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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue B ::: October 2001

Common Ground

Theories of Adult Basic Education and the Practice of Career and Technical Education

by Lynne M. Bedard

"I take it that the fundamental unity of the newer philosophy is found in the idea that there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education."
 (Dewey, 1938, pp. 19, 20)

 The career and technical center where I teach is located in an urban environment and serves a diverse population of approximately 500 students. Programs in the school cover a wide range of areas, including auto technology, collision repair, graphic design, health occupations, construction technology, computer science, child studies/human services, travel and tourism, finance, and a Cisco networking academy. Because of the nature of hands-on learning, the school follows a four block schedule; each block is approximately 90 minutes long. Students in the  first year spend one block in their career and technical program, while advanced students may be assigned to two blocks so they can participate in internship experiences.

In my position as a career and technical educator, I have witnessed the power of experiential learning. Both adult basic education teachers and career and technical instructors recognize and respect the value  and richness of experience. I have discovered that experiential learning makes learning more relevant because it enables students to apply what they are learning. Often, students have arrived in my classroom unsure of their direction. Sometimes they have already become bored with and disconnected from school and learning. Some students have even been told that they are not bright enough to consider college or any other postsecondary educational opportunities. At the other end of  the spectrum, a few misinformed guidance counselors have occasionally discouraged college-bound students from enrolling in a course  at the career and technical center because these students are considered to be too smart. This tactic perpetuates the false notion that courses promoting experiential and applied learning should be limited to those individuals who will go right into the work force without attending college or seeking further training. Image problems still plague career and technical schools, and the curriculum is sometimes perceived to be less rigorous and challenging than that found in comprehensive high schools. This is a false assumption.

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning provides the sturdy foundation upon which the programs in the career and technical center where I work are built. I am one of two instructors who coordinate the three-year child studies/ human services program. This program is scaffolded to build on each new experience, just as adult basic education builds on experience.  In the first year of the program, students study theory related to  early childhood education and they learn to work with preschool-age children in our on-site Early Childhood Center. During the second year of the program, students study the growth and development of school age children, and they complete internships in elementary classrooms within the community. Students then go on to focus on special education, and they intern in a variety of settings including medically fragile, mild/moderate, severe/profound, and English  for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classrooms. Upon successful completion of the program, students become eligible to receive state approval as teacher assistants because the program has met state standards for teacher assistant certification. Through the development of an articulation program with a local community college, students may also earn three college credits.

Within the framework of the child studies/human services program, the internship experience is a critical piece in a student's professional and personal growth. This internship opportunity is directly linked to the psychological/cognitive approach to adult learning. Clark and Cafarella (1999) describe the psychological/cognitive approach as being one that focuses on a person's Žinternal development processes' in interaction with the environment (p. 5). Humans are viewed as active participants in their own development who construct knowledge rather than responding  to existing knowledge (1999). As educational endeavors, both adult  and career and technical education promote the active participation of individuals in their own learning. In both cases, learning through experience and building on experience  are valued and respected forms of pedagogy. Experiential learning can be employed as an effective instructional tool. Kolb (1984) defines experiential learning as being the process of learning from experience that shapes and actualizes developmental potentialities (p. 133). For many of the so-called non-traditional students enrolled in schools today - minorities, the poor, and mature adults - experiential learning has become the favored method of instruction in colleges and universities (1984). Experience-based education can include a diverse  range of programs, from role playing activities in the classroom to venturing outside the walls of the school in order to pursue real world opportunities. Shadowing, where a student spends time observing in a particular work environment, internships, field placements, workŮstudy assignments, cooperative education agreements, and apprenticeships (1984, p.3) offer students a chance  to explore the real world of work. These innovative and engaging opportunities can make learning  more meaningful while strengthening the critical connections between education, work, and personal development, and ultimately affirming the concept that learning  is a lifelong process (1984, p. 4). Murphy (2001) believes that using instructional methods that focus learners' attention on concrete application of theory in the practicum setting also enables them to enhance their reasoning skills. The psychological/cognitive approach to adult development contends that people reach more complex, integrated levels of development through their active involvement with their environment (Baumgartner, 2001). Peering through the lens of a practitioner, I have found this to be true, and what's more important, my students have too.

