Friday, July 30, 2010

Self-Efficacy: Commentary and a Review

A Review of Albert Bandura article
Self Efficacy (1994) originally published in V.S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mental Health. San Diego, Academic Press, 1998). Online version:


While Bandura’s article dos not emphasize adult education, his focus on the central issue of self-efficacy is crucial in our work with adult students. This is because feelings of adequacy and confidence are a major source of motivation in determining whether, how long and the degree to which adult education students will persist in their efforts. In this respect, self-efficacy not only impacts self-perception, whether positively or negatively. It also plays a pivotal role in determining what students actually learn, including the depth, usefulness, and retention of such learning both within and beyond the program setting and its application in contexts that truly matter to students.

A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well being in encouraging people to persist in difficult tasks. Through such an efficacious outlook adults are more likely to embrace and follow through on challenging goals, without which they are more likely to give up on. Such a can do outlook is a strong antidote to giving up too easily, but it needs to be perceived as real and not just a matter of “positive thinking.


Affective processes: “Processes regulating emotional states and elicitation of emotional reactions.”

Cognitive processes: “Thinking processes involved in acquisition, organization, and use of information.”

Motivation: “Activation to action. Level of motivation is reflected in choice of course of action, and in intensity and persistence of effort.”

Perceived self-efficacy: People’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce effects.

Self-regulation: “Exercise of influence over one’s own motivation, thought processes, emotional states and patterns of behavior.”

Bandura argues for a strong correlation between people’s beliefs about their capabilities and what they attempt to take on and actually accomplish as a result. Self-efficacy determines how people think, feel, motivate themselves and behave. These perceptions are mediated through four processes: cognitive, motivational, affective, and what Bandura refers to as selection processes, all of which are briefly identified above and elaborated upon below.

Sources of Efficacy

People strengthen their beliefs through mastery experiences. Such successes build a robust belief in one’s own personal competence in which progress is viewed as a result of effort rightly directed.

• Self-efficacy is enhanced through the modeling influence of the skills and accomplishment of significant others. Through effective mentoring and coaching learners are able to progressively transfer knowledge from their guide’s practice to their own. Effective guidance, in turn requires skillful scaffolding in providing just that right level and type of support needed to accomplish the specific task or knowledge acquisition activity needed.

• Social persuasion in accepting the feedback from others that they have or can develop the skills and knowledge base to succeed in a given challenge is also highly influential. This requires more than simply raising people’s beliefs in their capabilities, which can easily be conflated by disconfirming experience. What is needed also is helping learners in entering or structuring situations in ways that will likely bring some success through their perceived self efforts and to avoid placing people in situations prematurely where they are likely to fail.

• The interpretations of such bodily and emotional states is the fourth way that individuals of assessing and building up their sense of efficacy. All else being equal, a positive tone to their emotional well being will tend to enhance felt sense of efficacy while those beset with a negative tone to their emotional well being will tend to deflate self-efficacy. Physical activity itself can serve as a positive resource in releasing bodily chemical and enzymes that enhance personal energy. Degree of self-efficacy is also related to levels of stress people experience. While a certain level of stress often serves as a positive stimulant to enhance effort a too strong sense of stress, whether personally or environmentally induced often results in a diminution of effort.

Cognitive Processes

Personal goal setting is influenced by self-appraisal of capabilities. The stronger the perceived self-efficacy the higher the goal challenges people set for themselves. People’s beliefs in their self-efficacy shape the type of anticipatory scenarios they construct and rehearse. Those who have a high sense of self-efficacy visualize success scenarios that provide positive guides and supports for things that can go wrong. That is, they anticipate what they need to do and what is in their power to shape, in which failure is interpreted as lack of sufficient forethought or organizing rather than a result of any intrinsic sense of failure syndrome. Those who doubt their own competence reinforce their negative self-fulfilling prophecies by visualizing failure scenarios and dwelling on the many things that could go wrong. A major educational challenge is that of enabling people to develop healthy ways of effectively processing cognitive information that from an objective standpoint contains many ambiguities, uncertainties and potential pitfalls. Adult learners need to draw on their knowledge as well as that of support of others (peers, family, teachers) to construct options, to weigh and integrate predictive factors, to test and revise their judgments against the immediate and potential longer range results of their actions, while being keenly attuned to what worked well, how so, and for what sets of reasons as applied specifically to key learning challenges.

Motivational Processes

One’s own perception of self-efficacy plays a key role in the self-regulation of motivation. The formation of perception results from a dynamic transactional between cognitive and emotional functions. People motivate themselves and guide their action positively or negatively by the exercise of forethought. They form beliefs about what they can do and can’t do and anticipate likely outcomes, which become self-reinforcing. When learners are highly motivated, based on perceptions of possibility that are both optimistically focused and realistic, they set goals and plan courses of action designed to realize valued futures. At the core of such motivation are a complex interplay between causal attributions, outcome expectancies, and cognitive goals.

• Causal attributions affect motivation performance and affective reactions mainly through beliefs of self-efficacy. If I do A, B follows. Consequently, my attainment of B is the direct result of my actions (A), which then reinforces the belief (C) that I possess the confidence to take on and complete the task at hand.

• In expectancy theory, motivation is affected by the expectation that a given course of behavior will produce certain valued outcomes. There are countless attractive options potentially open to people that they don’t pursue because they judge they lack the capabilities to accomplish them or bringing them to successful completion. This is particularly the case in a task or potential accomplishment, while viewed as intrinsically valuable is also perceived as especially difficult. Thus the question as to whether I truly want and can take on a given challenge has a strong correlation that one possesses the short, intermediate, and long-term resources to take on a challenging task like:
o Staying the course in an adult education program
o Succefully completing a four year college progam
o Pursuing a career track where one currently lacks many of the requisite skills, yet where one has as sense of having the capacity to succeed,, including at least some of the skills and the temperament for it if one applies oneself diligently to the new effort

Affective Responses

People’s beliefs in their coping abilities affect how much stress and depression they experience in threatening or difficult situations, which impacts on motivation. For highly competent people, greater efficacy or other controls exercised against anxieties do not conjure up disturbing thought patterns. Those who dwell on coping deficiencies, however real or fabricated, in turn, experience them, at the least as a forceful imaginative influence with accompanying real-world consequences of one sort or another. This, in turn, reinforces a vicious cycle of inadequacy leading to various escape mechanisms, however destructive they may be.

