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.