The central question on how adults learn has caught the attention of scholars and practitioners since the 1920s. Eighty years later, there is no single answer, theory or model that explains what the scholar and practitioners know about adult learners, various contexts where learning takes place and the process of learning. Until the mid-twentieth, in order to have an understanding of adult learning, adult educators relied on research in psychology and educational psychology.
As part of the form to differentiate adult education from other forms of education, adult educators began to consider if adult learning could be distinguished from learning in childhood. The new focus of what was different about adult learning then emerged. And this led to the context in which two of the field’s most important theory-building efforts –andragogy and self directed learning emerged in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Andragogy and self directed learning were then eclipsed by transformational learning and other approaches in 1990’s.
The three theories/models of adult learning, i. e andragogy, self directed learning and transformational learning are distinct in that each has been developed and promoted by adult educators interested in differentiating adult learning from the learning of children. In 1968, Malcom Knowles proposed “a new label and technology” to distinguish from the preadult learning schooling. He defined the European concept of anadragogy as “the art and science of helping adults learn”.
Five assumptions underlying andragogy describe the adult learner as someone who (1) has an independent self concept and who can direct his or her own learning, (2) has accumulated a reservoir of life experiences that is a rich resource for learning, (3) has learning needs closely related to changing social roles, (4) is problem-centred and interested in immediate application of knowledge, (5) is motivated to learn by internal rather than external factors. According to Pratt, “while andragogy may have contributed to our understanding of adults as learners, it has done little to expand or clarify ur understanding of the process of learning”, nor has it achieved the status of “a theory of adult learning” (Pratt, 1993, p. 21). Self-Directed learning appeared as another model that helped define adult learners as different from children. Based on the pioneering work of Houle, Tough and Knowles, early research in self-directed learning was descriptive, verifying the widespread presence of self-directed learning among adults. Self-Directed learning helped bring to the fore the importance of informal learning that occurs as we go about our daily lives.
How one works through a self-directed learning experience has generated a number of models. Early models proposed by Tough(1971) and Knowles(1975) are the most linear moving from diagnosing needs to identifying resources and instructional formats to evaluating outcomes. Whereas models generated in the 1980’s and the 1990’s are less linear and more interactive. There are at least three ways in which all of these approaches contribute to the understanding of adult learning. 1) The adult learner is seen wholistically, he or she comes with a mind, memories, conscious and subconscious worlds, emotions, imagination and physical body which all interact with new learning. (2) The learning process is much more than the systematic acquisition and storage information. (3) The context in which learning occurs has taken on greater importance. One can examine how race, class, gender, power and oppression and conceptions of knowledge and truth shape the context and subsequently the learning that occurs.