C H A P T E R 1
In the early 1970s when andragogy and the concept that adults
and children learn differently was first introduced in the United
States by Malcolm Knowles, the idea was groundbreaking and
sparked much subsequent research and controversy. Since the earliest
days, adult educators have debated what andragogy really is.
Spurred in large part by the need for a defining theory within the
field of adult education, andragogy has been extensively analyzed
and critiqued. It has been alternately described as a set of guidelines
(Merriam, 1993), a philosophy (Pratt, 1993), a set of assumptions
(Brookfield, 1986), and a theory (Knowles, 1989). The disparity of
these positions is indicative of the perplexing nature of the field of
adult learning; but regardless of what it is called, “it is an honest
attempt to focus on the learner. In this sense, it does provide an alternative
to the methodology-centered instructional design perspective”
(Feur and Gerber, 1988). Merriam, in explaining the complexity and
present condition of adult learning theory, offers the following:
It is doubtful that a phenomenon as complex as adult learning
will ever be explained by a single theory, model or set of principles.
Instead, we have a case of the proverbial elephant being
described differently depending on who is talking and on which
part of the animal is examined. In the first half of this century,
psychologists took the lead in explaining learning behavior; from
the 1960s onward, adult educators began formulating their own
ideas about adult learning and, in particular, about how it might
differ from learning in childhood. Both of these approaches are
still operative. Where we are headed, it seems, is toward a multifaceted
understanding of adult learning, reflecting the inherent
richness and complexity of the phenomenon.
Despite years of critique, debate, and challenge, the core principles
of adult learning advanced by andragogy have endured (Davenport
and Davenport, 1985; Hartree, 1984; Pratt, 1988), and few adult
learning scholars would disagree with the observation that Knowles’
ideas sparked a revolution in adult education and training (Feur and
Gerber, 1988). Brookfield (1986), positing a similar view, asserts
that andragogy is the “single most popular idea in the education and
training of adults.” Adult educators, particularly beginning ones,
find these core principles invaluable in shaping the learning process
to be more conducive to adults.
It is beyond the scope of this introductory book to address the
many dimensions of the theoretical debate raised in academic circles.
Our position is that andragogy presents core principles of adult learning
that in turn enable those designing and conducting adult learning
to build more effective learning processes for adults. It is a transactional
model in that it speaks to the characteristics of the learning
transaction, not to the goals and aims of that transaction. As such,
it is applicable to any adult learning transaction, from community
education to human resource development in organizations.
Care must be taken to avoid confusing core principles of the adult
learning transaction with the goals and purposes for which the learning
event is being conducted. They are conceptually distinct, though
as a practical matter may overlap considerably. Critiques of andragogy
point to missing elements that keep it from being a defining theory
of the discipline of adult education (Davenport and Davenport,
1985; Grace, 1996; Hartree, 1984), not of adult learning. Grace, for
example, criticizes andragogy for focusing solely on the individual
and not operating from a critical social agenda or debating the relationship
of adult education to society. This criticism reflects the goals
and purposes of adult education. Human resource developers in
organizations will have a different set of goals and purposes, which
andragogy does not embrace either. Community health educators
may have yet another set of goals and purposes that are not
Therein lies the strength of andragogy: It is a set of core adult
learning principles that apply to all adult learning situations. The
goals and purposes for which the learning is offered are a separate
issue. Adult education (AE) professionals should develop and debate
models of adult learning separately from models of the goals and
purposes of their respective fields that use adult learning. Human
resource development (HRD), for example, embraces organizational
performance as one of its core goals, whereas adult education may
focus more on individual growth.
