Andragogical knowledge and skills for teachers in mainstream education as prevention for ESL*

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Klaudija Šterman Ivančič

Andragogy is a learner-centred approach to teaching and learning. By incorporating its principles of acknowledging learners as autonomous, self-directed, pragmatically and problem-solving oriented and internally motivated into mainstream education already at early stages, teachers can help prevent ESL.

The aim of this article is to present the role andragogical knowledge plays in tackling ESL, especially through its incorporation into mainstream education. Contrary to teacher-centred, andragogy is a learner-centred approach to learning and teaching. In the paper, we focus on its assumptions, transactional processes, practical implications, methods and advantages it can bring to the learning process, and already existing attempts at such practices in mainstream education. Andragogy builds on the assumptions about learners as autonomous, self-directed, internally motivated, problem-solving-oriented and pragmatically-oriented individuals who have a need to be respected and accepted for their knowledge and experience. Therefore, they tend to be actively involved in the learning process in order to become engaged and productive learners. This then means the adult education process foresees adults as actively engaged in all stages of planning, performing and evaluating the educational experience. The relationship between the learner and teacher in such a setting is equivalent and interactive teaching methods such as group work, group discussions, applied problem-based sessions, project work, hands-on activities and learner guidance and mentoring are compulsory. Since the main problem of potential ESL students is often feelings of alienation from teachers and schools, disconnectedness, low learning motivation, and a search for the purpose and meaning of life, it is necessary for schools to start responding to their learning needs and the learner-based approach provides one of the ways to address their needs. Teachers in mainstream education thus need to be empowered in andragogical knowledge and approaches to learning, its origins, assumptions, practical implications, methods and advantages in order to successfully address different students’ educational needs and help reduce ESL already in mainstream education. It is also important to keep in mind that, if expect teachers to incorporate learner-centred approaches into their work, they themselves need to be taught in the same way we want them to teach.

* The initial idea and concept of the article is the work of Polona Kelava.


In the last century, two major philosophies emerged in field of education, i.e. instructivism, and constructivism. In the instructivist approach, which has its roots in behaviourism, the educator sets performance goals and develops a systematic approach to the learning content that is independent of the learner. On the contrary, the constructivist philosophy, which originates from cognitive psychology and humanistic approaches, places the emphasis on the learner and the learner’s interpretations of educational processes and outcomes through self-directed explorations (Cartor, 1990; Holton, Swanson, & Naquin, 2001; Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). In other words, we are talking about a teacher- and learner-centred educational approach (Taylor & Kroth, 2009). One of the learner-centred approaches we wish to focus on in this article is andragogy.

Andragogy (Greek: man (adult)-leading) is grounded in humanistic (conceptions of Maslow’s and Rogers’ self-actualisation of the individual) and pragmatic philosophy (the influence of Dewey and Lindeman and their emphasis on knowledge gained from experience rather than formal authority) (Holton et al., 2001; Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). It first emerged in 1833 when the German educationalist Alexander Kapp coined the term (Chan, 2010; Howard, 1993). It was further developed in 1926 when Lindeman extended the idea, yet it only gained recognition in 1959 when Knowles further explained the basic principles of andragogy. He later characterised it as a model of assumptions about adult learning and a conceptual framework that serves as a basis for an emergent theory (Knowles, 1989). Today, Knowles’ andragogical theory is the best known and most acknowledged conception of adult education and learning. Knowles (1980: p. 43) also defined andragogy as an opposing concept in relation to pedagogy where he defined andragogy as a learner-centred approach and pedagogy as a teacher-centred approach. He stated that "andragogy is the art and science of helping adults learn, in contrast to pedagogy as the art and science of teaching children". Although we can find different conceptions of andragogy in the literature (andragogy as a theory, an autonomous science, a discipline of pedagogy) (Klapan, 2002; Zmeyov, 1998), we can say that in general it is an attempt to focus on the learner rather than the teacher. It provides an alternative to the methodology-centred instructional design perspective (Holton, Swanson, & Naquin, 2001) and has greatly helped in understanding adults as learners. It is also clear that those principles have been emerging in mainstream education over the last few decades (Major & Palmer, 2006).

