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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

So What is an Empowering Learners Partnership, Anyway?

Shelley Nash

The importance of adult education is still being discovered in the United States. The idea that the intellectual maturity of adults necessarily leads to intellectual independence is a commonly held and erroneous belief that has hindered progress in the field of adult education for some time. Adults, like children, rely on the expertise and support of others throughout the learning process in order to tie new knowledge to existing knowledge and to assimilate this new information in a way that makes sense. In fact, this process is at the heart of scientific and academic life, a life which university students and faculty have come to know very well. As an academic institution, Bryn Mawr College regularly provides opportunities for collaboration and mutual support in student and faculty learning with the rationale that such opportunities will enhance the learning experience for students and faculty alike. Unfortunately, staff members have traditionally been excluded from these kinds of interactions both with each other and with students and faculty.

In an attempt to provide this kind of support to its staff as well as its students and faculty, Bryn Mawr College is organizing and launching staff-student learning partnerships of a sort for which there is not much of a precedent. The ground-breaking nature of this project has meant that those involved are constantly asking questions and seeking information on how to best approach this kind of learning partnership. While the first participants in the pilot project were students in the Education Department who had already read a fair amount of material dealing with common questions in education, this will not always be the case. Even for these students, the dynamics of an adult learning partnership and the unique challenges such a partnership produces are relatively novel and confusing. In an effort to provide some support to both the students and staff involved in these partnerships, this paper will explore some of the challenges of this kind of learning environment.

How do I decide what I’m qualified to teach someone else?

If you can already think of lots of things you know how to do that you think you could teach someone else, you’re way ahead of the curve. For the rest of us, one of the more difficult tasks at the beginning of the partnership is figuring out what skills we have and which of these skills we feel comfortable teaching someone else. The first and most important thing to remember is that each of us has some kind of expertise in several areas, and that perfection is not necessary for us to be qualified to teach something. Even scholars are not experts in every area of their chosen field, no matter how impressive they might seem. With this in mind, don’t be afraid to choose to teach something about which you might not think you know enough—part of the point of the learning partnership is for both partners to learn and grow.

Choosing a subject is very difficult, especially for those of us who feel we really don’t have any skills that are useful to others. Many of us feel that our academic knowledge is the only marketable skill we have—that’s okay. Think about the skills you use in your classes, and the processes you go through to acquire and assimilate new knowledge. These processes are all valuable tools we have been explicitly taught in schools—no one innately knows how to write a research paper or how to take effective notes—and they are skills that many people have never been taught but would love to know. Hobbies can also be a source of interesting topics to teach, even if there are no “skills” involved. For example, if you are an avid follower of canine sports, and your partner owns a dog, you could set up a program of study involving dog history and care. Consider this a starting point for thinking about the ways in which you can bring your own skills and your partner’s interests together.

How can I build trust between my partner and myself?

Trust is an essential part of any relationship, but it’s especially important in learning partnerships. Inane “getting to know you” games aside, it is crucial that you and your partner develop some kind of trusting relationship. As learners, we require a certain amount of trust in our teachers in order to learn effectively—how else can we be expected to believe what they say or allow them to guide us into what, for us, is the unknown? The trust-building process will be very different for each set of partners, but its importance will not change; trusting your partner is one of the more important aspects of your learning partnership, because it will allow you and your partner to fully explore your subject material without fear or nervousness.

While it might seem obvious, the most important step to building a meaningful relationship with your partner is sharing things about yourself and your life. If you are a staff member, you are in the unique position to show a stranger to your community things about your life that can make her really feel like a part of the community in which you live: your home, family, hobbies, the stores where you like to shop, etc. If you are a student, this partnership is a wonderful opportunity to share your thoughts and background with a staff member; staff members see hundreds of students every day, but hardly ever get the chance to get to know anything about them. Either way, you can think of your partnership as an opportunity to get to know a real student or staff member, instead of having to rely on stereotypes or preconceived notions about what “kind” of person a student or a staff member might be. These partnerships, in general, are unique opportunities to create new relationships with people who you might not otherwise have the time to get to know. We all see hundreds of people every day who are rushing off to class, rushing off to work, or rushing off home to relax; we very seldom get the chance to get to know who these people really are, or have meaningful conversations with them. If nothing else, you can consider your partnership an opportunity to do just that.

