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Reacting to Research; Supporting Learners

A Conversation with FOB...

Reacting to the Research; Supporting Learners

Focus on Basics asked two teachers who participated in the NCSALL Adult Development research what the experience was like and what they do to support cohort development and learner growth. Sylvia Greene (SG), a teacher from the Community Learning Center Even Start program in Cambridge, MA, and Matthew Puma (MP), a teacher at Polaroid for the Continuing Education Institute, Norwood, MA, share their experiences.

FOB:  What was it like to participate in this research study?

SG: It was really quite an extraordinary experience: a peek into what a major research study is like. One of the reasons I said yes was because I thought it would be interesting for me and my students to see how research works. A lot of them [my students] come from very faith-based societies and a western relativistic point of view is very foreign to them. They need to be able to adopt that point of view temporarily to get meaning from many texts, and, if it is one of their goals, to do well on a standardized test like the GED.

Being a practical person myself, I was fascinated and overwhelmed by the logistics of the project. Putting myself in the shoes of Kathryn Portnow and the other members of the team, the logistics seemed dizzying, in terms of telephone calls, letters, arranging times, unexpected changes, and then all of these things must have been multiplied threefold for them. Absenteeism comes with the territory with adult education students, so the researchers had to deal with make up interviews, and phoning people at home.

I was also interested in the instruments they were using. Kathryn was generous in sharing what she could about the instruments without violating the learners' confidentiality and privacy.

FOB: Did you know anything about adult development before participating in the study?

SG: I had taken an adult ed[ucation] certification course in 1977 given by Worcester State that touched a little on adult development, but it just skimmed over things. On my own, I had read some Maslow and Erik Erikson, but I've never taken a course in adult development. I learned the most at the end of the study when Kathryn sent me a rough draft of their monograph. [I learned] By reading that, about Robert Kegan's particular view, and a little about some of the theorists that he cites.

FOB: What did you think of their findings? 

SG: They were consistent with my own experience over the last 25 years. I think what was most useful to me was their division into the three kinds of learners. That construct was very useful to have. 

One of their main findings in relation to Even Start was how important the support of the group was. That's something I knew already and it corroborated what I knew. It was so nice to see that factor recognized and honored and put into print. It will be good for the adult ed community to see that validated by a major study.

Even Start mandates five components, one of which is some kind of parenting support. By nature, that gets people talking to each other about their own ideas about parenting. In addition, our particular Even Start believes in a strengths model. A lot of the focus of the component is getting the parents to share their own parenting strengths and concerns with each other, so they can support each other. We don't use a "canned" parenting program, which uses the premise that the parents have deficits. We do offer at the beginning of the year a menu of topics and participants choose the ones they want, prioritize them, choose the mode (speaker, videos, for example). That certainly gets the parents supporting each other.

FOB: How do you support students?

SG: The way we work in the two adult ed classes is to foster camaraderie, to try to encourage the parents to work together on whatever lesson they're doing. My colleague, Lally Stowell, is a master at that. She's very interventionist and proactive; she makes people talk to each other. She structures things in the class so people are always interviewing each other, reading aloud to each other. If they don't speak up, in her own way, she makes them. I think I've always created a safe and comfortable environment, but I haven't been as active in getting people in pairs or talking to each other. I've learned a lot from her about that. Those kinds of explicit habits foster a lot of camaraderie. I've seen people who are shy and nervous become the best leaders.

The whole staff does a lot of individual counseling that provides support for people who are struggling in various ways and who face all the kinds of stress that many ABE students are under, but especially low-income parents. It could be anything, from helping write letters or making referrals to programs with good immigration lawyers; it could be referring people to a therapist if they're having extreme problems with their children; it could be helping them to advocate with their kids' teachers. One of the mandates for Even Start is helping parents become involved with their children's schools. Lally does a lot of role playing and rehearsing, and then debriefing after school events. We also help the parents navigate the medical system. One finding of the Even Start statewide evaluation was that our staff has been not as empowering as they might have been. So we've been trying to work on that.

We also design curricula that come out of the background, experiences, interests, and concerns of the students. Our parents know that when someone joins the class from a country that hasn't been represented yet, we drop everything and study that country, and the new person becomes a resident expert. We learn about and celebrate any of the holidays from their cultures.

In parent and child time, we try to design activities around themes that come from their countries. For example, around Chinese and Vietnamese New Year we take shoeboxes and paint them red and put feathers on them and those become dragon heads for a parade. Around Haitian New Year we make squash soup, which was made originally by the wife of Toussaint L'Ouverture, one of the heroes of Haitian independence.

I think a lot of adult education teachers do these things naturally and therefore many will relate to the study's findings.

FOB: Will you do anything differently based on the findings of this study?

