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.

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