ABCs of pedagogy: A is for andragogy

Welcome to a new series, the ABCs of Pedagogy, cross-posted at the university blog Teche. It is learning and teaching award season at my university and one of the aims of this series is to provide applicants with the scholarly language to describe their teaching and learning practice. This skill goes beyond award applications and may also be useful for the purposes of reflection, conversations about teaching and learning, scholarly activities, and career progression.

Image source: Brian Mueller on Shutterstock

You are likely familiar with the more commonly used term ‘pedagogy’, the methods and practices of teaching and learning (often referred to as both an art and a science). The word pedagogy finds its etymology in a mix of French, Latin and Greek and, as you can see from its prefix ‘pedo-’, refers to leading and instructing children. Its alternative is andragogy, or adult learning, with multiple attributions for the first use of the term.

Thinking about andragogy is a prompt to reflect on what you believe is distinctive about higher education where teaching is focussed on adult learners. Consider the extent to which you agree with the following statements that attempt to distinguish learning in higher education from school or early childhood contexts:

  • Adult learners utilise various forms of formal, informal and non-formal learning; learn for both personal and professional reasons; and balance learning with other work and care activities.
  • Students in higher education develop as self-directed, lifelong learners with deep disciplinary knowledge and capabilities, including teamwork, literacy and communication skills, criticality, and creativity.

Note that our expectations of independent learning capability change over time, and these assumptions are built into unit design at each stage. First-year units are usually more scaffolded, while postgraduate units may be designed for independent and goal orientated learning.

American educator Malcolm Knowles (1950) promoted the use of term andragogy, with a conviction that adults learn differently from children. He made five assertions about the characteristics of adult learners:

  • Self-concept: As people mature their self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.
  • Experience: As people mature they accumulate a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
  • Readiness to learn: As people mature their readiness to learn becomes oriented toward the developmental tasks of their social roles.
  • Orientation to learning: As people mature their time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly their orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centredness to one of problem-centredness.
  • Motivation to learn: As people mature the motivation to learn is internal (Knowles, 1984).

As you may have guessed, each of these claims about the difference between andragogy and pedagogy is contested and has been the subject of considerable scholarly discussion. To offer just one example, Stephen Brookfield (1993) challenges the individualistic notion of self-directed learning (often institutionalised through student ‘learning contracts’ within a limited framework) and suggests it is part of a political, social and cultural tradition that “emphasises the individual’s standing against repressive interests” or institutional control (p 227). He argues that self-directed learning might be akin to transformative or emancipatory approaches to education (more on these ideas when the series reaches F is for freedom).

For reflecting on teaching, the various ways in which others have interrogated Knowles’ assertions are valuable. In Psychology and Adult Learning, Mark Tennant (2006) developed a “reconstructed charter for andragogy” (following work by Jack Mezirow on transformative learning). In articulating eight characteristics for framing the practice of adult education, Tennant was critical of guidelines for teachers that tell them that they ‘should, ‘must’ or ‘ought to’ teach in particular ways. He aimed to focus on the contexts of learners and decentre the role of the teacher in these initial recommendations for framing practice:

  • Value the experience of learners — include their life experiences in the teaching and learning discourse. Language, registers and examples should be inclusive rather than exclusive.
  • Engage in reflection on experiences — get learners to go beyond their experience and to generalise from specific experiences by theorising.
  • Engage in reflection on experiences — get learners to go beyond their experience and to generalise from specific experiences by theorising.
  • Address issues of identity and the power relationship between teachers and learners — distribute as much power to the learners as the context will allow.
  • Promote judgements about learning which are developmental and which allow scope for success for all learners — assessments and judgements are about further development.
  • Negotiate conflicts over claims to knowledge and pedagogic process — enable differing points of view to emerge and encourage learners to negotiate and to engage critically with the material as well as the process of learning.
  • Identify the historical and cultural location of experiences — question what is taken for granted or assumed at the personal, social and cultural levels.
  • Transform actions and practices — new practices can be adopted if one recognises where one is located culturally and historically.

In talking and writing about your teaching practice, consider which of the above is of particular value to you, and what you can evidence through feedback from students, reviews with colleagues, and engagement with your disciplinary and professional communities. How do your students reflect on their experiences? Do you work to build an inclusive community? Is curriculum negotiated? Do you invite students to challenge taken for granted assumptions, principles and values? How do you decentre the role of the teacher?

In future posts, this series will explore many of the ideas inherent in Tennant’s list, including experiential learning, reflective practice, knowledge theories, student-centred learning and values. Next in the series: B is for blended or hybrid teaching pedagogies.

Brookfield S. (1993). Self-Directed Learning, Political Clarity, and the Critical Practice of Adult Education. Adult Education Quarterly, 43 (4): 227-242.

