Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Planning and Implementing Instruction for Adults: Ch 1 Using Integerated Theme-Based Instruction with Adults

According to Dirkx and 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 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 (

Critical Perspectives of Key Adult Literacy Writers

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, along with 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 it is not always the uppermost one, even as sometimes it is.

On this topic Quigley 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” for addressing the continuing needs of enhanced life efficacy outside of the program

On the view of the authors, an optimally effective program will facilitate student development the entirety of the life cycle of change. Curriculum is important, but so are other critical factors.

Questions to ponder

1. What are your thoughts of the viability of Fingeret and Drennon’s Life Cycle Model of adult literacy?
2. In what ways can this model be of value to you as you reflect on the challenges you face as a classroom teacher, curriculum developer, 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 are in your direct span of control as a teacher or program director or administrator?
5. 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 and goal attainment?

The NCSALL report by Rober Kegan, and his colleagues Toward a New Pluralism ABE/ESOL Classrooms: Teaching to Multiple Cultures of Mind Executive Summary ( 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. According to Kegan and his colleagues these cultures of mind, which the authors view as typologies, 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. What can you draw from Kegan’s model that would be of value to you in his proposed pluralistic model?

With the Quigley, Fingeret and Drennon, and Kegan et al studies in mind, what seems evident to me 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. Programs and adult education institutions, accordingly, need to be as keenly focused on these divergences 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
• If at all possible, some resources to help students deal with such issues as day care, transportation, and long-term unemployment

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 Dirkx and Prenger 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). Sticht makes a case similar to that of Dirkx and Prenger and Quigley on the importance of a relevant curriculum focus in enhancing motivation while engendering positive impact on general literacy aptitude. While Sticht’s early work in the 1960s and 1970s focused on the functional contexts of the military, workplace, and President Johnson’s Great Society programs, 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 Integrated Theme Based Approach

An Integrated Themed-Based (ITB) instructional approach is more than just a form of content-based instruction. As an integrated theme-based approach to instruction, 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, theme, or domain 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 one of her core concepts, the Emergent Curriculum). According to Auerbach, the curriculum is emergent in the sense that its formulation evolves in the very process of the dynamics of class interaction as a student-centered instructional planning. Thus, the context which gives shape to its formulation is quite different from expert driven top-down curriculum design.

A discussion of 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, most likely 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 as not concisely articulated by the authors as it is in Auerbach’s Making Meaning Making Change.

However it specifically emerges, which can be some combination of top-down pre-planning and bottom-up refining and fine tuning, Dirkx and 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 advance 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 raised about this model is the issue of where the need for concentrated skill development comes in. Specifically, what is the role of systematic practice in basic or academic skill development such as writing essays in preparation for the GED writing text or developing fluency in basic reading (decoding)? That is, are such skills best developed “naturally” while working with theme-based content as Sticht, Auerbach, and Dirkx and Prenger suggest or should basic skill work be separated out and given its own particular 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 and 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. This issue is illustrated in many adult education textbooks in which the “life skill” scenarios are often either too generalized or stereotypical for affective application with students or are simply designed as a resource to teach basic skills in comprehension, vocabulary, pronunciation, or math. 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 without regard for the broader contexts or learning domains in which such skills are situated. 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 ITB approach, 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 is the ideal proposed by Dirkx and Prenger even as the authors of this text are aware that such a vision represents an aspiration toward which to strive where progress rather than perfection is the more realistic and satisfying objective at least for many programs (see Ch 8). You might consider the concluding statement of Ch 1 on p. 16 of some value in viewing the possibilities of incorporating at least greater aspects of a theme-based approach in light of the various realities of your own programmatic context. The list of statements on p. 17 in Exhibit 1.1 may also merit your attention.

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.

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