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 http://www.ncsall.net/?id=157
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.