In 1970, Malcom Knowles began to popularize andragogy, initially a term coined by the German teacher Alexander Kapp, by advocating the adult learning theory—a set of assumptions that characterize adult learners. Knowles identifies four characteristics of adults as learners:

  • a self-concept tending towards self-direction
  • a growing reservoir of experience
  • a developmental readiness to learn
  • a problem-centered and present reality orientation to learning.
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He also discovered that students enter with self-concepts shaped by the realities of a classroom experience that taught them to be dependent and passive, two potentially fatal learner attributes in a distance learning environment. As Malcolm put it so succinctly, “most of us only know how to be taught, we haven't learned how to learn.”

We are nearing the end of the era of our edifice complex and its basic belief that respectable learning takes place only in buildings and on campuses. Adults are beginning to demand that their learning take place at a time, place, and pace convenient to them. In fact, I feel confident that most educational services by the end of this century (if not decade) will be delivered electronically . . . . Our great challenge now is to find ways to maintain the human touch as we learn to use the media in new ways. — Malcolm S. Knowles, Andragogy in Action (1984).

Knowles’s concept of andragogy is that he intended for it to be different to pedagogy, because pedagogy at the time was extremely passive-based. Adult learning theories, such as andragogy, are often criticized because as we now know, they also apply to younger learners; however the people behind the theories at the time were trainers of adults rather than educators in the school system, thus they applied their theories to the section of the population that they best knew about. Because of their work, they pioneered the way for the world of pedagogy to also advance itself from being passive-based to experience-based.

After being presented with evidence that adults do not always learn best with andragogy and children do not always learn best with pedagogy, and that its often vice versa, Knowles wrote a new book titled, In The Modern Practice of Adult Education; From Andragogy to Pedagogy (1980), in which he concedes that four of andragogy's five key assumptions apply equally to adults and children. The sole difference is that children have fewer experiences and pre- established beliefs than adults and thus have less to relate to.

Thus he explained that andragogy should now be thought of as learner- focused and pedagogy should be thought of as teacher-directed, and the two concepts were on a continuum that both adults and children share.