Knowles, Malcolm S. (1950). Informal Adult Education: A guide for administrators, leaders, and teachers. New York: Association Press.

Knowles, M. S. and Associates. (1984). Andragogy in Action: Applying modern principles of adult education. San Franciso: Jossey-Bass.

Tennant, M. (2006). Psychology and Adult Learning, 3rd edition. London and New York: Routledge.

Details optional

Academic promotion is based on merit relative to opportunity. On the academic promotion application form at my university, there is a section entitled ‘Relevant Personal Circumstances’. There is space to tick a box labelled ‘Consideration needs to be given to personal circumstances/ career interruptions’ and a text box that can be completed with ‘details (optional)’ …

I have an article in the lastest issue of Life Writing entitled Details optional: An account of academic promotion relative to opportunity which writes between the lines of my recent academic promotion application. I describe eight years as a part-time academic, including a life-threatening birth, a child with epilepsy, secondary infertility, an ectopic pregnancy, an implanted neurostimulator, and a miracle baby. Details optional came together from three sources: my lived experience of parenting; theories of writing and creative non-fiction; and my academic promotion application. The special issue editor Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle and the two anonymous reviewers were excellent. It is delicate work to provide critical and constructive feedback on intimate writing.


In the aftermath of my daughter’s birth fourteen years ago, I became a completely different person. I was unrecognisable to myself. I had nothing in common with the woman I had been before. Not one thought, not one way of moving through the world, not a remnant of myself remained.

The best advice I have received for parenting teenagers (“I surrender”) came in the form of a song by Deborah Conway, recommended by Andie Fox. Conway writes:

No one dies in our song “Serpent’s Tooth” but all these decades later and now as a parent of three daughters, that magnificent quote “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” rings bells of recognition and deepest empathy … Becoming a parent was a kind of alchemy for my deepest being, it exposed the tenderest layers of feeling I had no idea I could have, the deep wells of worry and the tidal waves of love that have no equal … And then comes the teenage years. Lear’s daughters are most likely teenagers, it is certainly a portrait of the kind of carnality that chimes with the teenage experience … [T]he hurt is so much more intense when the stranger before you is your own flesh and blood …

In a creative writing assignment last year, we had a prompt similar to Conway’s stranger of your own flesh and blood. From Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations (1895), I chose ‘enmity of kin’ which refers to ‘hatred of one who should be loved’ and the ‘savage hate’ of close family bonds. I was thinking of the mother/daughter relationship and how keenly children identify parental flaws. I wrote this micro-fiction:

When Ellie, the youngest, moved out for the first time, her mother decided to tackle the cupboards. The musty smell was spreading. Garbage bags at the ready, she opened the doors. Clothes, clean and dirty, intermingled with papers, cords, rubbish, discarded toys, broken parts and half-finished projects. She sighed. Holding a broken music stand, she imagined redecorating to create a music room. Never mind she didn’t play an instrument. Here was the patchwork quilt she started when the kids were young. Perhaps a sewing room? The thought was thrilling.

Later that afternoon, her musings turned to anger. A plate of unrecognisable food scraps, a spilt bottle of nail polish. She hadn’t even reached the top shelf. Why call it an empty nest? Years of shit, she muttered as she angry-cleaned. Caught at the edge of a wire basket, she found a note in violent purple pen.

It was titled ‘Things I hate about my mother’:

The way she makes everything worse

Sooooooo many stupid rules

How she says the same things over and over and over and over

Her telephone voice: ‘Helloooooooo’

Always sighing

Never buys icecream

NO INTERESTS apart from cleaning.


Parts of Details Optional were written for another unit on creative non-fiction, which involved reflecting on the craft of writing, memory work, research and ethics. To write the article, I listened to first year cognitive science lectures and read the set text. I reread my daughter’s medical documents and checked my calendar and sporadic writings over the last fourteen years. I practiced ‘imagistic endurance’ described in Miller and Paola’s (2019) Tell It Slant as ‘re-inhabiting’ and remaining in the moment of a memory. I thought about the ethics of life writing. I read the article to my daughter, who agreed that the writing is not really about her; I talk mostly about myself. Thinking about narrative voice, I chose to write in fragments. I changed tenses. It seemed fitting: I am always interruptible. Much was written at the kitchen table, snatched between quotidian tasks.

I framed the article around Judith Butler’s (2001) essay Giving an Account of Oneself , in which she shows that the question ‘What have I done?’ can only be answered by first asking: ‘Who is this ‘I’ who is under an obligation to give an account of itself and to act in certain ways?’ ’ It is impossible, she argues, to give an account of the self without accounting for the social conditions under which the ‘I’ emerges. This allowed me to think critically about the ‘I’ who writes selectively to meet the standards of academic promotion, the conditions of the university under which that ‘I’ emerges, and the fragmented ‘I’ whose lived experience exceeds the narrative confines of academic biographical texts (even when they invite details of personal circumstances).

