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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue D ::: June 2002

Using a Learning Organization Approach to Enhance ABE Teachers' Professional Development

by M. Cecil Smith & Amy D. Rose
Professional development is defined as a change process "in which instructors gradually acquire a body of knowledge and skills to improve the quality of teaching for learners and, ultimately, to enhance learner outcomes" (Kutner et al., 1997, p. 1). Most adult basic education (ABE) teachers do not have degrees or preparation in adult education, so continuing education and training are deemed essential in the field (Crandall, 1993; Belzer et al., 2001). Professional development activities often fall short, however, in meeting practitioners' needs for training. By extension, they also fail to meet the needs of the ABE programs that rely upon them to increase teachers' skills and knowledge and improve performance in the ABE classroom.

We describe here an approach to ABE professional development and organizational change that can lead to greater alignment between ABE practitioners' needs and staff development offerings. We believe that professional development must be grounded in practice to facilitate teachers' transfer of knowledge learning and skills training to ABE classrooms. Such grounding is best accomplished through the adoption of a situated cognition approach to learning. Situated cognition involves the adaptation of knowledge and thinking skills to solve unique problems. It is based on the idea that knowledge is influenced by the activities, context, and culture in which it is used (McLellan, 1996).

The success of a situated cognition approach, however, requires a revamping of not only professional development training but also the manner in which ABE programs are organized. We advocate a shift from top-down organizational approaches to a collaborative teamwork approach that engenders a learning organization model (Senge, 1994). We call upon ABE program administrators and professional development trainers to adopt this model in working toward a closer alignment of teacher development with classroom practices.

The Problem

Professional development programs sometimes appear to be created and offered under the assumption that ABE teachers lack specific knowledge or skills. The result is that presenters seek to instill knowledge in teachers' heads as if teachers were empty vessels. This reflects a deficit-driven training model that Schon (1987) calls the technicalŮrational approach. Using this approach, someone identifies a deficit or gap to be filled and then training is provided to ameliorate that deficit.

Because many of ABE teaching's real-world problems do not come neatly packaged, practitioners may find themselves unable to transfer or adapt the technical knowledge obtained in professional development training to their classrooms. For example, teachers committed to a particular method of instruction may lack the flexibility needed to work with a heterogeneous population with a multiplicity of learning styles. The critical issue then, in Schon's (1987) view, is to redesign professional development so that it focuses more appropriately on the "actual competencies required of practitioners in the field" (p. 10).

ABE teachers may be highly motivated to improve their practices, yet the constraints of time and budget sometimes prevent them from carrying through with their plans. Also, the transfer of training from the workshop to the ABE classroom (i.e., far transfer) is problematic. The degree to which the knowledge and skills learned within professional development can be readily transferred from one teaching situation to another (i.e., near transfer) is likewise uncertain.

We do know that the kinds of knowledge obtained in artificial, time-limited in-service programs cannot be easily transferred to actual classrooms (Berryman, 1990; Perkins et al., 1990). The complexity, uncertainty, and "messiness" of classroom instruction can rarely be adequately reproduced within such programs. This lack of authenticity may impede both the transfer of knowledge from workshop to classroom and the transformation of instructors' knowledge into applicable teaching and assessment skills.

Given the apparent difficulty in achieving transfer of learning, how can professional development programs ensure that ABE teachers will be able to continuously improve their practice? Ideas from two theorists suggest some useful approaches to training. Cervero (1988) argues that effective professional education programs need to be contextually specific, not premised on the notion that teachers will simply go out and readily apply the concepts they have learned. By "contextually specific," Cervero means that learning is never independent of the situation in which the acquired knowledge is to be applied - in other words, cognition is situated in particular contexts. Learning activities, from a situated cognition perspective, appear as imprecise and complex problems within authentic situations. They require learners to discover relevant procedures for solving these problems. Therefore, simply informing ABE instructors about adult learning theories, with the expectation that they can then apply these theories in any teaching situation, is both unrealistic and ineffective.

Schon (1987) claims that effective practice is shaped by two forms of knowledge: knowing-in-action and reflection-in-action. Schon uses the term knowing-in-action to refer to behaviors that are "publicly observable" (p.25). In other words, we reveal what we know through what we do. Reflection-in-action occurs whenever our behavior (i.e., knowing-in-action) fails to bring about a desired result and we pause to reflect upon what went wrong. Such cognitive reflection leads to experimentation, according to Schon, and ultimately to new behaviors. The task, then, for professional development programs is to assist ABE teachers in pairing knowing-in-action with reflection-in-action.