Having said that, these core principles are also incomplete in terms
of learning decisions. Figure 1-1 graphically shows that andragogy is
a core set of adult learning principles. The six principles of andragogy
are (1) the learner’s need to know, (2) self-concept of the
learner, (3) prior experience of the learner, (4) readiness to learn, (5)
orientation to learning, and (6) motivation to learn. These principles
are listed in the center of the model. As you shall see in this and subsequent
chapters, there are a variety of other factors that affect adult
learning in any particular situation and may cause adults to behave
more or less closely to the core principles. These include individual
learner and, situational differences, and goals and purposes of
learning, shown in the two outer rings of the model. Andragogy
works best in practice when it is adapted to fit the uniqueness of the
learners and the learning situation. We see this not as a weakness of
the principles, but as a strength. Their strength is that these core
principles apply to all adult learning situations, as long they are
considered in concert with other factors that are present in the
This sixth edition of The Adult Learner provides a journey from
theory to practice in adult learning. Figure 1-1 provides a snapshot
summary of the journey in displaying the six core adult learning
principles surrounded by the context of individual and situational
differences, and the goals and purposes of learning. The following
chapters will reveal the substance and subtleties of this holistic
model of andragogy in practice.
PLAN FOR THE BOOK
The first part of the book, “The Roots of Andragogy”
(Chapters 2–6), presents the core principles of adult learning: andragogy.
It traces the development of the theory and focuses on the core
unique characteristics of adults as learners.
Part 2, “Advances in Adult Learning,” (Chapters 7–11) addresses
the two outer rings. Chapter 7 discusses in detail the Andragogy in
Practice model introduced in this chapter and discusses how to apply
PLAN FOR THE BOOK 3
it in different settings. Chapter 8 discusses adult learning as practiced
within human resource development. Chapter 9 focuses on new
thinking about andragogy and elaborates on applying the core principles
to different learners. Chapter 10 discusses new advancements
in the understanding of adult learning that enable facilitators to further
ANDRAGOGY IN PRACTICE
(Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 1998)
Goals and Purposes for Learning
Individual and Situational Differences
Core Adult Learning Principles
1 Learner’s Need to Know
2 Self-Concept of the Learner
3 Prior Experience of the Learner
4 Readiness to Learn
– life related
– developmental task
5 Orientation to Learning
– problem centered
6 Motivation to Learn
– intrinsic value
– personal payoff
Individual Learner Differences
Subject Matter Differences
Figure 1-1. Andragogy in practice (Knowles, Holton, and Swanson,
adapt application of the core principles. Chapter 11 summarizes
these two sections by looking at the future of andragogy in the areas
of research and practice.
Part 3, “Practice in Adult Learning” (Chapters 12-19), presents
selected readings that elaborate on specific aspects of andragogy in
practice. These include strategies to implement the core assumptions,
to tailor learning to individual differences, and to implement adult
learning in organizations. Of special interest are two self-assessment
instruments, the Core Competency Diagnostic and Planning Guide
(Chapter 16) and the Personal Adult Learning Style Inventory
(Chapter 17), that enable the reader to begin a personal development
journey in adult learning.
1.1 What are your general thoughts on how humans learn?
1.2 Based on personal experience, what key factors are related to
1.3 If you understood more about how adults learn, how would
you use this information?
REFLECTION QUESTIONS 5
P A R T 1
The Roots of
History and Principles of Classic
Andragogical Adult Learning Theory
C H A P T E R 2
Exploring the World
of Learning Theory
WHY E XPLORE LEARNING THEORY?
This is a good question. Perhaps you shouldn’t. If you have no
questions about the quality of learning in your organization, if you
are sure it’s the best it can be, we suggest that you cancel your order
for this book and get a refund. However, if you’re a policy-level
leader, a change agent, a learning specialist, or a consultant, you
should seriously consider exploring learning theory. Doing so will
increase your understanding of various theories and your chances for
achieving your desired results.
Policy-level leader may have such questions as: Are our HRD
interventions based on assumptions about human nature and organizational
life that are congruent with the assumptions on which our
management policies are based? Is our HRD program contributing
to long-run gains in our human capital, or only short-run cost reduction?
Why do our HRD personnel make the decisions they do concerning
priorities, activities, methods and techniques, materials, and
the use of outside resources (consultants, package programs, hardware,
software, and university courses)? Are these the best decisions?
How can I assess whether or not, or to what degree, the program is
producing the results I want?
Managers may have all of these questions plus others, such as:
Which learning theory is most appropriate for which kind of learning,
or should our entire program be faithful to a single learning theory?
