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What Is Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory?

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Adult Learning Theory is simple really. It tells us how adults learn and how this differs from children.

As an adult, learning can sometimes feel like a challenge. After all, we may be burdened with a lack of time, self-doubt, financial barriers, declining neuroplasticity or inadequate support.

There’s a reason why it’s easier to learn a new language or become a chess grandmaster when you’re younger.

Even still, before World War II, theorists almost always focused on studying the way children learn. Luckily, Malcolm Knowles changed the narrative. His Adult Learning Theory, also known as andragogy, highlights the distinct ways adult learners differ from younger learners.

This makes it a must-know theory for any L&D professional crafting training for mature students. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. As Knowles himself says, ‘We will learn no matter what! Learning is a natural as rest or play’.

In this article, we’ll delve into the fundamentals of andragogy and show you how to put its principles into practice in your training programme. But first, let’s start by exploring the father of Adult Learning Theory.

Introduction to Malcolm Knowles

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Malcolm S. Knowles (1913-1997) was a renowned American educator. He was one of the central figures in adult education in the second half of the 20th century.

His work remains relevant. In fact, Knowles popularised the term andragogy, and his Adult Learning Theory still has a place in today’s L&D world. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

Initially raised in Montana, Knowles gained a scholarship to Harvard, where he studied philosophy, literature, history, political science, ethics and international law.

At first, Knowles aspired to a career in the Foreign Service. However, luckily for the L&D industry, there was a three-year wait for entry, and Knowles joined the National Youth Administration instead.

His job involved evaluating what skills and knowledge local employers were looking for. Knowles then established courses to teach those skills to ensure young people got recruited into these roles. This is where his passion for adult learning began.

During this time, Knowles met Eduard Lindeman, another great mind in the adult education space. Lindeman mentored Knowles until he joined Boston University in 1959. He worked as an associate professor of adult education.

During his years at Boston University, Knowles produced his key texts: The Modern Practice of Adult Education (1970) and The Adult Learner (1973). Later on, he updated his key texts and published a new book on Self-directed Learning in 1975.

These texts are the basis for Adult Learning Theory as we know it today. Let’s have a look!

What Is Adult Learning Theory?

In 1980, Malcolm Knowles unlocked the secret to effective adult learning with his groundbreaking Adult Learning Theory. This innovative approach acknowledges the distinct ways adults tackle education and the teaching methods and styles work best for them.

Initially, Knowles only made four assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners. These assumptions focus on self-direction, the learning experience, readiness to learn and learning orientation.

He added the fifth assumption four years later, in 1984. This fifth assumption considers adult learners’ motivation to learn. These five assumptions form the theory as we know it today.

But Knowles didn’t stop there. He also laid out four principles of andragogy to guide educators in their teaching. The term andragogy, coming from the Greek word ‘man-leading,’ stands in contrast to pedagogy which means ‘child-leading’.

Let’s explore his five assumptions and the four principles of andragogy in more detail.

The Five Assumptions of Adult Learners

To understand the needs of adult learners, Knowles identified five defining characteristics that make them distinct from their younger counterparts. These assumptions form the backbone of his Adult Learning Theory and offer insight into how to engage and educate mature students.

So, what are these five assumptions? Let’s explore how incorporating them into your training programme can help unlock the potential of adult learners.

Five assumptions of Adult Learning Theory

Assumption #1: Self-Concept

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The first assumption, called Self-Concept, is that adults become more independent as they move through life. Rather than being dependent personalities like children, we become self-directed individuals as we grow older.

As a result, adults carry the skills and knowledge needed to learn and understand independently. According to Knowles, this means that adult learners prefer a more self-directed approach to learning rather than instructor-led training.

This is a big part of why learning technology platforms, like learning management systems (LMS), have grown to be so popular in corporate training. After all, these tools enable learners to take ownership of their learning journey. Typically, learners have a say in what they learn, how they learn it, and when.

As an L&D professional, you should focus on creating learning experiences that offer maximum autonomy. Ideally, your learning platform should guide and help your users through their learning process. As such, you need to ensure you provide the tools and resources your learners need to learn on their own terms.

Exploring topics autonomously is an excellent way for adult learners to build upon their previous knowledge. In fact, the learning experience becomes more meaningful if they have the chance to explore and apply the topic in different ways.

To do so, your learning tools need to allow them to explore topics from various viewpoints. This might come in the form of independent study, group discussions, simulations, scenarios or learning games. These features help your learners to comprehend and apply the information successfully.

Assumption #2: Adult Learner Experience

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The second assumption, titled Adult Learner Experience, suggests that adults have vast previous experience from which they can draw knowledge and context into the learning process.

Naturally, children frequently learn things for the first time without previous experience. Adult learners, on the other hand, bring their past education, training, jobs and life events into the learning experience.

This assumption gives essential guidance when it comes to planning your training programmes. After all, you shouldn’t assume your learners are beginners without first understanding what knowledge and skills they already have.

To comprehend their current capabilities, you should start by conducting a training needs analysis (TNA) and creating learner personas. This will help you to design a programme that is relevant and challenging enough to keep your learners motivated.

Even if you are discussing new topics and introducing new terms, adult learners often have skills and previous experiences they can use to enrich the learning process.

This kind of elaboration of previous knowledge is one of our favourite research-backed learning techniques! After all, integrating previous knowledge is an effective way to enhance the learning process and improve knowledge retention.

Assumption #3: Readiness to Learn

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The third assumption, Readiness to Learn, suggests that adults want to learn and are prepared to do so when there is a good reason. In other words, as we mature, we become more eager to learn things that help us achieve our goals or accomplish relevant tasks.

