Four Models of Adult Education

Engaging Experience and Wisdom in a Postmodern Age

By Ken Pawlak and William Bergquist

For many years, it was assumed that mature men and women would either have already engaged in education beyond the secondary level (college, university, professional certification programs) or had decided not to do so at an early age. Certainly the second half of the 20th Century witnessed the emergence of the adult learner who did engage in postsecondary education after the traditional college age (18-26 years of age). Unfortunately, in most instances, these postsecondary education experiences were not very fulfilling in that they were still designed around the set of assumptions (pedagogy) associated with meeting the purported postsecondary educational needs of young men and women.

Beginning with the growing interest in continuing education programs for mature adults, and expanding to the creation of undergraduate and graduate programs they prepared mature adults for second and third careers. These programs were often offered in management or other business related-fields (in part because the tuition for these programs was often reimbursed by the corporation in which the mature student worked). Many other programs were offered in professions, such as nursing and psychology, that were open to mature practitioners and required a specific advanced degree as a prequalification for certification or licensing.

Andragogic Education

With these new programs came a revision of the traditional (pedagogical) models of postsecondary education. There was now a new model—called andragogy—that was championed by such stalwarts of continuing and adult education as Malcolm Knowles (Knowles, 1980; Knowles and Associates, 1984) and Patricia Cross (1981). It stressed the unique and challenging needs of the mature learner for a different kind of educational experience that was more engaging, more flexible and, in particular, more appreciative of the existing knowledge base and experience of the mature learning. As a colleague of ours, Elinor Greenberg, noted many years ago, the adult learner is likely to be “experience rich, but theory poor,” whereas the younger postsecondary learner is likely (at least when they graduate) to be “theory rich, but experience poor.”

We propose that the andragogic model of education has been and often still is very appropriate for the mid-career adult learner. We commend this important step away from traditional pedagogical approaches to postsecondary education. We further propose, however, that there are shortcomings regarding not just the pedagogic model, but also of the andragogic model. Neither model fully succeeds in meeting the needs of many adults, who enter postsecondary institutions with not only rich experiences, but also rich (if often implicitly held) theories about the world and their role in it. We propose that a third and fourth model of adult education exist and can further enhance the continuum of need that has developed for today’s adult learners.

Transformative Education

The third model is based on the assumption that mature adults, like younger men and women, go through major transformations in their life. As Frederick Hudson (1991) has so effectively illustrated, adult development is not a linear or even curvilinear pathway from less complex to more complex development; rather, it is a series of life cycles, with mature adults and individuals repeatedly moving through profound transformations. These transformations can be precipitated or at least energized by life’s blessings (marriage, birth of child, career advancement, etc.) as well as life’s vicissitudes (major illness, death of a spouse, loss of job). Transformations can also be engaged in a more intentional manner, through the introduction of powerful, transformative learning experiences. This is the third model of adult education.

Appreciative Education

The fourth model begins with the assumption that the mature learner is a person with as much experience, wisdom and insight as the person serving in the role of “teacher,” “professor,” or “facilitator.” or “transformer.” The role played by the instructor or teacher in relation to that of the student is not based on the relative deficit of knowledge, skill and experience. The mature learner may actually be an expert in the field being studied. While the first three models of adult education are all based on a set of deficit assumptions, Model Four is profoundly appreciative in nature—focusing on assets rather than deficits.

Model One (Pedagogy) assumes that the learner (often young) needs to acquire certain knowledge or master certain skills in order to become a successful citizen, employee, professional, spouse, parent, etc. In essence, the Model One learner is an empty (or near empty) mug into which knowledge or skills are poured by an instructor with superior knowledge, skills or experience. The second model (Andragogy) is also deficit-based. While the mature adult enters an educational program with substantial experience (one or more mugs that are already full), there is still the need for additional education or training. There is an awaiting mug that is not yet full, but needs to be full (or at least partially filled) so that this mature learner can prepare for a new role in life or for successful advancement in his or her current career.

Even Model Three (Transformation) is essentially based on a deficit perspective. Someone (the transformer) creates conditions for the transformation to occur. Without this assistance, the transformation is less likely to occur. Furthermore, it is assumed that the transformation is a good thing: it will enable the mature learner to be wiser, more compassionate, more thoughtful, more socially intelligent, etc. We are “born again” as transformative learners so that our new self can be even better than the old self.

Model Four (Appreciation) focuses not on new learning or growth—instead on appreciating and giving voice to the wisdom (insights, knowledge, skills) that one already possesses. Furthermore, this wisdom is uncovered and appreciated within a specific context that is co-created by the “student” and “tutor” or within a cohort of learners.


We propose that as our society becomes more complex, unpredictable and turbulent (the postmodern condition) and as our population becomes older on average (the “graying” of society), it is likely that the third and fourth models of adult education will become more important, more often engaged and in need of further refinement. We consider this document to be nothing more than a first, primitive step toward the establishment of a four-model template of adult education.

20th and 21st Century Education