The implications of these ideas for professional development are significant. As noted above, ABE teacher training that is isolated and abstracted from the real world of the classroom will be less effective in knowledge transfer than training that intricately connects the teacher, the classroom, and the to-be-learned teaching skills and knowledge. In recognition of this, professional development programs in which ABE teachers themselves assume the major responsibilities for planning, implementing, and evaluating their learning are increasingly common.

Facilitating Transfer of Training

Mikulecky and colleagues (1994) have described several approaches to training that can foster the transfer of newly acquired skills and behaviors. First, the trainer must explain and model the to-be-learned behaviors or concepts for the learner. This approach is, however, most effective if the new knowledge is also linked to knowledge that learners already possesses. For example, complex teaching skills (such as instructing learning-disabled adults in metacognitive strategies to increase their reading comprehension) may need to be broken down into simpler components so that ABE teachers can learn each instructional component in a systematic way. Having teachers think about their own metacognitive skills, and how they use these skills and strategies for learning, can therefore be useful in helping them to understand the processes of teaching others how to use such strategies.

Second, sufficient time must be provided for the learner to practice the to-be-learned skills, acquire the requisite knowledge, and adapt and modify what they have learned to fit their teaching environment. For this reason, single-session professional development workshops are largely ineffective in promoting long-term teacher change. Peer teachers or coaches may be particularly useful because they can monitor the practices of less-skilled teachers, provide corrective feedback, and help them adapt their knowledge to particular classrooms.

Third, the professional development trainer must provide substantial and specific feedback to learners regarding the adequacy of their skills or behaviors. The situated cognition model suggests that whenever learners serve as "cognitive apprentices" to experts, more effective learning can occur (Berryman, 1990; Collins et al., 1989). Thus, pairing skilled with less-skilled teachers in situations where learners have multiple opportunities to observe and receive coaching and constructive advice is effective. Putting their newly acquired knowledge into practice, ABE teachers can apply what they know (knowing-in-action), and can review and reconsider their methods (reflection-in-action) until they achieve mastery.

A situated cognition approach to professional development acknowledges that the movement from novice to expert teacher is highly complex. It also recognizes that expertŮnovice interactions are not one-way. Mutual decision-making and problem solving are involved, and expert teachers who model instruction are learning along with their less-skilled counterparts. Situated cognition is, therefore, highly consistent with Schon's ideas about reflection in practice, and can create seamless connections between professional development and actual classroom practices. Yet even situated approaches to professional development will be inadequate if the ABE programs themselves do not support teachers' critical reflection-in-action.

When ABE programs are structured to provide support for teachers to implement their newly acquired knowledge, transfer of knowledge, and the transformation of that knowledge into teaching skills, is enhanced. This is further supported by research on transfer demonstrating how transfer is determined and arranged by the social and cultural environment rather than being a capacity of the individual problem-solver (Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 1983). ABE programs must establish environments in which teachers can engage in the kinds of critical self-reflection crucial to improving their teaching. Such supports are best established, in our view, when ABE programs function as learning organizations.

Learning Organization Approach

According to Watkins and Marsick (1993), the learning organization "÷is one that learns continuously and transforms itself. Learning takes place in individuals, teams, the organization, and even the communities with which the organization interacts. Learning is a continuous, strategically-used process: integrated with, and running parallel to, work. Learning results in changes in knowledge, beliefs and behaviors. Learning also enhances organization capacity for innovation and growth" (pp. 8-9).

Learning organizations increase the capacity for organizations, and the persons within them, to adapt and change. Systemic thinking characterizes the individuals within learning organizations. That is, work roles must be considered within the context of a team, the work team's role within the organizational context, and the organization's role within a broader social context. Personal and professional development are crucial to the organization's success. For example, an ABE program can best function as a learning organization if the program's personnel challenge their prevailing assumptions and confront their own and others' reluctance to challenge established ways of thinking - and teaching. The ABE program's mission and goals must be shared among all members of the organization. This suggests a team-oriented approach to professional development. Team learning, in turn, requires a systems perspective so that all members see themselves, and all teams that make up the organization, as interdependent (Chase, n.d.). For an example of how one community college ABE program established a learning organization approach, see box below.

