Sunday, June 13, 2010

Instructional Materials and Highly Significant Learning

From the All Write News, Adult Literacy Resource Institute, Boston, MA, March 2001

At the time this essay was written George Demetrion was Manager of Community-Based Programming at Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford. He says he uses this piece in tutor training "to emphasize the point that it's not the instructional materials that matter, but the quest for highly significant learning."

Adult literacy and ESOL instruction is a hunt for the learning that matters, which is difficult to discern because "what matters" is individually based and highly subjective. What is valuable in one learning setting is not necessarily so in another context, even with the same class. Moreover, the learning that matters may or may not be something students can articulate at the beginning of a learning cycle, though they may. It is also something that is often discovered only through engaging the learning process. Students often identify what is important only after engaging the formal learning environment for some time. Moreover, goals and purposes change. So it is a daunting task indeed to define "the learning that matters" as the basis for a program's curriculum. Yet it is one that is unavoidable if students are going to achieve maximum learning impact and sustain high levels of motivation which is critical for long term success.

One of the major challenges in identifying the learning that matters is in working through the relationship between what students want and need to learn and the availability of instructional materials. In fact, there is often a significant gap between selected instructional materials and the learning that students deem important. Materials are typically viewed as providing direct access to significant learning. Sometimes materials do provide a direct connection to significant learning, though far from always. All too often, materials are chosen by tutors because they may seem interesting, useful, or convenient, though there may not be a vivid grasp of the learning purposes the materials are designed to stimulate or whether those are connected to what students most seek to know. Even still, students and tutors interact with the text based on their mutual experience, knowledge, expectations, and educational background. The learning that does emerge is based on a mediation of all of these factors&emdash;the text, the learners, the instructor, and the context of the group dynamic and the broader context that shapes the learning environment.

The quest for the learning that matters will always remain elusive since human life itself is in continuous development. Yet there are things that can help to create more dynamic relationships between instructional materials and the significant learning that students seek. The Russian educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky discusses the "zone of proximal development." This represents a very rich zone of potential learning between what students can currently do independently and what they are able to do with the assistance of more capable others or other bridging support. Typically, but not always, it is the teacher who fills the gap. Sometimes it is other students. Sometimes it is the materials. Most often it is the interaction among the students, the instructor, the materials, and the social context that shapes the learning environment.

Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford (LVGH) takes a student centered approach in whuch the ultimate purpose of the program is to assist students to determine for themselves what they want to learn. Still, it is evident that students often lack the background to make independent decisions in defining their learning objectives. In a volunteer tutoring program, tutors also often lack the resources exclusively on their own to establish a student-centered program. Most students and tutors seek a degree of structure even as they require the freedom to chart the educational program in the manner that makes the most sense to them. In response, LVGH has developed curriculum sourcebooks and accompanying tutor training that honors the tension for structure while leaving considerable scope, as much as desired, for students and tutors to make their own decisions about instructional content.

These include lessons in six areas: employment, family education, community involvement/citizenship, health, meeting personal goals, and preparing for advanced school work. These areas were selected because they cover a wide gamut of what adult literacy and ESOL students need and want to focus their instruction upon and they represent areas of learning that are most commonly defined as important across the field. They cover a wide array of topics and include questions, activities, and language exercises. The questions and activities in particular are designed to stimulate additional areas of inquiry and discussion and as a prompt for the creation or location of additional materials that most adequately meet student learning objectives as they are emerging. They are designed to foster additional learning and insight well beyond the information that is presented within the text. It is in working through the questions and activities that additional material and learning objectives are often identified that give the emergent curriculum its vitality. It is the dynamic relationship between structure and improvisation that often stimulates the most effective learning and this will differ in each learning environment.

These materials represent only a small sampling of what students and tutors might work on, but they are intended to represent areas of general interest that may stimulate wide interest among a broad array of topics both covered and not covered by the given texts. In the words of John Dewey, "They are tools. As in the case of all tools, their value resides not in themselves but in their capacity to work shown in their consequence of their use."