Perceived self-efficacy to control thought processes, therefore, is a key factor in regulating self-induced stress and depression that can feel and often is quite real. Such positive self control, on the other hand, opens up a greater sense of self-motivation as a basis for moving toward greater efficacy in various challenging tasks. As stated, guided mastery, what in education is sometimes referred to as scaffolding, is one of the most fundamental vehicles for instilling a robust sense of coping efficacy. This is especially necessary in attempting something new, especially something challenging, such as seeking to make some significant life changes through adult education, particularly when there are a lot of resistances in the internal and external environment operating to stymie or blunt such change.

The critical task of the mentor or coach is to foster an environment for adult students whose current self-perception and skill set need to work together to effect a viable transformation in moving to a new and unaccustomed place where doing, thinking, and feeling need to operate well in an integrated fashion to activate and persist with the change process. Part of this scaffolding is to gradually remove the support systems in ways that enable the student to assimilate the new behavior into his or her own autonomous capacity. As an example, take a look at the example that Jim Carabell provides in his short essay “Confessions of a Reluctant Standards-Bearer” which also provides some insight into the EFF framework ( In short, guided mastery or well calibrated scaffolding is one of the most critical linchpins we can provide in helping students move from where they are to closer to where they would like to be. In short, progressive control of self-defeating thoughts and well calibrated guided instruction or scaffolding that helps students move toward both greater competency and autonomy are indispensable.

Selection Process

Selection as Bandura is defining it has to do with choices that people make in what they will take on. Self-perception will play a significant role in what people believe they can accomplish as well as what they would like to do. A sense of self-efficacy reinforced by achieved levels of progressive competency plays a subtle, indispensable, and sometimes unconscious role in influencing selection toward one career pathway or one life choice over another that can have consequences for years. Helping students negotiate these challenges and building such ways of self-coping and learning explicitly into the adult education curriculum has much to offer as part of any classroom or program focus, as reflected, for example, in the EFF project, as an integrated and well-developed educational framework.

Adaptive Benefits of Optimistic Self-Beliefs of Efficacy

The pivotal point here is mediating the gap between an essential sense of personal optimism for moving forward and what is interpreted as realism through accurate self-appraisal of existing capacity, which can undercut the motivation needed to move for moving toward the realization of challenging goals. This tension can be especially acute in the desire to embrace change of a transitional or even transformational nature such as preparing for re-entry from prison, preparing for a new job significantly different than one’s current position, or some other significant life issue like losing and maintaining effective weight loss, quitting smoking, starting an exercise program, going to college, etc.

As depicted in Bandura’s article, there is a synergistic relationship between the new behavior desired and the formation of reinforcing attitudes, including self-perceptions that allow one to see oneself in a new light. In the process of embracing such change, however planned out and supported through effective scaffolding, elements of risk and uncertainty remain inescapable. Coping with reasonable risks is part of the change/learning process itself that needs to be intelligently embraced, without which a predisposition to maintaining the status quo is only likely to persist. As is reflected in the literature on innovation or change management of any sort the goal is to move from the present to a more desirable future, which may in some ways be substantially different from the present and to do so in a manner where one can visualize oneself in that new context. From this new perspective one then begins to develop the steps to carry out the change process, which might emerge through a gradual process of implementation while reinforcing a sense of progress.

There are many subtle and important points Bandura is making about self-efficacy. While he is not focusing on adult education, what he lays out in the article is critical to our work and long term success of our students.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Probing Definitions of Adult Literacy: A Duly-Hedged Synthesis

The operative principle at work here is that of achieving optimum alignment with experience – the best overall balance of informativeness (answering questions and resolving problems) with plausibility by way of negotiating with the claims, which, on the basis of our relevant experience, there is good reason to regard as true. We want answers to our questions but we want these answers to make up a coherent systematic whole. It is neither just answers we want (regardless of their substantiation) nor just safe claims (regardless of their lack of informativeness) but a reasonable mix of the two – a judicious balance that systematizes our commitments in a functionally effective way Nicholar Rescher (2001). Philosophical Reasoning: A Study in the Methodology of Philosophizing(p.96).

Distinctions provide for a higher synthesis of opposing views; they prevent thesis abandonment from being an entirely [italics in original] negative process, affording us a way of salvaging something, of giving ‘credit where credit is due’ even to those theses we ultimately reject. They make it possible to remove inconsistency not just by the brute force of thesis rejection but by the more subtle and constructive device of thesis qualification (p. 121).

Exploring the Interface Between Decoding and Meaning Making Definitions of Literacy

It is generally accepted that knowing how to read (decoding print text), comprehending meanings of texts at various literal and inferential levels, and applying knowledge gleaned from such texts to any number of contexts beyond the text are all essential aspects of adult literacy education. Without necessarily adopting the political orientation of Paulo Freire (1970), few adult literacy educators would reject Freire’s aphorism on the importance of “reading the word” in order to “read the world.” Problems begin when matters of emphasis are stressed in terms of (a) the relation of reading and writing to that of knowledge acquisition, and (b) and conflicting perspectives on how reading is learned most effectively. To the extent that learning to read and knowledge acquisition occur more or less simultaneously, distinctions are less problematical than when the technical processes of learning to read and write, and that of knowledge acquisition through a study of a given text are not occurring apace, which is the more frequent reality in adult literacy.

