I was recently invited to speak to a group of mostly part-time faculty who teach undergraduate and graduate adult learners on the University level. They wanted me to tackle the issue of having high standards but also flexible with students. It is generally true that some faculty have the temptation of being a bit too lenient and flexible with students, not holding them accountable for the standards set in the course or program. Others, on the other hand, set extremely high standards but they see flexibility as weakness or compromising on academic rigor.
I spent a little time talking to different faculty, reviewing some of the classic texts on adult education, and exploring a few ways to approach this. In the end, I opted for a holistic approach to the topic, crafting a presentation that I called “Rigor, Not Rigor: 10 Laws of the Adult Education Instructor.”
To start out, I invited to group to join me in a game of either/or. Perhaps you’ve played it or seen it before. You basically turn the room into a human rating system. One side of the room represents, “I fully agree with the statement.” The other side of the room represents, “I completely disagree with the statement.” Then you share a thought-provoking or otherwise potentially provocative statement. Each person moves to a place in the room that represents where the person stands. I can stand on one of the extremes or somewhere in the middle. Once people take their initial stand, I invite people to defend their positions. If anything shared convinced someone to change his or her mind, then that person represents the change by physically moving to a new position.
In this case, the either/or statement was one that I used last year at a workshop on self-directed learning. “Good teachers become less important.” The group stood up and took their stand. We had a wide range of positions. Some stood on the fully disagree side to show their strong convictions about the importance of a teacher in helping students gain competence and confidence. Others stood on the other side of the room to represent how they saw teachers as slowly fading out as students become increasingly competent and confident. Many others took positions in the middle, representing a diverse set of beliefs and philosophies of teaching.
This got the group chatting, thinking about where they stand on this issue. It gave me a chance to get to know some of the personalities in the room, for others to think their way into the forthcoming conversation, and it allowed me to acknowledge and honor the fact that we had many different viewpoints represented in the room. At the same time, I explained that I was there to propose a vision for what I consider to be quality teaching in the adult education classroom.
From there, I took the group back to a discussion about the word “rigor”, given that the title was “Rigor, Not Rigor.” What did I mean by that? When you look up the word “rigor” in the dictionary, you find that it is not necessarily a pleasant picture. You find things like, “harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment : severity : the quality of being unyielding or inflexible” I hope there are not too many educators who think that this definition represents the sort of “rigor” that we want in classrooms and schools. What good comes from promoting severity, inflexibility, or harshness in education? Instead, when most people talk about rigor in an academic setting, they are speaking about creating an environment that challenges and stretches learners, and one that promotes deep thinking, deep practice and deep learning over rote memorization.
Further, I explained to this particular group that they are faculty at a University where the President casts a particular vision. It is not a highly selective school. The mission is not to only allow entrance to students with the absolute best GPAs or ACT scores. It is not about polishing the highest performing academic students. The school has a vision of helping each student make as much personal progress in learning as is possible during his or her undergraduate or graduate degree program.
As such, and drawn from my study and practice of adult education over the past 20+ years, I proposed “10 Laws of the Adult Education Instructor” to guide their thinking about teaching in such a context. I intentionally left room for diverse approaches to still flourish while not shying away from defending ten core ideas that I believe to be central to great teaching and learning environments for the adult learner.
Before I venture into the list, I should also point out that much of what you will read below is not entirely new. It is a synthesis of many ideas shared in my writing and speaking over the years.
The Law of Culture
Great teachers speak, act, and establish rules and rituals to emphasize learning over earning.
When I visit learning communities around the world, I find myself dividing them into these two broad categories. There are some that lean on the modern trappings of the education systems. You hear students ask frequent questions like the following:
- “Will this be on the test?”
- “What is the length requirement if I want to get an ‘A’?
- “Why would I do that if it doesn’t count for the grade?
- “How many points will I lose if I __________?”
- “What grade did you get”
Similarly, you find the class characterized by teacher statements like:
- “Make sure you know this for the test.”
- “Be ready for a pop quiz at any moment.”
