Andragogy and Self-Directed Learning:
Pillars of Adult Learning Theory
Sharan B. Merriam
The central question of how adults learn has occupied the attention of
scholars and practitioners since the founding of adult education as a professional
field of practice in the 1920s. Some eighty years later, we have no
single answer, no one theory or model of adult learning that explains all that
we know about adult learners, the various contexts where learning takes
place, and the process of learning itself.
What we do have is a mosaic of theories, models, sets of principles, and
explanations that, combined, compose the knowledge base of adult learning. Two
important pieces of that mosaic are andragogy and self-directed learning. Other
chapters in this volume focus on some of the newer approaches to understanding
learning; the purpose of this chapter is to revisit two of the foundational theories
of adult learning with an eye to assessing their “staying power” as important
components of our present-day understanding of adult learning.
Early Research on Adult Learning
While we have known for centuries that adults learn as part of their daily lives,
it wasn’t until the early decades of the twentieth century that learning was studied
systematically. The question that framed much of the early research on adult
learning was whether or not adults could learn. The first book to report the
results of research on this topic, Thorndike, Bregman, Tilton, and Woodyard’s
education as a professional field of practice. Thorndike and others approached
adult learning from a behavioral psychological perspective. That is, people were
tested under timed conditions on various learning and memory tasks.
NEW DIRECTIONS FOR ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION, no. 89, Spring 2001 © Jossey-Bass, A Publishing Unit of
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
4 THE NEW UPDATE ON ADULT LEARNING THEORY
design. Tests of older adults against young people under timed conditions
made it appear that being younger meant being a better learner. Lorge (1944,
1947) later pointed out that adult test scores were related to previous education
and skills, not to age per se. Since older adults had less formal education
and less opportunity to develop test-taking skills, it only appeared that they
were less-capable learners. Moreover, when Lorge focused on adults’ ability to
learn rather than on the speed or rate of learning (that is, when time pressure
was removed), adults up to age seventy did as well as younger adults.
The development of intelligence tests also came during this period. As
with learning tasks, students scored well when compared to adults, as did
young adults when compared to older adults. As the measurement of intelligence
became more complex, scores indicated declines on some subtests but
not on others. Today it is recognized that adults score better on some aspects
of intelligence as they age and worse on others, resulting in a fairly stable composite
measure of intelligence until very old age (Schaie and Willis, 1986).
In addition to intelligence, other aspects of human learning such as
problem solving and cognitive development have been the focus of study by
educational psychologists since the 1950s. Much of this research has not
differentiated adults from children. When adults are included as part of the
sample, the emphasis has been on how advancing age influences the ability
to recall, to process information, and to problem solve. Generalizations from
this set of literature are difficult to make, as much of the research has been
conducted in laboratories or other artificial settings, making its applicability
to real-life situations questionable. Further, deficits and declines are often
shown to be functions of noncognitive factors such as level of education,
training, health, and speed of response (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999).
Until mid–twentieth century, adult educators relied on research in psychology
and educational psychology for an understanding of adult learning.
As described, this research was behavioristic in design, and often insights
about adult learning were extrapolated from research with children or
research that placed adults under the same conditions as children. But as part
of the drive to differentiate adult education from other forms of education,
adult educators began to consider whether adult learning could be distinguished
from learning in childhood. A new inquiry drove this effort. The
question of whether adults could learn was put to rest, and the new focus of
what was different about adult learning emerged. Thus, the drive to professionalize,
which included the need to develop a knowledge base unique to
adult education, was the context in which two of the field’s most important
theory-building efforts—andragogy and self-directed learning—emerged.
In 1968, Malcolm Knowles proposed “a new label and a new technology”
of adult learning to distinguish it from preadult schooling (p. 351). The
ANDRAGOGY AND SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING 5
European concept of andragogy, which he defined as “the art and science of
helping adults learn,” was contrasted with pedagogy, the art and science
of helping children learn (Knowles, 1980, p. 43). Andragogy became a rallying
point for those trying to define the field of adult education as separate
from other areas of education.
