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Malcolm Shepherd Knowles’ Biography Descriptive Essay

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Updated: Jan 12th, 2020


Malcolm Shepherd Knowles made a significant contribution in the field of psychology and specifically in adult education being one of the fathers of the American adult education. He is popularly regarded as “the father of adult learning’, especially after his ‘theory of Andragogy’” (Covey, 2004, p.23), which is said to have changed the way people learn in the present age especially adult learners.

The humanistic learning theory is also one of his famous contributions in the field of psychology after he influenced its development. The following is a biography detailing his youth, family, contributions in literature, and his famous works.

Life in the farm

Malcolm was born in august 24th 1913 to the family of A.D.Knowles who lived in Montana. His father, Dr. A.D Knowles, was a veterinarian who used to take him out on his trips around the place when he was just the age of four years. This, as seen later, contributed towards his vast listening skills and knowledge in his area of specialisation.

His father would engage him in adult conversations along their trips, which may have also contributed to his early maturity. As he confirms, “While driving to and from these locations, we engaged in serious discussions about all sorts of subjects such as the meaning of life, right and wrong, religion, politics, success, happiness, and everything a growing child is curious about” (Knowles, 1989, p.2). His mother is also described as one who helped in moulding him in his childhood especially in developing social skills and cooking.

Knowles also developed a marked interest and enthusiasm for the scout movement in his youth thus later ending up being a good boy scout. He states that he earned over fifty badges in the movement. He was in several leadership positions where his leadership skills were put to test to be sharpened (Knowles, 1989, p.3). His stay in Montana was not long since the family moved to West Palm Beach, Florida.

The move was because of the switch of jobs that the dad had, which meant acquiring a house there. He joined a local secondary school by the name “West Palm Beach High School, where graduated in the year 1930” (Covey, 2004, p.24). This was the beginning of his academic fortune. He graduated with honours and landed a scholarship at the Harvard University.


His stay at the Harvard University was mostly occupied by scout organisations though this did not end his love for literature and learning in general. At the university, one of the influences that Knowles got came from Alfred North Whitefield who was a lecturer in philosophy.

There, he pursued a degree in the Bachelor of Arts, which he graduated with in the year 1934. He also did international law history, literature, and political science. Some of the extracurricular activities that he got involved in included student organisations and social groupings in the school.

He served as the president of the Philips Book House, Harvard Liberal Club, and a secretary in the New England Model League of Nations (Knowles, 1989, p.6). During the four-year stay at the Harvard University, he met his wife-to-be, Hulda Fornell, whom he married later. In the year 1946, he started his Master of Arts degree in the University of Chicago as he worked as the Young Men Christian Association Director of adult education in the city.

As Covey (2004, p.25) confirms, “He pursued his PhD in the same university between the years 1951-1959 as he worked in the prestigious position of the executive director in USA Adult Education Association”. Shortly after completing his PhD, he got the invitation of being an associate professor at “the University of Boston in the field of adult education” (Covey, 2004, p.26).

He accepted this chance and proceeded to do research along this line of interest. About 14 years of his life were spent here after which he left to join the North Carolina State University’s school of teaching in 1974. In this institution, he spent about four years before retiring in 1978. Until his death, he lectured in institutions such as “Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara and in the University of Arkansas (Jarvis, 1987, p.171), mostly in the field of clinical psychology.

Publications and Works

After finishing his studies at the Harvard University, Knowles got a place at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy after which he married Hulda. He therefore needed to make a living when he became a staff in the “Massachusetts National Youth Administration” (Knowles, 1989, p.7).

His work entailed researching the employees’ needs for local companies, designing educational curriculum that suited them, and looking for youths to take up the courses. It is during this job “he met Eduard Lindeman who was then involved in NYA training supervision” (Knowles, 1989, p.7). This became his long time mentor with whom he later did various works. He had a deep admiration for his mentor.

The works that they did together were some of his favourite, as he states, “I was so excited in reading it that I couldn’t put it down…It became my chief source of inspiration and ideas for a quarter of a century” (Knowles, 1989, p.8). In the year 1940, Knowles got the chance to work for YMCA. Later in 1943, he was drafted in the US Navy. He later got the job as the Chicago YMCA director of adult education, which was crucial in helping him with the financial needs of the class.

