Malcolm Knowles

A champion of andragogy, self-direction in learning and informal adult education. An influential figure in the adult education field.
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Fast Facts
  • Life
    • Born: 1913, Montana
    • Death: 1997, Arkansas
    • Family: Spouse, 2 children
  • Education
    • B.A. Harvard University (1934)
    • M.A. University of Chicago (1949)
    • Ph.D. University of Chicago (1960)
  • Experience
    • Executive Director of Adult Education Association of USA (1951-1959)
    • Director of Adult Education at YMCA (Chicago, 1946)
    • United States Navy (1943-1946)
    • Director of Adult Education at YMCA (Boston, 1940)
    • Associate Professor at Boston University (1959-1963)
    • Member of education faculty at various universities (1974-1990s)
      • North Carolina State
      • Fielding Graduate University (Santa Barbara, CA)
      • University of Arkansas
  • Classification: Adult Learning (Andragogy)


Knowles’ work involved a formal theory on adult education he labeled “andragogy.” The term, originally coined by a German educator named Alexander Kapp in 1833, was adopted by Knowles to describe the strategy of developing strategies for adult learning, or as he described it as, the “art and science to teaching adults to learn” (Knowles, 2005). In andragogy, the emphasis is placed on adults being self-directed and responsible for the outcomes of their learning. The theory makes the following assumptions about adult learning:
  1. Adults need to know why they need to learn it
  2. Learning should be experimental and interactive
  3. Approach learning in a problem solving method
  4. Learning happens best when the topic is of immediate value

Application for Education and Organizations
  1. Teacher led professional development (Staff Development)
  2. Adults engaging in MOOC’s; not due to the structure but rather their interest in the subject (Social, Developmental)
  3. Professional development in which staff members approach new knowledge within interactive classrooms, discussions, or problem-based settings (Staff Development)
  4. Teacher teams (e.g. departmental, content, and/or grade level) discussing newly adopted standards by creating applicable classroom strategies or activities (Staff Development)
  5. Physicians participating in continuing education (CE) engage in problem-solving scenarios using dummies (Organizational Staff Development)
  6. In Seinfeld, Kramer and his friend Mickey take on the roles of men with jaundice as hospital staff have to diagnose the disease (Comedic, Staff Developmental)

Informal Adult Education

Knowles’ early work can be likened to more modern studies of Communities of Practice (CoP), specifically the idea that knowledge can be transmitted through interaction in groups or clubs. Informal programs, Knowles argued, were much more likely to attract new members as they appeal of flexibility. Within these programs enthusiasm, commitment, and experience work together to provide an experience that allows for refinement and practice of knowledge obtained.

Application for Education and Organizations
  1. Signing up for a cooking course and developing new skills through continued participation and partnerships (Social)
  2. Teachers selecting conferences that appeal to them and subsequently selecting sessions or lectures that have even more specific appeal (Staff Development)
  3. Users interacting on Twitter by following those with like interests (Social, Developmental)
  4. Students, faculty, alumni, or community members attending distinguished lecture series’ sponsored by universities (Social, Education)

Important Works

  • Andragogy, Not Pedagogy (1968)
  • The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (1973)
  • Self-Directed Learning: A Guide For Learners And Teachers (1975)
  • Andragogy in Action: Applying Modern Principles Of Adult Education (1984)

Related Links