As I contemplated how adults learn, it quickly became clear that learning is a complex process and adult learners are complex beings. Our motivation to learn, which changes during the different stages and needs of life, no doubt add to the complexity of learning. Arguments distinguishing how children and adults learn have existed for decades and it was only after reflecting back on my grade school years up to graduate learning, that I came to the realization and understanding of the academic conversation of the need to distinguish between pedagogy and andragogy.

Today, pedagogy refers to theories and methods used in teaching. However, in the past, pedagogy referred specifically to the methods used to educate children, where teachers were the authoritative figures and student’s passive learners; a way of thinking that froze the educational system. Meanwhile, andragogy is focused on the learning experience of adults and which methods work best in adult education. The andragogy model addresses the distinct needs of adult learners providing a set of assumptions for designing instruction with learners who are more self-directed than teacher directed, making this model of adult learning desirable for teachers and learners. Effective pedagogies focus on developing higher order thinking and metacognition, making good use of dialogue and questioning in order to do so. This blog examines the history of the adult education movement and defines best practices that emerged from theorists who contributed to progress.

Influential Theorists in the Field of Education

Andragogy not only captures the beginning of the adult education movement, but its timeless perspective applies to adult education in a culturally diverse world. Knowles’ writings on andragogy and adult learning transformed and energized the profession contributing to the understanding of how adults learn, in what context, and the process of learning. The decade of the ’70s was a period of self-directed learning led by the efforts of Malcolm Knowles and Allen Tough. Knowles’ definition is that self-directed learning describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes (Merriam et al., 2007). Tough, building on the work of Houle, provided the first comprehensive description of self-directed learning. In essence, self-directed learning is a learning situation in which the learner knows best and decides the course of action for everything including specific activities of learning such as the location and times that learning takes place.

Building upon the earlier works of Piaget, Dewey, and Lewin; Kolb believed that learning is a process and the adult learner needs to be open to new experiences,  observant, reflective, analytical problem solvers, and decision makers. Experimental learning focuses on the connection between life experiences and learning and suggests learning lies within the learner’s control. One example of experiential learning can be illustrated by how nurses learn to insert a Foley catheter. In the concrete experience stage, the nurse physically experiences how to insert a Foley catheter on a patient. Inserting the Foley catheter forms the foundation to observe and reflect, and to consider what is working or failing. This phase of the theory is the reflective observation phase. The student now has the chance to think about ways to improve on the next attempt made at inserting a Foley catheter, which is the abstract conceptualization phase. Every new attempt to place a Foley catheter is informed by a cyclical pattern of previous experience, thought, reflection, or active experimentation. Even though educators have accepted that there is a connection between life experiences and learning, it is still not clear how adults learn (Merriam et al., 2007).

Jack Mezirow‘s theory of transformational learning is defined as a constructivist learning theory. The constructivist philosophy has roots in a number of disciplines including philosophy, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and education. Embedded in learning theories advanced by Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, and Glasersfeld the essence of constructivism is active construction of new knowledge by the learner based on their lived experiences (Paily, 2013). To put it another way, a constructivist learning situation would allow a learner to use their prior knowledge and beliefs in order to build a new learned experience.

In summary, seminal theorist and their thinking in the development of adult learning asserts that learning is an active process. An array of literature reviews indicates that the days where the teacher played the authority role and poured knowledge into passive students is gone. Instead, learners are urged to be actively involved in their own learning process.


Merriam, S., Caffarella, R., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Paily, M. U. (2013). Creating constructivist learning environment: Role of “web 2.0” technology. International Forum of Teaching and Studies, 9(1), 39-50, 52.

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