The concept of “multiliteracies” has emerged particularly in the New Literacy Studies (Barton, 1994; Merrifield, 1998), which, for the field of adult literacy has served, in part, as response to this dilemma. According to this school of thought, literacy is defined as a symbolic sign system in which print text is mediated through and within the contexts in which it is situated as one variable among others to be drawn upon to attain whatever knowledge is required or desired by a particular individual or group of individuals in a given situation. This viewpoint has had a prevailing influence in much of the theoretical work that has given shape to adult literacy studies over the past several decades (Auerbach, 1992; Fingeret and Drennon, 1997; Demetrion, 2004; Merrifield, Bingman, Hemphill and Bennett deMarrais, 1997; Quigley, 1997; Stein, 2000, and Sticht, 1997). Many of these studies have stemmed from, but moved beyond Freire’s (1970) political landmark, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

From this perspective the definition of literacy has taken on various forms that need not concern us here, but that draw upon a metaphorical interpretation of reading the world (Barton, 1994). These, in turn, have given shape to literacy programs that, while teaching basic reading and writing skills, have spent as much, if not more emphasis on helping adults in learning to learn, as well as on the more ineffable aspects of the learning process related to the stimulation of motivation and the enhancement of self-esteem. Some adult literacy educators view these latter areas as foundational in the laying out of an emotional basis to ground the hard work of progressively learning how to read in context-based formats (Lytle, 1991), while others, also focusing on the metaphorical definition, stress the attainment of specific outcomes, which, in principle, can be measured through quantitative means.

Whether emphasizing the emotional impact or the attainment of specific outcomes, many students and instructors who are attuned to the learning/teaching moment, point to the value of the metaphorical dimensions of literacy in leading to certain levels of satisfaction that very well may be ignored or marginalized without such an emphasis. Even still, students in phonemic-based literacy programs also often report on their satisfaction, particularly if the socio-emotional climate of the instructional program is supportive of their aspirations, which is not to minimize the symbolic nature of the learning/teaching process that also infuses programs of this type. Consequently, attitude and the culture of a learning environment may play the more significant role in adult literacy setting, irrespective of instructional methodologies and content foci, although exactly how so, for what sets of students (Kegan, Broderick, Drago-Severson, Helsing, Popp, Portnow, & Associates, 2001), and its relation to more objective measures of impact inside and outside the program requires much clarification (Beder, 1999). At the least, progress in research requires empirically supported study as related to perplexing or challenging problems, and the formation of sharply honed questions and hypotheses designed to probe into them.

For the problem at hand, an examination of the relation of learning to read to that of learning to learn in an adult literacy context, the credibility of a study would be enhanced through comparative analyses among diverse students and programs of some to be determined significant quantity. All things being equal that would be so even if much of the needed work consists of delineating variables through in-depth case-study analysis that then become sifted through comparative research even without the prospect of a randomized sample. The utilization of whatever methodologies and approaches that brings further clarity to the matter throughout all the stages of the investigation (fidelity to the scientific method) within the historical evolution of the problem itself is the critical factor.

Whether learning to read or learning to learn is, or should be the central focus of adult literacy education, is a matter of some dispute, which has not been resolved within the literature of the field. There is substantial middle ground within these perspectives via the medium of balanced reading theory and a context-derived educational program that focuses on employment, family education, civic literacy, and lifelong learning (Stein, 2000). Nonetheless, tensions between the operative assumptions of the New Literacy Studies and advocates of phonemic-driven approaches to reading are particularly sharp in their articulation of competing definitions of literacy. In moving toward a dialectical resolution that incorporates balanced reading theory within a context-based adult literacy framework, my working hypothesis, much clarification is required.

Supportive Hypotheses and Related Statements of the Duly-Hedged Synthesis

The provisional statements about adult literacy education below are based upon Nicholas Rescher’s “duly-hedged synthesis” as reflected in the opening quoted passages of this post. I present these as a first-cut resolution to the problem of defining literacy, which fuses elements of learning to read with that of learning to learn.

1. Literacy facilitates knowledge acquisition in the grappling with and mastery of print-based texts.
2. Literacy is enhanced to the extent to which individuals gain the capacity to read and write print-based texts.
3. Growth in literacy is experienced to the extent to which readers progressively comprehend and draw meaning from texts and appropriate them into their lives.
4. Literacy has a technological component in the mastery of reading, writing and the comprehension of texts and a metaphorical dimension that resides in transactions between the reader and the text in which meaning making and significance lies beyond the text into that of appropriation, however variously that may be defined.

Each of these statements, as working hypotheses of the “duly hedged synthesis” requires additional clarification, including the grappling with new contradictions that may arise as the investigative proceeds. Let us take these statements one at a time.

Literacy facilitates knowledge acquisition in the grappling with and mastery of print-based texts.

• Knowledge acquisition may refer to understanding and progressively attaining the skills and knowledge needed for the technical mastery of reading and writing.
• Literacy may refer to the enhanced ability to read to the extent of providing an independent resource that students can apply to texts that they encounter either in the instructional program or outside of it without assistance from others.
• Knowledge acquisition may refer to the mastery of the content of print-based texts at varying levels of literal and inferential comprehension.
• Literacy may refer to the knowledge needed for such acquisition regardless as to how much or how little a student learns to read.
• While both learning to read and learning to learn are valid indicators of literacy, educators need to determine where priorities should be placed in terms of various student need and ability and what focal points of concentration stimulate what aspects of learning for any given student or groups of students.

Literacy is enhanced to the extent to which individuals gain the capacity to read and write print-based texts.

