Having spent the past few months blogging on various learning styles models, it feels time to take a wee step back and look at the fundamentals of Adult Learning, and for very good reason…

Adult learning principles underpin each and every learning styles and preferences model, and they form the foundations from which any trainer, facilitator or coach concerned with supporting adult learning should operate.

From instructional training to adult learning

Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) was an American Adult Educator widely credited for his contribution to our understanding of the distinctive needs and motivations of the adult learner.

At a time when the instructional model of education was predominant (teacher as expert, students the empty vessels to be filled) in both schools and adult training, Knowles’ work was a significant factor in reorienting adult educators from ‘educating people’ to ‘helping them learn’”

Heavily influenced by the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, with whom he shared a humanistic outlook, Knowles’ held a high view of human potential and the fundamental human drive to “self-actualise” (aka, to strive for our potential, to attain, improve, “better ourselves”).

Knowles advocated for a cooperative approach to learning, founded on trust and respect, where expectations of educator and learners are mutually clear, as the ideal environment for adults to engage and learn together.

For this to be effective, Knowles’ recognised that adult learners should be both encouraged and enabled to accept responsibility for their own learning, and become more aware of their own learning needs.

In this process, adults gain knowledge and insights into the ways they prefer to learn, and how they learn most effectively (as these may not always be the same).

 Knowles’ Assumptions

Knowles’ considerable contribution to Adult Learning theory and practice was informed by some key assumptions about adult learners, that they;

  • Need to know why they need to learn something before they commit to learning about it
  • Need to be responsible for making their own decisions, and require to be treated as being capable of self-direction
  • Bring a wealth of experience to the table, which can be a rich resource for learning, and may also (cautionary note) serve as a barrier to participation and learning
  • Are ready to learn things they need to know in negotiating their way through life (including work)
  • Are motivated to learn when they perceive that the learning will be of some benefit to them…

In next week’s post we will explore these assumptions in a little more depth, and if you want to read more now, see the links below.

Tony Stevenson, Changing Mindz

Further Reading:

Smith, M. K. (2002) ‘Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy

The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education www.infed.org/thinkers/et-knowl.htm

The Adult Learning Theory – Andragogy – of Malcolm Knowles


 Knowles’ Androgogy


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