Some of the materials have been field tested in limited contexts and will be further field tested during the year. This will likely result in their modification as we continue to search for the learning that matters most. These materials will need to be supplemented, refined, and adapted for their maximum utilization in any specific learning context. These materials are guides only, though they do tap into many areas of interest that students would deem as important.

The curriculum materials, therefore, are best viewed as instrumental in the stimulation of the learning that matters. Some students and tutors may want to stay close to the available materials. For them, there is much within the guides with which to work. Others may want to veer well beyond the given materials. This is highly encouraged. As you do so, we ask that you add your best lessons to the collection samples of best lessons. In that way you will be contributing to the ongoing development of the emerging curriculum.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Planning & Implementing Instruction for Adults: Preface

The following combines a summary and reflection on the preface of Dirkx & Prenger's Planning & Implementing Instruction for Adults: A Theme-Based Approach. Chapter summary/reflections are likely to follow.


The critical goal of adult learners is that of “improv[ing ]their knowledge and skills related to the particular contexts [outside the program] they find themselves” (p., xi)

The one thing that adult education students have in common regardless as to level or specific program is the relationship of their life context as adults as an underlying motive to their participation in adult learning and what they want to learn (pp. xi-xii). Comment: Granted that such linkage is surely important. Yet, the manner in which that is so is anything but direct or obviously linear, especially given the many constructive processes at work as each learner makes meaning of his or her particular learning situation through various modes of symbolic imagery in working through the many internal and external contexts and environments in working through a given program.

The lack of student persistence is a critical issue that underlies the argument of the author for an integrated theme-based approach. For additional resources check out this edition of Focus on Basics, especially the articles by Quigley and Willard

To what extent can a relevant context-based instructional focus provide some of the motivational infrastructure to enhance student persistence, which is one of the key assumptions underlying Planning & Implementing Instruction for Adults? Without dispute, learning needs to be deemed relevant, however exactly one defines that and Tom Sticht makes a strong case in linking a relevant functional context instructional program to student staying power in programs as well as enhanced learning. Other literature, such as the articles by Quigley and Willard, point to a broader set of issues, including, but beyond curriculum focus.

The issue is not whether a relevant curriculum is important; clearly it is which does not necessarily mean a theme-based curriculum as described by Dirkx & Prenger. While theme-based instruction may be viewed as quite valuable, it is not necessarily the determining factor. What is, I believe, is the symbolic representation of the program as internalized by students and externalized in some viable programmatic context, even a bottom up primary focus on phonemic development. No doubt, this is a radical notion that challenges fundamental assumptions of progressive adult education, which in going beyond a theme-based approach would nonetheless remain contextual the extent to which such a program would be coherently grounded the symbolic meaning making framework of particular students.

Granting such a caveat, all things being equal, a curriculum that draws deeply on themes, contexts, and content of central interest to students, which also addresses the academic and basic skills needed in moving toward independent learning, does offer students a great deal. It is on such grounds that Dirkx & Prenger argue for a theme-based rather than an isolated skill-based approach to adult education in which life application context rather than basic or academic skill development becomes the integrating center of the instructional program. Such a theme-based approach as the authors lay out in successive chapters “represent ways of thinking about knowledge that are quite different from the traditional academic units, such as math, reading, or writing, which structures most developmental programs for adults.” (xiii).

Comment: There is much value in programs that can be thusly constructed, assuming they accord with the needs and interests of the students they are serving rather than serving primarily as an ideological representation of the teachers or program developers meaning making socio-cognitive systems. Still, considering the symbolic nature of all meaning making processes, “context” is unavoidable even in the most “decontextual” of phonics-based programs in which, at least from a radical constructivist perspective, any context can serve as a basis for meaning making. On this perspective, instructional materials themselves serve as “middlemen,” to use John Dewey’s term in Education and Democracy.