How can I devise a good curriculum and create interesting, engaging lessons?

This might be the easiest part of the partnership, and it might be the most difficult—a lot depends on how comfortable you are in the role of being a teacher. While some people become very nervous when asked to take on the mantle of authority, it is important in this situation to remember the reciprocal nature of a learning partnership. Regardless of your feelings about collaborative learning in the classroom, a reciprocal learning partnership really is one situation where you do not have to be an all-knowing authority. In this situation, it is perfectly acceptable to rely on your partner’s own knowledge and expertise to help you create lessons that your partner will find informative and entertaining and which will reflect her own experiences and intellectual needs.

Many adults remember their years in school as either part of a blissful past free from responsibility, or as a frustrating institutionalized social prison. Either way, adults certainly come to the table with well-developed pre-conceptions about what school and learning should look like. It is important, before you really start in on your partnership, to learn what pre-conceptions your partner is bringing to the learning process. These pre-conceptions should—and will, whether you plan on it or not—dictate how you go about constructing and executing your lessons.

Neil Postman, in his book Building a Bridge to the 18 th Century tags the development of reason and critical thinking as the appropriate primary aims of education. If we believe this is true, then this goal should extend into learning partnerships as well as into institutionalized schooling. The main focus for planning lessons, then, is for both partners to be more or less equally engaged in the material being taught. With this in mind, lessons should be structured as to include both what the teacher feels is important in the subject and what the learner feels is important. Structuring lessons like this will require a significant amount of interaction and mutual planning with your partner.

If you are like me, you might find it difficult to surrender your own goals in the face of your partner’s sometimes conflicting goals—this is an essential skill to learn in the context of an adult learning partnership, and one which will come easier with time. It is important, however, for both teacher and learner to feel a sense of efficacy and agency within the context of the learning partnership, something which definitely goes against the grain of much of modern schooling but which is essential if you hope to hold the interest and attention of an adult learner. The good news is that because adult learners do have many well-developed, sophisticated opinions and ideas, they often have a lot to contribute to a learning situation and are often very aware of their own abilities and limitations. So developing a curriculum for your partner—while necessitating some juggling of mutual goals, desires, interests, and past experiences—can be an exciting and dynamic process, a learning experience in its own right.

These are, by no means, the only questions you should consider while experiencing your learning partnership. No doubt there are still many other issues you are questioning and attempting to work out, and everyone’s partnership is a little different than the next person’s. The point of this article, however, is to give you some issues to think about, issues which proved to be important in the pilot Empowering Learners Partnership program. These issues might not even be problems for you, or you might find that the discussion of them in this article is not particularly helpful in your own partnership. While I do not presume that I have given complete answers to these questions—maybe I have not provided any answers at all—I do hope you will see what is written here as a springboard for your own partnership. Please consider the questions written here as areas points of reference from which you can develop your own theories, and my answers as theories which can either be accepted or contested; in a learning environment as rich and exciting as an adult learning partnership, it’s really most important that each person find his or her own unique way.

Suggested Reading

Brookfield , Stephen , “ Community Adult Education: A Comparative Analysis of Theory and Practice , Comparative Education Review, Vol. 29, No. 2. (May, 1985), pp. 232-239.

Gatto, John Taylor , Dumbing Us Down, New Society Publishers, c1991.

Hicks, Deborah “Discourse, Learning and Teaching,” Review of Research in Education , Vol. 21. (1995 - 1996), pp. 49-95.

Kochan , Frances K and Trimble, Susan B., “From Mentoring to Co-Mentoring: Establishing Collaborative Relationships,” Theory into Practice, Vol. 39, No. 1, New Visions of Mentoring. (Winter, 2000), pp. 20-28.

Kristinsdóttir, Sólrún B. “Constructivist Theory,” an Icelandic website on the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner, c2001

Mullen, Carol A. , “Constructing Co-Mentoring Partnerships: Walkways We Must Travel,” Theory into Practice, Vol. 39, No. 1, New Visions of Mentoring. (Winter, 2000), pp. 4-11.

Postman, Neil Building a Bridge to the 18 th Century , Random House Inc., New York, NY, c1999.

Riddle, Elizabeth “ Lev Vygotsky’s Social Development Theor y,” a summary of Vygotsky’s theories.

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