"I think that this internship experience has had a huge impact on my choice of a career. Without my internship experience, I don't think that I would have made it through high school." These are the words in  a journal entry written by Allyson, a second year student. Allyson enrolled in the career and technical center as a tenth grader and she is now a senior in the program. Her educational journey through the maze of middle school and high school has been fraught with barriers and she struggles daily to find her way. Allyson's home life is difficult and she suffers from depression that requires medication. She has also been diagnosed with a chronic kidney ailment, so attending school has been a challenge for her. In her first year in the class, a combative attitude sometimes colored her behavior, and her future in the program was in doubt. Allyson entered the second year on academic probation and she was not assigned to an elementary school internship until November (other students had been placed in early October). Although  I was hesitant to place Allyson in an elementary classroom, I finally assigned her to a teacher whose caring nature became an essential ingredient in Allyson's progress. The classroom teacher and I closely monitored Allyson's performance, and within  a few weeks both her attitude and  her attendance improved. The classroom in which she was placed was constantly challenging and many of the students had behavior issues that complicated their ability to learn. Once she became immersed in her field experience, Allyson began to look forward to coming to school and she began to focus more on her school assignments. She has blossomed because she has found a place where she feels she belongs. Allyson's story  is not unique in career and technical education, and students enrolled in adult education also have similar stories of obstacles they have encountered during their pursuit  of learning.

At the heart of Allyson's success is the internship experience, and her increased motivation is evidence of her achievement. When evaluated  on a rubric that measures 16 teacher assistant competencies, Allyson exceeded the standard in 10 areas,  and she achieved the standard in the remaining six areas. According to her cooperating teacher, Allyson has made excellent strides in her classroom behavior management skills and,  as the year progressed, she became more effective in her ability to communicate with both children  and adults. Her enthusiasm has been described as Žwonderful and sincere' and Allyson never once displayed  a negative attitude and was always positive and open to suggestions. She also followed through on feedback that she received. In the classroom she showed a sense of humor and she reacted to the children in a sensitive and caring manner. Inspired by her internship experience, Allyson wants to learn more and her goal is to keep improving her skills, but still lingering in her mind are the memories of a teacher who once told her that she would always be a failure. It is my belief that instructors who work in adult basic education as well as those in career and technical education must sometimes mend the damage done by prior negative learning experiences in order to enable the learner to move forward. 


A significant component of the internship experience in my program is reflection. Students are required to reflect daily and write these thoughts in a journal, which is submitted to  me weekly. This pushes students to think critically about their internship experiences, which helps them to attain a more integrated perspective. Emily, a student who graduated recently, is an extremely quiet and shy individual who exemplifies the power of reflection. Her true voice emerged slowly from each filled page in her reflective journal. Emily always sprinkled precise details throughout her reflections of each day's activities at her internship in a special needs classroom at a local elementary school. Described as mild/moderate, this classroom includes children with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). Emily analyzed occurrences  in the classroom while commenting about changes that she observed in the children as the year progressed. Her insight became so highly developed that her cooperating teacher commented that Emily's insight into children and their learning challenges is the best she  has seen in 22 years of supervising both high school and college interns. The entry in the box is an example  of the thick, rich description found  in Emily's journal.

Cruz is Puerto Rican, and he has tan colored skin, brown eyes, a small pointy nose and neatly cut black hair. When his mouth is closed, the lump on his upper lip emphasizes his overbite. When Cruz walks, he walks with a hop because he walks on his toes. He lives with his grandmother and a cousin, and the language spoken at home is Spanish, but Cruz is limited in both Spanish and English. In the classroom, he enjoys being on the computer, and he likes playing games that deal with coloring, matching, and putting puzzles together. When a timer signals the end of computer time, Cruz gets upset and throws the timer so hard it has to be replaced. Throwing things is one of the ways he deals with stress.

Emily was offered full scholarships (one totaled $25,000 per year) to two schools, and she chose to attend a local university to pursue a course of study in early childhood and special education. Before she attended the career and technical center, Emily led a rather sheltered life and rarely went out after school. Because her internship required her to venture into a new environment, Emily emerged from her cocoon  and she became more aware of her community. As she spread her wings she began to feel more comfortable working with children and adults.  To my surprise, Emily even decided to live on campus this year!


