Malcolm Knowles (1913 - 1997)


Malcolm Sheperd Knowles contributed many great works to the field of adult education. His "stamp" on the field is the subject of andragogy, of which he is considered the "Father of Andragogy."  Knowles expressed and taught on his strong beliefs that students should be self-directed learners, a concept that was unfamiliar; and sometimes unacceptable during his time. He also believed that his role in adult education was not one of being a "teacher," but rather one of being a "facilitator of learning."  He also wrote extensively throughout his career, always wanting to share his theories and pass them on to new learners. Although having his critics, Knowles never waivered from his passion and his character of being a leader of students to gain more understanding and knowledge of andragogy.

Table of Contents (Clicking on the links below will take you to those parts of this article)

1. Life and Works

Personal Life and College

Malcolm Sheperd Knowles was born on April 24, 1913, to Albert Dixon and Marian Straton Knowles, in Livingston, Montana. Knowles earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University in 1934. The following year, 1935, he married Hulda Fornell, who he met and been 'going steady' with for previous two years. Six years later, 1941, Knowles took a position as the direction of adult education at the Boston YMCA. This same year, the two also had the first of their two children, Eric Stuart Knowles (Knowles, 1989).

Graduate School

While attending the University of Chicago, Knowles' advisor was Cyril O. Houle, the leading adult educator in the country at this time, as well as the chairman of the Department of Adult Education and Dean of University College, which was located in the YMCA building. Houle mentored and guided Knowles during his studies at the University of Chicago. Knowles writes, "His (Houle's) attitude towards students is exemplified in the inscription he made in the copies of his books he sent me for years: 'To Malcolm Knowles, from whom I have learned so much!'"(Knowles, 1989).

It was at the University of Chicago where Knowles states that he also discovered the difference between being a "teacher" and a "facilitator of learning." This occurence took place while taking a graduate course, a seminar class under professor Arthur Sheldin (an associate of Carl Rogers). Knowles showed up about 5 minutes late to class on the first day of class, only to find the others talking, and no teacher in the classroom."About 10 minutes later they started to look at their watches, then, finally one of the persons said to the whole group, 'If the teacher doesn't show up by fifteen minutes after the hour isn't the course supposed to be cancelled?' Another member of the group said, 'You are concerned that the teacher is letting us down?' 'Yes,' said the first speaker. Another person said, 'Shouldn't one of us go talk with the dean?' The same member of the group who had responded to the first speaker said, 'You feel the dean should know about this deprivation?' 'Yes.' After a few minutes more of this kind of interaction one of the students pointed to the person who had been responding and shouted, 'You're Arthur Sheldin.' Sheldin acknowledged that he was, and the rest of the afternoon was spent with the students probing him about his role and his reflecting their feelings and thoughts" (Knowles, 1989). Knowles states that he left the class and ran to the library to read every book that he could written by Carl Rogers, because he was so interested about what it meant to be a "facilitator of learning."


Knowles took, and passed the exam that is required to enter the U.S. Foreign Service, however, positions were being filled by people who had passed the year before and he had to wait three years. It was at this time that Knowles found an announcement in the Boston Globe, stating that the federal government was establishing the National Youth Administration as a work-study program for unemployed youth between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five and the state director for Massachusetts was Eddie Casey! Eddie Casey was the former football coach at Harvard, who Malcolm knew because he was the water boy for the football team. Knowles immediately made a phone call to Casey, who talked to his deputy, Bill Stern, and Knowles was hired. The responsibilities included in this job, "... consisted of finding out what skills employers were looking for, finding instructors to teach those skills, finding locations for courses to meet in, and recruting youth to take the courses. I immediately formed an advisory council and began finding some direction" (Knowles, 1989, #16).

He enrolled in the Navy in 1944, serving at New York and California post locations, and then retired from the Navy in 1946. In this same year, Knowles was offered, and accepted, a position as the director of the YMCA adult education program. (Knowles, 1989). Knowles comments, their second child, "... Barbara, was born in Evanston shortly after we moved their in 1946" (Knowles, 1989).

