Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy

malcolm knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy 

A champion of andragogy, self-direction in learning and informal adult education, Malcolm S. Knowles was a very influential figure in the adult education field. Here we review his life and achievements, and assess his contribution. 

contents: introduction · malcolm knowles – life · adult informal education · malcolm s. knowles on andragogy · self-direction · conclusion · further reading and references · links

Malcolm Shepherd Knowles (1913 – 1997) was a, perhaps 'the', central figure in US adult education in the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1950s he was the Executive Director of the Adult Education Association of the United States of America. He wrote the first major accounts of informal adult education and the history of adult education in the United States. Furthermore, Malcolm Knowles' attempts to develop a distinctive conceptual basis for adult education and learning via the notion of andragogy became very widely discussed and used. He also wrote popular works on self-direction and on groupwork (with his wife Hulda). His work was a significant factor in reorienting adult educators from 'educating people' to 'helping them learn' (Knowles 1950: 6). In this article we review and assess his intellectual contribution in this area with respect to the development of the notions of informal adult education, andragogy and self-direction. 

Malcolm Knowles – a life

Born in 1913 and initially raised in Montana, Malcolm S. Knowles appears to have had a reasonably happy childhood. His father was a veterinarian and from around the age of four Knowles often accompanied him on his visits to farms and ranches.

While driving to and from these locations, we engaged in serious discussions about all sorts of subjects, such as the meaning of life, right and wrong, religion, politics, success, happiness and everything a growing child is curious about. I distinctly remember feeling like a companion rather than an inferior. My father often asked what I thought about before he said what he thought, and gave me the feeling that he respected my mind. (Knowles 1989: 2)

Malcolm Knowles has talked about his mother helping him through her example and care to be a more 'tender, loving, caring person' (op. cit.). His schooling also appears to have reinforced his 'positive self-concept'. Boy scouting was also a significant place of formation: 'the knowledge and skills I gained in the process of learning over fifty merit badges and performing a leadership role were as important in my development as everything I learned in my high school courses' (ibid.: 4).

Malcolm Knowles gained a scholarship to Harvard and took courses in philosophy (where he was particularly influenced by the lecturing of Alfred North Whitehead), literature, history, political science, ethics and international law. Again, his extracurricular activities were particularly significant to him. He became President of the Harvard Liberal Club, general secretary of the New England Model League of Nations, and President of the Phillips Brooks House (Harvard's social service agency). Involvement in voluntary service for the latter got him working in a boys club. Knowles also met his wife Hulda at Harvard. Her father was a tool-and-die maker in Detroit's motor industry and an active unionist. 'As we talked', Knowles was later to write, 'it became clear that our values systems were identical' (ibid.: 29).  

Initially intending to make a career in the Foreign Service, Malcolm Knowles enrolled in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy when he graduated in 1934 from Harvard. He passed the Foreign Service exam – but there was a three year wait for entry. Hulda and he had got married in 1935 and he needed a job. Knowles joined the new National Youth Administration in Massachusetts. His job involved him in finding out what skills local employers were looking for, establishing courses to teach those skills, and recruiting young people to take the courses. About three months into the work he met Eduard Lindeman who was involved in the supervision of training within the NYA. Lindeman took Knowles under his wing and effectively became his mentor. Knowles read Lindeman's Meaning of Adult Education: 'I was so excited in reading it that I couldn't put it down. It became my chief source of inspiration and ideas for a quarter of a century' (Knowles 1989: 8). 

In 1940 Malcom Knowles was approached by Boston YMCA to see if he would be interested in becoming director of adult education and organizing an 'Association School' for adults. He was drafted into the Navy in 1943, began to read widely around the field of adult education, and decided to undertake a masters programme at the University of Chicago when he was mustered out. To support himself through the programme he got a job at the Central Chicago YMCA as director of adult education. His adviser at the University of Chicago was Cyril O. Houle whose 'deep commitment to scholarship and his role in modeling a rigorous scholarly approach to learning' were of great importance. Knowles also fell under the influence of Carl Rogers. Early in his master's programme he had enrolled in a seminar in group counselling under Arthur Shedlin (an associate of Rogers). 'It was exhilarating. I began to sense what it means to get "turned on" to learning. I began to think about what it means to be a facilitator of learning rather than a teacher' (ibid.: 14).