The five assumptions underlying andragogy describe the adult learner
as someone who (1) has an independent self-concept and who can direct his
or her own learning, (2) has accumulated a reservoir of life experiences that
is a rich resource for learning, (3) has learning needs closely related to changing
social roles, (4) is problem-centered and interested in immediate application
of knowledge, and (5) is motivated to learn by internal rather than
external factors. From these assumptions, Knowles proposed a programplanning
model for designing, implementing, and evaluating educational
experiences with adults. For example, with regard to the first assumption
that as adults mature they become more independent and self-directing,
Knowles suggested that the classroom climate should be one of “adultness,”
both physically and psychologically. In an “adult” classroom, adults “feel
accepted, respected, and supported”; further, there exists “a spirit of mutuality
between teachers and students as joint inquirers” (1980, p. 47). And
because adults manage other aspects of their lives, they are capable of directing,
or at least assisting in planning, their own learning.
The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed much writing, debate, and discussion
about the validity of andragogy as a theory of adult learning. At first
the main point of contention was whether andragogy could be considered
a “theory” of adult learning. Davenport and Davenport (1985, p. 157), in
their chronicle of the debate, note that andragogy has been classified “as a
theory of adult education, theory of adult learning, theory of technology of
adult learning, method of adult education, technique of adult education,
and a set of assumptions.” Hartree (1984) questioned whether there was a
theory at all, suggesting that perhaps these were just principles of good practice,
or descriptions of “what the adult learner should be like” (p. 205).
Knowles himself came to concur that andragogy is less a theory of adult
learning than “a model of assumptions about learning or a conceptual
framework that serves as a basis for an emergent theory” (1989, p. 112).
The second area of criticism, ongoing to this day, is the extent to which
the assumptions are characteristic of adult learners only. Some adults are highly
dependent on a teacher for structure, while some children are independent,
self-directed learners. The same is true for motivation; adults may be externally
motivated to learn, as in attending training sessions to keep their job, for example,
while children may be motivated by curiosity or the internal pleasure of
learning. Even the most obvious assumption that adults have more and deeper
life experiences may or may not function positively in a learning situation.
Indeed, certain life experiences can act as barriers to learning (Merriam, Mott,
and Lee, 1996). Further, children in certain situations may have a range of
experiences qualitatively richer than some adults (Hanson, 1996).
6 THE NEW UPDATE ON ADULT LEARNING THEORY
That these assumptions were not necessarily true of all adults led
Knowles himself to revise his thinking as to whether andragogy was just for
adults and pedagogy just for children. Between 1970 and 1980 he moved from
an andragogy versus pedagogy position to representing them on a continuum
ranging from teacher-directed to student-directed learning. He acknowledged
that both approaches are appropriate with children and adults, depending on
the situation. For example, an adult who knows little or nothing about a topic
will be more dependent on the teacher for direction; at the other extreme,
children who are naturally curious and who are “very self-directing in their
learning outside of school . . . could also be more self-directed in school”
(Knowles, 1984, p. 13). This acknowledgment by Knowles resulted in andragogy
being defined more by the learning situation than by the learner.
Focusing on the teaching-learning situation seems to be the position
taken by Cyril Houle, Knowles’s mentor and author of a number of books
on adult education. For Houle (1996, pp. 29–30), “education is fundamentally
the same wherever and whenever it occurs. It deals with such basic
concerns as the nature of the learner, the goals sought, the social and physical
milieu in which instruction occurs, and the techniques of learning or
teaching used. These and other components may be combined in infinite
ways. . . . Andragogy remains as the most learner-centered of all patterns of
adult educational programming.” What is significant, Houle writes, is that
andragogy has alerted educators to the fact that they “should involve learners
in as many aspects of their education as possible and in the creation of
a climate in which they can most fruitfully learn” (p. 30).
The scholarship on andragogy since 1990 has taken two directions.
Some have analyzed the origins of the concept or its usage in different parts
of the world. Another group of scholars has critiqued andragogy for its lack
of attention to the context in which learning occurs.