The aim of the article is to consider the use of andragogical knowledge and practices in mainstream education in order to prevent ESL. First, we will review the basic concepts and principles of andragogy and present their practical implications in mainstream education. Here we would like to focus on so-called learner-centred education, some of whose aspects have already come to life in some countries, e.g. the United States of America (Harris & Cullen, 2008; McCombs, 2001). At the end, we draw parallels between the concept of andragogy, learner-centred education in mainstream education, and its role in ESL prevention (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1: ESL prevention in mainstream education and role of andragogical knowledge


In the process of reviewing the literature in fields of andragogy, andragogical knowledge and its role in mainstream education and fighting ESL, we first conducted a literature search of the scientific EBSCOhost online research databases (Academic Search Complete, ERIC, PsycARTICLES, PsycBOOKS, PsycINFO, and SocINDEX with full text databases). Since our focus was on investigating practical use of andragogical knowledge in mainstream education for ESL prevention, we also searched for related results online. The main keywords initially used in both cases were: adult education, andragogy, andragogical knowledge, andragogical principles, principles of adult education, student-centred learning, and andragogical knowledge in mainstream education. Given that we were also interested in comparing the pedagogical and adult education principles, we also searched for results in those areas. In addition, we examined references cited in doctoral dissertations, reviewed articles, curriculum implementations in different countries, and project reports. Texts taken into account had to meet the following criteria: the topic needed to address andragogical principles, use of those principles in mainstream education, or learner-centred practices.

Concepts and Assumptions of Andragogy

In this section, we focus on describing the theoretical concepts that underlie andragogy and the andragogical model stated by Knowles (1989) which, as mentioned, is the basis of andragogy.

If we summarise different authors in this field (e.g. Cercone, 2008; Merriam, 2001; Sharan, 2001), there are three such theoretical concepts: concept of experiential learning, concept of self-directed learning, and transformative learning theory. Experiential learning is a concept central to andragogy. It emphasises knowledge of concepts, facts, information and experience, application of this prior knowledge to current, ongoing events and reflection of the newly gained knowledge with a thoughtful analysis of learners’ activity that contributes to personal growth. Self-directed learning suggests that the locus of control in learning lies with the adult learner, who can initiate learning with or without assistance from others, while transformative learning theory explains that it is important for an individual learner to understand why he thinks and feels the way he does and shakes off the limiting perspectives that could hinder the learning experience. Learning is therefore a process of critical reflection and is about change in learners. It is learning that occurs when individuals make meaning out of the world through experiences and where the goal is to enable the adult learner to become a more autonomous thinker.

As we can see, these theories emphasise self-direction, flexibility, and the process of learning, rather than the content. They are learner-centred and recognise the importance of a customised approach to learning (Cercone, 2008). As such, they are important pillars of Knowles’ andragogical model which consists of two parts: (1) andragogical assumptions that present the core conceptions of adults as learners; and (2) the andragogical process and transaction design where six steps for creating adult learning experience are described. Throughout the description of the andragogical model, we intend to expose the role of the educator in each step. The assumptions of andragogy present the basics for understanding, planning, executing and evaluating an adult education process in practice. In the continuation, we describe these assumptions (see Figure 2) in greater detail.

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Figure 2: Assumptions of andragogy proposed by Knowles (1989)

The need to know. The first assumption underlying andragogy is that adults need to know why they need to learn something before learning it. Educators must therefore make a learning process meaningful and concrete in order to engage adults in learning (ibid.).

Self-directed learning. The second assumption refers to adult learners’ independent self-concept and ability to direct their own learning. Adult learners are perceived as autonomous, independent, self-reliant, and they are self-directed toward goals. The role of educators is thus to encourage them to start taking responsibility for their learning. They should actively involve the participants in the learning process and be facilitators for this process. Other important practical steps that support self-directed learning are the following: organising the appropriate learning climate (e.g. informally arranged rooms), diagnosis of the learner’s needs (involvement of adult learners in a process of self-diagnosis of their learning needs), involvement of learners in the process of planning their learning, conducting learning experience and treating the learning-teaching transaction as the mutual responsibility of the learner and educator, and appropriate evaluation of learning (the shift from evaluation to self-evaluation) (Cercone, 2008; Holton, Swanson, & Naquin, 2001).

The learner’s experience. The third assumption emphasises the role of adults’ life experiences in the educational process. Adults have a large repertoire of experience, which should be treated as a rich resource for learning. This assumption derives from cognitive learning theory where the knowledge construction process involves the individual’s need to attach new knowledge to already existing internal knowledge structures. At this stage, it is important for the educator to be aware of the value of the experience and prior knowledge of the participants. Adults want to use what they know and wish to be acknowledged for having that knowledge. To support this, educators should encourage learners to learn how to learn from their experience (recognise and free their minds from preconceptions), encourage experiential learning techniques and give emphasis to the practical application of newly gained knowledge (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999).