• If not by definition, it is at least a strong inference among most adult literacy educators and students that literacy includes the ability to read and write print-based texts and may even be its main purpose.
• All things being equal, increased capacity to read and write texts enhances literacy, whether a literal or metaphorical definition of literacy is adopted.
• The extent to which adult literacy students increase their ability to read print-based texts varies widely. Such variability needs to be factored into the reading and writing aspects of a given program and corresponding modes of assessment and accountability regardless of reading methodologies and the instructional content selected.

Growth in literacy is experienced to the extent to which readers progressively comprehend and draw meaning from texts and appropriate them into their lives.

The capacity to comprehend and draw meaning from print-based texts in a supportive instructional environment does not depend on the ability to read the text independently.
• Students who have enhanced their ability to read and write have gained additional skills in comprehending and drawing meaning from texts in their ability to study independently. As a general rule, this capacity enhances a student’s mastery of the content embedded in printed texts.
• There may or may not be any intrinsic correlations between comprehending the authorial meaning(s) of a text and a student drawing meaning from it. While literacy may be enhanced through either, as a general rule, it is strengthened most so when reasonable inferences between the two can be made.

Literacy has a technological component in the mastery of reading, writing and the comprehension of texts, and a metaphorical dimension that resides in transactions between the reader and the text in which meaning making and significance lies beyond the text into that of appropriation, however variously that may be defined.

• Literacy, in the most comprehensive of definitions includes both the technological mastery of reading and writing, along with that of comprehension and deriving meaning from print-based texts.
• Taking the capacities of students into account, literacy progresses most when all of these dimensions are factored in, in which none of them serves as the privileged foundation of the definition.
• Even adults who remain at beginning levels of reading and writing ability who do not even come to approximating independent fluency can benefit as a result of the progress they achieve in the areas of comprehension and meaning making, although how durable such learning is and its significance requires much research.
• The extent to which even advanced students who progress in their reading and writing benefit in doing so also requires discriminating analysis. The salience to which gains in reading ability short of the GED certification open up opportunity structures for life improvement requires careful analysis in which the separation of variables may prove difficult.
• Even if little in the realm of opportunity structures is attained, being able to read, write, and comprehend print-based texts and appropriating such knowledge for one’s own purposes has a certain value in itself (although how much so remains in question) as a form of self development that may or may not have broader societal impact.
• What is determined as efficacious in relation to adult literacy education may have as much to do with values of individual students and programs that seek to support them as with specific impacts subject to objective forms of direct measurability.
• Literacy is a cultural metaphor of considerable pluralistic range and scope of knowledge acquisition that includes the technical capacity of reading and writing as an important, but undetermined variable of the broader definition encapsulated in the term, “multiliteracies.”
• Definitions of literacy that programs appropriate will be shaped by the sum total of cultural, social, political, economic, and intellectual influences interacting on them. In short, the cultural matrix as a variant in adult literacy education is unavoidable.

Concluding Note

These four hypotheses and 19 related statements presuppose a provisional acceptance of a “duly-hedged synthesis” that literacy is appropriately defined as a transactional relation between learning to read and write and broader content learning stemming from topics within and suggested by print-based texts. While both of these aspects of literacy are critical, neither is accepted as the foundational baseline of the definition. If anything is, based upon the precepts I have lain out, it is the tension between the radical particularity of student need, interest, and aptitude and the broader cultural matrix that gives shape to that which achieves social and political legitimacy through which definitions and purposes of adult literacy education are mediated.

In this respect, whatever value there is in adult literacy as an educational phenomenon, which, on my reading, is a great deal, I am also proposing that literacy, however it is defined, has a semiotic reference, which needs to be grasped as an ecological sign system manifested in a range of psycho-socio contexts (Barton, 1994). This is the case, I am positing even if one defines literacy as mastery of reading and writing in which the technologies themselves possess cultural symbolic reference, which include, but also point beyond their literal meaning. Consequently, there is no “autonomous” literacy outside a contextual frame, but a definition that is socially and culturally shaped all the way down (Street, 1988). On this claim I am radicalizing the logical assumptions of the New Literacy Studies in accepting both definitions of literacy proposed in this paper in symbolically significant mediational terms as pointing beyond themselves into the realm of their cultural significance (Barton, 1994).

To move beyond these core suppositions of literacy (the “duly-hedged synthesis”), including the 19 bulleted statements would be the beginning of shifting into an actual research project. That cannot be undertaken here, though merits further study.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Teaching Philosophy

Teaching Philosophy: a Deweyan Reflection

I’ve drawn deeply on the work of the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey, especially from his short powerful book, Experience and Education and his more detailed Democracy and Education, both to develop my philosophy of teaching and philosophy of education. What I have drawn mostly from Dewey is a passion of probing inquiry within the context of a collaborative class dynamic and a strength-based model of teaching drawing on the knowledge that students do possess as the avenue for tapping into their areas of curiosity. These serve as pivotal entry points in the stimulation of greater learning.

I believe it is the primary responsibility of the instructor to provide an orienting structure to any given course or class session. As a consequence I place a great deal of thought and detail into structuring a syllabus which serves as an operational plan which includes scope for revision and modification throughout the course. This is a fluid process that I shape and reshape through a continuous working through of the identification of key texts, websites, and the sequencing of assignments throughout the semester until a sense of completion emerges. I take this work as seriously as writing a formal paper in that when done well I have internalized an operational structure for the course that remains viable even as adaptations are called for in the very midst of effective implementation.

I also place a good deal of attention into the up-front planning for each of the class sessions especially in the first few weeks in thinking through the content and also the instructional strategies designed to open up the materials and to encourage optimal student engagement. In the process I am seeking to bring together the course content to be covered, a deepening of my understanding of the subject matter through intense engagement, and a provisional sense of what would comprise an optimal teaching/learning situation.

