Teaching adults, no child’s play

what the best college teachers do

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach.  This shouldn’t sound like such a scary proposition, given that I am a former elementary and middle school teacher, as well as a certified second language teacher (French, not English, but that’s another story).  But I wasn’t teaching eager-eyed first graders or even those steely-eyed arbiters of cool (read 7th graders).  No, I was teaching adults, professional ones with considerable expertise and experience with the topic I was planning to teach.  I only briefly felt like an imposter, as Brookfield termed adults who go back to school and feel they have no right to be there.  After all, as a former principal, I had some expertise and experience of my own to share.  Adult students, however, present challenges and opportunities unique to their ages and stages.  As educators themselves, they have a keen eye for good teaching and are in an excellent position to evaluate bad teaching.  And while they probably won’t act out if they experience the former, they can disengage from the whole process so politely that you won’t even notice the energy drain until it’s too late.

What do adult learners need?  The grand daddy of the field, Malcolm Knowles, popularized the term andragogy, or ways to teach adults based on how and why they learn.  He theorized that adults are responsible and self-directed in their learning, they want to learn,  they bring rich experiences to the classroom, they need choice in what and how they learn, and they are eminently practical and often most interested in learning that will help them solve a problem.  I could argue that Knowles’ andragogy is not so different from good pedagogy, but that’s grist for another post.  In 1984, Knowles was ahead of his time.  A much more nuanced and complex read on current understandings of adult learning can be found in the third edition (2006) of Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner’s Learning in Adulthood.   From self-directed, to transformational, to embodied, spiritual or narrative learning, there’s a theory for any eager teacher to consider adding to the adult learning toolbox.  But how about teaching teachers and principals at the graduate student level?  For inspiration there, I turned to What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bains.  The best teachers, it turns out, do not stand on their heads as you may have surmised from the cover photo.  Rather, Bains argues, they know their subject extremely well, treat their teaching as a serious endeavor and on par with the intellectual rigor of research they conduct, they trust their students and expect more of them, they create critical learning environments, and they constantly check for understanding and make adjustments to their teaching.  Of course there’s more, but for that you’ll have to read the book.

So I pared slides, slashed text, increased choice, incorporated reflection, writing, and peer processing.  Most of all, I tried to communicate my own passion for the topic.  From the feedback, I know that some of my teaching hit the mark and some of it I need to re-think from the point of view of the learner.  Teaching adults, no child’s play.


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