Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to Top

To Top

Select a Page:
More Info
Read More
Malcolm Knowles Malcolm Knowles

Malcolm Knowles

Back          Next theorist          See All Theorist


  • One of the dead theorists (1934 – 1997).  Director of Education at the Boston YMCA, and later built the adult education center for the Chicago YMCA.  He was the Executive Director of the Adult Education Association of the US in its years of early rapid growth (1951 – 1959).  His academic career began as a professor and chairman of the adult education graduate program at Boston University in 1959.

  • Undergraduate from Harvard, Master’s from the University of Chicago, Ph.D. in education from the University of Chicago.

    • Baumgartner, L.M., Lee, M.-Y., Birden, S., & Flowers, D. (2003). Adult Learning Theory: A Primer., ED 482 337.
    • Chad Bates – Student – University of Tennessee at Knoxville. (2009). [Graphical Interchange Format of black-and-white .gif October 13, 2009]. Paris Vega: Graphic and Web Designer: Retrieved from
    • Cranton, Patricia (2009). Planning Instruction for Adult Learners. Retrieved 10/5/09, from
    • Cyr, A.V. (1999). Overview of Theories and Principles Relating to Characteristics of Adult Learners: 1970s-1999: Cyr Consultant Service, 3985 – 106th Ave. Clearwater, FL 33762. Tel 727-573-9360; email:


Knowles is known as the father of adult and continuing education.  He came to be known as this because he was one of the first to be a proponent of the idea that adults and children learn differently. Although he was not the first person to coin the term “andragogy” (the science of helping adults learn), he expanded on the work of other theorists and developed the theory of adult learning.


The basis of Knowles’ theory stems from six ideas or main concepts:

  1. Self Concept:  Adult learners are self-directed, autonomous and independent.
  2. Role of Experience:  The 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 tends to be ready to learn what they believe they need to know.
  4. Orientation to Learning:  Adults learn for immediate application rather than for future uses.
  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.


Influential Theories

The idea of andragogy and the adult learning theory was documented long before Knowles but his interest in the ideas brought it into the forefront of educational theory as it pertained to adults.  Adults do not like the teacher-centered concept of instruction and the behavioral approach, which included lecture-based, memorization and instructor-directed learning.


Similar or Related Theories

Carl Rodgers and Abraham Maslow strongly influenced Knowles’ theory.  Rodgers viewed adult learning from the perspective of the concept of self-actualization or personal betterment.  Rodgers also felt and it was echoed by Knowles that we should be teaching adults, but facilitating their learning.

Knowles wrote extensively and expanded on the viewpoint of Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of human needs, that our most basic needs come first before we can move on to higher level needs and finally to self-actualization.


Theory or Research? 

His study of adult learning was an existing theory that he expanded on based on his experience first in adult education environments and then working on his master’s degree.



Knowles’ contribution to adult education is that he put the theory of adult education “on the map” and turned the focus from the traditional teacher-centered instruction to learner-centered instruction for adults.


Relevant Points

  • We need to help learners become self-directed.  Knowles states:  “But whenever more complex human performances are involved, especially those requiring judgment, insight, creativity, planning, problem-solving, self-confidence, and the like, then I think that self-directed learning is appropriate.”
  • Adults get more from their learning if they accept responsibility for their own learning.


Personal Thoughts

In writing, Knowles is often referred to as Malcolm, just Malcolm.  He comes across as a very personable guy.  I think that one of the reasons he is so personable is that he came to this theories based on personal experience.  He was involved by chance in directing adult learners before he came to study adult learning in his master’s program, and that experience heavily influenced him.


Video Overview

Applying the Andragogy Theory:

This overview was created by Dr. Karen E. Gardner. Download a printable version here: Knowles Overview

Back          Next theorist          See All Theorist