Unlike children, adult learners are typically more selective with what information they take in. As such, they care about the ‘why’ or WIIFM (what’s in it for me) behind learning.

They want to know how their learning programme will help them. In fact, they might ask questions like ‘How will this help me or my career?’ or ‘Is this training relevant to my skills gaps?’.

This is what makes communication essential. In every stage of your training programme, you need to make it clear what your learners are taking away from the course and why it matters to them.

Similarly, you can use collaboration tools and social learning features to tie learning to social development. After all, the more they can get out of training, the more likely they are to engage with it.

Assumption #4: Orientation of Learning

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The fourth assumption, Orientation of Learning, suggests that adult learners want their learning to be applicable to their everyday lives.

Knowles explains that as a person matures, their perspective changes. They move from focusing on subject-centeredness to problem-centeredness. Ultimately, adults want to learn practical skills that help them to solve the problems they are encountering in their lives.

To be able to do so, adults move away from simply knowing about a concept or term towards being able to apply new information in the real world. This focuses on building tangible knowledge that contributes to problem-solving.

Throughout your learning programme, you should emphasise how the subject matter helps your learners to solve problems. Real-life examples are also an excellent way to highlight how learners in similar positions have been able to apply their knowledge.

In addition, you should implement scenario-based learning. It’s an excellent way to teach about problem-solving in a safe environment. In addition, it’s an engaging learning experience that helps adult learners to perform better in their roles.

Assumption #5: Motivation to Learn

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The last assumption is called Motivation to Learn. This assumption suggests that as humans grow older, their motivation to learn becomes internal.

As children, we typically learn because of external factors, such as parents and teachers. When we mature in life, our motivations change. Adults want to learn for their own reasons, like progressing in their careers, getting a pay rise or boosting their self-esteem.

These internal motivators are individual to each learner. As such, it’s essential that you take your time to understand what motivates your audience.

After all, if your learners are not motivated to complete their training, they won’t engage with it. As such, you need to implement these motivators as a part of your communication plan and training programme.

Again, you should ensure variety in your training courses, topics and content types. In addition, make sure your training initiatives are comprehensive. This helps you to cater to the different motivators your learners may have.

Ultimately, understanding what motivates your learners helps you to ensure there is a valid reason behind every online learning course, module and feature. You need to highlight how your training programme will benefit your learners to produce the best results.

Four Principles of Andragogy

When Knowles added his fifth assumption in 1984, he also suggested four principles that he extrapolated from his assumptions.

These four principles describe how Adult Learning Theory can be applied to a training initiative. After all, according to the theory, adults have a distinct approach to education.

As such, these principles offer a roadmap for L&D professionals looking to create programmes that resonate with mature students. Let’s take a brief look!

1. Involvement

The first principle suggests that adult learners need to be involved in the planning and evaluation process. These self-directed individuals want to control the what, when and how of the learning process.

2. Past Experiences

According to Knowles, our previous experiences, successes, and mistakes provide the basis for our future learning activities. After all, this helps them to add greater context to the new information they are learning.

3. Relevant Topics

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the third principle suggests that adult learners are most interested in learning about topics that have immediate relevance to them.

4. Problem-Centric Learning

As explored, adult learning is typically problem-solving in nature. As such, simply providing memorising opportunities is not enough. Adult learners want to use reasoning to take in the information they are presented with.

Criticism of Adult Learning Theory

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While Adult Learning Theory has gained popularity, it has also been criticised for its idealised view of adults as self-directed learners.

While this is true for some, it’s also possible that adults don’t take initiative in their learning. This means that they don’t necessarily want to control their learning journey and prefer to learn through guidance. We all wish we had a mentor to light the way, from time to time.

Let’s use a presentation as an example. The theory assumes that each adult learner will choose a relevant and useful topic, do a good job out of pride and have the skills necessary to create a successful presentation.

However, there is no guarantee that these three assumptions hold just because the learner is an adult. In addition, there are adult learners who value traditional classroom training. These individuals won’t find as much value in self-directed learning.

Cultural differences can also impact adult learning preferences. This makes the theory’s reliance on self-directedness problematic. Therefore, simply relying on the fact that adults are self-directed learners can sometimes cause more harm than good.

With this critique in mind, let’s explore if Adult Learning Theory is still relevant in L&D!

Is Knowles’ Theory Still Relevant?

Despite the criticism, Adult Learning Theory can give useful advice on how to create successful training programmes for adult learners. In fact, it can help L&D professionals to roll-out training initiatives that meet the needs of their modern learners.

Rather than pouring learning into the heads of your students, it guides you to increase autonomy in your training. After all, applying pedagogical theory means that learners are dependent on the teacher for guidance and acquisition of knowledge.

In fact, simply understanding the differences between pedagogical and andragogical approaches can make or break your adult training programme. In a classroom full of professionals, pedagogy can lead to disengaged and uninterested learners.

Adults come to the table with different motivators. Andragogy inspires L&D professionals to connect learning experiences to what adult learners already know.

Considering this, we argue that Adult Learning Theory still has its place in the L&D industry. However, just like with any other theory, you need to analyse your learner audience to see what works and what doesn’t.

Final Words

Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory revolutionised our understanding and approach to adult education by offering five key assumptions and four principles for L&D professionals.

With a focus on adult learners’ distinct motivators, self-awareness, and readiness, Knowles’ theory calls for more independent learning opportunities.

While the theory has faced some criticism, understanding andragogy is crucial for L&D professionals to create engaging training experiences that resonate with modern learners.

Embrace the power of adult learning and elevate your employee experience. Download your free guidebook to applying learning theories by clicking the link below!

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