Tony Gurr

Teachers are from Mars, Learners are from Venus

In Adult Educators, Adult Learners, Classroom Teaching, The Paradigm Debate on 28/08/2011 at 12:19 pm

In 1973, Malcom Knowles (who is widely acknowledged as the “grandfather” of andragogy) wrote a book entitled “The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species” – you can download a full version here.

He noted:

“We know more about how animals (especially rodents and pigeons) learn than about how children learn: and we know much more about how children learn than about how adults learn.”

For Knowles this “gap” in what we know about the learning of adults began when the teachings of Confucious, Socrates and Aristotle were abandoned in favour of the “pedagogy” adopted by the church and “monastic life” (in around the 7th Century) – a pedagogy that has, in fact, very little to do with “learning” and was further advanced in the 1950s and 60s when experimental psychologists took the reins of “the study of learning”!

In trying to redress the balance towards greater attention to adult learning, Knowles dedicated his life (well, that’s what his wife says) to formulating a theory of adult learning and creating principles that would help teachers make a difference to the lives of their adult learners. Borrowing the concept of andragogy from Eastern Europe – he set about to remove the “millstone” of pedagogy from the necks of adult educators!

Things have changed since 1973 – we know a lot more, don’t we?

It’s true we have learned a great deal about allthingslearning, we have a far bigger army of dedicated and professional “adult educators” and we have many institutions that are trying to make a difference.

So, why – in the 21st Century – do we still have so many commentators bemoaning the continued:

  • existence of “progressively regressive” schools and colleges (and so-called “LLL Centres”)
  • avoidance of learner needs in curriculum practices
  • dominance of “stand-and-deliver” and content-orientated “teaching”

Why is it that we still have institutions, leaders and teachers that appear to have come from another planet – and work to impose “alien educational practices” on the adults of our wonderful home-world? Did Knowles learn us nothing…

In thinking through the practices and principles developed for adult, self-directed learning I tried to summarise all the advice that Knowles and his collaborators came up with over the 1970s and 1980s (he also produced another classic book in 1984 – “Andragogy in Action”).

What I came up with was a “list” of the things that adult learners “need”:

  • They need to be involved in diagnosing and formulating their learning needs
  • They need to participate in setting their own learning goals
  • They need to be involved in the planning their learning opportunities
  • They need to be in control of choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies
  • They need to be encouraged to identify meaningful learning resources / materials
  • They need to be seen as “proactive learners” (rather than “reactive students”)
  • They need to feel that their experience and backgrounds are valued – and that they are respected as a “whole person”
  • They need to learn in a “warm, friendly and informal climate” that provides for flexibility in the learning process
  • They need guidance and support that maintains their motivation to learn and keeps them actively involved in their own learning 
  • They need to know why they should bother to learn something
  • They need opportunities to solve real-life (and relevant) problems (not be spoon-fed content)
  • They need opportunities to discover, critique and create
  • They need to learn-by-doing and engage in active experimentation (and reflection on mistakes)
  • They need “just-in-time” teaching (not the “just-in-case” variety)
  • They need instructional support that is task-oriented and contextualised (rather than memorisation)
  • They need peer support and group-based activities, as well as individual attention from teachers 
  • They need to know that their needs form the basis of any curriculum and that self-direction is the core principle of any instructional methodology
  • They need to share responsibility for and take ownership of monitoring the progress of the learning experience
  • They need to be involved in evaluating learning outcomes and measuring their success
  • They need to experience a sense of progress towards their goals 

How “alien” are your practices?

This list is not exhaustive – but it’s a good start! And, we haven’t even got to the place of technology in all of this…

Knowles wrapped up his book “Andragogy in Action” with the following words:

“We are nearing the end of the era of our edifice complex and its basic belief that respectable learning takes place only in buildings and on campuses. Adults are beginning to demand that their learning take place at a time, place, and pace convenient to them.

In fact, I feel confident that most educational services by the end of this century (if not decade) will be delivered electronically…Our great challenge now is to find ways to maintain the human touch as we learn to use the media in new ways.“

I wonder – why is Knowles’ “prediction” still a bit off. Is it because Martian and Venetian technology are “different”?

  1. It’s funny – no sooner had I posted this…than…I got a note from “a very annoyed educator” suggesting that if I didn’t like teachers, perhaps I should get out of “teaching”! Bit OTT, really!

    I was also sent the following link:

    It seems I was not the first to “borrow” the Mars/Venus distinction and use it to discuss “learning”. My bad!

    What perhaps worried me was not that someone mistook my tongue-in-cheek look at how we often do business in adult education or HE (and attempt to maybe help us think a bit more about where we might be coming from as teachers) – but rather the characterisation that the writer of the article (granted no teacher) has about students or learners.

    Come on! This is exactly what I was talking about…a case of kettle calling pot black, perhaps 🙂


  2. I’ve always wondered why on earth we persist in the belief that Knowles’ list doesn’t apply equally to kids?

    We want them to be self-directed, self-motivated, critical thinkers – but we still rely on “pedagogy” that perceives them as empty vessels to be filled.

    Bah humbug!



    • Mary – totally agree on the pedagogy/andrgogy split. Self-directed learning with meaningful teacher-enabled critical reflection works for both “kids” and “bigger kids” – if we “let” it 🙂

      Younger students are just as capable as self-directed learners – ever seen a kid just “swallow” up hours trying to figure something out.


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