Andragogy (aka Adult Education): What Aspects Differentiate it from Pedagogy?

Prior to discussing andragogy, it would be worthwhile to define it. According to Merriam-Webster, andragogy is “the art or science of teaching adults” (n.d.). This is, of course, linked to the more commonly used word “pedagogy,” which is a more general term and often used in reference to teaching children. In Greek, these terms could be translated as man-leading, versus child-leading.

There has been much discussion in the field about how andragogy, or adult education, differentiates itself from pedagogy.  Interestingly, this was the central point of debate all the way back in 1957 during a gathering of Adult Education professors from the United States and Canada.  Abbott Kaplan started the debate off with a key question.  He asked his fellow professors, “What is the content, the essential ingredient of adult education, that marks it off from other fields or disciplines?” (Commission of Professors of Adult Education meeting, 1957, p. 16). An interesting discussion followed and yielded valuable consensus regarding how to define adult education.

Adult Education has had many names as, indeed, it has existed as long as humans have been learning. Originating from the word “Andragogik,” Alexander Kapp, a German high school teacher, seems to have first used this word in 1833.  He used it to explain adult education and that “learning not only happens through teachers, but also through self-reflection and life experience” (Reischmann, 2005, p. 59).  These ideas about andragogy have resurfaced again and again in the history of adult education.  Malcolm Knowles, a name well-known in the field of adult education, also used the word andragogy.  In fact, he wrote an early article on the subject named, “Andragogy, Not Pedagogy” (1968). In it, he showed his strong views that Adult Education must be considered as separate and different than education for children and youths” (Reischmann, 2005, p. 60). 

This leads us to the obvious question, what are the differences between education for adults and education for children?  Four main points are outlined by Eduard Lindeman, which were more recently expanded upon by Stewart (1987).  These four points of difference are common ones that Adult Educators have discussed and debated for many years.  Lindeman outlined these points in 1926 and many of the same points were brought up in the Commission of Professors of Adult Education meeting which was held on April 26, 1957.

Point 1: Adult Education Continues Through the Life Span

The first point that Lindeman made, in differentiating adult education, was that “Education is life – not a mere preparation for an unknown kind of future living” (Stewart, 1987, p. 103).  For Lindeman, it was important to understand that education is not simply something that one does in order to prepare for life.  Education is something that continues throughout the life span. It seems that the attendees at the 1957 meeting mainly agreed with him as various definitions of Adult Education that were listed in the commission’s report include references to Adult Education as a life-long pursuit.  One of those definitions says, “Adulthood involves a large part of life; therefore, adult education includes the larger portion of life-long learning” (Commission of Professors of Adult Education meeting, 1957, p. 61).  In short, education is for life, and not simply something that one does in preparation for life. 

Point 2: Adult Learning Goes Beyond Vocational and Academic

The second point of Lindeman, as described by Stewart (1987), was that “adult education revolves around nonvocational ideals” (p. 103). Lindeman felt that there was a lot of pressure for young adults to learn a vocation to fit into a certain job that needed to be filled.  He believed that Adult Education was not education that was centered on vocations but education that went beyond that; it was education that gave meaning to the person’s life (Stewart, 1987, p. 106).  He believed that it was a real threat that “the unbalanced application of vocational education [would] produce generations of empty people” (Stewart, 1987, p. 106). Stewart built on this statement by adding that “adult education revolves around nonvocational and nonacademic ideals” (p. 111).  Adult Education can happen in places beyond institutions, both beyond academic and vocational institutions. 

Other professors of Adult Education agreed with Lindeman and Stewart on this point.  A definition from the report by the Commission of Professors of Adult Education meeting stated that adult education is “not usually a part of a predetermined sequence of requirements,” and that it is, “focused upon the learner’s changing interests and problems” (1957, p. 62).  Another definition from that meeting points out that adult education can be in the community and include, “all those organized and/or directed educational activities in which adults engage” (p. 61). 

Point 3: Adult Educational is Rooted in Real-Life Situations

The third point made by Lindeman was that “the approach to adult education will be via the route of situations, not subjects” (Stewart, 1987, p. 103).  As children in the formal schooling system are taught by subjects, Adult Education would not necessarily fit into this type of model.  Adult education would be based upon real-life situations and real-life needs for learning.  A strict curriculum would do nothing to aid an adult learner.  The curriculum should be life, and adult education, “derives its contents from individual and group needs” (Stewart,1987, p. 107).