Dialogue is another technique that I find effective in linking the classroom with the real world. It provides students with the opportunity to share their experiences, which enables them to feel that they are part of a learning community. Students enjoy talking about children in their classrooms, and sometimes they ask each other for suggestions about a lesson they are planning or for tips on how to handle a behavior problem. Through dialogue, students also feel more secure talking about cultural and societal issues. Because of the diversity of both my students and the children that they work with at their internships, a message of the importance of cultural awareness and respect is threaded throughout my curriculum. I often assign students articles to read that focus on diversity to cultivate critical thinking that in turn will generate meaningful discussion.

Vygotsky (1978) supported the contextual approach to development: he believed that people are not separated from the contexts in which they live, but instead they are part of them. When students are empowered by their school experiences, they develop the ability, motivation, and confidence to succeed academically and they go on to participate effectively in instruction because they  have developed a confident cultural identity (Cummins, 1983).

Dialogue is also an effective technique when utilizing a contextual/sociocultural approach in the classroom. Wlodkowski and Ginsberg (1995) believe that to enter into dialogue and then uncover and acknowledge the voice of each student is necessary for understanding that whatever each of us has to offer is grounded in political, social, historical, sexual, and economic context that is unique yet related to the culture of others (p. 171). Too often, the teacher's voice is one of universal authority and universal truth. Joining learner expression and language with teacher expression and language enables the perspectives of all learners to be shared and included in the process of learning (1995). Culturally responsive classrooms promote dialogue and reciprocity,  and foster trust, respect, caring, and  a sense of community (Bedard, 1999). 

Dialogue with others is integral to adult learning and development (Mezirow, 1991). Shor and Freire (1987) describe dialogue as "the moment where human meet to reflect on their reality as they make it and remake it" (pp. 98-99). Through dialogue, which is the process of communicating, challenging, and affirming meaning, the world is transformed. Both adult and career and technical educators often witness this transformative process in their students' lives.

Teachers such as myself support the concepts of reflection and dialogue to maximize the potential of experiential learning while promoting more integrated development of students. Mezirow (1990) purports that through reflection, individuals often arrive at "a more inclusive, differentiated, permeable, and integrated perspective" (p. 14).  In a recent study of student nurses, Murphy (2001) found that those students with the highest scores in clinical reasoning reported a high frequency of the use of focused reflection and articulation, engaged  in abstract learning, and were more self-regulated in their learning than those in the study who scored low  on clinical reasoning.


After 21 years as a career and technical educator, I realize that  a variety of links do exist between theories woven tightly through the fabric of adult basic education and career and technical education.  Both adult and career and technical educators are committed to preparing a diverse group of people to navigate successfully through the uncharted waters of a rapidly changing economy and society. From my perspective as a practitioner, I have come to believe strongly that the essence of both  adult basic education and career and technical education is grounded in the adult development theories that focus on the concepts of experiential learning, reflection, dialogue, and culturally responsive teaching. Both endeavors deserve more recognition for the success that each has attained in educating their diverse populations while connecting learning to the real world. Common ground does exist between the two. This article has only begun to scratch the surface. 


Baumgartner, L.M. (2001). "Four adult development theories and their implications for practice." Focus on Basics, 5B.

Bedard, L.M.  (1999). "Native voices:  the experiences and perceptions of Native American students enrolled  in culturally responsive writing  courses at a university in the Southwest." Doctoral Dissertation, University of Connecticut.  Dissertation Abstracts International,  A 60/04, 1035

Clark, M., & Cafarella, R. (eds.) (1999). An Update on Adult Development Theory: New Ways of Thinking about the Life Course. (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, No.84).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cummins, J. (1983). Heritage Language Education: A Source Book and Field Journal. London: Allen & Unwin.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall.

Mezirow, J. (1990). "How critical reflection triggers Learning." In  J. Mezirow (ed.), Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood (1-20).   San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Murphy, J.I. (2001). The Use of Focused Reflection and Articulation to Promote the Development of Clinical Reasoning. University of Connecticut (2001).  UMI #3002672.

Shor, I. & Freire, P. (1987). A Pedagogy  for Liberation: Dialogues for Transforming Education. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Wlodkowski, R.J. & Ginsberg, M.B. (1995). Diversity and Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society:  The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

About the Author

Lynne Bedard lives in Foster, Rhode Island, and teaches in a career and technical center and a community  college. She received her doctorate form the University of Connecticut in 1999.  The focus of her research was culturally responsive writing courses for Native American students at a university in the Southwest. 

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