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January 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 1 · pp. 33–35 

Book Review

The Modern Practice of Adult Education

Malcolm S. Knowles. New York, NY: Association, 1970. 384 pages.

Reviewed by Walter Unger

Malcolm Knowles, Professor of Education and General Consultant in Adult Education at Boston University has produced a steady stream {34} of books and articles on the subject of adult education. The Modern Practice of Adult Education is a comprehensive text on the technology of adult education which is practical as well as theoretical.

The basic assumption throughout Modern Practice is that adults as learners are different from young people in certain crucial respects and therefore a different approach is required to help them learn. Knowles bases his work on an original theory of andragogy (the art and science of helping adults learn) as distinguished from pedagogy (the art and science of teaching children and youth).

In the first part of the book Knowles explores the differences between andragogy and pedagogy and what these differences mean for the development of a unique technology for adult education. Since the adult is an autonomous individual, we must permit him to be involved in the process of self-diagnosis to discover learning needs, and then we must deeply engage him in the process of planning his own learning. The teaching-learning transaction is the mutual responsibility of learners and teacher. Knowles redefines the teacher’s role to that of a procedural technician, resource person, and coinquirer; he is more a catalyst than an instructor, more a guide than a wizard (p. 43). Never, asserts Knowles, must he succumb to the compulsion of teaching students something that he knows they ought to know but that they don’t yet know they ought to know. Certainly this principle cannot be taken over into the field of Christian education, in toto.

The author states what he believes to be the “theological foundation” of adult education: faith in the ability of the individual to learn for himself (p. 51). Why Knowles calls this a “theological” statement is not clear since God is scarcely mentioned in the entire book. His assumptions are basically humanistic—he is concerned for the development of persons, has a deep conviction as to the worth of every individual, and believes that people will make the right decisions for themselves if given the necessary information and support (p. 60).

Knowles foresees a more andragogical approach to the education of children and youth in the future. Indeed, he points out that many of the new developments in the curricula of our elementary and secondary schools now start with the concerns of the students and engage them in a process of largely self-directed discovery. The products of such training will presumably be better equipped to continue a process of lifelong learning than are today’s adults.

In the second part of the book, Knowles deals with such subjects as organizing adult education programs, assessing needs and interests (sample questionnaires and practical suggestions on how to determine needs are included), defining purposes and objectives, and evaluating programs. In assessing the needs of adults, Knowles almost entirely omits spiritual concerns. He does, however, reproduce a rather informative {35} exhibit entitled “Estimated Number of Different Adults Who Studied Subjects of Various Types Through Adult Education Instruction or Independent Self-Study” (p. 92). The broad category of “Religion, Morals, and Ethics” ranked third in total number of participants. (Apparently, traditional religious training was not considered in this study.) Courses on religion applied to everyday life had enrolled only 180,000, whereas courses in Communism drew 250,000, Civil Defense 190,000, and Military Science 180,000. A serious flaw in this exhibit is that it fails to date the survey and also fails to state the time period covered.

The third part presents tested management principles and methods for courses, workshops, institutes, and other kinds of education activities. Knowles cites numerous examples of successful practices.

The seventy pages of appendices are particularly helpful, as are the numerous exhibits in the main body of the text. I picked up some excellent aids to the development of our own school’s adult extension program.

Walter Unger
Academic Dean
Columbia Bible Institute
Clearbrook, British Columbia

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