Welcome to a new Teche series, the ABCs of Pedagogy. It is learning and teaching award season at Macquarie and one of the aims of this series is to provide applicants with the scholarly language to describe their teaching and learning practice. This skill goes beyond award applications and may also be useful for the purposes of reflection, conversations about teaching and learning, scholarly activities, and career progression.

Today’s topic

A is for Andragogy

You are likely familiar with the more commonly used term ‘pedagogy’, the methods and practices of teaching and learning (often referred to as both an art and a science). The word pedagogy finds its etymology in a mix of French, Latin and Greek and, as you can see from its prefix ‘pedo-’, refers to leading and instructing children.

Its alternative is andragogy, or adult learning, with multiple attributions for the first use of the term.

Thinking about andragogy is a prompt to reflect on what you believe is distinctive about higher education where teaching is focussed on adult learners.

Consider the extent to which you agree with the following statements that attempt to distinguish learning in higher education from school or early childhood contexts:

  • Adult learners utilise various forms of formal, informal and non-formal learning; learn for both personal and professional reasons; and balance learning with other work and care activities.
  • Students in higher education develop as self-directed, lifelong learners with deep disciplinary knowledge and capabilities, including teamwork, literacy and communication skills, criticality, and creativity.

Note that our expectations of independent learning capability change over time, and these assumptions are built into unit design at each stage. First-year units are usually more scaffolded, while postgraduate units may be designed for independent and goal orientated learning.

American educator Malcolm Knowles (1950) promoted the use of term andragogy, with a conviction that adults learn differently from children. He made five assertions about the characteristics of adult learners:

  1. Self-concept: As people mature their self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.
  2. Experience: As people mature they accumulate a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
  3. Readiness to learn: As people mature their readiness to learn becomes oriented toward the developmental tasks of their social roles.
  4. Orientation to learning: As people mature their time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly their orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centredness to one of problem-centredness.
  5. Motivation to learn: As people mature the motivation to learn is internal (Knowles, 1984).

As you may have guessed, each of these claims about the difference between andragogy and pedagogy is contested and has been the subject of considerable scholarly discussion.

To offer just one example, Stephen Brookfield (1993) challenges the individualistic notion of self-directed learning (often institutionalised through student ‘learning contracts’ within a limited framework) and suggests it is part of a political, social and cultural tradition that “emphasises the individual’s standing against repressive interests” or institutional control (p 227). He argues that self-directed learning might be akin to transformative or emancipatory approaches to education (more on these ideas when the series reaches F is for freedom).

For reflecting on teaching, the various ways in which others have interrogated Knowles’ assertions are valuable. In Psychology and Adult Learning, Mark Tennant (2006) developed a “reconstructed charter for andragogy” (following work by Jack Mezirow on transformative learning).

In articulating eight characteristics for framing the practice of adult education, Tennant was critical of guidelines for teachers that tell them that they ‘should, ‘must’ or ‘ought to’ teach in particular ways. He aimed to focus on the contexts of learners and decentre the role of the teacher in these initial recommendations for framing practice:

  1. Value the experience of learners — include their life experiences in the teaching and learning discourse. Language, registers and examples should be inclusive rather than exclusive.
  2. Engage in reflection on experiences — get learners to go beyond their experience and to generalise from specific experiences by theorising.
  3. Establish collaborative learning relationships — analysis of experience should not be solely individual. Communities of learners enable individuals to develop knowledge from multiple viewpoints whilst at the same time retaining their own values.
  4. Address issues of identity and the power relationship between teachers and learners — distribute as much power to the learners as the context will allow.
  5. Promote judgements about learning which are developmental and which allow scope for success for all learners — assessments and judgements are about further development.
  6. Negotiate conflicts over claims to knowledge and pedagogic process — enable differing points of view to emerge and encourage learners to negotiate and to engage critically with the material as well as the process of learning.
  7. Identify the historical and cultural location of experiences — question what is taken for granted or assumed at the personal, social and cultural levels.
  8. Transform actions and practices — new practices can be adopted if one recognises where one is located culturally and historically.

In talking and writing about your teaching practice, consider which of the above is of particular value to you, and what you can evidence through feedback from students, reviews with colleagues, and engagement with your disciplinary and professional communities.

How do your students reflect on their experiences? Do you work to build an inclusive community? Is curriculum negotiated? Do you invite students to challenge taken for granted assumptions, principles and values? How do you decentre the role of the teacher?

In future posts, this series will explore many of the ideas inherent in Tennant’s list, including experiential learning, reflective practice, knowledge theories, student-centred learning and values.


Brookfield S. (1993). Self-Directed Learning, Political Clarity, and the Critical Practice of Adult Education. Adult Education Quarterly, 43 (4): 227-242.

Knowles, Malcolm S. (1950). Informal Adult Education: A guide for administrators, leaders, and teachers. New York: Association Press.

Knowles, M. S. and Associates. (1984). Andragogy in Action: Applying modern principles of adult education. San Franciso: Jossey-Bass.

Tennant, M. (2006). Psychology and Adult Learning, 3rd edition. London and New York: Routledge.

Acknowledgement: In developing this series on the ABCs of Pedagogy, I would like to acknowledge the teaching and scholarship of current and former Macquarie University staff members including Vanessa Fredericks, Marina Harvey, Mathew Hillier, Olga Kozar, Danny Liu, Karina Luzia, Margot McNeil, Anna Rowe, Cathy Rytmeister, Theresa Winchester-Seeto and others.

Next post in the series:

B is for blended or hybrid teaching pedagogies

What are the ABCs of pedagogy we’ll be covering in this series?

Click to reveal the pedagogy:

Banner image: Brian Mueller on Shutterstock
Image of letter A: Hold photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

Posted by Agnes Bosanquet

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