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As I set out to write this article, spellcheck informs me that andragogy is not a real word. I assure you it is.

Andragogy is adult learning, as opposed to pedagogy, or child learning. Despite pedagogy’s being used in a more general sense among educators to include andragogy as a subcategory, the word deserves a distinct classification because adult learning really is quite different from child learning.

American educator Malcolm Knowles is widely acknowledged as the foundational thinker on the topic as it relates to teaching practices for adult learners. (A note to non-American readers: outside of the United States, the term applies more to a theoretical field of leadership than to a practical field of education.)

Setting Andragogy Apart

According to Knowles, there are six basic keys to andragogy that set it apart from pedagogy, stemming largely from adults’ relative maturity and life experience. (I’m combining two below into the first point because they are so closely related.)

What motivates my learning?

While children are motivated by a variety of external factors, such as grades and rewards in many classrooms, adults are motived more by internal factors. Given the busy-ness of adult life and adults’ already being “past” the main educational phase of their lives, they tend not to be as invested in learning unless it is inherently meaningful and directly related to their personal or work lives.

How is my learning oriented?

Child learning focuses on content, which is often static, while adult learning focuses on problem-solving, especially of problems of particular interest to learners, which is often dynamic and not one-size-fits-all. Thus, adult learning requires higher levels of thinking.

Why am I learning this?

Adults, much more than children, are capable of seeing where they stand in relation to what they are learning. “In order to get to Y, I need to know X. I don’t know X. Therefore, I need to learn X.” A child, by contrast, is simply told they need to learn X.

What is my learning based on?

Children learn from stories, textbooks, and what might otherwise simply be classified as authoritative sources. So do adults. However, adults also learn a considerable amount from their own life experiences, their successes and failures, and by putting themselves into others’ shoes.

Who is in charge of my learning?

Children are almost entirely guided in their learning by teachers. By contrast, adults must play a key role in the direction and planning of their own learning.

What does this mean for adragogy in Catholic settings?

In general, these keys to adult learning are secular standards that require no special adaptation to Catholic learning environments. However, Catholic principles may provide extra context to deepen them. For instance, several of these adult learning points are present already in the Montessori method used for children, which is heavily experience-based, and so Montessori-educated children may be better prepared for adult learning. (While you’re perusing Montessori to know what I’m talking about, be sure to check out Montessori By Mom, a great resource my family subscribes to and many homeschoolers swear by.) Likewise, the liberal arts have often been the touchstone of Catholic higher education and these are the pinnacle of internally motivated subjects — a person learns the liberal arts for their own sake more than for anything else.

More than that, however, it means that Catholic instructional design for adults must take into account the dignity and unique needs of adults as persons. Learning must be an incarnate part of the learners’ lives.

Looking for more? Check out my Catholic Instructional Design articles.