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Letting Learners Lead: Theories of Adult Learning and TV411

Letting Learners Lead:

Theories of Adult Learning and TV411

by Debby D'Amico and Mary Ann Capehart
Do adult learners benefit from educational television? Can educational television support learner leadership and help teachers position themselves as facilitators? What do viewers actually learn? What can practitioners learn from research on the impact of educational television? These and other questions guide researchers from the Institute for Social Research (ISR) at the University of Michigan, as they study what viewers learn from TV411. Created by the Adult Literacy Media Alliance (ALMA), TV411 is a national television series that aims both to reach learners not enrolled in adult basic education (ABE) classes and to enhance the education of learners enrolled in such programs.

Findings from the Pilot Study

ISR has completed a pilot study of TV411 use by facilitated groups (Johnston et al., 1999). Facilitated groups differ from typical adult literacy classes in this way: in a class, a teacher takes primary responsibility for designing and delivering instruction that meets particular curriculum goals, even if he or she uses video, print, or other materials  in the lesson. In the groups in this study, in contrast, a number of features ensure that instruction is either materials- or learner-centered rather than teacher-centered.

The pilot refined the parameters of the overall research project and developed measures of learning impact. The results indicate that working with TV411 changed most participants' sense of themselves  as learners. Three measures support this finding. The first is that study participants, who were not enrolled in any other adult education program at the time, changed their future plans for education significantly over the 10-week course of the study. Two-thirds reported that they now wanted to complete a certificate of General Educational Development (GED) and others hoped to go to college or enter job training. The second measure is that participants' confidence about their ability to carry out specific literacy activities covered in the materials (such as using a thesaurus, or writing a poem, song, or essay) increased markedly. The third was that participants also reported an increased likelihood that they would engage in the specific reading, writing, and math practices presented in TV411 materials (such as reading a newspaper or editing their own writing),  as measured by a pre- and poststudy oral survey. The increase was strongest among literacy behaviors that were infrequent before the TV411 exposure, but also held for behaviors in which participants had engaged before the experience.

The 18 learners took the same two tests - one of math concepts and the other of writing mechanics - before and after the 10 week facilitated group study. Scores on the posttests were, on average, 16 percent higher than on the pretests. Both the changes in  self-concept and these learning gains occurred after only 10 weeks, or about 30 hours, of group study, which is much less time than is usually spent in conventional instruction before students are expected to show gains. Taken together, the results of the pre-and post-study tests and of the short weekly quizzes show that adult learners can improve their skills and knowledge by engaging with TV411 in a facilitated group setting, and that at least some of these learning gains are sustained.

Potential Impact on Practitioner Learner Dynamics

While many adult educators espouse learner-centered instruction and aspire to share decision-making power in the classroom with learners, two recent studies show that few classrooms really operate according  to these theoretical principles (Beder, 2000; Purcell-Gates et al., 2000). According to Purcell-Gates, adult literacy classes dramatically fail to reflect these prevailing beliefs about best practice for adults. Whether or not the facilitated group design of the study conducted by ISR represents a true collaborative setting, the extent to which learners took charge of the class genuinely surprised both the researchers and the instructors. The observations detailed below (derived from a second study, the results  of which have not yet  been published) suggest that using TV411 in a facilitated group setting fosters learner leadership  in the classroom, allowing ABE practitioners to realize their goals for learner-directed instruction.

A Practitioner's Perspective

Coauthor Mary Ann Capehart participated in the second study  of facilitated groups. None of her eight students had been in an adult education class for at least six months prior to the study. They were all without a high school diploma or GED certificate, and were all native English speakers or competent nonnative English speakers reading at grade levels five to eight as measured by the Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE). They were paid a stipend of $180 to participate. The group met twice a week for two hours each meeting, for 10 weeks; the pilot group met only once per week. During the 10 weeks, they watched nine videos and used nine workbooks. The meetings were scripted, to ensure that they conformed to the facilitated group model, which, in turn, ensured comparable data for the study.

The theories of adult learning  on which TV411 is based advocate active, learner-centered education. The materials seek to create a community of learners who direct their learning and increase their literacy practices: the facilitated group takes this a step further by creating a supportive community in which to do this. The group model required was initially threatening and uncomfortable for both learners and for Capehart, but, over time, the amount participants could learn from each other and by themselves was a revelation to all. The lead researcher, who has many years of experience with educational and media research, now feels that TV411, when used  in a facilitated group, is a catalyst for changing the way teachers teach and learners learn (Johnston & Petty, 2001, personal communication).