Malcolm Knowles posited, during the meeting of 1957: “Isn’t this basic difference [between andragogy and pedagogy] the setting in which adults learn and this setting for adult learning is not typically the classroom but some life process they are going through – and this requires a different methodology” (Commission of Professors of Adult Education meeting, 1957, p. 21).  This point was a strong point in the debate and it supported the idea that a unique theory was, indeed, necessary for Adult Education.  Adults learn in many types of broader situations, other than the traditional classroom situation in which confined subjects are taught.

Point 4: Adult Education is Experience-Based

The fourth and final point about Adult Education by Lindeman is that “the resource of highest value in Adult Education is the learner’s experience” (Stewart, 1987, p. 103).  This is a very important aspect of Adult Education and, according to some, sets Adult Education apart from education for children.  All adults have their own unique life experiences from which they have learned and which can also inform their future learning.  Lindeman states that experience is, in fact, “the adult learner’s living textbook” (as cited in Stewart, 1987, p. 108).  The adult learner’s past experiences need to be taken into consideration when new situations present themselves and it is through new experiences that many adults learn the most.  I know that this has often been the case for me!

In a debate during the 1957 Commission of Professors of Adult Education meeting, this point came up as another way to differentiate andragogy from pedagogy.  In speaking about Adult Education, Hendrickson told his colleagues to consider, “the ways in which you can capitalize on adult experience.  This is something you can’t do with children; they just haven’t lived enough” (Commission of Professors of Adult Education meeting, 1957, p. 19).  Kreitlow, however, disagreed and replied that, “the use of experience is something you start in kindergarten” (p. 20).  They did, however, agree that the degree of experiences that one could draw on was very different and so, therefore, this is a significant difference between adult education and child education.  Lindeman also made the point that the adult learner and the instructor/facilitator are both learning from the experience of Adult Education.  He reminds us that teachers are those, “who are also searchers after wisdom and not oracles” (as cited in Stewart, 1987, p. 108). Indeed, that is a great line for instructors to reflect upon.

Knowles’ Six Assumptions about Adult Learning

Malcolm Knowles, who worked under Lindeman in his earlier days and whose name is now often associated with Andragogy, continued on this important work in the years following the decisive meeting in 1957. Knowles worked to develop a theory of adult learning and further refined the particularities of Adult Education into six main assumptions, as quoted from Chan (2010), p. 27-28:

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-ND
  1. Self-Concept: Adult learners are self-directed, autonomous, and independent.
  2. Role of Experience: Repository of an adult’s experience is a rich resource for learning. Adults tend to learn by drawing from their previous experiences.
  3. Readiness to Learn: Adults tend to be ready to learn what they believe they need to know.
  4. Orientation to Learning: Adults learn for immediate applications rather than for future uses. Their learning orientation is problem-centered, task-oriented, and life-focused.
  5. Internal Motivation: Adults are more internally motivated than externally.
  6. Need to Know: Adults need to know the value of learning and why they need to learn.


Based on the definitions of Adult Education described at the 1957 Commission of Professors of Adult Education meeting, and then further refined by Malcolm Knowles, do these particularities of Andragogy ring true to you in relation to your experiences as an adult learner? If you are an instructor, are you, indeed, engaging in andragogy with your adult learners? As an educator or designer/developer, are you taking into consideration and incorporating Malcolm Knowles’ six main assumptions of andragogy in your efforts to facilitate effective adult learning?


Andragogy. n.d. In dictionary. Retrieved September 10, 2022, from

Chan, S. (2010). Applications of andragogy in multi-disciplined teaching and learning. Journal of adult education, 39(2), 25-35.

Commission of Professors of Adult Education meeting, April 26, 1957, in Malcolm Knowles Papers, CPAE, box 18, October 1957, Syracuse University Archives.

Reischmann, J. (2005). Andragogy. In L. English (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Adult Education (pp.58-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stewart, D. (1987). What adult education means: Discovering and rediscovering the concept of andragogy. In D. Stewart, Adult learning in America: Eduard Lindeman and his agenda for lifelong education (pp. 103-112). Malabar, Florida: Robert Krieger Publishing.

Leave a Reply