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Are adult learning principles at odds with accreditation requirements?

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Malcolm Knowles’ seminal text The Adult Learner sets out the principles of andragogy, an approach to teaching and learning which recognizes that children and adults learn differently. In pedagogy, the teaching of children, a relationship of dependency is assumed:

“The pedagogical model assigns to the teacher full responsibility for making all decisions about what will be learned, how it will be learned, when it will be learned, and if it has been learned.”
(Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2015, p. 41)

In practice, learners study to pass the course, not to apply their learning to their lives; they become dependent on the teacher’s decision-making; what they bring to the classroom is subordinate to the requirements of the curriculum and textbook; they are ready to learn when the teacher or the system deems them ready; and they are motivated by external motivators such as grades.

Based on this pedagogical model, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 sought to improve accountability in K-12 schools, in part by requiring states to develop ‘measurable objectives’ and assessments to measure student achievement. This meant that curricula were to be specified by each state in advance, and all students were to follow the curriculum on a pre-determined timeline.

In the early 2000s, this way of thinking bled into Department of Education requirements for accrediting agencies, including the two agencies that accredit intensive English programs, ACCET and CEA.
IEPs found themselves having similarly to specify learning objectives and timelines and to demonstrate that learners were achieving the specified objectives.

This pedagogy-based approach (whatever you may think of its effectiveness in the public schools) is inconsistent with the andragogical model proposed by Knowles, which makes the following assumptions:

  • Adults need to decide for themselves that they are ready to learn something; they must see its practical application to their lives.
  • Adults are self-directed and resist others imposing their will on them.
  • Adults bring a large volume of experience to the learning environment with them, that teachers must integrate as part of the teaching and learning.
  • Adults bring a problem-solving orientation to learning, and curriculum must address their life issues.
  • Adults are more likely to be motivated by internal factors such as satisfaction and self-esteem, rather than by grades.

If the assumptions of the andragogical model are correct, then the direction most IEPs have moved in as a result of accreditation requirements may not be appropriate for many of their adult students. Curricular items delivered on a specific timeline do not speak to adult students’ own readiness to learn. Talk of externally imposed ‘student learning objectives’ does not interest them. Imposition of topics by the teacher and/or textbook often fails to engage their self-directed nature.

I know of only one IEP that systematically addresses the principles of andragogy through customized, mutually agreed syllabi, assessments, and evaluations. It is very effective. Needless to say, it is also expensive and it requires enormous time and effort on the part of teachers and administrators. The IEP also has a hard time making its case to an accreditor which has curriculum and achievement standards that are based on a pedagogical, rather than an andragogical approach.

Reference
Knowles, M.S., Holton III, E.F., Swanson, R.A., The Adult Learner, Routledge, 2015