Hagen, M., & Park, S. (2016). We knew it all along!
Using cognitive science to explain how andragogy works. European Journal of Training and Development, 40 (3), 171–190.
Andragogy theory, or as later articulated
by pioneer of adult learning theory Malcom Knowles, assumptions used to
facilitate adult learning, has long been discussed for its merit by both
passionate advocates and dissenters.
However, does relatively new cognitive neuroscience research provide
insights that support the key tenets of andragogy? This article contended that
recent advances in cognitive neuroscience strongly support the four initial andragogical
principles suggested by Knowles.
The authors first argued that andragogical
principles are especially valuable in training and preparing new managers for
their roles within an organization. It was suggested that andragogy is
particularly important for human resource development (HRD) educators in
business and management educational contexts, as a unification of adult
education and management education, and to be an area where “fastidious
attention” is needed in “train the trainer” efforts. Additionally, the authors expressed
support for the assertion that HRD scholars should have done more and should do
more to correlate research and advances in cognitive neurosciences to
education, specifically in andragogy and its application to emerging
Hagen and Park argued further that while
at least some research has been performed to link cognitive neurosciences to pedagogy,
a severe gap exists relative to andragogy that would be relevant to management
education, leading to the primary research objective of determining how these
advances can result in a more thoughtful and effective application of andragogy.
The authors employed an integrative literature review approach, with searches
of studies conducted between 1980 and 2013. Google Scholar and Business Source
Premier searches such as “cognitive neuroscience” and “adult learning” among
others were used to identify any past work linking the two.
The authors acknowledged that while
andragogy is not universally accepted in the HRD community, and that the body
of past research has resulted in lack of specifically verifiable evidence of
its efficacy, its use has nonetheless been persistent, resulting in the need to
further examine its impact. As such, the authors explored the impact of recent
cognitive neurosciences research on each of the four assumptions initially
brought forth by Knowles in his (1970) work the
Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy vs Pedagogy:
have a self-directed self-concept.
bring a wealth of experience to the learning process.
enter the learning process ready to learn relevant information.
are oriented toward immediate application of learning.
Hagen and Park contended that cognitive
neuroscience research supports the notion of adult need to self-direct in
learning as outlined in Assumption 1, pointing to research involving
self-directedness, self-processing, and social cognition and the interplay of
these with specific areas of the brain known to be involved with humans’
evaluation of their self and performance and central to decision-making and
regulation thereof. The authors argued that this research supports the concept
of adult self-direction in learning choices, and that perhaps the ability to
make a learning choice is more important than the end result of the choice.
While the authors acknowledged that this cognitive neuroscience research cannot
directly be linked to Knowles’ intent, they argued that the research provides
support to his andragogy assumption.
Specific to Assumption 2, the authors
pointed to research involving autobiographical processes involving the right
fronto-temporal portion of the brain, but also several other parts of the
brain, as supporting the principle of experiential learning in adults. The key
to linking brain research to prior experience, according to the authors, is
evoking of emotional response to a learning activity that allows for
neuroplasticity, or change, in the hippocampus, which is the area known to allow
for storage of prior experience.
Readiness to learn was linked by the
authors to research relative to the neocortex, specifically again in the
hippocampus, and cortical regions of the brain. They contended that research
connects the concept of “self” to how humans see each other, and thus makes the
human need for social support and interaction a motivator for being ready to
learn information relevant to society per Knowles’ Assumption 3.
Finally, the principle of immediate
application of learning as outlined in Assumption 4 was again connected with research
involving neuroplasticity and the hippocampus. The authors contended that
research supports changes in the brain cannot occur without application, and
that of the four basic tenets suggested by Knowles, this is the least
The authors further opined that Knowles
added two additional assumptions to his list of andragogy principles which are
rarely discussed, suggesting varied acceptance of these assumptions.
Additionally, the connection of cognitive neuroscience advances to these
additional assumptions were identified as worthy of further research.
Specific findings in cognitive
neuroscience research and connection to andragogy assumptions can significantly
impact its acceptance by HRD educators. The criticism of andragogy has often
involved both what scholars have considered its lack of definition and the
underlying assertions of its applicability to adult learners predominately or
alone. Hagen and Park’s work specifically connects concepts of emerging
research in cognitive neuroscience to andragogy concepts that could result in
additional research that could improve the understanding of andragogy
principles and their effectiveness in a way that is more empirical than
currently supported by existing literature. This additional research could result
in positive impact to adult learning environments in business and industry and
The authors made compelling arguments
through their review of existing literature in cognitive neurosciences and HRD
theory, that seem to directly tie recent neuroscience findings to Knowles’ andragogy
principals in a rational way. Assumptions 1, 2, and 4 are linked to the
neuroscience findings in a straightforward way. However, Hagen and Park seemed
to struggle to find a clear connection to neuroscience research for Assumption
3, focusing more research involving parts of the brain involved in social
interaction to support this assumption as opposed to pointing to research that would
more clearly connect readiness with relevance in the learning experience. This
weaker connection made readers consider the validity of the linkage made to the
other assumptions of andragogy theory.
Further, while the authors mentioned Knowles’
two additional andragogy assumptions and suggested that further research be
performed regarding their connection to emerging cognitive neurosciences research,
the omission of any analysis relative to these two concepts caused readers to
question if these were omitted because the same apparent connection outlined
for the other assumptions, however strong or weak, were nonexistent. Despite this apparent omission and an unclear
connection for Assumption 3 to neuroscience research, Hagen and Park provided a
foundational argument that appealed to common senses regarding learning as an
adult that demonstrates the clear need for further empirical research in the
area of andragogy and lends credence to its foundational principles in a