How do I find out what learning theories are being followed by
8 EXPLORING THE WORLD OF LEARNING THEORY
the various consultants, package programs, and other outside
resources available to us? What difference might their theoretical
orientation make in our program? What are the implications of the
various learning theories for our program development, selection
and training of instructional personnel, administrative policies and
practices, facilities, and program evaluation?
Learning specialists (instructors, curriculum builders, and methods,
materials, and media developers) may have some of those questions
in addition to the following: How can I increase my effectiveness
as a learning specialist? Which techniques will be most effective for
particular situations? Which learning theories are most congruent
with my own view of human nature and the purpose of education?
What are the implications of the various learning theories for my
own role and performance?
Consultants (change agents, experts, and advocates) may have
some of these questions plus others, such as: Which learning theory
should I advocate under what circumstances? How shall I explain
the nature and consequences of the various learning theories to my
clients? What are the implications of the various learning theories for
total organizational development? Which learning theory is most
consistent with my conception of the role of consultant?
A good theory should provide explanations of phenomena as well
as guidelines for action. But theories about human behavior also
carry with them assumptions about human nature, the purpose of
education, and desirable values. Understandably, then, a better understanding
of the various learning theories will result in better decisions
regarding learning experiences and more desirable outcomes.
WHAT IS A THEORY?
It seems that most writers in this field don’t expressly define the
term theory, but expect their readers to derive its meaning from their
use of the term. Torraco (1997) informs us that “a theory simply
explains what a phenomenon is and how it works” (p. 115).
Webster’s Seventh New Intercollegiate Dictionary gives five definitions:
(1) the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another;
(2) the general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or
an art; (3) a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle
or body of principles offered to explain phenomena; (4) a hypothesis
assumed for the sake of argument or investigation; (5) abstract
thought. Learning theorists use all five of these definitions in one way
or another, but with wide variations in their usage:
Here, for example, are some definitions by usage in context.
The research worker needs a set of assumptions as a starting point
to guide what he/she does, to be tested by experiment, or to serve
as a check on observations and insights. Without any theory,
researcher activities may be as aimless and as wasteful as the early
wanderings of the explorers in North America . . . knowledge of
theory always aids practice. (Kidd, 1959, pp. 134–135)
A scientist, with the desire to satisfy his/her curiosity about the
facts of nature, has a predilection for ordering his/her facts into
systems of laws and theories. He/she is interested not only in verified
facts and relationships, but in neat and parsimonious ways
of summarizing these facts. (Hilgard and Bower, 1966, pp. 1–2)
Every managerial act rests on assumptions, generalizations, and
hypotheses—that is to say, on theory. (McGregor, 1960, p. 6)
Few people, other than theorists, ever get excited about theories.
Theories, like vegetables and televised golf tournaments, don’t
trigger provocative reactions from people. Most theories, except
those that are truly revolutionary, such as the contributions of
Newton, Einstein, and Darwin, just do their jobs quietly behind
the scenes. They may increase our understanding of a real-world
event or behavior or they may help us predict what will happen
in a given situation. But they do so without a lot of fanfare.
(Torraco, 1997, p. 114)
From these excerpts and perspectives we can see that a theory can
be a guiding set of assumptions (Kidd), an ordering system that
neatly summarizes the facts (Hilgard and Bower), and/or assumptions,
generalizations, and hypotheses (McGregor). And, as Torraco
points out, theories can be tacit. Yet, we must examine another
important perspective: the fact that there are some psychologists
who don’t believe in theories at all. For example, Skinner objects to
theories on the score that the hypothesis-formulation-and-testing
WHAT IS A THEORY? 9
procedures they generate are wasteful and misleading. “They usually
send the investigator down the wrong paths, and even if the scientific
logic makes them self-correcting, the paths back are strewn with
discarded theories” (Hilgard and Bower, 1966, p. 143). Skinner
believes that the end result of scientific investigation is a “described
functional relationship demonstrated in the data.” After reviewing
the classical theories, he comes to the conclusion that “such theories
are now of historical interest only, and unfortunately, much of the
work which was done to support them is also of little current value.
We may turn instead to a more adequate analysis of the changes
which take place as a student learns” (Skinner, 1968, p. 8).