At the beginning of his junior year at Harvard, an announcement in the Harvard Crimson, was made, announcing that the Institute of International Education would give a scholarship to one Harvard student for a summer study at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Knowles decided that he would enter this contest, solely trying to win the trip to Switzerland. The basis of the selection of the winner was an essay, based on "The Challenge and Promise of the League of Nations" and an interview with Edward R. Murrow, the chairman of the selection committee. To his surprise, Knowles won! He was able to spend the summer of 1933 in Geneva, viewing the League of Nations in action and conversing with delegates from around the world. The entire time he remained in contact with Murrow, talking about the experience. And, for a year afterwards, Knowles writes that, "He responded with the warmth of an old friend; talk about a quality person! Concern for the quality of people over the quality of their products has been a theme in my life ever since" (Knowles, 1989). He goes on to say that this experience resulted in his decision to make a career in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Knowles years as a "teacher" started while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. As Knowles recalls, "... the YMCA College had decided some time before to move out and become the independent Roosevelt University, leaving three floors of classrooms and offices in the YMCA building bare. When the general secretary got my letter, he called me and asked if I could fill those rooms with informal courses. I said, "Of course." I was mustered out of the navy in May 1946, moved to Chicago, and started work as the director of adult education at Central YMCA on June 1" (Knowles, 1989).

He would remain to teach at the University of Chicago until 1960, when he decided that he needed, "a change." In 1960, Knowles moved to Boston, and started a new adult education program at Boston University. "He was notified that there were some 30 applications for the program, but he had limited enrollment to 20 people for each course. He writes, 'I wrote the course descriptions to sound stuffily academic but actually organized them around student-planned projects" (Knowles, 1989).

After this experience, Knowles was tempted to resign, but he discovered that the university did not care what he did in his classroom, as long as he turned in his grades at the end of the semester. So, it was at this point that Knowles began, "... experimenting with competency-based course syllabi, performance assessments, rather than tests, and other innovations" (Knowles, 1989). Knowles states, "My fourteen years at Boston University were years of tremendous growth for me. I learned a good deal about university politics and how 'academic standards,' often interfere with learning. Perhaps most important, I had a living laboratory in which to test the andragogical model; by the time I left, I had refined it to the point that I felt it was at least a sound basis for further research and theorizing" (Knowles, 1989).

In 1974, Knowles received a phone call from Edgar Boone at North Carolina State University. Boone was the director of the Department of Education at the university at this time. Knowles only had one response, which was what would he be doing. Boone replied, "Come and do whatever you want to do so long as you continue to help us with staff development" (Knowles, 1989). With this freedom, Knowles accepted the position and went to North Carolina State University. He stayed for five years, and retired in 1979, only because of the university's mandatory retirement age of 65.

After Knowles retired from North Carolina State University, he continued to help universities by speaking at university organizational needs. He also taught as an adjunct professor for about half a dozen Union Graduate School students and was also a mentor for about thirty Fielding Institute students. His writings and publications had, and continue to have, a great deal of influence, on a number of people in the field of Adult Education. During his lifetime Knowles published over 230 articles and 18 books. A sample listing of these publications can be seen here.

2. Theory of Andragogy

Roots of Term

Knowles states that the term andragogy "is based on the Greek word aner (with the stem andr-) meaning, 'man not boy' (as cited in Baumgartner, 2003, p.6). The German teacher Alexander Kapp first used the term in 1833 as a description of Plato's idea that adults continue to learn in adulthood. Savicevic (1999) states, "'Andragogy' fell into disuse until the early 1920s when Eugene Rosenstock, a German social scientist charged with workers' education, realized that adult workers needed to be taught in a different way from children" (as cited in Baumgartner, 2003, p.6). It was not until the 1950s when the European adult educators began using the term and Malcolm Knowles would introduce it to the United States in 1968, when he wrote his article, "Androgogy, Not Pedagogy," in Adult Leadership. Knowles (1989) states that, "I did not learn that the correct spelling is andragogy until I corresponded with the publishers of Merriam-Webster dictionaries in 1968" (as cited in Knowles, 1980, pp.253-254).

