andragogyThe Self Concept of the Learner

Students’ self concepts drive their thinking and their learning. In our primary and secondary school years, we learn to become dependent on the teacher as director of our learning. Typically seated in chairs in rows in a classroom, facing the front of the room, our locus of attention is on the teacher, who is seen as a disseminator of information, lecturing and sharing their knowledge. In this mode of instruction, the student’s role is that of note taker, capturing as much information as quickly as he or she can. The student quickly learns that what is important to know or remember is what the teacher says is important in order to pass the test or the class. Ingalls (1973) notes that with pedagogy, the teacher unilaterally decides what is to be learned and how it is to be learned. With andragogy, the learners themselves direct the curriculum based on their interests and needs.

Knowles (1980) indicates that an adult learner has an entirely different self-concept. As adults, it is natural for one to want to take control of his or her own life. Conscious decisions are made every day, from how to dress to what to eat for dinner. Therefore it is not uncommon for an adult learner to want to have a sense of control over his or her learning. The adult learner’s self concept is autonomous from the teacher, wanting to make decisions in terms of what to study, what is important, and how and when the information should be assimilated.Unfortunately, in many college environments, the student arrives in a huge lecture hall with tiny chairs bolted to the floor which face the front of the room. As the student sits down, he or she may revert to the previously internalized teacher-dependant self concept, thinking quietly to themselves, “Teach me.” This sets the stage for cognitive dissonance, whereby the learner’s self concept and the reality of their learning environment are in conflict. Often times, the conflict is resolved through unproductive behaviors which manifest themselves in terms of tardiness, absenteeism, low grades, or withdrawal from the course.

The Prior Experience of the Learner

Recognizing the prior experience of the learners is one of the most important things the facilitator could ever do in the classroom. In a primary or secondary classroom, the only experience that matters is that of the teacher. By contrast, adult learners bring a wealth of rich experiences to the learning environment from which they can draw upon as they process the information. Each bit of information is carefully processed, comparing it to previously stored information.

Thus, in the adult classroom, the richest source of information is not the teacher, but in the students themselves. In this paradigm, the teacher is seen not as a disseminator of learning but rather as a facilitator of learning. For example, in a discussion on Japan, there are many sources of information based on the student population: perhaps one is Japanese, another is a veteran of World War II, another is a chef specializing in Japanese cuisine, and several have traveled extensively throughout the country. It is the task of an andragogically-oriented instructor to capitalize on this vast array of experience. This also relates back to the self-concept of the learner: if the teacher ignores the experiences of the student, he or she might be seen as ignoring (or worse, rejecting) the student as a person.

Readiness to Learn and Relevance

Adult students must be in a state where they are ready to learn. Adult learners must be able to see the connection between what they are learning now and some immediate application. For example, a fourteen year old girl may not be ready to learn about financial planning and family management skills, but a pregnant newlywed certainly is. This becomes not just the teacher’s concern, but also the curriculum developer’s concern, who must make careful analysis of what the student currently knows and what they are expected to know, a process that curriculum designers call gap analysis.

Knowing the big “Why”

Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it (Knowles, 1989). Tough (1971) found that when adults attempt to learn something, thy will work hard to figure out the benefits of learning the information and the consequences of not learning it. Consequently, one of the new aphorisms in adult education is that the first task of the facilitator of learning is to help learners become aware of the “need to know” (Knowles et. al., 1998).