In the beginning of 2020 together with ERASMUS + startegic co-operation project EFFECT partners we released a questionary to teachers who are dealing with adult learners. To make sure that the curriculum and toolkit for teachers (that are the main outcomes of this project) will fulfull its purpuse while working with lower skilled and educated adults we asked teachers how they are doing their job and what they miss the most. The questionary was organised in Estonia (by Loome OÜ, Kasvulava OÜ), in Latvia (by SIA Spring Valley) and in Slovakia (by TopCoach).
To get more information and knowledge from the results, Estonian adult educator of the year 2019 Kristel Jalak created a profound article “More games and methods. Really?”. In this article Kristels long term experiences, questionary results in all three countries have been mixed. Besides the visable results, Kristel has noticed and outlined connections and trends that are behind the answers.
More games and methods. Really?
Kristel Jalak, PhD., adult educator, DevelopDesign®
At the beginning of the year a survey was conducted within an Erasmus+ project EFFECT in order to specify the needs for continuing education courses of adult educators for the new curriculum of adult education developed within the course. The aim of developing the curriculum as an international project is to increase and improve the awareness and skills of the educators who work with adult learners of lower educational attainment or of disrupted education paths. This target group needs support not only improving speciality-based knowledge and skills but also general competencies, including social and learning-to-learn skills.
Adult education institutions in Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia participated in the survey. In Estonia the focus was on adult upper secondary schools and vocational schools. Latvia and Slovakia also included higher education institutions and private schools.
At first glance the survey results can be summarised in two clauses: give us more time and teach us new (leading-edge) games and techniques. This raises a question – if improving the quality of adult education is as simple as that, why has not it already been applied? Most adult educators have studied the features and principles of teaching adults, as well as all possible methods and techniques. Yet, those are not put in practice. Why?
Knowing is not Doing
Skills cannot be acquired and implemented as a result of theoretical studies alone. It is necessary to do, experiment, test. However, according to one participant in the study, “It is strenuous for me to practice and apprehend new methods. I think of starting to teach using new methods. However, if a good technique does not work right away, things tend to go back to the way they were…”
Changing the ingrained routines is definitely difficult, even scary. Discarding the habitual, repeatedly tested and therefore stable methodology may result in failure, ridicule and embarrassment. No one wants that.
Air acrobats use safety wires or a net. The same is available for educators in the form of colleagues, mentors and social networks as safety nets to soften the falls. No, those cannot guarantee the impossibility of failure, however, they ensure staying intact after a relapse, initiate courage and create opportunities to try again and again until proficiency is achieved.
- Build a network. Explore the experiences, ideas and warnings of other educators. Design your lesson plan or course plan with your colleagues. Two heads are better than one. Show your programme to an experienced educator for consultation.
- Carry out courses jointly, sharing topics and activities between yourselves while supporting and helping one another.
- Invite an expert to observe your courses in order to receive feedback and discuss potential possibilities for further development.
Mirror, mirror …
Before leaving home I take a peak in the mirror. Has my mascara smeared or is my hair fine? How do I know I am ready to go? I have a perception of how I expect myself to look. I compare the reflection to the idea in my head and assess the situation. If necessary I reach for the comb. In other words, I collect feedback, compare it to the main aim, analyse, evaluate and make improvements if required. All this in less than a minute.
The study shows that the self-analysis of educators is on shaky grounds or non-existent altogether. They ask for methods, self-reflection questionnaires and then complain about lack of time to use them and analyse. Yes, interest in feedback is there - so they do take a peak in the mirror. And then - they leave it as it is.
Let me remind you that any evaluation is first and foremost a comparison - to an earlier outcome, results of other educators, personal goals.
Secondly, the results of comparison must be evaluated. Set the bars. What will be considered good or satisfactory and what not. If 80% of students pass a test, is it an excellent result or a failure of me as a teacher? That must be clear before we start analysing and assessing ourselves.