Introduction to the Term

Knowles model of andragogy is based on five assumptions. The first of these assumptions is that learners move from, "being dependent personalities toward being... self-directed" (Knowles, 1980, pp.44-45). As adults mature in their educational lifetime, most of the time, they do not need to be 'spoon-fed' directions on how to work assignments. They would rather a professor give them the assignment, then have the freedom to work the assignment the way they wish to want it be completed. Second, "adults come to an educational activity with both a greater volume and a different quality of experience from youths" (Knowles, 1990, p.59). With age in education, comes experience; therefore, as adults students have more knowledge to 'pull from' than do youth. Third, "the timing of learning activities is related to developmental tasks" (Knowles, 1990). As youth, developmental tasks have not reached their highest potential yet. However, in adulthood, these same developmental tasks have matured over time, therefore, the timing of the learning activities will be different. Fourth, Knowles says that, "adult learning is problem centered rather than subject centered" (Knowles, 1980). Adults see the learning as 'I may need this Spanish speaking class in the future, since I am going into International Business.' Whereas, a young person would see a Spanish course as something that is useless, and that is of no importance to them at this time. Lastly, Knowles states that, "adults are internally rather than externally motivated to learn" (Knowles, 1980). Adults register for an advanced because they want to be challenged. However, a youth may go to a class because their parents promised to buy them something if they took the AP course, instead of the "regular" class.

Future of the Term

After his introduction of the term, "andragogy," Knowles states that, "I received reports for ten years from elementary and secondary school teachers that the children they were teaching learned better under the andragogical assumptions and strategies in many situations. I also received comments that in some situations that the pedagogical assumptions and strategies were necessary with adults" (Knowles, 1980). So, in the 1980 revised edition of his book, he changed the subtitle to, From Pedagogy to Andragogy.

Knowles (1980) also includes: "Current Thinking of 'Pedagogical' and 'Andragogical' models."

3. Self-Directed Learning

When discussing "self-directed learning," both the learners and the teachers have to be aware that this is a completely different process than what is considered "normal" in the classroom. This "normal" process takes place whenever a professor, teacher, mentor, etc., stands in front (or wherever the location may be) of the classroom and delivers the content of the material. In what is considered to be a "normal," or "typical" classroom, the learners are expected to listen, take notes, record notes, and absorb the material being covered; similar to a sponge absorbing water when being placed into a sink. However, this is not the case with "self-directed learning." Knowles (1975) describes "self-directed learning" to be, "a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating their learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes" (as cited in

Not everyone can be a successful self-directed learner. There are competencies that are required in order to be successful at using this type of learning strategy. Knowles lists some of these competencies in his 1975, Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, book. Some of these competencies include: "... 2) A concept of myself as being non-dependent and a self-directing person, 3) The ability to relate to peerscollaboratively, to see them as resources for diagnosing needs, planning my learning, and to give help to them and receive help from them..., and 5) The ability to translate learning needs into learning objectives in a form that makes it possible for their accomplishment to be assessed" (Knowles, 1975).

Finally, Knowles states that the premise of self-directed learning has been the one aspect of andragogy that has received the most attention and debate in several of his writings. "That adults can and do engage in self-directed learning (SDL) is now a foregone conclusion in adult learning research. Questions remain as to whether self-directed learning is a characteristic of adult learners, and whether it should be a goal of adult educators to help all adult learners become self-directed" (Knowles, Holton, Swanson, 2005).