While he was here, he met another mentor, Cyril O. Houle, who he describes as having a passion and commitment for scholarly learning approach (Knowles, 1989, p.8). Other influential people during his stay here included Carl Rogers and Arthur Shedlin who were his associates. He began his writings with the work entitled Informal Adult Education, which was much influenced by his first dissertation that he wrote in 1950.

His advancement in adult education earned him the prestigious position of the executive director in Adult Education Association of the USA, which had just recently been formed. After attending various training sessions with the National Training Laboratories, he jointly authored books with his wife Hulda. The first book was finished in 1955 tackling the topic of Leadership while the second premiered in 1959 with the topic of Group Dynamics (Knowles, & Knowles, 1959, p.9).

The founders of NTL including Kurt Lewin, Leland Bradford, Ronald Lippet, and Kenneth Benne, were of great influence in the publication of these books. In his book, Jarvis states that Knowles influenced the upward growth and existence of adult education at the Adult Education Association during his nine-year tenure (1987, p.170).

His book published in 1962, detailed his achievements in adult education in the US besides what needed to be achieved. It went on to be the reference book for more than a decade even though it was not an elaborate historical study (Jarvis, 1987, p.171). In the year 1959, he started working for Boston University where he developed the graduate program. Here, most of his well-known texts were authored.

These included The Modern Practice of Adult Education published in 1970 and later The Adult Learner, which was first published in 1973. These books propagated his popular notion known as Andragogy as will be discussed below. While he was at the North Carolina State University, he was able to popularise his ‘andragogical model’ (Knowles, 1989, p.21) besides reviewing his key texts. Later on in the year 1975, he wrote the book Self-Directed learning, which was among his best and last books to be published.

His works continued even after his retirement in 1979 where he participated in consultancies, workshops, and writing. He authored over eighteen books and two hundred and thirty articles including; ‘The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species’, ‘The Modern Practice of Adult Education’, ‘Using Learning Contacts’, and ‘Adult Education’.

Theory of Andragogy

As stated above, Knowles made a significant contribution to the field of psychology and specifically adult learning. Most of his famous and popular works and theories were in this line of study.

Though initially described by Alexander Kapp (HEWITT, & Mather, 1937, p.243) who was a German, Andragogy was adapted by Knowles who did a lot to popularise and develop it as a theory in adult learning. This came from a conviction that the process of learning was different in adults and children (Knowles et al., 1984, p.12). The origin of this was from his previous works in adult education that was generally informal.

The notion of andragogy provided an apt mechanism of consolidating and combining all the elements of adult education previously described. About five crucial assumptions in the theory on the difference of adult learning from children learning were crafted. The initial four were by Knowles himself though the fifth one was added much later. These assumptions are Self-concept, Experience, Readiness and Orientation to Learning, and finally Motivation to Learn (Knowles et al., 1984, p. 12).

He claimed that, with maturity, an individual shifts his/her self-concept from dependent personality to that of a self-directed person. As a person grows in age, it is observed that learning is augmented by the increased experience that cumulates chronologically. Maturity also evokes readiness to learn based on the social roles played by the individual who develops an internal motivation to learning (Knowles et al., 1984, p.12).

Later Days

Malcolm S. Knowles retired from his active publishing and writing in 1979. This did not stop him from contributing to the field of psychology in the form of workshops and seminars. He continued to write until his death in November 27th 1997.


As seen above, Malcolm S. Knowles gave significant contribution to the field of psychology and learning. His career was marked by very important ‘firsts’, as detailed in the comments by various people around him during his time.

He became the origin of the adult education movement in the US, the source of a comprehensive theory on adult learning, and the first to apply the principle of informal learning observed. He was an innovator in the field of teaching, leadership, and writing, which is evidenced in the numerous works he published. He remains among the most influential scholars of the 20th century whom people will eternally celebrate.

Reference List

Covey, S. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: restoring the character ethics. New York: Free Press.

HEWITT, D., & Mather, K. (1937). Adult Education. A dynamic for democracy. New York, London: D. Appleton-Century Co.

Jarvis, P. (1987). Twentieth century thinkers in adult education. London: Croom Helm.

Knowles, M. (1989). The making of an adult educator: An autobiographical journey. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M. et al (1984). Andragogy in Action. Applying modern principles of adult education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Knowles, M., & Knowles, H. (1959). Introduction to group dynamics. New York: Association Press.

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