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An invitation to discuss Adult Learning Theory

Emma Grainger
Kalba: EN
Document available also in: BG

It can be difficult not to get lost in your practice with the pressures of everyday work. Although most adult educators have a background in the study of andragogy many comment that there is no time to reflect on the theoretical 

basis for their work. This blog aims to aid that somewhat by beginning the conversation and inviting others to write about their ‘favourite’ theorists. To begin with a quote from one notable theorist not specific to Adult Education, Kurt Lewin, 'there is nothing so practical as good theory' (1951). 


Paulo Freire (1921 - 1977)   Transformative Education 

Paulo Freire, in working with peasants in Brazil, saw education as a route to liberation, especially liberation from poverty and oppression.  The ideas that Freire used to capture this were as follows. That education is about people who were seen, and saw themselves, as objects (not having choice or agency to shape their own lives) moving to seeing themselves as subjects (actors who can shape and mould their own lives). That education is an intervention and a catalyst for change. This means that educators must seek out the places where there is oppression, stimulate discussion about oppression and offer themselves as a resource for change. That learning is intimately linked to learners acquiring the tools for change (peasants needing to read and write so they can fight for their rights.

Freire also had practices which built on the ideas relating to education as a route to liberation, which were:

·         Problem posing – education should be about posing problems rather than giving or prescribing solutions

·         Coding – education should be about putting the issues that a community face back to them in a form (code) that they can look at and learn from. Again putting the reading of the code into the hands of the learner

·         See and challenge of internalised oppression – this is about educators being aware of what is called internalised oppression where the marginalised take on the story that they ‘deserve’ to be marginalised

·         That there is a flat/equal relationship between student and teacher – each learning from and respecting the other

·         At the heart of this form of education is the idea of social transformation

·         Praxis – reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.  It is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality.  They must act together upon their environment in order to critically reflect upon their reality and to transform it through further action and critical reflection.

Freire named the fact that education was primarily about liberation, and mainly about the liberation of the collective. He also explored ideas about internalised oppression, praxis and equality between student and teacher.


Malcolm Knowles (1913 – 1997) Learner Centred Approach 

Malcolm Knowles promoted the idea of andragogy and placed this idea in opposition to the idea of pedagogy and underlined the difference between working with adults and working with children. According to Knowles the main concept behind andragogy is that it focuses on adults who:

  • Are autonomous individuals who are accustomed to being self-directed
  • Have lived and had experiences that made them who they are
  • Have chosen to come to learn and therefore are ready to engage with learning
  • Focus on solving the ‘problem’ that brought them to learning - because of this they have a motivation to learn specific things
  • Have a strong need to see or make the learning relevant to themselves and their lives

Therefore the tutor must place the adult at the centre of their own learning - as such Knowles developed the idea of the learner contracts. In order to place the concepts of andragogy in a context it is useful to look at how Knowles framed the main concepts behind pedagogy, primarily about teaching children, which are that children are not self-directed, do not have life experiences and need someone to show them what they need to learn. The teacher has full responsibility for making decisions about what will be learned, how it will be learned, when it will be learned, and if the material has been learned. Pedagogy, or teacher-directed instruction, places the student in a submissive role requiring obedience to the teacher's instructions and to the wider curriculum. Learners need to know only what the teacher teaches them. The result is a teaching and learning situation that actively promotes dependency on the instructor. Therefore Knowles pointed out the need for the educator to place the adult learner at the centre of his/her learning to reflect the ‘reality’ of the learning relationship.

Join in - write about a theorist who work inspires you and why  



Lewin, K. (1951) Field theory in social science; selected theoretical papers. D. Cartwright (ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Aontas: Theorists and thinkers - linking to practice



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  • Christian BERNHARD-SKALA portretas

    Dear Emma,

    thanks for posting this one. My personal favorite is Paolo Freire. I loved teaching and discussing his concepts with students at the faculty, showing them up, where I did opress them.

    I would like to add Klaus Holzkamp, a german psychologist from the 90s. His approach is that people loose their ability to learn in classrooms by reproducing what teachers would like them to say, being taught that there are right answers and wrong answers. He calls this defensive learning, which is a kind of learning that is done in order to avoid punishment, bad marks or other sanctions.

    He was kind of proclaiming a second kind of learning "expansive learning" which is a kind of learning that is done in order to cope with daily life and in order to get one's life straight - straight in the sense that only the learner himself can decide on because the only the learner is the expert for his life and knows what he wants his life to be like.

    This indicates that we as teachers/ facilitators or organizers of adult learning should focus first of all WHAT does this person want to learn and why does a person want to learn this special content. Once we have found out what this person is aiming to learn, we might talk about how to teach him or her.

    This approach is very popular in German scientific community, find out more reading this article by Anke Grotlüschen, University of Hamburg

    by the way: All very close to Freire....


  • Emma GRAINGER portretas

    Thanks for that, always educational to hear about 'new' people - well new to me, I'm sure he's very well known in Germany - look forward to reading more over a coffee