Andragogy vs. Pedagogy: Much Ado about Nothing?

Vincent L. Cyboran, Ed.D.

September, 2011 (from Chapter 2: Six Myths about Teaching Adults of a forthcoming book)

The myth:   The way in which we design and deliver instruction for adults (andragogy) is very different from the way in which we design and deliver instruction for children (pedagogy).


In the field of Higher Education and the field of Workplace Learning, the difficulties surrounding andragogy might be best viewed from the perspective of Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy; it is a term that most practitioners ‘know’, fewer ‘comprehend’, and still fewer can ‘apply.’

Both ‘andragogy’ and ‘pedagogy’ are broadly defined terms associated with teaching and learning; their precise definitions are difficult to formulate. For this discussion, we can glean popular understandings of the terms using the following definitions:  Andragogy is defined as “The adult learning theory popularized by Malcolm Knowles.  Andragogy is based on five key principles1 that influence how adults learn: self-concept, prior experience, readiness to learn, orientation to learning, and motivation to learn.” (Beich, 2008, p. 862). Pedagogy is defined as “The function or work of learning where the focus is on what the instructor does as opposed to what the participants do; usually refers to teaching children.” (Beich, p. 878). It is how these two concepts differ—and whether they differ—that lies at the root of the debate.

Proponents of andragogy maintain that the key principles differ for adults than for children in the following ways:

Principle Meaning for Adults
Need to know Problem- or task-centered
Self-concept Self-directed
Prior experience Bring life experiences
Readiness to learn Developmental tasks for social roles
Orientation to learning Immediate application
Motivation to learn Intrinsic

Used alone, the term ‘pedagogy’, is rarely problematic. However, the term ‘andragogy’ holds a revered place in the canon of Adult Education, and when it is used, there is an implication that it differs significantly from pedagogy. But beyond the ‘andragogy vs. pedagogy’ debate, the matter is further complicated by problems about andragogy itself, and whether it is a theory or a set of practices, or both. Much debate has taken place and people have taken sides.

A bit of history

The term and concept of ‘andragogy’ are generally acknowledged to have been introduced in the 19th. century in Germany, but never spurred a movement. The late Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) is known for introducing and championing the concept of andragogy in the United States in the second half of the 20th. century. He did this beginning with his early books–(The Modern Practice of Adult Education. Andragogy versus pedagogy (1970) and The Adult Learner. A Neglected Species (1973). Since then, a voluminous number of texts and articles have been written about the topic. Following Knowles’ death, his work was continued by his colleagues: the seventh edition aptly titled, The Adult Learner, Seventh Edition: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development was released in 2011.

It is difficult to determine how popular the topic of andragogy remains today. For example, it cannot be found in such standard instructional design texts as Driscoll’s Psychology of Learning for Instruction (2005) and Dick, Carey, and Carey’s The Systematic Design of Instruction (2009). However, Stolovitch and Keeps (2002),in Telling Ain’t Training, provide extensive coverage of Knowles’s principles.

Andragogy is not covered in many general texts designed for higher education faculty, such as Davis’ Tools for Teaching (2001) and Royse’s Teaching Tips for College and University Instructors: A Practical Guide (2001). The term ‘andragogy’ is sometimes included, albeit briefly, in texts designed specifically for faculty in professional programs, such as Billings’ and Halstead’s Teaching in Nursing: A Guide for Faculty.


In the literature, the problems associated with andragogy have been extensively documented and succinctly summarized in two standard works on adult learning:  1) Brookfield’s Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning (1986) and Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner’s Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (2007). These discussions cover the argument made by many developmental psychologists and educators that the effective education of children requires the same, or many of the same assumptions, as that claimed exclusively for adults by andragogues. The issue of andragogy as a theory, model, or set of practices is also extensively discussed. On this matter, both Caffarella, et. al., and Brookfield end their discussions reinforcing what Knowles himself stated: “…the concept should be treated exactly for what Knowles claims it to be—a set of assumptions.” (Brookfield, p. 91).  Caffarella, et. al., conclude similarly that andragogy “to be a helpful rubric for better-understanding adults as learners.” (p. 92).

Further, Merriam, et. al., point out that there has been “relatively little empirical work” (p. 90) on the topic and the results of these studies  are mixed. Brookfield questions whether there is a solid foundation to examine, stating that, “Attempts to erect a massive theoretical edifice concerning the nature of adult learning on the foundations of a set of empirically unproved assumptions are misconceived.” (p. 91).


As Houle (1972, p 222), stresses, “If pedagogy and andragogy are distinguishable, it is not because they are essentially different from one another but because they represent the working out of the same fundamental processes at different stages of life.”  Knowles (1980, p. 43) himself later concurs with Houle, noting that they, “are probably most useful when seen not as dichotomous but rather as two ends of a spectrum with a realistic assumption in a given situation falling in between the two ends.”


Treating andragogy as a set of principles or assumptions can be useful both in the design and delivery of instruction for adult learners. Meaning, we do not directly implement andragogical principles into our instruction; rather, they inform our choices of solutions (models, practices, and so forth). For example,

If the adult learner: Then designers of instruction should:
…is problem-centered and interested in the immediate application of knowledge. …emphasize the acquisition and application of skills and minimize unnecessary, ‘nice to know’ background information.

That said, we must always be circumspect in not blindly applying any set of practices to our instructional and performance solutions, but intelligently consider the circumstances and the audience(s). Brookfield (1986) cautions, “Neat practice injunctions (whether pedagogical or andragogical) are appealing for their apparent simplicity and replicability. The act of facilitating learning, however, is one that is sufficiently complex and challenging as to make us suspicious of any prepackaged collections of practice injunctions.” (p. 122).

1 ‘ ‘Motivation to learn’ is actually the sixth principle, added by Knowles in his later works. Beich has omitted the earlier principle of ‘need to know.’


Beich, E. (2008). ASTD Handbook for Workplace Learning Professionals. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.

Brookfield, S. (1986). Understanding and facilitating adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Houle, C.O. (1972). The design of education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Knowles, M. (1973). The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston: Gulf.

Knowles, M. (1970). The modern practice of adult education: Andragogy versus pedagogy.  New  York: Association Press.

Knowles, M., Holton, E., & Swanson, R. (1998). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development.  Woburn, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.

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

Stolovitch, H. D., & Keeps, E. J. (2002). Telling ain’t training. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development.


  • This is fabulous content; I work a lot with adult learners and teen learners and they do bring different needs, hopes, and expectations as learners. From emerging scientific understanding of brain development (teens and the frontal lobe) to creating interventions that honor the experience and wisdom of a mature learner, my training designs will only improve and become more accessible and effective at “meeting them where they’re at” with understanding this info! Thanks.

  • Dr. Cyboran, as a community college instructor, I very much appreciated this excerpt and look forward to your book! First of all, most of my colleagues simultaneously refer to our theoretical practice as “pedagogy” while discussing aspects of adult learning. I wasn’t even aware of this debate between the terms andragogy and pedagogy, since in my graduate program at a research university, andragogy wasn’t even referred to. My question is, at what age is a learner an “adult”? Is this defined by instructional level or literally by age? I’m thinking of the open admissions policy of GED and community college classrooms, where older generations learn side by side 18 year olds, and the maturity and learning levels may vary depending on prior educational backgrounds. Great article!

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