Adult Learning

The term 'andragogy' means ‘leader of men’, whilst 'pedagogy' means ‘leader of children’.This section provides an introduction to adult learning, makes contrasts with student learning (pedagogy) and provides you with guidance on how to structure your professional development programme to meet the needs of your staff.

This site is designed around using techniques, tools and methods appropriate for adult learning. They can be used with your governors, senior leadership team or whole staff team. They support a collaborative approach to learning and a constructivist approach to knowledge management and sharing.


Andragogy was popularized by Malcolm Knowles’ (1913-1977) in his Four Principles Of Andragogy (1984). These have been developed into the following principles. They are:

  • Adults need to know the reason for learning something (Need to Know)
  • Experience (including error) provides the basis for learning activities. Therefore consider using real life experiences and case studies as the basis of investigation. They bring their own personal experience of teaching and school environments with them and therefore these should be used in a positive way as a starting point for new learning.
  • Adults need to be responsible for their decisions on education; involvement in the planning and evaluation of their instruction (self-concept). Ensure that your staff feel in control of their learning.
  • Adults are most interested in learning subjects which have immediate relevance to their work and/or personal lives (Readiness). Provide adults with opportunities to apply their learning quickly.Sessions, which are mostly lecture with little opportunity to apply the concepts, can be frustrating – not to mention boring.
  • Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented (Orientation).
  • Adults respond better to internal versus external motivators (Motivation).
  • Adults need to feel secure in order to participate fully and effectively.
  • Adults are not always used to collaborative working - sharing ideas and strategies. This may be something that needs to be nurtured continually.

A helpful overview of Knowles' principles of adult learning - together with a critique - can be accessed here.

Activity 1: How do adults learn?

Watch the following video on adult learning.

  • Note the six principles of adult learning.
  • How does andragogy differ from pedagogy?
  • What are the implications for how you structure professional learning for your staff?
  • What challenges do you face as you plan learning for your staff?

Activity 2: The Learning Pyramid

The origins, as well as name, of the the Learning Pyramid are contested[1], although the research has been claimed by the National Training Laboratories in Betel, Maine, USA. The actual percentages can also be contested as being too neatly rounded off. However, this diagram is often quoted because its basic assumptions harmonize with peoples' experiences.

What implications does this research have for:

  • how people learn
  • how learning is retained
  • how you design learning sessions with staff
  • how you can maximize their learning and the learning opportunities?

Activity 3: Are andragogy and pedagogy so different?

Reflect on how adults and children learn by completing the following worksheet.


    1. ^ De Bruyckere, Kirschner and Hulshof in Urban Myths about Learning and Education, Academic Press, 2015 (Myth 2) traces the cone of experience model to Edgar Dale (1946) who wrote one of the first books on the use of media in education.
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