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.


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


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



(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


-mental models

4 Readiness to Learn

– life related

– developmental task

5 Orientation to Learning

– problem centered

– contextual

6 Motivation to Learn

– intrinsic value

– personal payoff

Individual Learner Differences

Individual Growth

Institutional Growth

Subject Matter Differences

Situational Differences

Societal Growth

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

adult learning?

1.3 If you understood more about how adults learn, how would

you use this information?


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


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



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.


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


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.


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).


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)


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


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


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

(pp. 97–104).

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.

(p. 5)

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,


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,

pp. 44–45).

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

own praxis:

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).


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


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

and learning?

2.4 What definition of learning or key points about learning presented

in this chapter have the most meaning to you? Why?


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