Readiness to learn. The fourth assumption of andragogy refers to the adult’s readiness concerning their current developmental tasks and social roles. Merriam (2001) stated that the learning needs of adults are often closely related to their social roles. Adults feel ready to learn when they feel a need to cope with a certain developmental task (e.g. finding a job, raising children etc.). In this way, educators should be aware of considering this aspect when planning the curriculum which must be timed with the developmental tasks of adults and their current social roles. It is also beneficial to combine adults with similar social roles in the educational setting so they can also share their life experience and learn from each other.

Problem-centred learning. The fifth assumption is closely associated to the previous one in that it considers the change in time perspective as people mature from the future application of knowledge to the immediacy of application. This means that adult learning is problem-centred and less subject-centred (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). Accordingly, educators should pay attention to this when organising the educational curriculum: it should acknowledge a problem-centred orientation and design learning experience in this manner.

Intrinsic motivation. The sixth assumption relates to adults’ motivation for learning and in a way sums up the previous assumptions. It says that adults can be motivated to learn only by acknowledging their current needs, problems and reasons for learning. Their learning process is therefore generally internally driven (Cercone, 2008).

In line with the assumptions about adults as learners, Knowles (1989) designed the following steps of the educational process that must be acknowledged by an adult educator to successfully create an adult learning experience:

  1. involving participants in diagnosing their learning needs;
  2. establishing a climate conducive to learning;
  3. involving learners in mutual content planning (acknowledging their prior knowledge and experience, designing a flexible curriculum);
  4. involving learners in forming their learning objectives and plans;
  5. helping learners carry out their learning plans where they take responsibility for their own learning; and
  6. involving learners in evaluating their learning outcomes.

All of these steps cannot be performed without use of teaching and learning practices and methods based on the active involvement of the participants and mutual cooperation and non-hierarchical relations between learners and teachers. At this point, we briefly present some of most evident adult education practices and methods that support and acknowledge learners’ motivation for learning, self-direction, interests and overall active involvement in the process of learning. These practices are (Cartor, 1990; Gitterman, 2004; Vacareþu, Steiner, & Kovacs, 2011): interactive teaching methods (e.g. group discussions, applied problem-based sessions, mutual interviews, project work, study circles, discussion about the participant’s informal and incidental learning), hands-on activities, students’ mentoring (especially for small groups of students), explicit use of students’ prior knowledge, sharing experience and reflections of students, responding to the learning needs – target- and goal-oriented, a positive and constructive training environment, applicability of knowledge – personal and professional meaning, and self-directed learning.

The role of an educator is primarily to keep class conversations focused and directed, provide new ideas and perspectives, help students find the connections between their experiences and class discussions and assist students create a classroom climate where they feel invested in each other’s learning. Students need to be encouraged to help each other to present and develop their ideas while they are in the process of being formed and shaped (Gitterman, 2004).

All the above-mentioned andragogical assumptions, approaches and methods are already widely used in the field of adult education, second-chance programmes, evening schools and also community-based programmes. Parallel to the development of these humanistic and pragmatic approaches to learning and educating in adult education, there have been similar indices of such development in mainstream education in the past two decades in some Western countries. Gehring (2000) states that some developments of new curricula in mainstream education contain certain aspects of andragogy in a way that acknowledges students’ concerns and engages them in the process of self-directed discovery. This approach is known as the learner-centred approach and we further describe it in the following section.

Adult education principles (the learner-centred approach) in mainstream education

The learner-centred approach to teaching and learning is a reflection of andragogical practices already used in adult education. Like andragogy, the learner-centred approach couples a focus on the individual learner (their heredity, experiences, perspectives, backgrounds, talents, interests, capacities and needs) with the process of learning (McCombs, 2001). These principles emphasise the active and reflective nature of learning and learners (APA, 1997). There are 14 learner-centred principles that the APA (1997) categorised into four research-validated domains important for learning: metacognitive and cognitive factors that reflect the andragogical assumptions of the need to know and readiness to learn (e.g. personal relevance of goals, importance of developing higher-order learning strategies and strategic thinking), affective and motivational factors, that reflect the andragogical assumptions of self-directed learning and intrinsic motivation (e.g. the importance of the individual’s interests, goals, beliefs, emotions and effort), developmental and social factors, that reflect andragogical assumptions of readiness to learn and problem-centred learning (e.g. learning is most effective when it addresses the individual’s developmental stage, social roles and belonging tasks), individual difference factors, that reflect the andragogical assumptions of the importance of the learner’s experience (e.g. taking into the learner’s prior learning experience, knowledge, learning approaches and capabilities the account), and diversity in learning factors (those factors take account of the learner’s cultural and social background and as such the learner-centred approach in comparison to andragogical assumptions broadens the acknowledgement of factors that are important for learning processes).

