1. Self-Directed Learning (Andragogy): The Nurturing Approach Ways to Use Self-Directed Learning



Malcolm KnowlesMalcolm Knowles was one of the most significant adult educators of the 20th century.

Adults should have a real role in their own learning.

In his classic book The Modern Practice of Adult Education (1980), Knowles says there are three key principles in adult teaching:

1. “Adults have a growing reservoir of experience.” As Knowles says, adult learners often have more life-experience than their teachers or tutors. Moreover…

2. “They want to share their knowledge and experiences.” We need to remember that learners have been, or are, parents, workers and decision-makers outside the classroom or tutoring program. They want to share what they know, give their thoughts and opinions on what they are learning, and talk about how they are doing in their program.

3. “Adults have a deep psychological need to be seen by others as being self-directing.” As noted in Section Three, this is the paradox of teaching adults. It is especially important for adult literacy. On one hand, we need to nurture learners to help them become comfortable in our program…some learners more than others. On the other hand we need to build and enhance their sense of self-direction so they have the confidence and self-efficacy to “teach themselves,” both now and through the rest of their lives. The first few days and weeks of our programs are a critical platform for the future, as seen below.


Adults should have a real role in their own learning.


Ways to Use Self-Directed Learning

This beginning, nurturing phase, should help the learner gain comfort and confidence by discussing what types of learning content and what types of scheduling would make the most sense for both of you. It is a “first impressions” moment, taking place over several sessions (conversations or meetings).

It is a great idea to conduct a tour of the facility and meet others, if this is the case, and explain how the tutoring program works. It might not make sense to do this right at the beginning. Or at all depending on your setting—your “setting” might be a Zoom meeting or some other digital teaching technology. The point is you are in the opening, nurturing phase and making the learner comfortable in the learning environment is vital.

It is suggested you start with the help of the Intake Inventory, before a placement test. You may want to use, adapt or adopt our Intake Inventory, but the important thing is that starting with a learner’s goals and being aware of their doubts and fears is a solid learner-centred beginning. Giving the placement test later rather than earlier is typically helpful because many of our learners will have “test anxiety.”

With these two activities done, the next few meetings can lead to an adult-to-adult kind of negotiation of how you both will proceed. What does the learner want to know? What is practical from your side? What does your program and curriculum expect? And, importantly, what will make this journey enjoyable? You are now well into trying to build the volition and value of the program with success and enjoyment (VVSE).

  • Begin by discussing—even negotiating—the overall learning plan…which will very likely change over the coming weeks and months. Discrete parts of this plan can be met with a learning contract, as discussed below.
  • We want our learners to leave our program each session wanting to engage and wanting to return. Both teacher and learner should be enthused about the program and the program should be seen as enjoyable.