During the first meeting of each week, the group viewed a TV411 half-hour episode in its entirety and took before and after quizzes on the content. Following the viewing,  to identify a topic of interest for further study, learners discussed the content, asking questions of each other and of Capehart when the need arose. Sometimes, questions resulted in spontaneous mini-lessons, such as how to identify a prefix or calculate a percentage. At times, the group subdivided into smaller groups that examined their prior experiences with applying the skills they saw modeled in the video. Learners also evaluated the video from the perspective of what they found useful and why. For example, one learner said: "I really love learning new words because it makes me feel good about myself, and it helps me communicate on the job." 

At first, Capehart suggested when to break into small groups; by the third week, however, the learners were directing this themselves. During the second meeting of the week, the group worked on the accompanying workbook to the video; again, they chose from among the activities and extended these in any way they chose. Learners kept portfolios of work done in and outside of the group.

Capehart has always aimed to make the classroom inclusive by creating an environment in which each person is known, respected, and valued. This was easier to do with the facilitated group because the materials for the class were assembled already, making it possible to solicit people's honest opinions and preferences, and to get them involved on an aesthetic level, and because she modeled the desired behaviors for the group. Showing the video at the beginning  of the first class of the week draws everyone in, providing a shared experience. The modeling in the show, especially the true stories of adult learners, seems to build confidence, and may help participants ease into topics about which they may feel anxious. The people in the video episodes and workbooks are diverse  in many ways - geographically, ethnically, in age, in notoriety, in level of career accomplishment - which may help to create an inclusive climate  for learning. 

During the first meeting of Capehart's group, they worked on goal setting with the TV411 User's Guide, which was developed to enable learners to assess their learning needs and set their own learning priorities. For example, the reading assessment lists skills demonstrated by effective readers, and asks the learners how much they need to practice to do each activity well (a lot, some, a little, not at all). These lists were designed to empower the participants to evaluate what they needed to learn, and encourage them to become responsible for deciding when, where, and what to practice. The process also made everyone feel that they could already do some things, thus engendering a level of confidence. Learners became the ones who set  the course.

TV411 materials center the learning experience in real-life contexts, chosen for their meaning to adult learners. The familiar television genres used in the segments of TV411, as well as the use of celebrities, sports stars, and well-known authors, constantly connect literacy practices to the larger literate community. The students were excited to learn that Toshi Reagon, a songwriter featured in a segment on writing, for example, was appearing in a local concert.

Having the TV411 materials and general format for classes determined by the research protocol was surprisingly reassuring, for both Capehart and the learners. Too often, Capehart reports, she has not had enough books for all her students or the materials were poor-quality photocopies.  The physical appeal of the TV411 materials made an impression. Also, everyone in the group knew the content, how many videos there  were, how many the group would be watching, what material would be covered, and when. Each meeting had a routine that became familiar, so everyone knew what to expect. Learners could anticipate and direct what would happen within this overarching structure, and not depend on the whim of a teacher. They could count on a certain type of activity and decide what they wanted to emphasize.

Because of this, as time went on learners directed the group activity more and more. They would say, "We want to read this aloud together," for example. Because the subjects of the TV411 segments lead out into the world, learners, especially those who spent most of their time at home, felt less isolated. Some of the learners made it a point to see movies based on books featured in the book club segments of TV411, while others got the books themselves.

Personal Transformations

At the end of the group, a number of learners went to a drop-in GED site to be tested. One enrolled in a GED class. Another, who had been forced to leave school at 11, experienced the kind of transformation described by Mezirow (2000) and Kegan (2000). By putting her own feelings on paper, sharing them with the group, and accepting their feedback, she was moved to alter her sense of self and dramatically change her life. At the beginning of class, she confessed to being terrified of "making  a fool of myself in writing." During the course of the group, she read an article that said negative things about the work of nurse aides, which was her job at the time. She disagreed with the article, and wrote a paper about her experiences on the job, got furious, and in that crisis of anger made the decision to go back to school. She had four or five kids,  so it was not an easy decision. She said that she began to feel that her personal issues connected to larger issues, and to topics discussed in the media. Because of her experience  with the group, she saw that she did not have to rely only on her own resources: she could ask for and receive help from others.