Similarly, Gagne (1965) writes, “I do not think learning is a phenomenon
which can be explained by simple theories, despite the
admitted intellectual appeal that such theories have” (p. v). He goes
on to explain, however, that a number of useful generalizations can
be made about classes of performance change, which he describes as
conditions of learning.
Where does all this leave us in answering the question, What is a
theory? Perhaps the only realistic answer is that a theory is what a
given author says it is. If you want to understand his or her thinking
you have to go along with his or her definitions. So here is our definition:
A theory is a comprehensive, coherent, and internally consistent
system of ideas about a set of phenomena.
WHAT I S LEARNING?
Any discussion of a definition of learning must be prefaced with
an important and frequently made distinction—the one between
education and learning.
Education is an activity undertaken or initiated by one or more
agents that is designed to effect changes in the knowledge, skill,
and attitudes of individuals, groups, or communities. The term
emphasizes the educator, the agent of change who presents stimuli
and reinforcement for learning and designs activities to induce
The term learning, by contrast, emphasizes the person in whom
the change occurs or is expected to occur. Learning is the act or
process by which behavioral change, knowledge, skills, and attitudes
are acquired (Boyd, Apps, et al., pp. 100–101).
10 EXPLORING THE WORLD OF LEARNING THEORY
Having made this distinction, we can proceed with our definition of
learning. However, defining learning, like defining theory, can prove
complicated. Some learning theorists assert that defining learning is
difficult, while still others maintain that there is no basic disagreement
about the definition of learning between the theories. Smith (1982)
summarizes the difficulty of defining learning in these words:
It has been suggested that the term learning defies precise definition
because it is put to multiple uses. Learning is used to refer to
(1) the acquisition and mastery of what is already known about
something, (2) the extension and clarification of meaning of one’s
experience, or (3) an organized, intentional process of testing
ideas relevant to problems. In other words, it is used to describe
a product, a process, or a function. (p. 34)
In contrast, Ernest Hilgard, one of our most distinguished contemporary
interpreters of learning theory, concludes that the debate
centers on interpretation and not definition.
While it is extremely difficult to formulate a satisfactory definition
of learning so as to include all the activities and processes
which we wish to include and eliminate all those which we wish
to exclude, the difficulty does not prove to be embarrassing
because it is not a source of controversy as between theories. The
controversy is over fact and interpretation, not over definition.
(Hilgard and Bower, 1966, p. 6)
This generalization appears to hold with regard to those learning
theorists who dominated the field until recently, although there are
striking variations in the degree of precision among them. Let’s start
with three definitions by different authors as presented in Readings
in Human Learning.
Learning involves change. It is concerned with the acquisition of
habits, knowledge, and attitudes. It enables the individual to
make both personal and social adjustments. Since the concept of
change is inherent in the concept of learning, any change in
behavior implies that learning is taking place or has taken place.
Learning that occurs during the process of change can be
referred to as the learning process. (Crow and Crow, 1963, p. 1)
WHAT IS LEARNING? 11
Learning is a change in the individual, due to the interaction of
that individual, and his environment, which fills a need and
makes him more capable of dealing adequately with his environment.
(Burton, 1963, p. 7)
There is a remarkable agreement upon the definition of learning
as being reflected in a change in behavior as the result of experience.
(Haggard, 1963, p. 20)
The last notion implies that we don’t directly know what learning
is, but can only infer what it is. This idea is supported by Cronbach
(1963), who stated, “Learning is shown by a change in behavior as
a result of experience” (p. 71). Harris and Schwahn (1961) go back
to, “Learning is essentially change due to experience,” but then go
on to distinguish among learning as product, which emphasizes the
end result or outcome of the learning experience, learning as process,
which emphasizes what happens during the course of a learning
experience in attaining a given learning product or outcome, and
learning as function, which emphasizes certain critical aspects of
learning, such as motivation, retention, and transfer, which presumably
make behavioral changes in human learning possible (pp. 1–2).
Others take care to distinguish between planned learning and natural
Learning is a change in human disposition or capability, which
can be retained, and which is not simply ascribable to the process
of growth. (Gagne, 1965, p. 5)
Learning is the process by which an activity originates or is
changed through reacting to an encountered situation, provided
that the characteristics of the change in activity cannot be
explained on the basis of native response tendencies, maturation,
or temporary states of the organism (e.g., fatigue, drugs, etc.).