The learner-centred approach is still in its development, especially in practice. Even if there is some evidence of its implementation in some countries, especially the USA (Harris & Cullen, 2008; McCombs, 2001), the teacher-centred approach continues to prevail in most education systems and the learner-centred approach is more a domain of adult education practices and second-chance programmes. And what is the role of andragogical knowledge and the learner-centred approach in mainstream education in tackling ESL? In the next section, we draw out the connections between the effects of learner-centred approaches to learning in mainstream education and ESL prevention.

The learner-centred approach and ESL prevention

As mentioned in the introduction, efforts to refocus teaching and learning processes to become more learner-centred have been driven by a new understanding about how humans learn. Different studies (e.g. Harris & Cullen, 2008; Weimer, 2002) confirm that students are more likely to be receptive to learning if they believe that the information is relevant to their lives and if they feel they are in control of the process. On the other hand, motivation proved to be jeopardised by a lack of the individual’s control over the learning process – the more teachers employ control measures, the more students are resistant to learning. By allowing students to share power in making decisions regarding activities, assignments and classroom policies, students tend to take a more active and engaged role in their learning. Studies (e.g. Cornelius-White, 2007; Steckol, 2007; Weimer, 2002; Wells & Jones, 2005; Wohlfarth et al., 2008) also confirm that using a more collaborative teaching style and formative assessment, working in small groups, encouraging personal portfolios and student-driven classroom experience result in greater learning motivation, grades and self-directed learning. Students also reported that they, like adults, enjoyed being treated as competent individuals who can be trusted with the learning experience.

Even though the learner-centred approach still needs development and empirical support, based on the available study results we can see that it addresses different obstacles that prevent ESLrs from insisting in the learning processes: ESLrs’ beliefs that school is irrelevant to their lives, low motivation for learning and engagement in the learning processes, feelings of disconnectedness, social isolation, and feelings of personal incompetence and irrelevance in the learning process (Benard, 1991; Frostad, Pijl, & Mjaavatn, 2014; Schargel & Smink, 2004). As such, the learner-centred approach could be a powerful tool for preventing ESL when already implemented in mainstream education in early stages.


Andragogy is a learner-centred approach to learning and teaching where learners are treated as autonomous, self-directed, internally motivated, problem-solving-oriented and pragmatically-oriented individuals who have a need to be respected and accepted for their knowledge and experience. As such, it reflects the theoretical concepts of experiential learning, the concepts of self-directed learning and transformative learning theory. Deriving from those concepts, the learner-centred approach to learning and educating in mainstream education takes into the consideration the individual’s needs, inspirations, motives, conditions and abilities. It is inclusive and supports autonomy, competence and relatedness, concepts that are crucial to the individual’s motivation for learning and participation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Some authors (Brendtro, 1999; McCombs, 2001; Wheatley, 1999) point out that given the rising levels of youth crime, disruptive school behaviour and early drop out, schools no longer have the luxury of ignoring the personal needs of students. At the core of these youth issues lies feelings of alienation, disconnectedness, spiritual crisis, and a search for the purpose and meaning of life. Without corresponding to their learning needs, we are in danger of continuing to ignore students’ calls for help when they report they feel disconnected from each other, think school is irrelevant, or drop out mentally or physically from the learning environment. Therefore, what is needed is a learning and teaching approach that reconnects youth, teachers and schools, motivates them for learning, acknowledges their learning needs and actively involves them in the learning process. Studies show that implementing andragogic principles in education results in higher motivation of students, grades, a sense of belonging to school and connectedness (e.g. Steckol, 2007; Weimer, 2002; Wells & Jones, 2005; Wohlfarth et al., 2008). This is especially the case with vulnerable groups of students such as potential ESLrs. Since the learner-centred approach is both needs- and problem-oriented, it can be one of the ways for achieving that.

One of the first important steps in this process is to empower teachers in andragogical knowledge and learner-centred approaches to learning, its origins, assumptions, practical implications, methods and advantages it can bring to the teacher, learner and community. It is a great shift in perceptions of the whole process of teaching and learning and the role of the teacher in this process. Maybe this is also why the incorporation of these practices in the mainstream education is a slow process. Riley and Roach (2006) also point to an important moment in empowering teachers with this knowledge. They state that if we want teachers to incorporate those principles into their work, we need to teach them in the same way we want them to teach. When they themselves are included in planning the learning process, when their needs and experience are accounted for, when they experience interactive teaching methods themselves and are accepted in a supportive learning environment as respected, self-directed and autonomous individuals, the incorporation of those practices into their work and consequently ESL prevention processes can begin.

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