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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

Adult Learners: The Promises of Voluntary Education

Amie Claire Raymond

Adults, in the legal sense, are people who have lived eighteen years. They are not required by law to attend school. However, adults do not stop learning once they leave school anymore than they started when they entered it. This handbook chapter is written for adults learners who are serving in the capacity of an extra-classroom teacher for other adult learners. Since learning, even in formal settings, is not automatic, it is useful to think of the reasons that adults intentionally learn. The reasons that adults engage in learning impact what and how they learn. In order to effectively teach in a student-centered and empowering way an extra-classroom teacher must understand the motivations and goals of the learner. I will first look at a list of reasons that adults learn and then examine the implications of this for extra-classroom practice.

1. To learn a specific skill.
examples: software use, home repair, resume writing, language proficiency

2. For entertainment or personal edification.
examples: guided tours of historic sites, museums, zoos, book signings

3. To maintain certification in a field
examples: Certified Public Accountant, Teaching License, Medical Practitioner License

4. To obtain a degree or admittance into a degree program, pass a test.
examples: Associates, Bachelors, Masters degree, GED, MCAT, GRE tests

5. To be regarded as a moral and/or powerful person.

6. To discern a vocation, gifts, or, skills.

These reasons are not separate, but overlap and intertwine in any given situation. In my experience all of these reasons can co-exist in one group of people ostensibly learning the same exact subject. I listed these reasons separately because they each carry expectations with them in an education setting. It is important for teachers to be aware of the expectations their students have of them. This is necessary if learning is to be inquiry based. A teacher must actively solicit the questions and needs of the students in order for those questions to be the basis of learning. It is not necessary, however, for a teacher to try to fulfill these expectations to the letter. The contract with the student is that they will learn, not that their experience will be conducted in the way they expect it to happen. The relationship between teacher and student needs to be reflexive, where both learners understand the other’s expectations.

Learning is not only gaining new information, but is primarily organizing that information into a hierarchy of importance. This is what the National Resource Council describes as expertise in How People Learn. Learners with a certain objective in mind will rank information that seems to support their objective as more important. A visitor with an interest in architecture touring Independence Hall will ask different questions than another visitor interested in paintings. Similarly, an undergraduate student planning to apply to graduate school may study towards getting high grades on a test, while neglecting to internalize the course material. (Elby, Another Reasons Physics Students Learn by Rote, Am. J. Phys. Suppl. 67).

The good news in this is that no lesson plan has to teach directly and specifically to each individual’s interests. Each student is going to draw out what they’re interested in from the breadth of knowledge available to them in a learning situation. The tour guide in the example above could give the same tour to two people with very different interests. Additionally, the tourists benefit from each others’ questions which they may find interesting though they hadn’t thought of them themselves. As an extra-classroom teacher I have found myself being both tour guide and fellow tourist. I have had to prepare myself well enough on a given topic to be ready for a variety of questions that I can either give answers to or suggest ways of finding answers. I prepare myself by thinking of my own questions and trying to anticipate questions that my students might ask. At the same time, it is the privilege of an extra-classroom teacher to be a tourist along with the students. This is because they have more opportunities to build relationships with individual students and are closer to the students level in the authority structure of a classroom. When I evaluate students work I try as much as possible to remember that I am a fellow tourist and make suggestions of further questions or perspectives the student might use. This turns evaluation from being just about right and wrong answers and towards a constructive framework of how to improve.

All learners build on what they already know. Some adult learners even have expertise in the field they are studying, and often the reasons for learning more about something come from some prior knowledge. For example, I met a student who had worked in Finance and was now preparing for Medical School to be a Physician. He brought with him not only Statistical Math skills but also a perspective that what he learned was not only for himself, but was so he could help others more effectively. The knowledge an adult learner brings into learning needs to be acknowledged not only as a starting point for further learning, but in a way that shows respect for what the learner has accomplished already. It is this previous knowledge a learner brings with her that blurs the roles of teacher and student, especially among adults. Adults all have varying areas of expertise and experience that place them alternatively in the role of a teacher and student. The extra-classroom teacher should be especially aware of her double-role of both teacher and student because mentoring and tutoring brings both adult learners together in a close relationship that allows them to each share their expertise more readily than in a classroom setting.

Most of the students I have taught as an extra-classroom teacher have been older than I. Questions are often raised in my mind and theirs to my authority as a teacher. An understanding that we are both there to learn from each other has helped me build the necessary confidence and humility to teach students older than myself. One of the students in my class was even my teacher officially in another class that I took. I found it easier to work with her than with some other students because both of us had an understanding that our roles were impermanent and interchangeable.


For others who may encounter similar questions of authority and expectations, I would like to suggest some methods I have used in my own extra-classroom teaching.

Ask more questions than you make declarative statements. Consciously monitor your own language as you converse with students and note how many times you make questions, give direction, or share information. Try to make the number of questions you ask greater than any other kind of communication. After awhile you will become more comfortable with asking questions and will not need to count.

Ask questions about the learner, what they are learning, and their reactions to what they are learning. As you are asking questions, monitor what kinds of questions you are asking. Make sure that you get to know the people who are learning as well as what they are learning. This will help you “tease out” the expectations the learners have of you. This is best accomplished when you have an honest desire to get to know the other learners.

Ask yourself the same questions that you ask your students. Ask Why am I here?” What do I know about the subject or discipline being learned? What do I dislike about it? What excites me about it? What do I want to learn more about? It would be useful to write these questions and their answers down. This will help you be more effective as a fellow tourist because you will have in mind the questions that you want answered and will communicate an enthusiasm for your own learning. Practice communicating your own thoughts when you interact with students. Ask them to help you answer questions you have or share how your discoveries have changed how you think about the world.

Encourage collaboration. If you are working with more than one person, encourage them to collaborate. This can be done simply by redirecting questions aimed at you towards another person. This can be as simple as saying “That’s a good question, talk about that with your partner.” When someone seems to understand something well, encourage them to share their knowledge. This will give more authority to the students themselves with regards to their own learning and they will be less dependent on you being the authority figure. (See the section on facilitation)
Be firm about any rules you are expected to enforce. You lose any authority that you need in order to maintain safety and a respectful environment if you try to bend rules to gain favor with students. Know what the rules are and the reasoning behind them.

Model collaboration with other instructors/teachers and other extra-classroom teachers. As an extra-classroom teacher you are a bridge between two communities of collaboration; the students, and the teachers. Communicate regularly with any other instructors about questions, problems, and successes that you have. The way you interact with other teachers sets the tone for how you will interact with the students. (See the section on collaboration)

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