(Hilgard and Bower, 1966, p. 2)
The concepts of control and shaping lie at the heart of Skinner’s
(1968) treatment of learning: (1) “Recent improvements in the
conditions which control behavior in the field of learning are of two
principal sorts. The Law of Effect has been taken seriously; we have
made sure that effects do occur under conditions which are optimal
12 EXPLORING THE WORLD OF LEARNING THEORY
for producing changes called learning” [control] and (2) Once we
have arranged the particular type of consequence called a reinforcement,
our techniques permit us to shape the behavior of an organism
almost at will (p. 10).
Clearly, these learning theorists (and most of their precursors and
many of their contemporaries) see learning as a process by which h
behavior is changed, shaped, or controlled. Other theorists prefer to
define learning in terms of growth, development of competencies,
and fulfillment of potential. Jerome Bruner (1966), for example,
observes, “It is easy enough to use one’s chosen theory for explaining
modifications in behavior as an instrument for describing
growth; there are so many aspects of growth that any theory can find
something that it can explain well.” He then lists the following
“benchmarks about the nature of intellectual growth against which
to measure one’s efforts at explanation”:
1. Growth is characterized by increasing independence of
response from the immediate nature of the stimulus.
2. Growth depends upon internalizing events into a “storage system”
that corresponds to the environment.
3. Intellectual growth involves an increasing capacity to say to
oneself and others, by means of words or symbols, what one
has done or what one will do.
4. Intellectual development depends upon a systematic and contingent
interaction between a tutor and a learner.
5. Teaching is vastly facilitated by the medium of language, which
ends by being not only the medium for exchange but the instrument
that the learner can then use himself in bringing order
into the environment.
6. Intellectual development is marked by increasing capacity to
deal with several alternatives simultaneously, to tend to several
sequences during the same period of time, and to allocate time
and attention in a manner appropriate to these multiple
demands. (pp. 4–6)
Still other theorists feel that even this emphasis on growth, with its
focus on cognitive development, is too narrow to explain what learning
is really about. For instance, Jones (1968) objects to Bruner’s
WHAT IS LEARNING? 13
underemphasis on emotional skills, his exclusive attention to extrapsychic
stimuli, the equating of symbolism with verbalism, and his
preoccupation with the processes of concept attainment to the seeming
exclusion of the processes of concept formation or invention
Nevertheless, Bruner is moving away from the perception of learning
as a process of controlling, changing, or shaping behavior and
putting it more in the context of competency development. One of
the most dynamic and prolific developments in the field of psychology,
humanistic psychology, has recently exploded on the scene (the
Association of Humanistic Psychology was founded in 1963) and
has carried this trend of thought much farther. Carl Rogers is one of
its exponents. The elements of humanistic psychology, according to
Rogers (1969), include:
1. Personal involvement. The whole person, including his or her
feelings and cognitive aspects, are involved in the learning event.
2. Self-initiation. Even when the impetus or stimulus comes from
the outside, the sense of discovery, of reaching out, of grasping
and comprehending, comes from within.
3. Pervasiveness. Learning makes a difference in the behavior,
attitudes, perhaps even the personality of the learner.
4. Evaluation by the learner. The learner knows whether the
learning meets personal need, whether it leads toward what the
individual wants to know, whether it illuminates the dark area
of ignorance the individual is experiencing. The locus of evaluation,
we might say, resides definitely in the learner.
5. Its essence is meaning. When such learning takes place, the element
of meaning to the learner is built into the whole experience.
Maslow (1970) sees the goal of learning to be self-actualization:
“the full use of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc.” (p. 150). He
conceives of growth toward this goal as being determined by the
relationship of two sets of forces operating within each individual.