Once in class, my prime mode of instruction is broadly dialogical in which I might open with a question or some basic information and engage in a sort of stream of consciousness probing of the significance of the topic in what I would describe as aimed at an ideal student understanding that I initially pick up through the streams of symbolic communication that I am discerning throughout the class. I check these implied meanings through specific questioning which may open up the class in directions not specifically identified beforehand, in which I seek to keep the broad trajectory of what I am attempting to accomplish in mind. This process typically results in some re-engagement of the broad direction initially intended through a spiraling dynamic resulting in greater student internalization.

I design reading and writing assignments to deepen and broaden the framework for our class discussions and in turn utilize assigned readings as points of departure or points of engagement while providing textual explanation as needed in any given context. As a rule, however, I do not generally spend much time summarizing the reading assignment, though I may spend a great deal of time amplifying upon the texts, including teasing out various textual implications that may or may not be so obvious based on what is stated. Throughout all this I seek to work at the higher edge level of given student potential in the process of encouraging and inspiring students to stretch further in their knowledge and in their intuitive leaps. In working with the grain of each student’s developmental process as the best possible way of advancing educational progress I am drawing on Dewey’s core concept of “growth” that he so clearly articulated in his timely as ever test, Democracy and Education.

The following two essays contain some of my more extended reflection on contemporary pedagogy and Dewey’s influence on it. While these essays focus on my work in adult literacy education they also have broad applicability to my approach to college teaching and tutoring.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Allen And Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring: A Review

As an experienced writer I have utilized my own skills in assisting other writers (experienced and aspiring) through intense dialogue primarily in an intuitive improvisational manner. This has not been without effect and I think there’s more I can tap into based on my own writing experience which would require more concentration than I have yet given to it. Whatever degree of untapped knowledge I have yet to draw on in my vocation as a writing tutor, in working in college writing centers this past year I have profited by studying writing handbooks as well as broader theoretical work on writing pedagogy within the context of the culture of the college writing center institution.

One text that I have profited from is The Allen and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring written by Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner. This is a highly engaging text that lays out the core philosophy of many writing center programs and which provides stimulating ideas and supportive examples of many viable techniques for effective implementation. One such idea is that of asking the student to read his or her paper out loud after discussing the purpose of the essay as a pivotal baseline on getting them to focus and “own” their own work. Intuitively that makes a great deal of sense to me, which if consistently practiced by writing center tutors would go a long way in its own right in fostering student ownership of their own writing process.

The key assumption throughout the text, and also operative in the two writing centers I worked in last year is the sharp distinction made between the role of a tutor in that of supporting learning and student independence and that of an editor in correcting flaws and providing expert advice on how to improve a given piece of student writing. Based on the writing center model articulated in the text and promulgated throughout the writing center community is the underlying belief that effective tutoring is a process that requires intense student as well as tutor engagement throughout all the phases of constructing and completing a writing assignment in which the student is the ultimate expert on his or her own writing. This is premised on at least two pedagogical principles.

The first is that the student is not a blank slate, but is a potentially critical inquirer into his or her own learning process in which the tutor's primary task is to explore with the student those avenues of learning potentiality that may or may not be obvious on first blush. Thus, the tutor is encouraged to ask a series of probing questions on both the topic as well as on the student's current sense of strengths and well as weaknesses as applied to a given writing project. This assumption clearly builds on Paulo Freire's critique of banking education which is an underlying framework that underlies a good deal of contemporary writing theory.

The second has to do with the status of the writing center within the broader college learning environment; namely that the centers, while playing a critical support function to the various academic departments, possess their own autonomous authority based on their own academic expertise in writing pedagogy. Viewed thusly, writing center tutors are not primarily editors; in fact, many writing centers state explicitly that they do not edit, but tutor. That is, their purpose is to teach students how to improve their writing; more fundamentally, to become better writers, not simply to improve a specific paper. Stated otherwise, as powerfully developed by Gillespie and Lerner, writing center tutors are first and foremost teacher-research based educators and not merely or primarily editors.

Surely, this is a contestable assumption in which there is much potential resistance among participating students, the professors assigning the writing center to their students, the college administration, particularly in a tight budget environment, and often to the tutors themselves. This is especially the case particularly when students come to the writing center only at the final stages of the writing process with the assignment due the next day or even an hour from when the assignment is due. This later problem is more pervasive in drop in centers than in appointment-based scheduling programs even though there is much to warrant a drop in center; namely that of encouraging large numbers of students to utilize the services at any time a center is open.

Based on my own experience from last year, which I brought in from my work in adult literacy education, I tended to balance a dialogical approach with a more important emphasis on scaffolding in assisting students with their highly pressing assignments which, practically speaking was the stated purpose of their coming to the center. The assignments ranged from one paragraph to full blown lengthy essays in range. Some assignments were due the same day, others later in the week, and some the following week or even later. Writing issues that needed to be addressed covered a broad range in which typically the problems in a given piece were often multiple. The challenge for me was that of finding a hook where I could connect with a student’s own writing process at whatever level of support both I and the student sensed was needed. This required a good deal of subtle discernment of both a relational and technical manner in which the interplay of these factors played a significant role in determining the ultimate success of a given session.

While less evident with upper level undergraduate and graduate students, there were more than a few cases, where the syntax of a draft seemed so incoherent that I thought there was much to be gained in helping the student to improve the clarity on what he or she was attempting to express. In those papers I viewed such work as pivotal to help students and myself gain clarity on what the author actually intended to say even if the result inhibited working on what the authors referred to as higher order writing concerns, emphasized over and over again throughout their text. I see their point; if not attended to the tutor will all too easily slip into the editorial role.

Yet, I think there is a need to focus on these “lower order” concerns at least sometimes first particularly if the writing is so convoluted that neither the writer nor the reader has a workable understanding of what is being expressed in the draft. Moreover, based on the assumption that in a recursive writing dynamic one can, in principle, make progress at any viable point of entry, then there is nothing sacrosanct in starting with higher order concerns first as long as after working on grammar and syntax or even while doing so, one also addresses such issues as meaning, purpose, audience, logical flow and other issues contributing to overarching coherency.

