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Is Coaching a form of Andragogy?

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

Welcome to my blog about adult learning and coaching which I hope you will enjoy. My blogs are part of my own journey of learning and I hope to demystify coaching practice and make it more accessible to others who might otherwise not realise the life changing potential there is in working with a professional coach in both personal and professional life. Through research and CPD into my coaching practice I came across a great word that is used in the context of adult learning – said word is Andragogy - the art and science of educating adults. I’ve mentioned it to a few people and had blank looks. That is until people realise that there is also a more commonly use word called Pedagogy – this being art and science of educating children – which is content focused and teacher led.

Two adult heads talking in a cartoon style depicting andragogy through executive and leadership coaching practice. (Unsplash)
Andragogy and Coaching (Unsplash)

Common definitions of Andragogy are then – believe it or not – the science and art of teaching adults – which is learner led.

So here is a question. Is it possible to ‘teach’ adults anything?

I’m sure this has sparked a great deal of debate in educational circles who have been grappling with this notion since time immemorial, and as a professional coach it led me to think about coaching again and ask the question ‘Is Coaching a form of Andragogy?’

I’m not saying that some of the greats had the right idea about this, but here are three quotes which I think are strikingly similar.

"I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think"


"You cannot teach people anything. You can only help them discover it within themselves"n Galileo

"I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn" Einstein

"You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be led" – Ha!

Strike that one :-)

Anyhow, what I believe this is telling us is that there has been a long-held belief that adult learning is very much owned by and of the learner and not the teacher.

Are these quotes akin to what we would say about professional coaching?

Where did it come from and what is it about?

The American educator, Malcolm Knowles (1968)* was best known for the use of the term andragogy in the 1960’s and he provided six principles related to educational motivation to follow when attempting to engage in adult learning:

Need to know: Adults need to know the reason for learning something.

In the coaching context I think this can translate into the client being in a coaching arrangement of their own volition, even if they don’t fully understand why, they are recognising the need for themselves and not being coerced into being coached.

Foundation: Experience (including trial and error) provides the basis for learning activities.

In the coaching context I think this is a recognition of the equality of the partnership, a mutual recognition of the experience of coach and coachee and that coaching is a heuristically based endeavour for all parties involved.

Self-concept: Adults need to be responsible for their decisions on education; involvement in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.

In the coaching context I think this works well because it is true in coaching that the coachee is responsible for using coaching effectively and for what they bring to the coaching arrangement. How they engage with the sessions and also how they critically reflect on the process and outcomes with the coach including recognising when the coaching arrangement should come to a conclusion. There is a similar type of process for the coach.

Readiness: Adults are most interested in learning subjects having immediate relevance to their work and/or personal lives.

In the coaching context the subject matter is determined by the coachee and the coach should be led by the client. It is the skill of the coach in engaging and building rapport, trust and creating the space to do the work which support the coachee in being ready to tackle the challenges and to know when the coaching arrangement might need to finish.

Orientation: Adult learning is problem-centred rather than content-oriented.

In the coaching context this might translate into the coachee focusing on their goal and using the process as heuristic process of problem solving their way to it. The coach is trying not to invade the space with any of their own content or lead or spoon-feed the client.

Motivation: Adults respond better to internal versus external motivators.

In the coaching context the client wants to learn because they have a personal goal even if this is linked to an external motivator such as promotion, they see the need to do the hard yards along the way.


This blog has identified that there is a long-term understanding underpinned by solid research that adults have particular traits when it comes to engaging in learning and ultimately in personal development. It has explored a framework around Andragogy to enhance the reasons why coaching might be a successful approach to adult learning, whilst recognising that there is a need to continually adapt and think through the coaching approaches and to use creativity in the coaching process. The use of Andragogy as a kind of checklist to assess why leadership and executive coaching can be more successful if we understand where the coachee stands on a spectrum of outcomes and understanding of these principles, might be a way of helping us to be more successful towards an artisan level of coaching craftwork.

If you want to find out more about the philosophy and concepts of Andragogy, including how controversial these ideas were when advocated by Knowles in the 60s and 70s, take a look at this excellent interview of Knowles in 1972 with interviewer Roger Hiemstra for the Nebraska Education Television Council for Higher Education (30 minutes)

As ever I'd love to know your thoughts and please get in touch if I can help you. If you like the article please like and share as feedback makes a huge difference - thank you.


*Knowles, M. S. (1968). Andragogy, not pedagogy. Adult Leadership, 16(10), 350–352,386. Wikipedia: Andragogy was originally termed by Alexander Kapp in 1833. Andragogy was developed into a theory of adult education by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.

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