Malcolm Knowles, The Adult Learner, and Revisiting Cherished Resources

Reading the sixth edition of The Adult Learner (in which Elwood Holton and Richard Swanson further build upon what Malcolm Knowles wrote in the first four editions) reminds us why the book justifiably carries the subtitle “The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development” (added to the fifth edition)—and why a seventh edition is also available.

Knowles--It’s thoughtful. It’s thorough. It’s engaging. It acknowledges its limitations. It surveys a variety of other seminal learning texts produced over a period of several decades and leaves us with nearly 40 pages of additional resources to explore. And, most importantly, it reminds us of how consistently we have identified and sought solutions to the challenges learners of all ages face and also reminds us how far we still have to go in effectively responding to those challenges.

Current calls for finding alternatives to our antiquated approach of facilitating learning through lectures, for example, seem to place us at the cutting edge of contemporary training-teaching-learning efforts—until we reread (on p. 44) an educator’s call, first published in the Journal of Adult Education in 1940, for change: “Not only the content of the courses, but the method of teaching also must be changed. Lectures must be replaced by class exercises in which there is a large share of student participation…” (Harold Fields, acting assistant director of Evening Schools, Board of Education, New York City). Fields might have been fascinated by what Michael Wesch accomplishes through experiential learning with students participating in his mediated cultures projects at Kansas State University. Or by what some of us are experiencing through webinars with interactive learning opportunities for participants rather than relying on the one-way-transmission-of-information model that only occasionally takes a break for brief question-and-answer sessions before returning to the teacher-as-center-of-learning experience and often leaves learners uninspired. Or by the possibilities for engagement in connectivist massive open online courses (MOOCs) if learners are properly prepared to take advantage of what those courses can offer. Or what learners experience through flipped classroom efforts that at least partially move lectures out of the classroom to make space for more engaging experiential learning, with Kahn Academy videos being one highly recognizable example of how the process works.

Furthermore, those of us who mistakenly believe that formal lifelong learning is a new concept precipitated by the need to keep up with our rapidly-changing tech environment gain, from revisiting The Adult Learner, a more accurate appreciation for how long lifelong learning has been part of our learning landscape. We read the observation made by a college president in 1930 in the Journal of Adult Education that “[a]t the other end of the traditional academic ladder the adult educational movement is forcing recognition of the value and importance of continuing the learning process indefinitely”—a lesson some still don’t appear to have absorbed as we read about reduced funding for community college programs that can be an important part of the adult learning landscape. Adult learning, the college president continues, “is recognized not so much as a substitute for inadequate schooling in youth as an educational opportunity superior to that offered in youth…” (p. 41).

Even the term for adult learning—andragogy, as opposed to pedagogy (“the art and science of teaching children”)—that is at the heart of what Knowles built into the first edition of his book has far deeper roots than many of us suspect. The earliest citation found for andragogy was from a German educator who used the term in 1833. Subsequent citations include those from a German social scientist in 1921 and a Swiss psychiatrist in 1951 before Knowles included it in the first edition of what was then titled The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species.

Knowles eventually created the now-familiar model of andragogy grounded in a series of assumptions including the idea that adults “need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it,” “resent and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them,” “become ready to learn…to cope effectively with their real-life situations,” are “task-centered or problem-centered” in their approach to learning, and are effectively motivated by “the desire for increased job satisfaction, self-esteem, quality of life, and the like” (pp. 64-68). I suspect many of us also note the same assumptions with many of the younger learners we serve.

It’s an approach that’s compatible with what others, including Eduard Lindeman, Carl Rogers, and Robert Gagné, have written in their own classic works on learning. It’s an approach that appeals to us at a personal level and that can easily be recognized in our own experiences and drive to remain immersed in learning. And it supports a wonderfully inspiring philosophy expressed by Canadian psychologist Sidney Journard in 1972 and included in The Adult Learner: “Learning is not a task or problem; it is a way to be in the world” (p. 15)—words that might help all of us be more effective in our efforts to facilitate training-teaching-learning that produces positive results.

N.B.: This is the first in a series of reflections on classic training-teaching-learning resources.

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