Nonetheless, after re-reading The Allen and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring and based on a year's reflection I can at this point better discern how the many recommendations the authors make can help me focus in working with students more on higher order concerns based on a recursive intervention process. In an ideal context there is much to be gained by focusing as much as possible on first planning an essay, then drafting, followed by revision, and finally editing. Yet because both writing and tutoring typically involve a more complex interplay among these aspects of the writing process.

Notwithstanding the importance of helping students gain basic clarity in their writing through a strong emphasis on grammar and syntactical clarity, there were many cases where I was able to work with students on higher order concerns such as appropriate topic selection, critical analysis, thesis articulation and thematic consistency throughout the essay, logical argumentation, effective use of evidence, and persuasiveness. Even with the lower order concerns, as stated, the process was far from black and white. Even with those papers I was able to address these higher order concerns to some degree by focusing on the underlying objective of gaining maximum coherency as a way of working through both grammatical and syntactical issues as well as issues related to meaning and purpose as well as overall clarity and logic of presentation. Thus, I would not want to be overly dogmatic about the order of the interplay of the key components of the writing process.

Regardless as to where one intervenes, there is much to be gained in embracing the authors' three primary strategies; that of asking students their intended purpose in writing, asking what they want to focus on in the given tutoring session, and asking them to read their papers out loud to the tutor. With these baselines in place, both the student and the tutor would likely be in a better position to address the most pressing issues of the paper as well as that of working on the process of the student becoming a better writer in the very process of improving a given piece.

In the very process of writing this blog posting, the notion that the quest for coherency can be a central thread to underlie writing center tutoring now emerges in a way that I had not precisely thought before. Yet, even with that the tutor will need to guard against taking over the paper by reinforcing one's own sense of coherency rather than that of critically assisting the student in finding his or her own coherency by staying focus on enhancing writing rather than fixing up specific assignments. This then leads into the central chapters of The Allen And Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring which provide an array of methods and suggestions for engaging the student in the learning process as the very means of enhancing that student's writing ability while dealing with the specific assignments at hand.

• Why did I choose this topic?
• What do I know about my topic?
• Can I change or modify it even slightly if it would be more strategic for me to do so?
• Does my topic interest me? Can I really get into it?
• If not what can I do to enhance your motivation to write so that there is a better chance of the essay becoming really mine?
• How can I best structure this essay? Compare/contrast? Summary? Critical analysis?
• Who is my ideal audience for this essay? What do you hope to convey to my audience?
• Writing a preliminary thesis statement
• Writing a provisional outline which might be stimulated through brainstorming or clustering activities

In an ideal scenario a student would come to the writing center before composing a draft, though in my experience that has been rarely the case. More typically, the tutor and student begin their work in the middle rather than at the beginning of the writing process. Even still one can still work with students writing project through the utilization of such questions as a critical resource at any point in the process as the authors imply in their last chapter titled "Troubleshooting," which moves outside the realm of the ideal, as characteristic of much of the rest of their text.

With some (clearly not all!) of these bulleted issues addressed, both the student and the tutor would be in a better position to focus on the development of a first draft, which, according to Gillespie and Lerner may involve a probing into some of the same type of questions. This is reasonable on their assumption since they are viewing the writing process as recursive in which the various issues involved in creating and refining a text circle on back and become enriched throughout the writing process. However, as stated, many students come to a writing center session with a first draft already intact, requiring, in turn, a more complex intervention than laid out in the ideal scenario of the sequenced model of the process writing model where one starts with planning before drafting.

A similar set of questions would be viable in encouraging a student to revise a piece, though much discerning probing of the initial draft might well be needed in order for students to creatively move into a substantial rewrite. This is where an exploratory dialogue can become especially valuable in working with the student in assessing various revisionary strategies. A second or third meeting on the essay may be needed in order to encourage the student to engage in the various writing developmental processes essential in not only writing an effective essay, but in internalizing the skills and knowledge base to transfer such enhanced competence to other writing projects. Revisioning can be extremely taxing and is often resisted by the student and tutor alike, but those who undertake it to a more satisfactory completion of a text can give much personal testimony to the ultimate value of such work, which comes only through much sweat equity.

Fine skill-editing is also important, but needs to be placed in perspective as a lower order competence, the authors argue; essential, but not until the higher order skills are addressed. Still, this may be less the case with computer-based writing where editing and revisioning can be more easily blended. Still, it is critical for students to clearly recognize the difference between revisioning and editing and not to confuse the one for the other.

Throughout The Allen And Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring the authors are concerned with binary polarities which somewhat conflicts with the underlying dynamics of process writing premised on recursiveness rather than the linear-based sequencing assumption underlying their argument. Thus, as the authors contrast the two roles (p. 36:


• Focus on the text
• Take ownership of the text
• Proofread
• Give advice
• Read silently
• Look mainly for things to improve
• Work with an ideal text
• Make corrections on the page
Tell writers what to do


• Focus on the writer’s development and establish rapport
• Make sure the writer takes ownership
• Starts with higher-order concerns and worry about correctness last
• Asks questions
• Asks the reader to read aloud
• Comments on things that are working well
• Trust the writer’s idea of a text
• Keep hands off and let the writer make corrections; help them learn correctness
• Ask them their plans for revision

While the reality of the dynamics of writing center tutoring does require some blending of the two, the authors are rightly concerned that unless an emphatic intentional stance embracing the vision of tutoring pedagogy as they envision it is embraced it becomes all too easy to fall back into the editors role. I do not disagree with this. However, writing center instruction would be enhanced

• Through a more dynamic interface between a critical dialogical approach and one firmly grounded in a scaffolding paradigm in helping students constructively take next steps in their own writing process
• Through strong institutional support throughout the college of the writing center vision as a field of academic expertise in its own right
• Tight coordination especially between developmental English courses and the writing center
• Greater emphasis on students reinforced by the subject matter instructors of coming to the writing center early with the expectation that each significant writing project would include at least two or three substantial sessions

Short of this ideal there is likely to continue to be a good deal more tension between the respective roles of editor and tutor. It is my sense that a judicious study and application of The Allen And Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring could make that a creative tension in which each role mutually supports the other with increasing emphasis on students internalizing their own writing projects. My hope is that in this coming year I will get an opportunity to put some of the pivotal ideas in this important text into practice.