Science, Discipline, or Technology? The ongoing international discussion
and research on the concept of andragogy serves as a touchstone in
the continued effort to professionalize through the establishment of a scientific
discipline. Henschke (1998), citing several others, makes a point that
andragogy with its humanistic philosophical underpinnings is well suited to
democratically oriented societies. He suggests that the term can be illuminated
through an analysis of Hebrew words that expand “and are also
antecedent to the emergence of” the term. Andragogy, informed by humanism
and Hebraic language, could be defined as “a scientific discipline” that
studies everything related to learning and teaching “which would bring
adults to their full degree of humaneness” (Henschke, 1998, p. 8). In another
example of this thrust, Pastuovic (1995) explores the problems inherent in
forming a scientific system for adult education. He finds andragogy to be the
technological application of psychological and sociological knowledge, and
not in itself “a science of the system of adult education” (p. 289).
Dusan Savicevic, who introduced Knowles to the term andragogy, has
compared the concept in Europe and America. Andragogy originated in
ANDRAGOGY AND SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING 7
nineteenth-century Germany, where the educational programs of the workers’
movement sought to differentiate themselves from children and schooling
(Savicevic, 1998). In the second half of the twentieth century, andragogy
was connected with the professionalization of adult education in both
Europe and America. Out of the move to professionalize, as many as five
conceptions of andragogy can be identified (Savicevic, 1991). For example,
in some Central and Eastern European countries, where “pedagogy is an
integrating science of education,” andragogy is one of the disciplines of pedagogy
(Savicevic, 1991, p. 197); in other countries andragogy and pedagogy
are subsumed under the general science of education, and in yet other countries,
andragogy is considered an independent scientific discipline.
Today the term andragogy is used in Poland, Germany, the Netherlands,
Czechoslovakia, Russia, Yugoslavia, and other central and eastern European
countries to refer to what the British and Americans call adult education
(Draper, 1998). That is, andragogy as it has evolved in Europe is equivalent
to our North American understanding of adult education as a professional
field of practice (of which andragogy is but one prescriptive model of “how
teachers and students should behave” [Savicevic, 1991, p. 198]). Even with
these differences, Savicevic points out that both usages have several elements
in common: roots in European culture; a “philosophy of lifelong education in
which education and learning of adults is of primary importance”; increasing
professionalism where andragogy, “under different names, has found its place
in universities” as a discipline; and the emergence of professional organizations
and publications (1998, p. 116). At the heart of the enterprise, whether
it’s called andragogy or adult education, is “the understanding of the position
of a grown person in the process of education” (p. 114).
Context-Free Andragogy? The second stream of work in the 1990s
has been a critique of the psychological focus of North American andragogy
(Grace, 1996; Little, 1994; Pearson and Podeschi, 1997; Pratt, 1993). In the
1993 edition of Update on Adult Learning Theory, Pratt predicted that scholarship
on andragogy would be characterized by the “tension between
human agency and social structures as the most potent influences on adult
learning. Here, andragogy is unconditionally on the side of human agency
and the power of the individual to shed the shackles of history and circumstance
in pursuit of learning” (p. 22).
Based in humanistic psychology, Knowles’s version of andragogy presents
the individual learner as one who is autonomous, free, and growthoriented.
Critics have pointed out that there is little or no acknowledgment
that every person has been shaped by his or her culture and society, that
every person has a history, and that social institutions and structures define,
to a large extent, the learning transaction irrespective of the individual
learner. Grace (1996, p. 383) notes that andragogy was introduced into
North America in the late 1960s, “when action-oriented curricula that valued
individual experience were advocated. The individual had to keep up
and self-improvement was in vogue.” And even though Knowles promoted
8 THE NEW UPDATE ON ADULT LEARNING THEORY
andragogy for the next thirty years, he never considered “the organizational
and social impediments to adult learning; he never painted the ‘big picture.’
He chose the mechanistic over the meaningful” (Grace, 1996, p. 386). Grace
predicts that because “Knowles has reduced the adult learner to a technically
proficient droid, operating in a world where formulaic social planning
and self-directed learning mantras are the order of the day,” he “is in danger
of being left behind” (p. 391).
