Malcolm Shepherd Knowles

The American adult educator Malcolm Shepherd Knowles (born 1913) led both as academician and practitioner in the development and consistent application of principles of adult learning and adult education program planning throughout the world.

Malcolm Shepherd Knowles was born August 24, 1913, in Livingston, Montana. His A.B. degree from Harvard University in 1934 was followed by positions as director of related training for the National Youth Administration; director of adult education for the Boston YMCA; director of the Detroit United Services Organization; duty as an officer in the U.S. Navy; and executive secretary of the Chicago YMCA. He received an M.A. degree from the University of Chicago in 1949. With these experiences as a foundation for his work in adult education, he served as executive director of the Adult Education Association of the U.S.A. in its years of early rapid growth, 1951-1959.

His academic career began as professor and chairman of the adult education graduate program at Boston University, 1959. In 1960 he received the Ph.D. in education from the University of Chicago and continued his professorial and administrative duties at Boston University until 1974. In that year, he became professor in the Department of Adult and Community College Education at North Carolina State University, Raleigh. His retirement from that position came in 1979, but he remained active as professor emeritus. Scores of adult education leaders throughout the world received graduate degrees in adult education under his guidance. He received honorary doctorates from several institutions. Knowles had a continuing colleague and collaborator in his wife Hulda after their marriage in 1935.

For more than 50 years Knowles served as an adult education consultant for hundreds of public and private sector organizations on local, state, national, and international levels. During this period he developed and refined the principles of adult learning now known internationally as andragogy. His writing had profound impact on the practice of adult education and in academic settings.

Knowles was known for his ability to synthesize and integrate research findings from the behavioral and social sciences with knowledge drawn from effective practice. His most immediate and appreciative audience was the professional practitioner, through whom he approached his long-time goal of more responsive, flexible, enlightened, and effective adult education. He was widely recognized as the most quoted and cited adult education authority of his time.

Much of his early writing drew upon his academic preparation in history and commitment to the emerging field of adult education. These writings included Informal Adult Education (1950); The Adult Education Movement in the U.S. (1962); Higher Adult Education in the U.S. (1969); and History of Adult Education in the U.S. (1972). Woven within his early career were writings and a television film series concerned with leadership and group dynamics in adult education. Examples of these are: How to Develop Better Leaders (1955); Introduction to Group Dynamics (with Hulda Knowles) (1959); and The Dynamics of Leadership Series (1962).

The major focus of his career, however, manifested in his writings, academic role, and work with adult education practitioners, was upon the principles of andragogy. In discussing the origin of his commitment to the development and application of those principles, he has been quoted as saying, "The idea that turned my life around I got from Carl Rogers in the early 1950's: that the mission of a leader (parent, manager, teacher) is to release human energy, not control it." His writings focused on the adult as a learner include The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy vs. Pedagogy (1980); The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (1973, 1978, 1984); Lifelong Learning: A Guide for Teachers and Learners (1975); Self-Directed Learning (1975); Andragogy in Action (1984); and Using Learning Contracts (1986). Perhaps his most influential book, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species was issued in a third edition in 1984.

In addition to his numerous books, he authored hundreds of book chapters, articles for scholarly journals, and articles for lay publications.

In later years Knowles drew upon his rich experiences to explore learning in retirement and shared his own developmental steps as an adult educator in The Making of an Adult Educator: an Autobiographical Journey (1989).

When Knowles began his earliest work in adult education, adult learners were almost universally taught with the methods of pedagogy, the education of children. Knowles was viewed as the person most responsible for achieving wide acceptance by adult educators of such concepts as the following: 1) adults will pursue learning that they believe they need; 2) instructors of adults should approach their role as facilitators, catalysts, and guides; 3) adults should have control over their own approach to learning in an adult-oriented, cooperative, non-authoritarian setting and climate; 4) learner involvement approaches to learning should be followed; 5) the adult should be viewed as a responsible, independent individual responsive to interdependent learning opportunities; and 6) in addition to shared control and relevance, adult education should be based on authenticity of participants, instructors, procedures, and goals.

Knowles viewed andragogy as discovery learning in which the adult learner grew through insight and direct, early application of learning.

Much evidence of Knowles' influence, and the widespread recognition of his name, was found in the annual reports, in informational brochures, and in catalogs of many major adult education organizations worldwide. Their philosophies, program foci, instructional approaches, and even organizational structures often are attributed to his writings and other activities.


Further Reading on Malcolm Shepherd Knowles

A number of important books by Malcolm Knowles were mentioned above. From among those, a comprehensive presentation of his vision of adult education practice was contained in The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy vs. Pedagogy (1980). An in-depth discussion of the characteristics of the adult learner and how they relate to andragogy can be found in The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (1984). Finally, much insight into Knowles and the sources of his concepts and commitment can be found in The Making of an Adult Educator: an Autobiographical Journey (1989).

See also the February 1997 edition of Training & Development, where a detailed interview with Malcolm Knowles was featured.