In the early 1970s when andragogy and the concept that adults and children learn differently was first introduced in the United States by Malcolm Knowles; the idea was groundbreaking and sparked much subsequent research and controversy. Since the earliest days, adult educators have debated what andragogy really is. Spurred in large part by the need for a defining theory within the field of adult education (AE), andragogy has been extensively analyzed and critiqued. It has been alternately described as a set of guidelines (Merriam, 1993), a philosophy (Pratt, 1993), a set of assumptions (Brookfield, 1986), and a theory (Knowles, 1989 b). The disparity of these positions is indicative of the perplexing nature of adult learning; but regardless of what it is called, “andragogy is an honest attempt to focus on the learner. In this sense, it does provide an alternative to the methodology-centered instructional design perspective” (Feur and Gerber, 1988). Merriam, in explaining the complexity and present condition of adult learning theory, offers the following:
It is doubtful that a phenomenon as complex as adult learning will ever be explained by a single theory, model, or set of principles. Instead, we have a case of the proverbial elephant being described differently depending on who is talking and on which part of the animal is examined. In the first half of this century, psychologists took the lead in explaining learning behavior; from the 1960s onward, adult educators began formulating their own ideas about adult learning and, in particular, about how it might differ from learning in childhood. Both of these approaches are still operative. Where we are headed, it seems, is toward a multifaceted understanding of adult learning, reflecting the inherent richness and complexity of the phenomenon (Merriam and Cafarella, 2006).