Academic promotion

In my academic biography and promotion application, I am measured in words and numbers. I have no corporeality. I summarise myself in dot points. I divide myself into headings.

I have been a teaching-focussed academic since my first (fixed term) appointment in 2010. I worked part-time from 2010 to 2018. In the ‘details optional’ text box, this is the only information I provided. Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle (2020) illustrates a similar contestation in a professorial application, with her life story of pregnancies, illness, and her mother’s death described as “obstacles which have impacted the trajectory of my scholarship”. I am similarly complicit in a process that erases the complexity of the self ‘relative to opportunity’ into two lines specific to academic work

Some of the text of my promotion application is included in the article, including a list of my key strengths: an ability to build and maintain trusted relationships; a willingness to learn and challenge myself and others; an acumen for developing the leadership qualities of others; an ability to manage myself and others effectively during change and uncertainty; and a strength for identifying big picture perspectives and making complex, emotive problems clear and actionable.

I end the article with three paragraphs that acknowledge the many people who supported (and continue to support) my writing, my academic work and my parenting.

Would you like to read the full article? If you don’t have access to an institutional subscription to the journal Life Writing, you will find a free copy here. This is limited to 50 copies; once the link expires you can request an author copy via Researchgate.

Continuing to reflect

This is the 14th post in Over a Cuppa, a series which offers prompts to reflect on learning and teaching during the time it takes to make and drink a cuppa. Cross-posted from Teche blog with an original artwork by Fidel Fernando.

Here is a short video from Fidel Fernando on how he flash brews his cup of coffee, initially created to demonstrate an example for participants in the Beginning to Teach program. So sit back, take a sip and enjoy the opportunity to reflect on your teaching practice.

Last semester, these reflection posts were published weekly with approximately 300 words based on scholarly reading and an accompanying original artwork. Reflecting in a hurry felt rushed and unsustainable. This semester we return to teaching online and balancing work with coping and/or caring or schooling from home. This context has prompted a slower schedule for these reflection posts and a loosening of the word limit, akin to the comfort of elasticised clothing during lockdown.

The starting point remains the same: a belief that reflective practice is a learned skill that is invaluable for teachers and students. The Professional Learning and Capability Enhancement (PLaCE) Framework outlines what reflection looks from Foundational to Expert levels:

• Articulate the principles of, approaches to, and the values of, reflective practice.
• Reflect on own teaching, learning support and/or curriculum/assessment design practices.
• Explain actions taken in response to reflection on, and in, practice.
• Engage in sustained reflection on own educational practices and critique actions taken in response.
• Implement strategies to promote a culture that values reflective practice.
• Develop and support the strategic and systematic embedding of reflexivity into educational practice.

Reflection can be challenging, but a month into semester is a good time to consider what is working well and what needs rethinking. The prompt for this week is: How full is your cup?

This image has been created and shared on Twitter by Susan Wardell (@Unlazy_Susan), an Anthropology academic from New Zealand. It is a crowdsourced diagram of ‘What a lecturer does’ which has been liked 1400 times and counting. If this reflects your work, it might explain why you are feeling overwhelmed. You can likely add additional responsibilities as well. For the purposes of this post, the image offers an opportunity to reflect on the tasks listed for teaching.

Your time and energy are finite, so think about the activities you need and want to focus on. What do you value most? What makes you feel energised? What needs concentration and what can be done while distracted? What demands immediate attention? What do your students need right now? What tasks can be shared? What can be managed with limits and rules? Where can you ask for more time or additional support? What can wait?

When asking myself questions of this nature, I often think about an article published in a special issue of Australian Universities’ Review on Activism and the Academy that I co-edited with Karina Luzia and Kate Bowles. It was Niki Harré, Barbara M. Grant, Kirsten Locke and Sean Sturm’s The University as an Infinite Game:

In the university, as in life, there are two kinds of games. One is the infinite game, the purpose of which is to keep the game in play and invite others in; the other is finite games, in which the purpose is to win … The infinite game is a symbol of our potential as people living together to be open and inclusive, and to promote the life, and growth, that helps us flourish as individuals and communities. This game imagines a world in which our heartfelt, personal response to life, our deep listening to others (especially those who don’t fit in), and our careful observations and thought about the social, natural and physical world come together to create and recreate our institutions.

At home, in lockdown, my children schooling from home, I like to think I am sometimes choosing the infinite game.

Next post in the series (deadline undetermined): Connecting through reflection.