I suspect that over the next 10 weeks or so I’ll be writing quite a bit about the course I’m teaching this semester, so let me provide a little bit of background.  The class is an elective graduate class in the Educational Policy, Planning and Leadership program at William and Mary.  The title is Adult and Continuing Education Practice and Policy, and it’s framed around principles of andragogy, defined as the art of teaching adults, rather than around pedagogy, the science of teaching children.

That’s the broad framework.  There’s significant discussion within the AE community about the degree to which adult learning is substantively different than other kinds of learning.  I side with those who think that adult learning is qualitatively different–a learning activity with 20 folks over 35 is much different than a learning experience of 20 eighteen year olds.  Neither is better–they are just different.

Malcolm Knowles, who popularized the notion (theory/framework) of andragogy, identified a core group of characteristics that differentiate adult learners.  (His conception changed over the years in various versions of his writing, but the essence is captured in these four principles.)

  • Being an adult–in most western societies–is defined as being responsible for directing your own life, and often, those of others.  Adults learn best when then they have control of what they learn and how they learn it.
  • Adults bring rich experience to their learning and that experience can be a powerful resource for learning.  (Not always, though.  Sometimes experience makes new learning more difficult without significant unlearning.)
  • Most adult learning is embedded in “real life” rather than abstracted in the way schools usually organize learning.
  • Much (not all) adult learning is problem-centered and interested in immediate application of knowledge.  Some adults participate in learning activities because they enjoy the social interaction with other learners.  Others enjoy the learning for its own sake.

From those assumptions, we draw three principles to start the planning process.  (Many more will emerge as we learn together.)

  • The organization of the course has to provide ways for learners to be significantly involved in the planning and evaluation of the course activities.
  • Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities.  Learning activities will be richer and more effective if they are tied to direct and previous experience.
  • Adults are most interested in learning  that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.  Learning is real life–it is not preparing for real life.

In this course this plays out in a set of procedures and processes.  Some of them include:

  • We don’t develop the overall syllabus until after we have had a chance to get to know each other.  Through conversation, structured activities and some preliminary class exercises we get a sense of the goals, aspirations and experience that each participant brings to the group.
  • The “course content” is highly individualized and grows out of the genuine needs and interests of the learners.  We manage that through the use of an individualized learning contract which specifies the grade to be earned, the expectations for earning that grade, the learning objectives that will be completed, a rough time line, and an evaluation plan.
  • Learning contracts are developed by the individual learner in collaboration with the course facilitator and other members of the learning group. Because learning in real life is messy and unpredictable, contracts are subject to ongoing negotiation.
  • Blocks of time during class meetings can be scheduled by any class participant to address a topic of interest or to get some assistance with their learning projects.  (This is an experiment in this class.)
  • Each learner will also work on refining a process of reflecting on his/her learning project that incorporates some combination of a learning diary, reflective journal of some sort, some method of critical reflection and whatever other components might be required.

Because the actual learning activities are so highly individualized, this reflection piece is what binds us together as a learning community, as opposed to group of graduate students working on independent study projects.  There are four reflection questions that we’ll look at from a variety of perspectives over the entire duration of the course.

  • What have I learned today, this semester, this week?
  • How did I learn it?
  • How might I learn it differently, maybe even better, in the future?
  • How might I help someone else build on my learning?

We’re at the point in the course where we know each other a little bit, and most folks have defined their learning projects.  The next step is to try to pull what we’ve learned so far into the construction of the syllabus.