Limitations of Andragogy

In 1968, Malcolm Knowles suggested a framework for adult learning called andragogy (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007). This framework sets up a series of assumptions about how adults learn. Knowles focuses on a humanistic perspective. He developed his theory at a time when free expression and self-direction where the rage (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007). As a result, his ideas are focused on self-direction (Brookfield, 2003). This tends to ignore the idea of social networks and groups (Brookfield, 1995). All learning is focused on the individual.

One of Knowles’ assumptions is that adults learn new things for the sake of solving a problem. Adults do not pursue learning situations to simply gaining new knowledge (Merriam and Brockett, 2007). Unfortunately, that idea dismisses several legitimate learning situations.

When I was in college the first time, I joined a group of historical re-creation folks who focus on the Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Over the course of the next several years, I learned a huge amount of information about Spanish, French, and English culture in the 1500s as well as some information about German and Italian cultures in the same time frame. I became skilled in two forms of Renaissance rapier combat, several crafts, and various types of costuming and clothing design. In some skills, I progressed to an expert level, but others were not so advanced.

None of these studies were done to solve a problem. Knowing how to wield a rapier and dagger in a Spanish style did not improve my work performance or give me a practical skill that helped my daily life. I did not get into the skill because I needed an exercise program. I did eventually use the knowledge in my fiction writing adventures, but that was not why I learned to fence. My writing endeavors did not develop into professional levels until many years later. I learned about Renaissance and Medieval Europe because I was interested.

In my studies, I used both social cognitive and constructivist orientations. A social cognitive orientation makes use of a guide or mentor to learn, and a constructivist orientation builds learning through collaboration (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007). I needed both to learn the two fencing styles.

Part of the fencing instruction I took was based on observing those who were more skilled than I was and using them for models. Sometimes other fencers worked with me one on one and broke a skill down to slower, easier components so I could learn them. Then we built up speed until I was able to execute the move correctly at combat speed.

The Spanish skill was more complicated. Unlike the Italian style, resources for the Spanish one were few and often in an older version of Spanish that took real effort to translate. Even native Spanish-speakers took a look at the document and struggled to make sense of it. Using what information we could and the drawings and woodcuts available, another fencer and I worked together to take what we knew and extrapolate what we could. In the end, I have my doubts that we had it perfectly, but we both learned a great deal along the way.

There are skills that people learn how to do just for the fun of it. Knowles’ assumption that all learning is for solving a problem misses out on these sorts of things.


Brookfield, S. in A. Tuinjman (ed.) (1995). International Encyclopedia of Education. Oxford, Pergamon Press. (Forthcoming) ICT in Education. (n.d.). Adult Learning: An Overview. Retrieved May 21, 2013, from

Brookfield, S. D. (2003). Adult education learning model. In A. DiStefano, K. E. Rudestam, & R. Silverman (Eds.), Encyclopedia of distributed learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from

Merriam, S. B., & Brockett, R. G. (2007). The profession and practice of adult education: An introduction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. .


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