already being fairly calcified in their modes of thinking, with a view of their time, energy, and mental capacity as finite resources. This leads them to be much more discerning in what they choose to pursue.

As a result, one of the most important aspects of a strong practice of andragogy is directly linking the subject matter to the learner’s life or work. Adults, Knowles held, don’t want to learn in a vacuum, they want to see how information can help them. At the same time, learning must engage the adult learner at all levels, including allowing them feedback devices to change their own system of learning. The sense of personal power is important in andragogy, while in traditional pedagogy children are assumed to be fine with an authority figure who sets curriculum entirely. Of course, in many modern theories of pedagogy, some of these fundamental assumptions of child learning are also challenged, and more progressive forms of pedagogy begin to look much more like andragogy.

One important shift in andragogy is perceptive: the shift from the instructor being viewed as an absolute power position to more of a facilitator in the learning process. This shift from a didactic model of education to a more collaborative one has played an important role in exciting adults to continue their education, and continues to grow as a movement as more adults return to educational environments late in life.

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