4. Learning Contracts

A "learning contract," as explained by Knowles (1986), "... typically specifies (1) the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values to be acquired by the learner (learning objectives), (2) how these objectives are to be accomplished (learning resources and strategies), (3) the target date for their accomplishment, (4) what evidence will be presented to demonstrate that the objectives have been accomplished, and (5) how this evidence will be judged or validated. In academic settings the contract often specifies what grade is sought." These "contracts" go hand-in-hand with the self-directed learning, as the learner is responsible for the majority of how, and what, he or she is going to go about earning the grade that is assigned to them at the end of a semester.

According to Knowles (1986) there are eight steps to Developing a Learning Contract. "The eight steps are:

  1. Diagnose your learning needs: A learning need is the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in regards to a particular set of competencies.
  2. Specify your learning objectives: Be sure that your objectives describe what you will learn, not what you do to learn them.
  3. Specify learning resources and strategies: When you have finished listing your objectives, move over to the second column of the contract, 'Learning Resources and Strategies,' and describe how you propose to go about acccomplishing each objective. Identify the resources (material and human) you plan to use in your field experience and the strategies (techniques, tools) you will employ in making use of them.
  4. Specify evidence of accomplishment: After completing the second column, move over to the forth column, 'Evidence,' and describe what evidence you will collect to indicate the degree to which you have achieved each objective.
  5. Specify how the evidence will be validated: After you have specified what evidence you will gather for each objective in column four, move over to column five, "Verification." For each objective, first specify what criteria will vary according to the type of objective... indicate the means you propose to use to have the evidence judged according to these criteria.
  6. Review your contract with consultants: After you have completed the first draft of your contract, you will find it useful to review it with two or three friends, supervisors, or other expert resource people to get their reactions and suggestions.
  7. Carry out the contract: Simply carry out the contract... as you work on it you may find that your notions about what you want to learn and how you want to learn it may change... so don't hesitate to revise your contract...
  8. Evaluation of your learning: When you have completed your contract, you will want to get some assurance that you have in fact learned what you set out to learn. Perhaps the simplest way to do this is to ask the consultants you used in Step 6 to examine your evidence and validation data and give you their judgment about their adequacy."

* Sample Learning Contract Example *

5. Charts

As previously stated, Knowles' contributions to the field of Adult Education are enormous. His impact on this field crossed over into other professional fields as well. Major contributions from Clinical Psychologists were made to impact the progress of Andragogy. Self-Diagnostic Rating Scale Competencies for adult educators and trainees were developed to better their job performance. In each chart listed below, Professor Knowles had an impact in the development of each and every one of them.

  • Andragogy in Practice
  • Process Elements of Andragogy
  • Self-Diagnostic Rating Scale Competencies for the Role of Adult Educator/Trainee
  • Major Contributions of Clinical Psychologists

  • 6. Video

    In this video, which is posted on YouTube, you will be able to watch Malcolm Knowles': "a) Claim to Fame, b) Four assumptions, and c) To do's for educators".


    7. Critics and Critiques

    Both Knowles and the term "andragogy," have had their fare share of critics throughout the years. The adult education field's "experts" have debated over what Malcolm Knowles taught about for the 30-plus years of his career. Knowles (2005) stated himself that, "Since the earliest days, adult educators have debated what andragogy really is. Spurred in large part by the need for a defining theory within the field of adult education, andragogy has been extensively analyzed and critiqued. It has been alternately described as a set of guidelines (Merriam, 1993), a philosophy (Pratt, 1993), a set of assumptions (Brookfield, 1986), and a theory (Knowles, 1989)" (Knowles, 2005).

    Knowles was questioned at times about what exactly is this subject that he is teaching?. Knowles' response was, "Adult education faces a task of immense proportions in the immediate years ahead," in Informal Adult Education, "the task of helping millions of grown-up people all over the world to transform themselves into mature adults. By perfecting its science now, it will be equal to the task" (University, N.L. (2005, 2004). From this point in time forward is when Knowles would begin to define and promote andragogy.

