Malcolm Knowles


Malcolm Knowles was born in Montana in 1913. He was a boy scout and his father was a veterinarian. Knowles graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in 1934. In 1940, he took a job as Director of Adult Education at the Boston YMCA until he was drafted in 1943 into the Navy. In 1946, Knowles worked as Director of Adult Education at the YMCA in Chicago where he began his MA degree. This degree was completed in 1949. Knowles served as Executive Director of the Adult Education Association of the USA and worked on his PhD from 1951 to 1959. The next 14 years was spent working at Boston University as an associate professor of adult education with tenure. In 1974, he became a member of faulty of Education at North Carolina State University to complete his last four years of work before retirement. He still remained active in the field into the 1990’s. Malcolm Knowles died in 1997 (Malcolm Knowles, 2009).

Malcolm Knowles had an enormous impact on United States adult education. He worked on changing instructors’ viewpoints from “educating people” to “helping them learn” (Smith, 2002). He believed that adults learned differently than children. Self-directed learning was one of these differences. Knowles believed that people that take the initiative to learn increase their knowledge more than people who sit waiting passively to be taught. He believed that people are made to learn by self-directed methods. Also, new developments in education are placing a majority of the responsibility on the learners to increase their knowledge (Smith, 2002).

Alexander Kapp (a German educator) coined the tern andragogy in 1833. Knowles developed andragogy into a theory. He wanted a term to distinguish adult learners, andragogy (Greek: “man-leading”) from child learners, pedagogy (Greek: “child-leading”) (Andragogy, 2009).

Knowles theory can be described with six assumptions connected to adult learning motivation:

1. Need to know- Adults have to know the reason for learning something.
2. Foundation- Experience is the basis for learning.
3. Self-concept- Adults need to be responsible for their decisions on education, such as planning and evaluation of their instruction.
4. Readiness- Adults are interested in learning information that is related to their lives.
5. Orientation- Adult learning is problem-centered not content-centered.
6. Motivation- Internal motivators are more effective than external motivators for adult learners (Andragogy, 2009).

Teaching Strategies

A constructivist teaching approach works well with adult learners. Instructors are to facilitate learning and the responsibility to learn is placed on the student. Involving the six assumptions above in combination with constructivist teaching methods will create a great adult learning environment. Every assignment will not be able to incorporate all six of the assumptions but making sure each assignment involves some of them will keep adult learners motivated to learn. One assignment that can be used at the start of any class is a learning contract. This gets the adult learner involved with their own learning. If set up correctly, the learning contract can include all six of the assumptions. Utilizing technology in the form of a word processor can help guide the learning contract. A template can be created in the word processor by the facilitator to show the student what needs to be filled in where. Then it is up to the student to fill it in as they see fit. This is a great way to get the adult learner motivated to succeed in any class. Just follow through with self-directed activities and the adult learner will have learned more in your class than any other traditional style class taken before!