Learning goals in adult literacy

Someone emailed me a chart the other day. It was one I'd made some time ago for one of my classes, posted about here, and later turned into the scroll box in the sidebar titled "Adult Literacy". I may have posted it on the MSN Skydrive - I forget, and anyway that tool hasn't worked out - but she suggested I toss it up with the other resources on my Google docs site.

The chart is a yes, no, or maybe later sort of list of possible basic adult literacy goals designed to help an adult learner identify one or more learning goals. It's basically a table saved as a Word 2007 document and then converted (in the upload) to a Google doc, which means anyone with a recent MS Word or Open Office word processor - or, for that matter, anyone with a Google docs account - should be able to open and change it to suit their own situation. (At the time of posting, the document, saved as a Word .doc, wasn't previewing, and so I was forced to convert it to Google's native format; link.)


"In a learner-centred program," wrote Gaber-Katz and Watson, "learners set their own goals and measure their own progress" (The land that we dream of..., 1991). They then write seven more pages about all the difficulties that can ensue. "Adult basic educators," writes Anabel P. Newman, "have grappled for years with the problem of how to establish appropriate goals for adult learners" (Adult Basic Education: Reading, 1980).

This is, of course, untrue. The give-away is in Newman's phrase "establish appropriate" and all it implies about outcomes, power and program constraints.

What we struggle with is our wish to not insult learners who appear to have unrealistic goals. We struggle with making a place for learners with realistic goals in programs designed - and sometimes funded - explicitly to meet different goals. We struggle with learners who seem to have "Going to school" as their goal, and others who change their goals weekly, and others who appear to have no goal at all. We struggle with the mismatch between a learner's stated goal and the resources available to us. And then some of us - and here I sheepishly raise my hand - struggle with the desire to impress upon learners those goals we just know are absolutely right.

Why we should struggle so is a bit of a mystery, since, on paper, the way to avoid all this is quite clear: Ask questions.

There are easy questions, like:
  • Why are you here?
  • What is it you want to learn or learn about?
  • How would you like to learn that?
  • What would you like me to do to help you with that?
  • How will you know when you have reached your goal?

Then there are the negotiating questions, like:
  • Which thing do you want to learn first?
  • That feels like a big step - how do you want to begin?
  • Can you tell me how you think my doing that will help you?
  • Are you willing to take time to make up your own questions?
  • Do you feel like you are getting anywhere?
  • Can you think of a different way to learn this?

Our goal, all the time, is to act and speak as though the adult learner were in complete control of their learning. Besides fostering independence and self-assessment in the learner, this helps us avoid a situation where we become responsible for making wise choices on behalf of someone else; for establishing "appropriate goals for adult learners."

Leaving each learner in charge of their own learning doesn't mean abandoning them. We still have the job of helping them find effective resources, explaining or demonstrating information when they get stuck, modeling different learning styles and methods though our own, visible learning, and providing them with assessment tools and other means of gauging their progress. We also have the job of ensuring an appropriate and effective relationship, of setting boundaries, modeling discretion, maintaining a healthy learning environment in our classrooms and so on.

You don't need me to tell you that - we all know this stuff, and anyway it all seems so easy...

But it's not. Adult basic educators do grapple. Perhaps chiefly with ourselves and our impatience and our worries we won't be good enough or smart enough or be able to stay in control. We grapple with the need - the absolute need, if we are to be effective - to trust learners and honour their requests, even when we think we see trouble ahead. The temptation to take charge, to rescue, to write a happier ending can be completely overwhelming some days. But there aren't any shortcuts. It's not like you see on TV, and it's not like most of our funders and overseers imagine either.

We work with adults who are scared, misinformed, under pressure, frequently ill, frequently deeply unhappy, sometimes as annoying as hell, and who sometimes really don't know what they want or why they're there.

I'm just saying. Times like that, it can help to have a chart.


Cheryl :) said...

An excellent post demonstrating how Choice Theory can be used in literacy programming with adults!

Thank you.

Wendell Dryden said...

Yeah I know, eh... I was midway through, and I thought, well, Choice Theory deals with this.

Some day I want to post about Ginny and I using a Choice Theory PD day when we were getting stuck in Old Thinking.