Malcolm Knowles gained his MA in 1949. His thesis became the basis of his first book Informal Adult Education published in 1950 (see below). In 1951 he became executive director of the newly formed Adult Education Association of the USA. He attended a couple of summer sessions of the National Training Laboratories (in 1952 and 1954) and was influenced by the thinking of their founders: Kenneth Benne, Leland Bradford and Ronald Lippett – and of Kurt Lewin. Hulda and their children were also involved in the seminars – and one fruit of this, in part, was Malcolm and Hulda's joint authorship of books on leadership (1955) and group dynamics (1959). Knowles spent nine years at the Adult Education Association, and as Jarvis (1987: 170) has commented, 'he was able to influence the growth and direction of the organization'. He also started studying for a PhD (at the University of Chicago). Significantly, he began charting the development of the adult education movement in the United States – and this appeared in book form in 1962. It was the first major attempt to bring together the various threads of the movement – and while it was not a detailed historical study (Jarvis 1987: 171) it was the main source book for more than twenty years.  As Jarvis (1987: 172) has commented:

He saw that the movement was, in a sense, peripheral to the dominant institutions in society and yet important to it. He recognized that the very disparate nature of the movement prevented its being adequately coordinated from a central position. [This] … free-market needs model of adult education provision … is a position he … maintained even after adult education became much more established and scholars were calling for a more centrally coordinated approach… [I]mplicit within this position … is perhaps one of the central planks of his philosophy; that adult education must be free to respond to need, wherever it is discovered.

In 1959 Malcolm S. Knowles joined the staff at Boston University as an associate professor of adult education with tenure and set about launching a new graduate programme. He spent some 14 years there during which time he produced his key texts: The Modern Practice of Adult Education (1970) and The Adult Learner (1973). These books were to cement his position at the centre of adult education discourse in the United States and to popularize the notion of andragogy (see below). In 1974 he joined the faculty of the North Carolina State University where he was able to develop courses around 'the andragogical model' (Knowles 1989: 21). He also updated his key texts and published a new book on Self Directed Learning (1975). 

Malcolm S. Knowles 'retired' in 1979 but continued to be deeply involved in various consultancies and in running workshops for various agencies (something he had begun much earlier in his career). He was also associated with North Carolina State Universitry as Professor Emeritus. He had time to write further articles and books. Some nine years into his retirement he commented that he couldn't imagine 'a better, richer life' (ibid.: 24). He died on Thanksgiving Day, 1997, suffering a stroke at his home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. 

Adult informal education

The notion of informal adult education had been around in the YMCA before Malcolm Knowles' book was published in 1950. In Britain Josephine Macalister Brew had published the first full-length treatment of informal education in 1946. However Informal Adult Education was a significant addition to the literature. Knowles was searching for a 'coherent and comprehensive theory of adult learning'  – and the closest he could come to an organizing theme was 'informal' (Knowles 1989: 76). Later he was to comment that while this was surely 'an important component of adult learning theory… it was far from its core' (op. cit.)

In focusing on the notion of informal education, Malcolm Knowles was pointing to the 'friendly and informal climate' in many adult learning situations, the flexibility of the process, the use of experience, and the enthusiasm and commitment of participants (including the teachers!). He didn't define informal adult education – but uses the term to refer to the use of informal programmes and, to some extent, the learning gained from associational or club life. He commented that an organized course is usually a better instrument for 'new learning of an intensive nature, while a club experience provides the best opportunity for practicing and refining the things learned' (Knowles 1950: 125). Clubs are also 'useful instruments for arousing interests' (op. cit.). He contrasts formal and informal programmes as follows:

Formal programs are those sponsored for the most part by established educational institutions, such as universities, high schools, and trade schools. While many adults participate in the courses without working for credit, they are organized essentially for credit students… Informal classes, on the other hand, are generally fitted into more general programs of such organizations as the YMCA and YWCA, community centers, labor unions, industries and churches. (Knowles 1950: 23)

This distinction is reminiscent of that later employed by Coombs and others to distinguish formal from non-formal education.

Informal programmes, Malcolm S. Knowles suggests, are more likely to use group and forum approaches. 

Several important differences are found between the interests in organized classes and the interests in lecture, forum and club programs. In the first place, the former are likely to be stable, long-term interests, while the latter are more transitory. In the second place, lectures, forums and club programs are more flexible than organized classes. In a program series the topics can range from pure entertainment to serious lectures, while an organized class is necessarily limited to a single subject-matter area. Third, the lecture, forum, and club types of programs generally require less commitment of time, money and energy from participants than do organized classes. As a result they are likely to attract people with somewhat less intense interest. (Knowles 1950: 24)

Malcolm Knowles was able to draw on material from various emerging areas of expertise. This included understandings gained from his time with with Eduard Lindeman, Cyril O. Houle and others within the adult education field; his knowledge of community organization within and beyond the YMCA (and via the work of Arthur Dunham and others); a growing appreciation of the dynamics of personality and human development (via Carl Rogers and Arthur Sheldin); and an appreciation of groupwork and group dynamics (especially via those associated with the National Training Laboratories). He also had some insights into the relationship of adult education activities to democracy from his contact with Dorothy Hewlitt at the NYA (see Hewitt and Mather 1937).

Exhibit 1: Malcolm S. Knowles on informal adult education


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