The Different Theories and Models That Relate to Adult Learning

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Cognitive Psychology5

Humanistic principles of learning7

4Differences of pedagogy and andragogy9

5Critique of Andragogy11

6Transformative Learning12



This paper will explore the different theories and models that relate to adult learning. The intention is to firstly explore the three main theories of human learning by describing, discussing and analysing each one. They are Behaviourism, Constructivism (cognitive) and Humanism. This will be followed by a critical analysis of Adult Learning (Andragogy) and will include a discussion of Transformative learning.


Andragogy was explained in 1920 by Linderman as “the true method of adult learning” (cited by Brookfield, 1987:127). This was to become one of the most important concepts in the field of adult education. There are many assumptions held that state there are specific characteristics of the way in which adults learn and this is said to differ from the way children learn. Knowles (cited by Atherton 2005) suggests there is a specific theory for adult learning and emphasises that adults are self-directed and expect to take responsibilities for their decisions. Jarvis (1987: 185) comments:

“As a teacher, writer and leader in the field, Knowles has been an innovator, responding to the needs of the field as he perceived them and, as such, he has been a key figure in the growth and practice of adult education throughout the Western world this century. Yet above all, it would be perhaps fair to say that both his theory and practice have embodied his own value system and that is contained within his formulations of andragogy.”

Behaviourists believe the environment controls behaviour, and that humans adapt to the environment and life experiences they encounter. They are concerned with observing and measuring learned behaviour. How individuals learn is said to be through experience, developing skills and abilities are as a direct result of the learning experiences encountered. Skinner (1985) argued that learning is caused by the consequences of our actions. This means that people learn to associate actions with the pleasure or discomfort that follows. Skinner believed that learning could be explained using the idea of reinforcement which he referred to as ‘operant conditioning’. This is anything that can make behaviour stronger. Skinner’s work is used still today in many classroom settings. Students are motivated to complete a task by being promised a reward of some kind. On many occasions the reward takes the form of praise or a grade. Sometimes it is a token that can be traded in for some desired object; and at other times the reward may be the privilege of engaging in a self-selected activity. However, there are some limitations using this approach as the overuse and misuse of techniques have been argued by Kohn (1993). Most of the criticisms of the use of reinforcement as a motivational incentive stem from the fact that it represents ‘extrinsic motivation’. That is a learner decides to engage in an activity to earn a reward that is not inherently related to the activity. Kohn (1993) suggests that this approach has potential dangers, the behaviour shown by the student maybe only temporary. Students may develop a materialistic attitude toward learning. Kohn theory concentrates towards the reward not the learned behaviour. There are philosophical issues involved in ‘controlling’ by the manipulation of reinforcers. Does the right response received by the student clearly show that they fully understand the topic being taught? The last point that Khon suggest has been significantly investigated by researchers. The results show that giving students rewards may decrease their intrinsic motivation for a task, but only when 1)...
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