    Knowles began an informal educational setting when he went to Boston University. However, "The fact that Knowles, with the help of a tiny adult education faculty, was supervising an extraordinarily large number of dissertations and theses, however, did not set well with many Boston University academics who questioned the granting of degrees for self-directed, or as they might have termed it, undirected learning"(University, N.L. (2005, 2004).

    Knowles did not allow any of his critics from continuing to practice and accomplish his mission, which was to teach. And teach he did, with a new learning style and new learning positions, using ways never seen before. Feur and Gerber (1998) write, "The disparity of these positions is indicative of the perplexing nature of the field of adult learning; but regardless of what it is called, 'it is an honest attempt to focus on the learner. In this sense, it does provide an alternative to the methodology-centered instructional design perspective' "(as cited in Knowles, 2005).

    8. Bibliography

    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:

    Feur, D., and Gerber, B. "Uh-Oh ... Second Thoughts about Adult Learning Theory." Training, 25 (12), 1998, 125-149.

    Heimstra, R., (1995). Roger Hiemstra's Web Page. Retrieved 9/29/09, 2009, from

    Knowles, M.S. The development of a co-ordinated adult education movement in the United States: Unpublished Thesis, University of Chicago., n.p.,.

    Knowles, M.S. (1950). Informal adult education; a guide for administrators, leaders, and teachers. New York,: Associated Press.

    Knowles, M.S. (1962). The adult education movement in the United States. New York,: Hole, Rinehart.

    Knowles, M.S. (1970). The modern practice of adult education; andragogy versus pedagogy. New York: Associated Press.

    Knowles, M.S. (1973). The adult learner: a neglected species. Houston Tex.: Gulf Pub. Co.

    Knowles, M.S. (1975). Self-Directed Learning: a guide for learners and teachers. New York: Associated Press.

    Knowles, M.S. (1977). A history of the adult education movement in the United States: includes adult education institutions through 1976 (Rev. ed.). Huntington, N.Y.: R.E. Krieger Pub. Co.

    Knowles, M.S. (1978). The adult learner: a neglected species (2d ed.). Houston: Gulf Pub. Co., Book Division.

    Knowles, M.S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: from pedagogy to andragogy (Rev. and Updated Ed.). Wilton, Conn. Chicago: Association Press; Follet Pub. Co.

    Knowles, M.S. (1984a). The adult learner: a neglected species (3rd ed.). Houston: Gulf Pub. Co., Book Division.

    Knowles, M.S. (1984b). Andragogy in action (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Knowles, M.S. (1986). Using learning contracts (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Knowles, M.S. (1989). The making of an adult educator: an autobiographical journey (1st ed.). San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

    Knowles, M.S. (1990). The adult learner: a neglected species (4th ed.) Houston: Gulf Pub. Co., Book Division.

    Knowles, M.S., & American Council on Education. Committee on Higher Adult Education. (1969). Higher adult education in the United States; the current picture, trends, and issues. Washington,: American Council on Education.

    Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (1998). The adult learner: the definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (5th ed.). Houston, Tex.: Gulf Pub. Co.

    Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (2005). The adult learner: the definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th ed.). Amsterdam ; Boston: Elesvier.

    Knowles, M.S., & Knowles, H. (1955). How to develop better leaders. New York,: Association Press.

    Knowles, M.S., & Knowles, H. (1959). Introduction to group dynamics. New York,: Association Press.

    Knowles, M.S., & Knowles, H. (1972). Introduction to group dynamics (Rev. ed.). New York,: Association Press.

    Smith, M.K. (2002, 2004). 'Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy.' The encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved 9/29/09, 2009, from

    University, N.L. (2005, 2004). Malcolm Knowles: Apsotle of Andragogy. Retrieved 9/29/09, 2009, from

    University, S.J.S. (2009). Core Competencies. Retrieved 10/17/09, from




    Chad Bates
    University of Tennessee-Knoxville
    M.S. Education - Instructional Technology


    © 2009