During the group meetings, students decided that they learned best by sharing their work and encouraging each other to work on weak areas. Capehart recalled a tense moment when the learners decided, based on a time management exercise in TV411 video and print, to share their daily planners. The activities of those who were working and those who were not contrasted markedly. But the learners got past that. Capehart also realized that the group had formed a community when she noticed the Latina women and Chinese women beginning to speak across the  ethnic divide.

Perhaps the Milestones segments help people to talk without self-consciousness about the level of expertise they were attaining and how they were experiencing the process of learning. To see others like themselves telling their stories in engaging ways in a beautiful visual format is very different from a teacher telling them they can do it. It recasts their experience in the light of what they have seen others experience, putting it on an important public level. The workbook exercises are structured so that learners can experience success in the short term and boost their confidence about what they can do now and what they might try. They can work as much or as little as they are able, and they are still responding to the context.


One challenge for programs that use video is regular access to a TV and VCR for all instructors who  want to work in this way. Another is storage space for the set of videos and print. Watching video materials needs to become a routine part of class, otherwise it sets up the expectation of something that is special and apart from what is usually done, and not part of the learning experience. As adult learners and practitioners work more with technology, including both video and computers, we can hope to learn more about what kinds of literacy practices are best learned with what tools, under what circumstances, and with what kinds of learners. The short duration of the facilitated group in the study also raises the question of how long this level of interest and group rapport can sustain itself. Another challenge for facilitators is to address learner goals for achieving credentials. When a passing GED score is the desired end, learners need to understand how materials such as TV411 get them closer to that goal while not explicitly addressing it.

Conclusion and Implications

The quantitative and qualitative findings from the first ISR study provide a number of challenging possibilities for ABE practitioners. Using the TV411 materials in a supportive group environment has  the potential to impact adult learners in a positive way and lead them to take greater ownership of their own learning. Perhaps more interesting is the synergy that broadcast and video make possible among adult education programs, informal learning settings, and individual adult learners.

We want learners to lead, but they want teachers to give direction in their realm of expertise: the growth and use of literacy in the real world. Capehart's experience suggests that a set of materials that place adult learners in real-life settings, feature adults who acquired or improved literacy late in life as learning masters, and entertain and engage adults both intellectually and emotionally can, when combined with a supportive group structure, facilitate a learning environment in which the learners will lead.

Specifying which decisions are the province of learners yielded a way to allow learners to take center stage and could be adopted for this reason. Using materials that vary the voice  of knowledge giver or learning leader fosters comfort with a different kind of learning environment, and can help position instructors differently  in relation to learners.

Capehart suggests that a set  of enabling beliefs on the part of  the practitioner, coupled with a  type of modeling that occurs in the TV411 materials, are instrumental  in supporting learner leadership.  These enabling beliefs include:  1) confidence in the efficacy of  the materials and medium used (in this case, TV411 video and print);  2) belief in the ability of adults with  a low level of literacy to evaluate  their own learning and competency; 3) faith in practice as a primary means for improvement in literacy and numeracy; and 4) belief in the fundamental importance of modeling as a way of facilitating learning behaviors.

Regarding the latter, specific kinds of modeling facilitate learner leadership in the classroom:  1) modeling learning based on  a clearly defined and finite task;  2) modeling the kind of questioning that effectively spurs  the search for more information, examples, or explanations; and 3) modeling how to revisit materials to find answers and solutions to questions. Demonstrating these learning behaviors helps learners to experience,  not just hear, how important it is to articulate what they don't know; to understand that it is acceptable and normal to not understand things the first time; and to get comfortable with  the idea that no one, not even the "teacher," has all the answers. These beliefs and understandings are fundamental to establishing both facilitators and learners as lifelong seekers, and the classroom as a community of learners.


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About the Authors

Deborah D'Amico is a Research Associate with the Adult Literacy Media Alliance. She was a National Institute for Literacy Fellow in 1997.

Mary Ann Capehart specializes in integrating the computer into adult literacy and ESOL classrooms. She is a member of the planning and content design team of the Adult Literacy Media Alliance's new Web site, TV411 On-line and teaches essay writing on-line to ESOL students for the Borough of Manhattan Community College's Continuing Education Department.