- “This is definitely ‘A’ quality work.”
- “I will give extra credit to anyone who ______.”
Given most traditional school contexts today, you are likely to have some of these show up on occasion, but the frequency and focus on such statements is a strong clue about whether we are looking at a culture of learning or a culture of earning.
A culture of learning is coined by deep and frequent conversations about ideas, real world application, questions focused on grappling with a new issue or concept, and comments or questions focused on personal growth, new skill acquisition, real-world impact, the degree at which someone feels competent and confidence, and nuanced understanding.
If you walk into a learning community, it usually takes less than thirty minutes to get a strong sense of whether you are in a culture of learning or a culture of earning . Teachers as learning experience designers and cultivators of culture can and do influence whether earning or learning becomes the focus. We can focus on helping to shape rules and rituals that celebrate learning. We can downplay points and grades as the goal or focus. We can ask questions and create learning experiences that help students discover the value in what they are learning.
The Law of Excellence
Great teachers challenge students to discover what excellence looks like, to pursue it, and to achieve it.
Some courses and schools are more about getting through the content, completing all the items on the checklist, going through the motions and just moving from lesson to lesson, day to day. Some students get a great deal out of it. Others do not. Yet, the law of excellence points out something distinct about great teachers and mentors. They point learners to the pathway of excellence.
In some fields like ballet or martial arts, there is a long tradition of teaching that focuses upon the cultivating of precise skills. There is a culture around the teaching and people are challenged to step on the pathway to getting increasingly better over time. Note that feedback in these contexts might seem overly negative to some people because there are tons of small corrections taking place. Yet, in the context of the lessons or practice, it is not received as a personal attack. These are small bits of feedback meant to direct you toward better and more precise movements. There is this long and consistent journey in the pursuit of excellence.
While direct and constant instructor feedback isn’t always the best or only way of doing this in an adult education setting, there is a sort of mentoring and coaching approach that can be quite powerful. People want to get better at something and the teacher’s questions, comments, and actions are all geared toward helping each person make progress in that direction. Excellence is not just some word that people throw out to show that they have high standards. It is a recognition that excellence comes as a result of a long, steady, focused effort; one informed by the necessary feedback to improve and learn from your practice.
The Law of the Mentor
Great teachers help students get ready for life more than to get ready for tests or get the highest grade.
The idea here is that great adult education teachers know that much adult education is about equipping and preparing people for life beyond the classroom. In fact, adult learners tend to be quite focused on this. They tend to want that which is relevant and will help them achieve their personal and professional goals.
Great adult education teachers get this. They are not so caught up in the school speak and educational trappings. They might use tests and quizzes, but they don’t build classes or conversations around them. They might have grades, but their primary focus and concern is on helping people learn, grow, achieve meaningful goals, and better prepare for life beyond that class. They talk about this often. They design learning experiences focused on it. They create authentic assessments that align with the real world. They give feedback that is focused on that post-class context and goal.
The Law of Meaning
Great teachers help students discover and value the “why” behind each core concept or skill that is learned.
As you can tell, there is overlap with these laws. They are closely connected. The law of meaning is similar in that it relates to equipping people for life after the class, but it is distinct. This law recognizes a central truth, that people who do not see meaning in what is provided in a course or learning experience find it difficult to stay engaged, and they usually learn less.
It is a common mistake to jump into the lesson or new content without taking time to help students discover why something is important. Why does it matter? Why should we learn this? “Why” is perhaps one of the most important words in a learning experience.
Some teachers note that they always start with a reason or why for each lesson. Yet, they make the mistake of stopping too soon. Just because you state it doesn’t mean that each student connects with it and shares that stated value. As such, I contend that it is a very good practice to “not stop with the why until they buy.” In other words, challenge students to continue to grapple with this “why” question until they find something with which they truly connect. This might take more time but once they connect with it, this will fuel their learning for a long time.
The Law of Feedback
Great teachers have more checkups than autopsies.