I gained much in reading this book. I also gained much in writing this blog, including a reinforcement of what I already know; that a sustained writing process requires both a motivation to write and a commitment to see it through.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Planning & Implementing Instruction for Adults, Ch 1

Ch 1 Using Integrated, Theme-Based Instruction with Adults

According to Dirkx & Prenger, stimulating motivation for a small group of learners poses little problem. For them it may be best just to focus on their identified learning needs, whether GED preparation or any type of direct learning that they want to take on (p. 1). What we know from our own collective experience and national statistics about drop-out rates is that a large proportion of adult students who initially enroll in adult education program leave well before attaining their goals or other sustainable learning objectives. Some students who drop out return and on second or third time around may obtain longer range goals or tangible benefits of some sustaining sort. Yet the reality remains that a much greater ratio simply cycle in and cycle out of programs resulting in what Tom Sticht refers to as the “turbulence,” characteristic of many programs and class rooms; especially open-enrollment ones. John Strucker’s instructive rejoinder provides an important other perspective (

Select one of the three adult education writers below (Quigley, Fingeret and Drenon, or Kegan et al) to do an in-depth study of their model.

As argued in Focus on Basics article written by Allan Quigley, the first three weeks are critical in determining whether students will remain in the program As he argues more extensively in his book Rethinking Literacy Education: The Critical Need for Practice-Based Change Practitioners, program-based institutional as well as student situational barriers such as day care, transportation, which are difficult to control for, also need to be addressed. Clearly, curriculum is one intervening institutional factor, but not always the uppermost one even as sometimes it is.

On this topic Quigley, like Dirkx & Prenger discuss relevant content-based curricula through the prisms of four central curricular prisms:

• Vocational Working Philosophy
• Liberal Working Philosophy
• Liberatory Working Philosophy
• Humanist Working Philosophy

My review essay of Rethinking Literacy Education titled, “The Pragmatic Reform Vision of B. Allan Quigley,” provides a summary of Quigley’s arguments on potential barriers (pp. 8-10) to participating in adult education programs and Quigley’s curriculum recommendations (pp. 10-14)

In Literacy for Life A Framework for Change, Hannah Fingeret and Cassndra Drennon propose a life cycle model consisting of the following stages

1. Prolonged tension: Some basic life problem (e.g., dependency or unemployment) that propel individuals to seek a solution.
2. Turning point: Making the initial decision to seek adult literacy education as at least a part of the solution leading to some life-based resolution (enhancing literacy skills to become increasingly independent through gainful employment).
3. Problem-solving and seeking (advanced) educational opportunities: Students begin to build on the skills and confidence that they’ve gained from the program to begin to achieve some visible outcomes beyond the program that matter to them.
4. Changing relationships and changing practices: Relationships at home, work, and the community begin to change outside the program as a result of participating in the program (adults who become increasingly independent or set new goals and the impact of these changes on significant others)
5. Intensive continuing interaction: Increased learning and enhanced sense of efficacy within the program where students can continue to work on their skills in a “safe zone” as a for addressing the continuing needs of enhanced life efficacy outside of the program

For a program to be maximally effective it has to work for students through the entirety of the life cycle of change. Curriculum is important, but so are other critical factors.


1. What is your assessment of the viability of Fingeret and Drennon’s Life Cycle Model of adult literacy as a whole?
2. In what ways can this model be of value to you as you reflect on the challenges you face as a classroom teacher or program director or administrator?
3. Do you see any of the five turning points to be of more significant than others?
4. Which of the five would you identify as most important? Why
5. Which of the five are in your direct span of control as a teacher or program director or administrator?
6. What are the implications of any of these turning points being missing for the quality of adult education programming, especially on the issue of student persistence.

The NCSALL report by Rober Kegan, and his colleagues Toward a New Pluralism ABE/ESOL Classrooms: Teaching to Multiple Cultures of Mind Executive Summary draws out important insight on the way that students with different “cultures of the mind” learn, and what they seek to focus on in adult education settings. Specifically, Kegan identifies three “cultures of the mind” linked to Instrumental, Socializing, and Self-Authoring ways of knowing, which play a major role in how students interpret what they are learning and its significance. Take a look first at the two page research brief:


1. To what extent do you find Kegan’s pluralistic model persuasive?
2. Whether or not or the extent to which you agree with his ideal typology to what extent have the students you’ve worked with exhibited these three “cultures of the mind?”
3. Which typology or mix most typifies the students you’ve worked with?
4. Regardless, what can you draw from Kegan’s model that would be of value to you?

