Not Nearly the Threat I Thought I’d Be

One of the last presentations that I did before I finished at William and Mary was to Mark Hofer’s doctoral class on student engagement. The topic was engaging adult learners, and it gave me the opportunity to look back over my time at William and Mary and to think about how it was shaped to a small set of core values about the way adults learn. These values are based on my belief that higher education would be more effective if we saw our core mission as helping our students become more effective and confident lifelong learners rather than as experts “delivering instruction.”

For me, the prime directive for understanding adult learning is:

Adult education is concerned not with preparing people for life, but rather with helping people to live more successfully [right now]. Thus if there is to be an overarching function of the adult education enterprise, it is to assist adults to increase competence, or negotiate transitions, in their social roles (worker, parent, retiree etc.), to help them gain greater fulfillment in their personal lives, and to assist them in solving personal, [professional] and community problems[1].

Within that prime directive, I’ve tried to stay true to several principles:

  1. Every learner is unique—as is every faculty member. Technology has given us extraordinary tools (bags of gold) to dig as deeply as we want to into areas of personal interest—and to help students learn to do the same. Our course designs should nurture that uniqueness.
  2. Learners are whole human beings. Thoughtful course design allows faculty members to be extremely creative in helping persons develop an integrated view of themselves as lifelong learners.
  3. The most effective classes are inquiry communities where participants work support each other in building new knowledge based on their individual backgrounds and experience. Engaging course designs allocate time to helping participants articulate and plan their own learning projects and to identifying ways they can help others accomplish their goals.
  4. Adults tend to organize their learning around solving problems rather than around “covering the material”. The simple shift to having students think about problems that they want to solve rather than assignments that they have to complete changes the dynamic of the class.

Through my discussion with the students in Mark’s class, it became clear that these core concepts are still seen as pretty radical, both by my colleagues and by many students. I feel a bit like folksinger Arlo Guthrie, who says that he still received a fair amount of attention from the TSA when traveling by plane. He acknowledges that most of the TSA officials have never heard of him, and he feels that he should let them know that “I’m nowhere near as big a threat as I had hoped to become”. When I finished my doctorate in Adult Education at Syracuse, I never thought these ideas would still be on the fringe of higher education practice 30 years later.