The ABE program at
Olney Central College

The ABE program at Olney Central College (OCC; Olney, IL) exemplifies a learning organization approach. The program employs one full-time and nine part-time teachers. A few years ago, OCC's Learning Skills Center Director, Donita Kaare, adopted a proactive approach to professional development. The ABE staff sought to serve better the adult students identified as having special learning needs. Kaare therefore enrolled in several professional development and training activities that focused on special-needs learners. She then had her entire staff participate in similar programs. The process of establishing a learning organization approach to ABE required about three years of work, according to Kaare. The result of this investment is that the ABE program today operates in a highly strategic and forward-reaching manner.

From a strategic perspective, every teacher is involved in professional development activities explicitly focused on helping the program to meet students' needs. These activities have included GED 2002 training, assessing learners with special needs, and using diagnostic and prescriptive approaches to instruction. Kaare reports that the ABE staff members now function as a collaborative team, mutually supporting and training one another. Often the teachers bring suggestions to Kaare for professional development activities they wish to pursue.

The forward-reaching features of OCC's learning organization approach are exemplified by the program's efforts to identify new areas of need. For example, the ABE program is now focusing attention on women's literacy issues and the provision of services for elderly learners. The teachers also make formal presentations to other groups and agencies, such as to rehabilitation services and adult literacy programs, regarding the characteristics of low-education adults. In doing so, the teachers gain confidence in their knowledge and skills.

Drawing from a variety of external and internal funding sources, Kaare has been very successful in supporting her teachers' professional development activities. Whenever staff members attend workshops and conferences, they share what they have learned with their fellow teachers in regular staff meetings that are highly structured and goal-oriented. Building a learning organization, according to Kaare, requires time, talent, and teamwork: "having a positive attitude towards learning and professional development" is essential to success.

The results for the OCC staff - and their students - have been remarkable. Over seven of the past 10 semesters, 95 percent of ABE students have successfully completed their learning programs. This compares to a success rate of approximately 75 percent prior to the program's evolution into a learning organization.

Contact Information

To learn more about how the ABE program at Olney Central College has implemented a learning organization approach, contact Donita Kaare by phone at 618-395-7777.

Thinking of ABE programs as learning organizations goes beyond the notion of professional development as simply "filling in" skill deficits and knowledge gaps among teachers. Adult learners and teachers instead work together to analyze the different classroom situations that arise. These interactions can lead to novel, yet appropriate, solutions to the problems of literacy teaching, learning, and assessment. The learning organization model thus presumes a critical perspective that enhances the possibilities for continual professional growth. ABE programs organized as learning organizations create "teaching teams" consisting of a mix of expert, competent, and novice teachers who consult in a continuing, strategic, and goal-directed manner. Expert teachers model effective instruction and reinforce less-skilled teachers' efforts at improving their teaching. Expert teachers also benefit from these interactions by reflecting upon their actions as trainers

Reflection and action are integral to the process of teacher growth and renewal. Both the learning organization and the individual must change, however, if true growth is to take place. It does little good for ABE teachers to engage in professional development if the programs in which they practice remain inflexible and unresponsive. Literacy organizations must be vital organisms that constantly anticipate and adapt to change: whether these changes are driven by societal concerns, legislative and policy actions, economic considerations, or learner preferences.

Finally, professional development outcomes occur at three levels: instructors, programs, and adult learners (Kutner et al., 1997). Although rarely measured, professional development also has an impact in several ways on the adult students who enroll in ABE programs. Their degree of satisfaction with the programs in which they are enrolled (in part, a reflection of their teachers' skills and knowledge), the learning gains that they make, and the ways in which their behaviors change as a result of learning can all be linked to their teachers' professional development activities.


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Perkins, D.N., Schwartz, S. & Simmons, R. (1990). "Instructional strategies for problems of novice programmers." In R. Mayer (ed.), Teaching and Learning Computer Programming: Multiple Research Perspectives. Hillsdale, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum.

Schon, D. A. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Senge, P. (1994). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Currency / Doubleday.

Watkins, K.E., & Marsick, V.J. (1993) Sculpting the Learning Organization: Lessons in the Art and Science of Systemic Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Acknowledgment: The authors thank Laurie Martin of the Adult Learning Resource Center (Des Plaines, IL) for her helpful suggestions.

About the Authors

M. Cecil Smith is a Professor of Educational Psychology at Northern Illinois University. He has conducted research on adults' literacy skills and practices for the past decade. He is currently collaborating with researchers at Portland State University on NCSALL's Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning, examining the literacy practices of low-education adults.

Amy D. Rose is a Professor of Adult Education at Northern Illinois University. She is currently serving as the Chair for the Department of Adult, Counseling, and Health Education at NIU. Professor Rose has written extensively about nontraditional and vocational education.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL