Pedagogy Vs Andragogy: An Unnecessary Paradigm

Pedagogy Vs Andragogy: The Premise 

Theory-driven fields like Learning and Development have long produced select, “sacred-cows” that practitioners have repeated for so long that they have become accepted as fact despite evidence to the contrary. Whether this stems from the abstract nature of learning with its complex interaction of biology and behaviorism, or from passive acceptance of select authorities, Learning and Development professionals would do well to examine and challenge assumptions. The pedagogy vs andragogy dichotomy represents one such example of this dynamic. Andragogy refers to the theory and practice of educating adult learners. To distinguish andragogy from pedagogy, the theory and practice of educating children, Malcolm Knowles identifies several differentiators:

  • Adults require a reason for learning.
  • Adults respond to learning practices that build upon prior experience.
  • Adults desire self-directed educational experiences.
  • Adults wish to learn content that translates into immediate action and application.
  • Adults rely on internal motivation to prompt learning.

Image courtesy of the National College for Teaching & Leadership https://www.nationalcollege.org.uk/transfer/open/facilitation/fac-s3/fac-s3-t3.htmlImage courtesy of the National College for Teaching & Leadership

The Theory Evolves

While Knowles’ differentiators convey a degree of practical wisdom, e.g. adults have a larger well of experience from which they may draw than children, the theory also makes assumptions that lack universal applicability. For example, any schoolteacher might share that she hears the question “Why do we have to learn this?” with regular frequency whether teaching algebra or the history of the Reformation. Requiring a reason for learning hardly applies only to adults. Conversely, the notion that adults always want self-directed educational experiences may not hold up in situations in which the adult learner lacks context, self-awareness of blind spots, and particularly, the skills to self-educate. In fact, the entire continuing education profession would cease to exist if all adults displayed the motivation, foresight, and ability to self-direct their learning.

To his credit, like many theorists, Knowles revised his views over time and began to consider andragogy and pedagogy less as oppositional approaches that align exclusively to adults and children respectively, but as a contrast between teacher-centered and student-centered learning, both of which apply to children and adults depending upon the circumstances. In this light, educators and instructional designers may use Knowles’ differentiators as valuable guidelines when designing, developing, and delivering training, yet shouldn’t apply the same unflinching reverence to this updated binary relationship lest they repeat the past mistake of over-generalizing.

Pedagogy Vs Andragogy In Practice 

So, how can a thoughtful learning professional address the varied needs of adult and child learners and incorporate both teacher-centered and student-centered practices? The following list provides a few suggestions:

  1. Regardless of the audience’s demographics and background, frame learning in the context in which participants will apply it; make it real.
  2. Provide the WFIM (what’s in it for me) for participants to increase receptivity and cultivate a desire to learn.
  3. Increase engagement by soliciting stories and examples from participants, adults and children alike, which also reinforces the relevance of learning.
  4. Provide options, particularly around application activities, e.g. “Choose from one of the following scenarios”, “Make a final presentation on a topic about which you might speak in real life”, etc.
  5. Use simulations, case studies, labs, on the job training practices, etc. to mimic expectations about what the learners must physically do either on the job, or when they get into “the real world”.
  6. Leverage natural curiosity and drive by building engaging experiences that grab the participants’ attention and prompt them to want to know more.

Rather than waste time sorting educational practices into a binary relationship of pedagogy vs andragogy, children versus adults, learning professionals who apply the above guidelines will enhance any learning experience. The specific approach may differ based on the situation, but using them as guardrails will prove valuable in creating engagement, establishing context, and promoting application. While in different places developmentally, children and adults alike crave active learning experiences that provide clear value and answer questions about which they are curious. Most couldn’t care less about how well they fit into neat categories born in academia.

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