- Write down 3 to 5 main criteria into your course programme or lesson plan based on which to assess your professional competence.
- Note down the assessment criteria - what will be an acceptable outcome and what not, what will be considered an excellent outcome.
- Design both the assessment of student performance and collecting feedback for the course/educator in a way that also provides you with necessary means for instant self-assessment.
- Compare, analyse and evaluate. In case of proper groundwork, it takes no more than 10 minutes.
- Gradually start setting the bar higher.
I would teach if they studied!
The educators of all three participating countries complain about students’ lack of motivation. They wish for a change in the mindset and attitude of students. How to change other people, though? Through the change of actions of oneself. For that reason, an educator needs to know what is expected of him, what the students actually need and what their goals are.
According to the study of these three countries, 97% of adult teachers and educators engage in identifying the needs of their study groups. Written questionnaires or interviews, individual conversations and group-work or discussions are common practice. Adult upper secondary schools prefer to use tests and tasks that demonstrate the students’ level of performance, vocational schools also consider the information collected from clients/employees and colleagues important .
Concurrently with this, almost 10% of respondents admit that it is difficult for the teacher to take into account the social competencies of students (including learning-to-learn skills) and that they lack the know-how of doing so. Getting to know the study group occurs rather during conducting the lessons than beforehand.
There are no procedures or methods set to help teachers clarify the level of social- and learning skills or special educational needs of their study groups or individual students before the courses take place. This deprives educators of the opportunity to adapt their programmes and methods in advance and add additional time or activities into the plans based on those needs.
- When preparing a course think of the critical general competencies (in addition to the expected level of subject or speciality knowledge) the lack of which or the lower level of which may compromise achieving the learning outcomes.
- Find suitable means for you to assess the level of competencies as fast as possible.
- Investigate the students’ levels before compiling your course or lesson plan. Perhaps it proves necessary to lower the bar. Plan more time and activities to nurture learning skills. Change methods. Expand your toolkit with methods that enhance the development of general competencies.
90% of the respondents practise explaining the expected aims and learning outcomes to the study group. Unfortunately, many limit to just that. The decisive aspect of emergence of motivation for an adult is personal (learning) goal. If the educator does not help the learner find it and link it to the studies, we end up in an anecdotal situation of a cowboy storming into the stable, saddling the horse and then dashing off into the sunset - the horse staring after him ...
How come almost half of educators who responded to the questionnaire never or almost never support learners in setting personal goals? A short conclusion based on the responses - there is no time to mount the horse.
A comment from a respondent says, “When communicating with the student, there is no time or place for his/her question seeking an answer. The school has its own programme and the assumption is that the student wants what the school offers.”
Task: you have 33 priorities. Sort them in order of priority.
Lack of time is not an objective reason. We always have time to do what we really want, what we find important. I hereby point the finger at the authors of curricula, training courses and professional qualifications standards. Rarely, if ever, do these documents highlight any set of knowledge or skills. Everything is important. All must be known, all must be learnt.
An educator faces a mission impossible where he is given two bad choices. Whether to follow the curriculum - quickly browse through all required topics, knowing in advance it will produce poor results; or to focus on supporting studies based on individual, targeted aims and become poorly in the eyes of the local governments as school owners or other clients
- If at all possible, negotiate and agree upon realistic learning outcomes and priorities with the client or local government. Gain confidence to do so by following the recommendations on evaluation (including self-evaluation) above - you can be the promoter to empower further progress.
- Set your priorities. Determine the categories the learners must know/master and the would-also-be-nice ones. Use the time of contact lessons to focus on must-knows and leave the rest for independent research. Preferably teach the student to find corresponding resources to discover necessary answers on their own.
- Start each new course/lesson or topic by identifying the learners’ motivation and goals. This is utterly important! Do not rush. Listen. Help them become aware of the necessity and benefit of acquiring the knowledge/skill, why it is worth learning and what the personal learning goals could be.
