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Rationale and Relevance – The Challenges of Adult Learning

Rationale and Relevance – The Challenges of Adult Learning

Does the teaching of adult learners require different assumptions and techniques than the teaching of children and pre-adult adolescents?

For centuries, the question was rarely considered, as what could be called the “pedagogical” model of education was universally applied. Pedagogy is what we now call teacher-centered learning. The teacher is the expert who by virtue of his or her superior knowledge and experience over the student determines not only the content of what is to be taught, but how it is taught as well. Teaching methodology is largely a one-way transfer of learning from expert to novice, most often in the form of lectures and reading assignments.

In the 1960’s American educator, Malcolm Knowles popularized a new approach called andragogy, which he described in one of his later books, The Modern Practice of Adult Education, as the art and science of teaching adults. Since then, the term is used to describe learner-centered education at all ages.

The passage from childhood to adulthood is marked by increasing degrees of independence and responsibility for decision making about one’s own life. Knowles believed adults would learn better were they more involved in the decisions about their own learning.

Knowles based his model on six assumptions:

Adults have a “need to know.” They must have a rationale for why they need to learn a body of content.

Adults come to the educational setting with more relevant experience.

Adults have a need to be involved in the decisions about their own learning.

Adults learn best when they see a direct relevance of the learning to their own lives.

Adults are better at learning content that is oriented towards solving problems.

Adults respond better to intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation.

Today there is a growing belief that many of these assumptions apply equally to the education of children. If you search the Internet for information on andragogy and the whole idea of adult education, you will find some who believe Knowles himself later came to believe the same principles should be applied to childhood education in certain situations.

For professionals involved in the education of adults in post-graduate and industrial settings, one could argue the most challenging of these principles are rationale and relevance.


There are really three issues here: what is to be learned; how it will be learned; and why it is important. Spelling out the what and the how is not that difficult, but the why presents the challenge. An adult who has decided to pursue a Masters in Business Administration with a major in International Business finds himself or herself in an accounting class. Why?

The value in understanding this principle of adult education is recognizing the need to address the question, rather than assuming the student has no need to know. Under a pedagogical model, there may be valid reasons for learning something, but the instructor sees no reason to share them with the students.


If adults have an immediate need to know something, they are more motivated to learn it. If you are teaching a class on appraisal techniques to a group of managers who are about to begin the process of appraising employees for the first time, they will be more motivated to learn. There is no denying the power of the principle of immediacy. However, being aware of the principle of relevance enables an instructor to focus on future applications rather than strictly immediate needs.