I’ve written about this much before, but frequent, meaningful, low-stakes feedback is a powerful tool for learning. In fact, when it is absent, students tend to have higher anxiety, they are more likely to cheat, they are less likely to persist, and they don’t tend to learn as much. Feedback, especially ungraded or low stakes, authentic and focused, gives students a means of seeing how they are doing, what they are doing well, and where (and how) they need to improve.
The Law of Brutal Facts
Great teachers help students face the brutal facts, but always do so with gentleness and respect.
Jim Collins talks about this in his books when describing a trait of great organizations. They don’t ignore or shy away from the brutal facts. They face them and then address them. Great adult instructors do the same. They don’t ignore or deny aspects of the learning culture that are destructive. They don’t grade easily just to be nice or to avoid conflict. They ask tough (and often direct) questions. They challenge. They bring key issues to the table and challenge individuals and the group to persist in addressing them. This helps create a more positive and authentic culture. It is critical when pursuing excellence. In addition, it genuinely helps people and communities grow.
Of course, I’m not talking about doing so in a way that is cruel or hurtful. We can do this with gentleness and respect, while being bold and direct. A good and pointed question is sometimes all that it takes. Bringing the issue to the attention of a person or group is a great starting point. It involves resisting the temptation to shy away from conflict, fearing potential reactions (many or more of which never happen).
Once you have the positive culture established, most people truly appreciate facing the brutal facts, especially when they see the results of working through them and resolving problematic issues in the community or a person’s learning.
The Law of Personalization
Great teachers personalize time, pace and pathways to optimize each student’s growth.
Part of that statement comes from the definition of blended learning from the Clayton Christiansen Institute, but it fits well for the idea of personalization. There was a time when people thought it was good enough to design a classroom or school that provided a consistent and common set of learning experiences for everyone.
Yet, we are in a new area. We realize that doctors don’t recommend the same medication to every patient. Even patients with the same illness or condition often get distinct recommendations. This is true in education as well. We personalize learning experiences based on the prior knowledge, goals, competence, confidence and other related factors. In doing so, we honor the uniqueness of each learner, helping each person achieve optimal growth.
The Law of Curiosity
Great teachers see curiosity and a love of learning as core values in the learning community.
These are not just idealistic words absent from the reality of adult education learning communities. People who disregard them quickly turn the classroom into a chore. Curiosity and a love of learning are two of the most powerful levers for learning across contexts. As such, the great adult learning educator is intentional and persistent in celebrating these two, finding ways to create a context that invites more of them, and invites the entire learning community tap into these powerful tools.
The Law of Agency
Great teachers strive to nurture agency in learners through identity, calling, voice and choice.
Sometimes teachers get focused on controlling the class. They like to call the shots and control the class as if it were a person trying to manage a team of horses. The teacher is the strong and central voice, expecting others to submit and do what the teacher says. Yet, great educators look for ways to empower the learners themselves. They find ways to help students discover their inherent worth. They help them see the value that they have to offer to the world. They help them develop a personal voice and the boldness to use it. They help them to have the competence, confidence, and wisdom to make important choices in life. This comes from empowering learners, not controlling them.
The Law of Less
Great teachers refuse to enable but they also don’t let students drown. They help students grow as self-directed learners.
There is this old-school attitude focused on giving out a ton of content and expecting the students to learn to swim with it. Those who survive are to be celebrated. Those who don’t are deemed unworthy or unqualified. Great teachers resonate with the idea of challenging students to take ownership for their learning, to grow as increasingly self-regulated and self-directed learners. Yet, they don’t just throw people in and watch them drown. They create a context where people can develop the capacity for self-direction. They provide mentoring and guidance that helps with this. All of this is done with that larger goal of equipping people to thrive beyond the classroom.
These are the ten laws of the great adult education instructor. They are certainly incomplete and you might like to suggest other laws in the comment section. Yet, amid my work in adult education over the years, I’ve consistently found that some of the most effective and valued teachers in adult education contexts embody these laws. Each might emphasize some laws more than others, but collectively they represent traits of teachers who truly help adult learners grow and thrive.