One cannot mention Adult Education without making reference to the internationally reputable adult educationist by the name of Malcolm Shepherd Knowles. Malcolm is renowned for leading both as an academician and practitioner who played a crucial role in the development and the application of adult learning across the globe (George, 2011).


Malcolm Shepherded Knowles was born in August 24, 1913 in Livingstone, Montana. His parents were Dr. and Mrs. Dr. A. D. Knowles. He loved to participate in sports and outdoor activities from an early age.

In addition to this, he was an avid scout during his youthful years. He was also an academically astute student. This was made evident when he graduated at the top of his class from the Palm Beach High School in 1930. Consequently, he was admitted to the distinguished Harvard University where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934.

During his stay at this prestigious institution, he took courses in philosophy, literature, history, political science, ethics and international law (George, 2011).

He was also fascinated with extracurricular activities. This made him to be appointed the president of the Harvard Liberal Club, general secretary of the New England Model League of Nations, and President of the Phillips Brooks House. His involvement in voluntary service for the latter got him working with boys club and this formed a crucial platform for his fruitful career in adult education and social service.


Malcolm Knowles went on to work with the National Youth Administration in Massachusetts where he was responsible for establishing the skills requirements for local employers and establish a course for the entire study body and teach those skills to the young people.

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In the course of this work he met Professor Eduard Lindeman who went on to become Malcolm’s mentor in adult education. As he continued in this work he married Hulda Fornell whom he had met at Harvard. In 1940, he assumed the role of Director of Adult Education. This enabled him to set up an association school for adults at the Boston YMCA. It is from this position that he was drafted into the Second World War in 1943. In 1946, he took the position of Director of Adult Education at the YMCA. He proceeded to pursue his Master’s degree in Arts at the University of Chicago and graduated in 1949. Under the mentorship of Cyril O.

Houle he became executive director of the Adult Education Association of the USA which had been newly formed. He joined the Boston University in 1959 as an associate professor. During this time, he was very instrumental in launching a new graduate program in the field of adult education. He later joined the Fielding Graduate University in Massachusetts where he continued to teach until his retirement in 1979 (George, 2011). Despite the fact that he had retired, Knowles had already achieved his PhD continued to be involved in the field of Adult Education. During this time he became a Professor Emeritus at the North Carolina State University where he continued to write books and articles regarding adult education. Dr. Knowles passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 1997 at his home in Fayetteville, Arkansas due to stroke.

Malcolm Knowles’s Contributions

Malcolm’s contributions in education can never go unmentioned in especially in the field of adult education. He created a model which is still in use today in the field of adult education. This was the theory of andragogy. This theory was based on the differences in the learning styles between the children and the adults. This theory was developed after a thorough study of humanistic clinical psychology and the relationships which were derived from it. Thus, this theory was based on five basic assumptions about the features of adult learners (Malcolm, 1950). These features brought out a very different view from the features which were observed in children. These features included the following aspects (Malcolm, 1950); the self-concept; which is a person usually, matures over time from possessing a dependent personality towards one of being a self-directed one. Experience; this is the second feature which usually brings with it a huge amount of experience that an individual has gained over time.

Readiness to learn; the primary motivation for a person’s readiness to earn may change from being one of eagerness of knowledge in his youth to one of eagerness to develop their social standing. Lastly, orientation to learning, as a person matures, his perspective of problems and urgencies shift to one of a frantic nature. Thus a person starts focusing more on his problems than the subject of his problems. Dr. Malcolm grounded the concept of adult education by bringing on board the principle of Adult Education. This came to the fore as part o his Master’s thesis as he was searching for a ‘coherent and comprehensive theory of adult learning’ when he hit upon the informal theory of adult education. He held the opinion that an organized course was usually better for new learning of an intensive nature while an informal association or club provided the best opportunity for practicing and refining the things which were taught (Malcolm, 1950).

Dr. Malcolm spent a further fourteen years producing major texts in the field of adult education. His works include the Modern Practice of Adult Education (1970) and The Adult Learner (1973). These texts help to establish him as a central figure in adult education in the United States of America. Through them, the theory of andragogy was further popularized. He also recognized the value and the importance of learning communication skills. This is because he believed that humans have to interact with each other on a daily basis, therefore the knowledge of communication should be included as part of their curriculum. In order to aid an adult in the society, Dr. Malcolm believed that adult education should be able to enable the adults to develop a clear understanding of them through learning about their own needs and selves.

Secondly, adults should cultivate a mindset of acceptance, love and respect towards others. This would help them to establish healthy relationships with others in the society. Adults should also possess an accepting attitude towards change. Adults should also figure out solutions to a general cause instead of fretting over the cause itself. This would help them to develop what he called an active and logical mind that would help them to make any situation and make it better. Adults should also have an understanding of the society and be proactive in instituting social change. This can be done by making every adult aware of the important issues such as political, economic, international affairs and the business aspects of life.


In conclusion, Dr. Malcolm Shepherd Knowles played a major role in the development and establishment of adult education. Despite the fact that he is no longer alive, his work, ideas and innovations still live on and inspire more strategies in adult learning. His efforts led to the development of the Theories of Andragogy and Self-Directed Learning (George, 2011). In addition to this, he was the first person to chart the rise and progress of the entire adult education movement which took center stage in the United States of America. This informed the process that led to the development of general theory and practice of informal adult education. Dr. Knowles remains to be a great inspiration to many academicians who have benefited from his ideas as well as the professionals in the field of adult education.


  1. George, W. (2011). Malcolm Shepherd Knowles: A History of His Thought (Education in aCompetitive and Globalizing World). London: Nova Science .
  2. Malcolm, S. K. (1950). Informal Adult Education. Chicago: Association Press.

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Biography of Malcolm Knowles. (2016, Dec 08). Retrieved from

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