Adult Learning Theories-Knowles & Dewey, John Dewey

Adult Learning Theories Using Theorist Knowles & Dewey, John Dewey: The later works 1938—1939, Vol. 13 (pp. 1—62). Carbondale, IL: SIU Press.

Over half a century ago, Dewey (1938) expressed the belief that all genuine education comes through experience (Dewey 1938). Since then, many educators have struggled with the complex implications of that simply stated notion. Recognizing its complexity, Dewey advised using those cases in which we find there is a real development of desirable [experiences] and to find out how this development took place (p. 4) and using this new understanding to guide our efforts at teaching and learning.


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The notion of inquiry appears in many places in Dewey’s work, though he began to refer to it using that term only in his later writings. In Experience and Education (1939/1991), Dewey wrote, “the immediate and direct concern of an educator is … with the situations in which interaction takes place” (Dewey 1938)


Dewey writes of “new education,” wherein, rather than learning from “texts and teachers,” students learn from experience and there is “active participation by the students in the development of what is taught.”   Dewey argues that this model breaks down the barrier between school and the rest of a student’s life, making more fluid usefulness of knowledge gained in and outside of school.  It only seems logical that students will invest more in the knowledge that they have created themselves and can share with others in many areas of life.  It gives the students the chance to become both teacher and learner.

Preparing for full lives as citizens

Preparing for full lives as citizens and individuals; embedding inclusion, teamwork, creativity, and innovation and to live rich and fulfilling lives as citizens and individuals, learners must be prepared for and have access to choices that affect their futures. But the purpose of learning does not lie only in the future; skills, knowledge, and experiences must have meaning in the present, too. Dewey believed skills must be useful in the here and now (Dewey 1938) Knowles, M. 1980. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. Englewood Cliffs: Cambridge.


The theory of andragogy was defined by Malcolm Knowles, who often has been referred to as the “father of andragogy.” He was one of the world’s leaders in the area of adult education.

The andragogical model designed by Knowles is based on several important assumptions including the need to know: Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it, the learner’s self-concept: Adults have a self-concept that includes being responsible for their own decision, for their own lives, The role of the learners’ experiences: Adults come into the educational arena with both a greater volume and a different quality of experience than youth. This difference in quantity and quality of experience has several consequences for adult education that must be considered. This also means that adult learners, themselves, contribute rich resources to the learning process,


Knowles (1970), in his theory of adult learning, differentiates the way adults learn from the way children learn. These differences are stated as follows:


  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed;
  • Adults are problem-centered (they need to understand the ‘Why’ behind the need to learn);
  • Adults are practical and are problem-solvers, and
  • Adults have accumulated significant life experiences.


Based on these differences, trainers need to focus more on the process and less on the content being taught. Presentation strategies such as case studies, role-playing, and simulations tend to be most effective. Teachers should facilitate those modalities rather than lecture.


The Readiness to learn: Adults come ready to learn the things they need to in order to better cope with real life experiences. The teacher needs to respond to this need by exposing students to models of superior performance, career counseling, simulation exercises, and other techniques, Orientation to learning: In contrast to children’s and youth’s subject-centered orientation to learning, adults are life-centered in their orientation to learning. They learn new knowledge, understandings, skills, values, and attitudes most effectively when they are presented in the context of applicability to real-life situations and the motivation: While adults are responsive to some external motivators, the most potent motivators are internal pressures, like the desire for increased job satisfaction, self-esteem, and quality of life.




Dewey, J. (1939/1991). Experience and education. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.).


Katherine H. Murray Frommelt, 2000, Non-Traditional Student’s Response to Graduate education.


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