With these three studies in mind, what is clear is that students have a range of critical life application issues that they process in highly divergent ways that they are seeking to address through adult basic education, which programs and adult education institutions need to be as keenly focused on as possible. Several key factors are required:

• A supportive atmosphere where students will feel accepted and valued, and then challenged in a way that builds up their capacities and esteem
• Timely intake and appropriate placement
• Well taught classrooms with appropriate materials
• A relevant and interesting instructional program that in some significant manner addresses both basic skill enhancement and application to life contexts beyond the program though content-based subject matter that provides students greater access to those contexts
• A program well attuned to effectively working with students with a wide divergence of backgrounds, learning styles, expectations, goals and current life challenges, and self-processing psychological prisms
• Highly attuned counseling and referral services

Key Curriculum Content areas include at the least:

• Workplace literacy and Career development
• Family Literacy
• Health Literacy
• Becoming a more informed consumer
• Civic Awareness
• Identifying and Keeping Personal Goals
• Transitioning to College
• Computer literacy
• Strengthening basic skills in reading, writing, speaking, listening, numeracy

A few questions related to the course example on nature:

• What do you make of the example cited on p. 3 of developing a course of study on nature in a corrections setting?
• Could you envision a similar application in your setting?
• Could you envision utilizing such a webpage as the National Geographic Xpeditions site with your class? ( In what ways?
• What do you conclude about the comparative group study on pp. 3-4 in which the class that studied the nature theme had a 50% higher program participation rate than those took a non-thematic subject matter course?

See Tom Sticht Functional Context Education Introduction: Making Learning Relevant to the 21st Century Ch 1 (intro) and Ch 6 or 7 (Case studies) who argument is similarly to that of Dirkx & Prenger on the importance of a relevant curriculum focus in enhancing motivation with some positive impact on general literacy aptitude. While Sticht’s early work in the 1960s and 1970s focused on the functional contexts of the military and workplace, in more recent years he has broadened his focus to include any content focus, including spiritual development that particular students would find valuable. What has remained consistent with Sticht is the central argument that the development of literacy skills occurs most effectively when it is a function of content rather than an independent stand-alone in which “basic language skills” and life skills are separately taught or that one needs to learn to read first before applying such decontextualized knowledge to concrete applied situations.

Characteristics of an Instructional Theme Based Approach

ITB is more than just content-based instruction. It is an integrated theme-based approach to instruction. In this respect it is a transdisciplinary real-world view of the curriculum in focusing life contexts outside the program (p. 5). For example, writing a business letter is not an end in itself or an “exercise” in writing, but incorporated into a broader theme of getting and keeping a worthwhile sustainable job.

ITB is a way of thinking and about developing instruction in which teachers draw objectives, concepts, and skills from all areas of desired competencies, including basic skill development (p. 5). In the ideal scenario the course or unit is developed from a general idea or theme that is relevant to a learner or group of learners. The theme must emerge from or speak to the life contexts of participating learners (see Elsa Auerbach’s Making Meaning, Making Change especially Ch 1 where she discusses her important theme on the Emergent Curriculum. The emergent curriculum is a student-centered instructional planning process which is very different from expert driven top-down curriculum design.

An overview on the Emergent Curriculum ( can also be read here. This is a useful article in providing a solid overview of the concept of the emerging curriculum even though there are a few syntax problems in the essay, due to the fact that the authors are not native English writers. The core assumptions undergirding the emergent curriculum are suffused throughout Planning and Implementing Instruction for Adults, though a clear statement of its core principles is not concisely articulated by the authors.

However it specifically emerges, which can be some combination of top-down pre-planning and bottom-up refining and fine tuning, Dirkx & Prenger maintain that a curriculum should ideally be grounded in thoughtful dialogue with students. It should reflect personal, vocational, family, community, societal or other contexts and other compelling student areas of interest such as the nature course, which was a uniquely discovered interest within a given class setting. Even if specific themes are developed in advanced they can be modified in response to specific student feedback once classes meet. It is still important to include basic or academic skills; however the materials will be drawn from real or real like contexts that students utilize in their actual lives and will be as contextualized as possible (p. 9).

Comment: Planning and Implementing Instruction for Adults presents an idealized pedagogical format based on the integrated thematic model. One of the core issues issue becomes where the need for concentrated skill development comes in. What is the role of systematic practice in basic or academic skill development such as writing essays in preparation for the GED writing text? That is, are such skills best developed “naturally” while working with theme-based content as both Sticht and Auerbach suggest or should basic skill work be separated out and given its own separate attention in order to facilitate systematic development? This is an important issue that has both philosophical and practical import which very much gives shape to the nature and focus of everyday classroom work. There are various ways to work through these issues which would depend in part on specific program focus, background of both the teacher and the students, and academic level of the students. For example Sticht argues that one should provide explicit and separate attention to phonemic development with students at fourth grade reading levels and below while those at higher levels would best benefit through an exclusive functional-context approach based on topics and themes of identified interests to students as well as program developers.

According to Dirkx & Prenger, the thematic approach not only differs from basic skills or academic-focused approaches that concentrate on “decontextual” skill development. The ITB approach also differs from other functional approaches which reduce “real life” application to a set of specific skills that will shift from one topic to another without broader thematic context, such as what one will see in many textbooks. It also differs from approaches that focus just on a set of life skills that one may derive for example, from a list of CASAS competencies. Thus, in an ITB approach, the topic of consumer awareness might also include some focus on the role of consumerism as a cultural value in contemporary society and the psychology of consumerism on the lives of participating students and their families and communities. In a fully developed Integrated Theme-Based approach both attention to the basic skills are fully addressed in context, and the themes selected are sufficiently broad to be integrated into some meaningful life contextual framework such as that of developing a meaningful vocation rather than that of simply finding a job.

This, at least is the ideal proposed by Dirkx & Prenger even as the authors of this text are fully aware that such a vision of adult basic education is an ideal toward which to strive where progress rather than perfection is the more realistic and satisfying objective at least for many programs. It is not my intention for you to accept the pedagogical presuppositions advocated by the authors of Planning and Implementing Instruction for Adults. It is my desire that you vigorously (a) grapple with the ideas presented in the text as a thinking/planning tool to work through your own curriculum development planning; (b) give studied consideration to infusing your own work with greater intentional focus on student-relevant theme-based instruction while simultaneously including sustained attention to basic and academic skill development as well, and (c) to rigorously think through how a bottom-up emergent curriculum and top-down planned curriculum focus can creatively intersect at key junctures rather than to be intrinsically viewed as oppositional.