Still, the point by Dirkx & Prenger is well taken. Rather than focusing on discrete subjects in which there is little correlation from one topic to the next as one will find in many adult educational instructional texts, an integrated approach within a broad contextual framework such as health and wellness or job readiness has a great deal to offer. Such a theme-based approach has the double potential impact of helping students to gain enhanced knowledge and insight in critical life application contexts while concurrently developing academic and basic skills.

Moreover, while many programs cannot go all the way with a theme-based approach grounded in the supposition of what the authors refer to as the “emergent curriculum," many can progressively move in such a direction even within the overarching framework of a more traditional-based program orientation and pedagogical mindset.

Above all, Dirkx & Prenger are seeking to counteract any notion that student life context be viewed as “baggage,” of value to some degree, in which the “real” instructional work remain focused on isolated skill mastery. The key objective for the authors is the desire to assist “practitioners who want to shift toward a more contextual approach to curriculum and instruction [who] find that such a move requires some rethinking of what they do and of their relationship with their learners” (xiv). For this endeavor, Planning & Implementing Instruction for Adults provides many valuable resources as well as a coherent, although arguable pedagogical rationale.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Planning and Implementing Instruction for Adults--Overview

This fall I will be teaching an online graduate course on adult education curriculum development through the Virginia Commonwealth University. The assigned text is Planning & Implementing Instruction for Adults(1997), written by John M. Dirkx & Susanne M. Prenger. The key feature of this text is its systematic discussion of what the authors refer to as as Implementing Theme Based Instruction. Though the authors seek balance in their discussion, their highly partisan perspective grounded in the inherent value of content-based thematic instruction through what the authors would refer to as "the emergent curriculum" is quite clear through a pedagogical strategy in which process is valued over end product (specific learning), though the latter is far from neglected.

The challenge as the authors clearly note is that of establishing a "collaborative learning" climate grounded in intense student "engagement and ownership of learning" (p. 51) in educational environments that are often far from conducive to the pedagogical vision articulated with a great deal of passion and insight by the authors. In recognition of this tension, the authors speak of a continuum which on the one hand "are highly structured, teacher-directed and generally focused on well defined problems with clear resolutions," in which the contrast is on the other hand with a pedagogy focused on "problem-centered learning" through the formation of "learning communities...that cut across disciplines and often stretch out over several months" (p. 51).

This text is complex in the sense that the authors seek to honor the tension in the continuum while clearly favoring and ardently advocating for an emergent, process oriented approach for adult pedagogy in a manner that emulates key characteristics of the new literacy studies, a term the authors do not utilize. The text is highly nuanced in its various chapter discussions in exploring the key dimensions of the learning/teaching process from an ITB approach. The early chapters contain a good deal of theory written in a highly accessible format that incorporates key insights developed by Sylvia Scribner and others on literacy as a set of social and cultural practices and basic participatory theory in the field of adult education.

There is, actually, little new in the theoretical discussion in which its value is its clear articulation written at the level and an engaging style in which the informed practitioner can process with relative intellectual ease. The key potential problem with the book is not the difficulty of the theoretical discussion, but the practicality of implementing a pedagogical approach premised fundamentally on an emergent curriculum where process is king in contexts where articulated outcomes are deeply desired in learning environments in which learners as well as teachers and administrators are much more interested in the finished products of learning.

As the authors are well aware such tension between a process and product approach is deeply embedded throughout the field and eludes simplistic resolution. What makes the book valuable, first is the overall clarity the authors bring to their cogent argument in favor of ITB; a perspective that one can argue with in comparison to the theoretical diffusiveness of so many textbooks. What also makes this text valuable are the many recommendations, examples, and probing ideas that makes incorporating key aspects of an ITB approach feasible potentially even in the most structured educational settings. While the end result may be far less theoretical clarity than desired by the authors, such a potential impact plays well into their concept of the continuum--a continuum in which many adult educators have grappled with for decades.

It is for these reasons that I have assigned Planning & Implementing Instruction for Adults in my forthcoming graduate course on adult education curriculum development. The course will be supplemented by many online resources.