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Developing Adult Learners: Strategies for Teachers and Trainers.

Developing Adult Learners: Strategies for Teachers and Trainers

by Kathleen Taylor, Catherine Marienau and Morris Fiddler

Jossey-Bass, 2000, Paperback. $32.95

Conventional wisdom holds that adult learners -- individuals over 25 who have had a significant break in their formal schooling -- require the use of teaching techniques that differ from those appropriate for a classroom of traditional undergraduates. This view is grounded both in psychology, -- notably the work of Dr. Jean Piaget, known for his research on thought processes of children, and Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg, most noted for his Theory of Moral Development, -- and experience. "Developing Adult Learners: Strategies for Teachers and Trainers" offers instructors an exceptionally well-written blend of theory and practice that goes far beyond the conventional wisdom in promoting the optimal learning of the adult.

For those familiar with the pioneering work of renowned professor Cyril Houle, "Developing Adult Learners" reflects the tremendous strides that have been made within the last two decades in our understanding of the unique needs of the adult learner. Most instructors recognize that the older learner demands relevance. Whatever the subject being taught, it must be immediately applicable to the life situation of the adult learner, whether on the job or in the home. Similarly, it is generally accepted that the actual experience of learning must be active -- it must engage the adult learner as a full participant in the process of his or her own learning.

But in "Developing Adult Learners," the authors argue that even more essential to the effective instruction of adults is the creation of settings or "environments" in which the learner participates as a true co-equal in his or her own learning. As one contributor wrote, "Ordinary people are quite capable of developing their own ideas and working together in a cooperative inquiry group, to see whether these ideas can make sense of their world and work in practice."

The authors develop this argument over three sections. The first, "Concepts and Foundations," sets the authors' views within a broad theoretical frame, work.

Apparently unable to resist the attraction of jargon, it is in this section that the authors introduce the term "dialogical" to describe the process of optimal adult learning. Put more directly, the authors contend that effective adult learning must be grounded in a developmental dialogue between the self-directed learner and his or her instructor and fellow students. In this context, knowledge is transformed from static fact -- acquired by a simple transmittal of information from an informed instructor to an uninformed student -- into context-based concepts, acquired by the adult learner through structured interactions.

Also within this context, the instructor's primary responsibility becomes the creation of the structured settings within which the "dialogical" process occurs. Ideally, the instructor provides the adult learner with the opportunity to examine the perspectives of others in the area under study and especially to examine his or her own values and beliefs.

In contrast to the work's first section, its second could not be more clear and, for an instructor of adults, more useful. Very simply, the authors have gathered a rich body of "best practices" employed by adult instructors in a wide range of settings. Following a well-organized and highly structured format, each technique is described, both with respect to its intended outcomes and its method of delivery, by an adult learning practitioner experienced in its use. Moreover, every practitioner provides his or her e-mail address in the book, inviting inquiries from instructors who may be considering the use of a particular technique. For the instructor of adults who may feel isolated, this section offers not only a wealth of new strategies and techniques, but also the opportunity to connect with other experienced practitioners in this underappreciated field.

In its third section, the work shifts its focus from the adult learner to the instructor. Within this section, readers are strongly encouraged to closely review the chapter "Teaching and Training Matters." This chapter offers a frank discussion of both the obligations of the adult instructor and many of the challenges faced by those who endeavor to fulfill these obligations.

Of the various challenges discussed, possibly the most perplexing is the adult student resistant to learning through nontraditional methods. Whatever the reason -- years of socialization in the conventional lecture method, a lack of self-confidence, or a reluctance to accept responsibility for one's own learning -- many students, the authors observe, tempt the instructor to revert to an authoritarianism that, in the long run, is not in a student's best interest. Traditional didactic methods not only preclude an adult learner's growth through self-discovery, but also reinforce the erroneous idea of the instructor as the sole arbiter of knowledge. Recognizing that knowledge is acquired and affirmed through an individual's direct experience, instructors must, the authors stress, actively resist this temptation when confronted with the passive adult learner.

For the community college instructor concerned primarily with the instruction of adults, particularly in such nontraditional settings as the workplace and community organizations, "Developing the Adult Learner" will quickly become an essential resource. It offers both a wealth of well-tested strategies and thoughtful guidance rarely combined in a single work. Even if one has difficulty embracing the authors' theoretical framework (particularly their contention that truth is wholly a construct, without permanence), the work itself contains much that is insightful and useful.

-- Dr. R.P Pedersen is a former Senior Editor of COMMUNITY COLLEGE WEEK, and maintains the Web site junior-college-history.org.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:PEDERSEN, R.P.
Publication:Community College Week
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 30, 2001
Words:901
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