Contrasting Classrooms: Instructional Differences Between Pedagogy vs. Andragogy

Today’s workplace encompasses diverse populations of adult learners. As the population of adult learners grows, so does the need for trained and effective adult education professionals who understand the difference between pedagogy vs. andragogy. Because people learn differently at different ages, pedagogy is not a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, andragogy is a term that refers to “the method and practice of teaching adult learners.”

More than five million students ages 25 and older are enrolled in a college or university, representing about one-third of all postsecondary students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Administrators, educators and trainers need to use appropriate and effective instructional techniques, whether in person or online.

Andragogy Theories

Adult learning experts subscribe to several fundamental theories that inform how they believe adult students function in a classroom or training setting.

Malcolm Knowles and Andragogy

The term andragogy also refers to a theory developed by Malcolm Knowles in the 1960s. According to eLearning Industry, the core of Knowles’ theory is based on the “self-directedness” of adults. Basically, they don’t need the constant instruction that traditional students require.

Knowles’ theory includes five assumptions about adult learners.

  1. They are self-directed learners.
  2. They use their past experiences as a resource for future learning.
  3. They are ready to learn related to their social roles.
  4. They apply lessons to solve problems immediately.
  5. They have an internal motivation to learn.

Jack Mezirow and Transformational Learning

American sociologist Jack Mezirow developed the concept of transformational learning, a method that changes how adult learners think about themselves and their world. Instructors can do this by allowing students to reflect on and discuss their assumptions and opinions openly and regularly. By engaging in this discourse, students can find acceptance, develop empathy and earn trust from peers.

Applying Adult Education Theory to the Classroom

Both Knowles and Mezirow offer methods of implementing their styles of learning effectively. Adult educators who can master these best practices will be successful in creating engaging instruction for their students.

Knowles’ Four Principles of AndragogyPedagogy-and-Knowles_Point-Park-University1. Involvement

Knowles suggests including adults in both the planning and development of instruction. By giving them a voice in what they learn, they will be more engaged. The same can be said for evaluation. By allowing students to offer feedback, both the teachers and the students can improve and stay engaged in the instruction.

2. Experience

By using past personal experience as the foundation for learning activities, adult learners have a strong basis for new information. This includes both positive experiences and negative ones. If mistakes can help students understand how a lesson is applicable to their life, it will help.

3. Relevance

Instruction that has immediate relevance and impact to a learner’s current career or social role will have more resonance. If a student is a professional writer, he or she will likely care little about a subject like nursing. Understanding your student population and developing relevant lessons are key.

4. Problem-centered

More than anything else, adult learners want to engage in lessons that center on a current problem they have. How will this knowledge help them in the future? Can they use it to get that promotion they’ve always wanted? Questions like this are good ways to gauge how engaged students will be.

Three Common Themes of Transformational Learning

Mezirow felt that the role of an educator applying transformational learning was primarily as a guide. Teachers in this role must serve as a leader along the path of transformation. They can do this by adhering to the three common themes of the process, as explained by the California Adult Literacy Project.

1. Centrality of experience

Teachers must remember that most adults perceive new ideas through the lens of past experiences. Educators should allow these experiences to surface in the classroom, but then they must challenge them. By disrupting what students know, they can be open to new interpretations of what they are learning.

2. Critical reflection

This is the most important part of the transformational learning process. Adults can uniquely recognize their past having an impact on how they interpret the present. Critical reflection involves learners questioning their current assumptions and accepting the possibility that they might not be the whole story.

3. Rational discourse

Finally, the transformation takes place. While discourse is essentially a discussion, it’s imperative that educators ensure an objective and open conversation. The points made by students should be truthful and authentic; if a teacher interprets otherwise, corrections should be made. Within rational discourse, critical reflection turns into action and students can alter their understanding of a subject.

How Pedagogy Theories Differ

Clearly, there are differences between andragogy and pedagogy, or how children learn. This can mostly be attributed to the key differences between how the brains of adults and children work. These differences are the building blocks to the instructional differences between the two student groups.


While adults learn through self-directed methods, younger students more often depend on the direction of a teacher. The level of direction needed may vary, but traditional students are more likely to need help to tackle what comes next. Younger students need the structure that adult learners may not require.

Accepting Instruction

Traditional students are more inclined to accept what they are taught as implicitly true. They have fewer life experiences, and thus they have less conflict toward what they are told. This is good because young people tend not to challenge historical or mathematical facts, for example.

Applying Lessons

Adults pursue learning with the intent of applying it to their lives immediately. Young people are willing to explore numerous subjects, so teachers can develop lessons that can apply to a wide set of students.