“One set clings to safety and defensiveness out of fear, tending to
regress backward, hanging on to the past. . . . The other set of forces
impels him forward toward wholeness to Self and uniqueness of Self,
14 EXPLORING THE WORLD OF LEARNING THEORY
toward full functioning of all his capacities. . . . We grow forward
when the delights of growth and anxieties of safety are greater than
the anxieties of growth and the delights of safety” (1972,
Building on the notion that “insights from the behavioral sciences
have expanded the perception of human potential, through a re-casting
of the image of man from a passive, reactive recipient, to an
active, seeking, autonomous, and reflective being,” Sidney Jourard
(1972) develops the concept of independent learning:
That independent learning is problematic is most peculiar,
because man always and only learns by himself. . . . Learning is
not a task or problem; it is a way to be in the world. Man learns
as he pursues goals and projects that have meaning for him. He
is always learning something. Perhaps the key to the problem of
independent learning lies in the phrase “the learner has the need
and the capacity to assume responsibility for his own continuing
learning.” (p. 66)
Other educational psychologists question the proposition that
learning can be defined as a single process. For example, Gagne
(1972) identifies five domains of the learning process, each with its
1. Motor skills, which are developed through practice.
2. Verbal information, the major requirement for learning being
its presentation within an organized, meaningful context.
3. Intellectual skills, the learning of which appears to require
prior learning of prerequisite skills.
4. Cognitive strategies, the learning of which requires repeated
occasions in which challenges to thinking are presented.
5. Attitudes, which are learned most effectively through the use of
human models and “vicarious reinforcement.” (pp. 3– 41)
Tolman distinguished six types of “connections or relations” to be
learned: (1) cathexes, (2) equivalence beliefs, (3) field expectancies,
(4) field-cognition modes, (5) drive discriminations, and (6) motor
patterns (Hilgard and Bower, 1966, pp. 211–213).
WHAT IS LEARNING? 15
Bloom and his associates (1956, p. 7) identified three domains of
educational objectives: (1) cognitive, “which deal with the recall or
recognition of knowledge and the development of intellectual abilities
and skills”; (2) affective, “which describe changes in interest,
attitudes, and values, and the development of appreciations and
adequate adjustment”; and (3) psychomotor. Later scholars
expanded on the psychomotor domain to include all the human
senses and their dimensions.
It is certainly clear by now that learning is an elusive phenomenon.
And, as we shall see next, the way people define it greatly influences
how they theorize and go about effecting it. Until recently, educators
of adults have been wallowing around in this same morass, and after
wallowing around in it a bit more ourselves, we’ll see how adult educators
are beginning to extricate themselves.
Exploring learning theory can be beneficial to policy-level leaders,
managers, learning specialists, and consultants by providing information
that will allow better decisions and ultimately more desirable
learning experiences. However, doing so is not a simple task. In
order to explore learning theory, one must understand several key
concepts including the definition of theory, the distinction between
learning and education, and the complexities involved in defining
learning. We know that some learning theorists consider a theory to
be a guiding set of assumptions, an ordering system that neatly summarizes
the facts, and/or assumptions, generalizations, and hypotheses.
Some psychologists, however, oppose the concept of learning
theories. For instance, Gagne asserts that despite the “intellectual
appeal,” learning cannot be readily explained by theories. Analyzing
the changes that occur as a student learns, according to Skinner, produces
more valuable information than the “wasteful” and “misleading”
procedures generated by theories. Despite these objections, we
conclude that a theory is a comprehensive, coherent, and internally
consistent system of ideas about a set of phenomena. We also
acknowledge the distinction between education and learning.
Education emphasizes the educator, whereas learning emphasizes the
person in whom the change occurs or is expected to occur. Although
this distinction is easily understood, developing a working definition
16 EXPLORING THE WORLD OF LEARNING THEORY
of learning is much more complex. Key components of learning theorists’
definitions of learning serve as the foundation for our discussion
of the definition of learning. These include change, filling a
need, learning as product, learning as process, learning as function,
natural growth, control, shaping, development of competencies, fulfillment
of potential, personal involvement, self-initiated, learnerevaluated,
independent learning, and learning domains. We define
learning as the process of gaining knowledge and/or expertise.
2.1 What is the connection between theory and practice?
2.2 Why should practitioners care about theory?
2.3 What is the essential difference between the concepts of education
2.4 What definition of learning or key points about learning presented
in this chapter have the most meaning to you? Why?