All for Andragogy

Let’s stop using the term “pedagogy” to refer to the art and science of teaching adult learners.
instructor and her students in silhouette

DURING THIS TIME of global upheaval due to the pandemic, deans and faculty have other things to think about besides the difference between andragogy and pedagogy. Nevertheless, as educators, they are forced to rethink their program portfolios so that they can continue to serve their students; they must adopt the right philosophy and educational approach. By referring to our teaching as “pedagogy,” I think we concentrate our efforts on the wrong assumptions about leaners and the most relevant methods to facilitate learning outcomes.

We can glean a clearer distinction by looking at the origin of both terms. Pedagogy, for example, is a derivative of the Greek paidagogia, which means “to lead a child.” It refers to the science of teaching children.  This approach assumes that the learner is a blank slate as one would expect with a small child who has limited life experiences.

One of the first people to advocate for the education of all children was Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a key figure in Switzerland in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today known as the father of pedagogy, Pestalozzi promoted the philosophy of “learning by head, hand, and heart.” He believed that every human being had the ability to learn, via experimentation, demonstration, and the application of knowledge. He also believed that every human being had the right to access education, so that it was society’s duty to put these rights into practice. His advocacy for the poor is largely credited for eliminating illiteracy in Switzerland.

The term pedagogy itself was first coined by German educator Johann Friedrich Herbart, who outlined five steps for effective learning in children: preparation, presentation, association, generalization, and application. Social psychologist Jean Piaget, another Swiss citizen, built on this work, arguing that effective pedagogy was based on two principles: that children should achieve good cognitive development in the first years of their education and that children cannot learn all there is to know about a subject through theoretical classroom teaching alone. Piaget’s theory held that knowledge is not a copy of reality, but a product of a person’s interaction with his or her environment.

Theories such as these shape many of our views of education today, but as helpful as they are, they are not expansive enough to capture the idea of andragogy, the art and science of teaching adults. This term was coined by the German educator Alexander Kapp in 1833. Although it cannot be directly proven that Kapp was influenced by Pestalozzi, we know that both educators were preoccupied with self-development. Andragogy was promoted in the 20th century by Dusan Savicevic, a professor of andragogy at the University of Belgrade in Serbia, who is credited with turning lifelong adult learning into a discipline.

Savicevic made American educator Malcolm Knowles aware of the term in 1967. In 1970, Knowles published the first iteration of his seminal book, The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy. As the title suggests, the text differentiates andragogy and pedagogy as two different sets of assumptions about how children and adult learners acquire new knowledge. Those assumptions, according to Knowles, necessitate different approaches to facilitating learning.


Although both educators used the term to describe their work, Savicevic and Knowles had different views on its meaning. Knowles’ version of andragogy emphasizes a practical approach to promoting individual development. By comparison, Savicevic’s version is largely focused on educating adult learners for a larger social purpose; he viewed it as a means to foster inclusion and promote the prosperity of marginalized groups.

You might ask, why am I presenting this abbreviated history lesson? First, I want to highlight the complex evolution of our philosophies of education, and second, I want to support my contention that we, as 21st-century educators of adult learners, should take the ideas of both Savicevic and Knowles to heart.

In his book, Knowles outlines six principles of, or assumptions about, adult learning.  Note how they are different from the objectives for child-oriented learning put forward by Pestalozzi, Herbart, and Piaget:

Adults are internally motivated and self-directed. For this reason, as educators our role is to facilitate our younger students’ movement toward becoming self-directed and responsible adult learners, as well as to foster their internal motivation to learn. Interactive classroom or hybrid sessions driven by students’ questions and feedback (positive and negative) are key to supporting this goal.

Adults bring life experience and personal interests to learning. Our role is to find out what these interests and past experiences are. Then, based upon that finding, we can allow adults to build new learning experiences, and we can facilitate reflective learning opportunities. This is the path to helping them improve their critical and creative thinking.

Adults are goal-oriented (not grade-oriented). Our role is to facilitate a student’s readiness for problem-based learning and increase the student’s awareness of the need for hard skills, soft skills, and deep knowledge. We must provide real examples that are relevant to the student and ask questions that motivate reflection and inquiry.

Adults are relevance-oriented. Our role is to explain the significance of what we’re teaching and the reasons that we’re presenting a particular subject. Whenever we teach a theory, we should relate it to real-world experiences.

Adults are practical. Our role is to promote active participation by allowing students to try things—and fail—rather than simply to observe. We must demonstrate and let them practice so that they can develop greater confidence and competence.

Adult learners like to be respected as equals. Perhaps the most important point I want to make is that we should regard the adult learners we teach as colleagues, who are equal to us in their life experiences. With that in mind, we must encourage their expression of ideas, reasoning, and feedback at every opportunity. We must keep in mind that every student has a different learning style (visual, auditory, read-and-write, etc.) and welcome all of these styles to our classrooms.

If Knowles’ six principles refer to what’s happening in our classrooms, then Savicevic’s argument about the social purpose of andragogy refers to business schools’ larger purpose. Business schools have been met with many critics who say that b-schools are responsible for everything from teaching the wrong concepts to causing the 2008 financial crisis. But we know that, at its best, management education is a driving force for positive social change. Business schools can bring society and business together to solve global problems. We can do so, in part, via experiential learning opportunities for our students.

In fact, the advantage of management education is its focus on experiential learning. In our classrooms, we can offer students hands-on practice-oriented experience by bringing industry speakers into the classroom to share their knowledge, taking students to companies to gain insights into these enterprises, creating interactive sessions, and designing hands-on projects with real-world relevance.


Luckily, the education market is evolving to make it even more feasible for business schools to link their programs to real-world social problems in real time. More providers are unbundling services, providing stackable credentials and shorter form educational options designed to help adult learners quickly bring their skills up to speed.

Technological advances are further democratizing management education, making it more accessible to learners at all socioeconomic levels. MOOCS (massive open online courses) and SPOCs (small private online courses) allow adult learners of different backgrounds, income levels, ages, and locations to access management theories, concepts, and techniques at a minimum fee, all as they study from home.

In other words, this is a market made for the adult learner. It’s a market that gives business schools a great chance to spur innovation.

The education world is changing, and so are the learners. But that doesn’t mean that management education is going to die out any time soon. Like all great things, management education will reinvent itself to be in tune with the talent requirements in the new normal. The more business schools can incorporate andragogical principles into their classrooms, the more they will assume a leading role in this reinvention.

As educators, we need to implement change by understanding how each person learns, so that we can better listen to, interact with, and provide constructive feedback to our students. We must embrace the principles of andragogy, not pedagogy, to create programs that shape future leaders. Only then will we help 21st-century adult learners reach their full potential—and best apply their talents to 21st-century problems.

Bert Wolfs Bert Wolfs is the academic dean of SBS Swiss Business School in Zurich, Switzerland.

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