Do not drag, push or fight. Lead.
Contradictions arise from the responses regarding the observation and management of group processes. Nearly 100% of respondents claim to encourage expressing opinions, discussion and sharing experiences within the groups; however, only less than a third of respondents believe they always observe and manage group processes as well as use the potential of the study group in order to achieve learning outcomes.
There is also confusion in understanding what group processes are. It is a widespread perception that assigning tasks for smaller groups is equivalent to managing group processes or that there are no group processes at all when it comes to short courses or individual lessons. One respondent wrote a comment to an open-ended question of What is lacking or needed to better conduct the learning process? saying those to be better group dynamics and a less stressful classroom environment. The response does not specify whether the solution to the problem is expected to come from the client, students or the respondent himself/herself.
Managing group processes is one of the competencies of an adult educator, where knowledge of theory alone is not enough. Skills come through experience. Conscious experience is shaped through experimentation, analysis and reflection.
- Knowledge cannot be passed from one to another. It arises in people’s heads and is formed between people. What takes place in a group can be a lot more successful than you as a teacher in creating or killing motivation, enhancing or hindering learning. Use the group!
- Consciously address group dynamics as your goal. Sharpen your eyes and ears, pay attention to the signals from the group. Regularly analyse your work from the viewpoint of group processes.
- Consult with a colleague or a mentor. Together review the learning process and your activities with the group during the course. What could have or should have been done differently? Hindsight is an important learning curve for further progress.
Students’ resistance is usually difficult for teachers to tolerate. It spoils our mood, decreases motivation to support their learning and is tiresome, oh so tiresome.
A respondent of the study writes, “I miss having a rest. Being a teacher means month after month of effort - day, night and weekend - which leads to mental exhaustion. Perhaps I feel a shortage in having more playful and relaxing activities to offer the students - to help be present in the moment again, feel the joy, sparkle and connection to each other.”
Based on my own experience and that of my colleagues I believe the majority of the mental fatigue of educators stems from day-to-day work in conditions of strong psychological resistance. It feels like wading in a swamp. Struggling with all might and yet moving along as slowly as a snail. Regrettably, most educators do not grasp what is going on with them. Less than 20% of the respondents indicated that they always recognise the instances of psychological resistance in students and use appropriate methods to overcome them. 15% of respondents could not answer this question.
It is widely believed that the reluctance of students must be suppressed. In other words - “put a lid on a boiling kettle and hope it lowers the temperature”?
Let us recall, that when dealing with resistance the aim is not to improve the well-being of the educator but to support the learner in understanding his or her own learning experience and finding the driving force for further actions. This includes managing one’s own resistance no matter how immaturely expressed, be it in a form of argument, hesitation or exclusion.
This brings us back to the necessity of new methods. Still, it is first important to notice, recognise and apprehend what is happening. Thereafter come the methods. No tool does the work without the hand holding it.
- Familiarise yourself with what resistance to learning is, how and why it occurs, what indicates to it. Knowing what is happening does not relieve the resistance, however, it makes it more easily bearable and hopefully helps to take it less personally.
- Take into account that resistance is an essential part of learning and progress. Sharpen your eyes and ears in order to recognise the earliest indications of resistance. Experiment with different coping strategies and find the ones suitable for you.
- Make use of the network of colleagues and mentors. It gives you the indispensable shoulder to lean on. On the other hand, analysis and reflection help you improve and regain the joy of work.
The survey amongst the adult education educators of Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia was carried out in February and March of this year. 119 respondents (educators and teachers) participated in the survey. The study was conducted by Kasvulava OÜ in collaboration with Loome OÜ in Estonia within an international Erasmus+ strategic cooperation project The Efficiency in Adult Learning and Training.
Author of the article is Kristel Jalak, PhD., Adult Educator, DevelopDesign®, Estonian adult educator of the year 2019