SG: The social/emotional learner is in a good place [in general], but I want those people also to be able to think in a self-authoring way as a result of the study. I've now seen which of my students are which type, so one thing to do would be to try to have the students who are self-authoring model for the other students. To
help them show their stuff in a way that isn't too didactic, to point out how helpful that way of thinking could be. I think it's a tough thing, because if you've lived 25, 35, 45 years of your life as a certain kind
of learner, it's hard to shift into a different way. I'm not sure how to do it. The researchers saw some people who were on the cusp, so maybe that's the person to take a look at, and see how to support that change. 


FOB: What was it like to participate in this research study?

MP: Being involved with the research changed the program to the positive. The way the researchers talked about what they were looking for provided me with language about the community of learners that gave me a way to conceptualize what ordinarily goes on in the program. That was very helpful. For example, we were in the midst of developing a curriculum for [a program at a] jail and the research team got me thinking about how the workplace gives you a good social environment in which to work. The meetings for the researchers were helpful in understanding how these two situations (jail and workplace) were different.

Also, the research team met with the students to do interviews. That had a beneficial effect in general. The students felt good because it made them feel that their participation in the research was important. The researchers were nice people and were looking to find out what people really thought. They were talented interviewers and could get beyond linguistic issues to get at that. 

The students don't usually reflect on how the program enhances their development, and [participation in the study] put it into their consciousness periodically; that was a good thing. 

The big payoff to me, besides being interviewed and therefore thinking about these things, was helping to bring to my consciousness to me a lot of what has been going on for 10 years in my teaching experience. I hadn't really given a lot of thought to developmental learning with adults before the research. As a teacher, you learn to manage these different people so that everyone is participating, but I didn't think of it in the same language as the study. I think differently now about how the students get their needs met.

FOB: Were there any drawbacks to participating in the study?

MP: No; even when they [the researchers] were there in class, it was not a problem at all. In fact, it was a positive. They were nice and helpful people. I never had the feeling we were being studied by lab-coated scientists.

FOB: Participating in the study gave you a new way to think about your work and your learners. Do you do anything differently now, as a result of learning about adult development and participating in the study?

MP: Actually, many of the changes that would be suggested by this study were already in effect because in the mid-1990s, we had changed our program to emphasize more group work. We wanted to get people speaking more and participating actively. This research did have a lot of effect on the jail curriculum and the design of that program. The whole issue of the community of the jail, we couldn't have one cohort go through the program. The goal was to have people come and go, so it became important for us to accelerate the socializing learning so the people could be more independent learners.

FOB: Your program was chosen as a research site in part because you provide the kind of support for learners that enables developmental change to take place. How do you do that? What does the support look like?

MP: A diploma consultant is available for all types of support, arranging for tutoring, for example. In addition, in the math class, for example, we had an assistant instructor who could stay after [class] to help students. A group of four or five often stayed together after class. We try to give people the constant message that there's no reason to give up and we're flexible about how we do it. We always encourage people to work together; people often think it's "cheating" to get help at home, but we encourage it. With the science course that I teach, arranging additional times outside of class so I can work with a smaller group, with computers available or at the library, really helps people. Then people get more out of the class, too, because they're not so anxious. Where we've had a computer lab available, the best thing is to have a designated time where the instructor is available and a group of students can come in and get help producing their papers.

At the beginning of the courses, we do a lot of icebreaker and getting to know you activities, such as human bingo. In human bingo, each person needs to answer a list of questions that all start with "Find someone who _______ "  to complete their bingo card. It's a really nice activity, especially when you have students from all over the world; people have to get up and talk to each other. It's a mixer that helps break down a lot of resistance to moving in the classroom, and talking to others. 

I also apply a method for brainstorming or collecting thoughts to everyday knowledge, so the content is not an obstacle. One example is to "design a house." We do a good number of those things. With many groups, the procedure of applying the method to a personal example and then to a more academic example is a good trick. Some people actually understand that the focus is just on the method and the content doesn't really matter. 

The main way to support people is through group work, with projects that are somewhat open ended but also have strict expectations and requirements. The groups write papers together. We provide leading questions for the papers, and really good guidance, but then if someone speaks up in class and says "I want to use my own questions," that's okay too. This just happened, actually. The woman who voiced this concern might be perceived as antagonistic, but she was really a more autonomous learner. Then one of the students who liked the questions said, "Use the questions, it makes it much easier." There was the instrumental learner. It gave me, the teacher, the opportunity to say that people have different approaches and that there's no right or wrong one. A few students will emerge as a bit of challenge to authority, and it's a great thing for everyone else to see that they can define for themselves how they're going to educate themselves.

We also encourage peer support: students help each other improve their papers. At the beginning there's a lot of resistance -"I'm not a teacher" - but eventually they get better at it. It lets people exercise their roles and learning styles, and helps the cohorts to form.

An important payoff of our program is keeping the people together: the cohort model does pay off, but it takes a while. There is a steep slope of development and learning after a long initial period. Part of it is the ritualization of the process. Once people have gone through it [paper writing] a number of times, they're really able to apply the whole process to a new situation, then their writing gets much better. You end up being amazed as a teacher that people can get from the material to writing about it quickly at the end.