Discussions of andragogy in the decade of the 1990s demonstrate both
its usefulness for exploring some of the definitional and philosophical issues
related to the evolution of adult education as a scientific discipline, and its
strengths and weaknesses as a guide to practice. And it is as a guide to practice
that andragogy has had its biggest impact. As Pratt (1993, p. 21) in his
assessment of andragogy writes, “andragogy has been adopted by legions of
adult educators around the world. . . . Very likely, it will continue to be the
window through which adult educators take their first look into the world
of adult education.” However, “while andragogy may have contributed to
our understanding of adults as learners, it has done little to expand or clarify
our understanding of the process of learning,” nor has it achieved the
status of “a theory of adult learning”(Pratt, 1993, p. 21).
Self-Directed Learning (SDL)
About the same time that Knowles introduced andragogy to North American
adult educators, self-directed learning appeared as another model that
helped define adult learners as different from children. Knowles (1975) himself
contributed to the self-directed learning literature with a book explaining
the concept and outlining how to implement it through learning
contracts. And it might be recalled that the first assumption underlying
Knowles’s view of andragogy is that learners become increasingly selfdirected
as they mature. However, it was Tough (1967, 1971), building on
the work of Houle (1961), who provided the first comprehensive description
of self-directed learning as a form of study. Tough studied and described
the self-planned learning projects of sixty-six Canadians. The uncovering
and documenting of this type of learning—learning that is widespread, that
occurs as part of adults’ everyday life, and that is systematic yet does not
depend on an instructor or a classroom—generated one of the major thrusts
of research in the field of adult education.
Based on the pioneering work of Houle, Tough, and Knowles, early
research in self-directed learning was descriptive, verifying the widespread
presence of self-directed learning among adults and documenting the process
by which it occurred. Overlapping with descriptive research, and continuing
today, is work on model-building, discussions of the goals and ethics of SDL,
clarifications of the nature of self-direction, and ways of assessing self-direction
in learning. I will first summarize the literature according to the three
categories presented in Merriam and Caffarella’s 1999 review—the goals, the
ANDRAGOGY AND SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING 9
process, and the learner. This section is followed by an appraisal of the current
status of self-directed learning research.
The Goals, the Process, the Learner. Depending on the philosophical
orientation of the writer, the goals of self-directed leaning vary. Those
grounded in a humanistic philosophy posit that self-directed learning should
have as its goal the development of the learner’s capacity to be self-directed.
Knowles and Tough wrote from this perspective as do Brockett and Hiemstra
(1991). In their Personal Responsibility Orientation (PRO) model of selfdirected
learning, human nature that is “basically good . . . accepting responsibility
for one’s own learning” and being proactive drive their model (p. 26).
A second goal is the fostering of transformational learning (Brookfield,
1986, Mezirow, 1985). Transformational learning as presented by Mezirow
(see Chapter Two) posits critical reflection by the learner as central to the
process (2000). This critical reflection is an “understanding of the historical,
cultural, and biographical reasons for one’s needs, wants, and interests. . . .
Such self-knowledge is a prerequisite for autonomy in self-directed learning”
(Mezirow, 1985, p. 27). Further, it is our job as adult educators “to assist
adults to learn in a way that enhances their capability to function as selfdirected
learners” (Mezirow, 1981, p. 137).
The third goal for self-directed learning is the promotion of emancipatory
learning and social action. Just as andragogy has been critiqued for
ignoring the context of learning, so too some writers would like to see selfdirected
learning positioned more for social and political action than individual
learning. Both Brookfield (1993) and Collins (1996) call for a more
critical, political analysis of SDL. An example of this orientation is a recent
study by Andruske (2000), wherein she investigated the self-directed learning
projects of women on welfare. She found that the women became “political
change agents as they attempt[ed] to control and to initiate change in
their everyday worlds in response to oppressive external structures” (p. 11).
How one actually works through a self-directed learning experience has
generated a number of models of the process. The earliest models proposed
by Tough (1971) and Knowles (1975) are the most linear, moving from diagnosing
needs to identifying resources and instructional formats to evaluating
outcomes. Models developed in the late 1980s and the 1990s are less
linear and more interactive; in such models not only the learner but the context
of the learning and the nature of the learning itself are taken into
account. In Danis’s (1992) model, for example, learning strategies, phases of
the learning process, the content, the learner, and the environmental factors
in the context must all be taken into account in mapping the process of SDL.
What Merriam and Caffarella (1999) term “instructional” models of the
process focus on what instructors can do in the formal classroom setting to foster
self-direction and student control of learning. The best known of these is
Grow’s (1991, 1994) Staged Self-Directed Learning (SSDL) model. Grow presents
a matrix whereby learners can locate themselves in terms of their readiness
for and comfort with being self-directed, and instructors can match the
10 THE NEW UPDATE ON ADULT LEARNING THEORY
learner’s stage with appropriate instructional strategies. For example, whereas
a dependent learner needs more introductory material and appreciates lecture,
drill, and immediate correction, a self-directed learner can engage in independent
projects, student-directed discussions, and discovery learning.
In addition to goals and process, the literature can be categorized according
to the learner and the extent to which self-directedness is an a priori personal
characteristic and associated with other variables such as educational level, creativity,
learning style, and so on. Two scales of self-directedness, one measuring
readiness (Guglielmino, 1997), and one measuring personal characteristics
(Oddi, 1986), have been used in a number of studies. In addition to these empirical
studies, the relationship between autonomy and self-directedness has been
explored. Candy (1991, p. 309) writes that since a learner’s autonomy is likely
to “vary from situation to situation,” educators should not assume that because
a person has been self-directed in one situation, “he or she will be able to succeed
in a new area: Orientation, support and guidance may all be required in the
first stages of a learning project.”
Current Assessment of SDL. The preceding brief overview of selfdirected
learning draws from a very broad literature base. Contributing to the
literature has been fourteen years of meetings of the annual International Symposium
on Self-Directed Learning. As the continuing existence of this conference
attests, self-directed learning remains a viable arena for theory building
related to adult learning. However, self-directed learning appears to be at a
juncture in terms of which direction research and theory building should take
in order to advance our understanding of this important dimension of adult
learning. In an attempt to address this issue, Brockett et al. (2000) conducted
a content analysis of 122 articles on self-directed learning published in fourteen
periodicals between 1980 and 1998. They found that there has been a
steady decline in the number of articles on SDL since the mid-1980s. Brockett
(2000, p. 543) comments that this indicator, along with the shift away from
“the individual adult learner toward looking at the sociopolitical context of
adult education,” might suggest that SDL has no future as a means for understanding
adult learning. However, he makes the case that rather than move
away from thirty years of scholarship on SDL, “the real challenge . . . is how to
take the study of self-direction to a new level” (p. 543). The development of
another instrument, a focus on the quality of the experience, studying how
people engage and manage their self-directed learning, and asking about the
ethical use or misuse of SDL are suggestions for this new work (Brockett, personal
communication, September 28, 2000). Merriam and Caffarella (1999)
list the following areas for investigation, all of which could expand our understanding
of adult learning through SDL:
• How some adults remain self-directed in their learning over long periods
matter and learning strategies
ANDRAGOGY AND SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING 11
• How issues of power and control interact with the use of SDL in formal
• Whether being self-directed as a learner has an impact on one’s instructional
and planning activities
• What the role is of public policy in SDL
• What the critical practice of SDL looks like in practice
• How contextual factors interact with the personal characteristics of selfdirected
Clearly, there are numerous possibilities for how future research on selfdirected
learning might enrich adult education practice as well as contribute
to theory in adult learning.
This chapter began by explaining the context in which andragogy and SDL
emerged. Appearing at about the same time, andragogy and self-directed
learning were the first two attempts by adult educators to define adult education
as a unique field of practice, one that could be differentiated from learning
in general and childhood education in particular. Ironically, both have
been criticized for a blinding focus on the individual learner while ignoring
the sociohistorical context in which it occurs. However, both andragogy and
SDL have become so much a part of adult education’s identity, and have had
such an impact on practice, that relegating them to the status of historical artifact
is inconceivable. And, as we’ve seen in this chapter, today’s scholars in
both andragogy and self-directed learning are grappling with the tough issues.
A more likely scenario is that both of these “pillars” of adult learning theory
will continue to engender debate, discussion, and research, and in so doing,
further enrich our understanding of adult learning.
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