Rigor, Not Rigor: Ten Laws of the Adult Education Teacher

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.

5 Whys for Lifelong Learning & the Role of Learning Organizations

We’ve talked about “lifelong learning” for decades but what do we mean by that phrase, how is it different from the past, and what are the implications for learning organizations? On one level, it is simply learning throughout life, but there are different arguments for the importance of lifelong learning that give us a more complete understanding of the term. As such, following are five ways of thinking about it along with a few thoughts on the role of learning organizations and education companies in each of these areas. Advocates for lifelong learning do not necessarily separate it into these distinct categories, but doing so sometimes helps us develop a richer understanding of the phrase across contexts. Doing this is also critical for learning organizations and educational companies that are considering their role in supporting different types of lifelong learning.

A Life of Many Chances

As Jacques Delors explains,

“In the 1996 report, the UNESCO Commission on Education places a strong interest on lifelong learning…the further we evolve in a society that is both fixed and constantly changing, in the context of globalization, the more we become aware of the centrality of education, the central nature of education in society, and we defined four objectives relating to education that, it seems to me, are still relevant today:

  1.  learning to know – a world subject to major evolutionary change, but which also entails learning to know history and scientific discoveries;
  2. learning to do – by which I mean having access to necessary competencies;
  3. learning to live together – undoubtedly the most important of all in the world riven with inequalities, fundamentalism and wars;
  4. and finally learning to be – in other words, getting to know oneself better in order to gain self-confidence.

Delors goes on to explain that a critical why behind lifelong and adult learning is to fill gaps that were missed in primary education and to address inequities that result from having those gaps. This might include a person who grew up in a community or part of the world with poor or limited access to early education, but it also includes someone who missed important lessons due to various life and social circumstances. Should such a person be restricted from the many jobs and opportunities of life because of those early experiences? Proponents of lifelong learning like Delors argues that this should not be the case, and we can help by giving learning experiences throughout the life span that are substantive, accessible and equalizing. This is a vision for lifelong learning that rejects the idea that, if you missed it the first time, then you just have the live with the consequences.

What is the role of learning organizations?

As we look at this why, learning organizations contribute by creating opportunities for formal education that has a low entrance barrier, embracing the opportunity and challenge to help people address potential gaps in their learning. This might come through degree programs, certificates, stand alone courses, as well as non-credit offerings. There are also organizations dedicated to helping people gain the pre-requisite skills to be successful in future formal learning. In addition, education companies provide inexpensive learning solutions, often available online, that help people fill gaps and gain skills that increase one’s employability.

In some ways, this was a large part of the early vision behind the online learning revolution that launched in the 1990s and is already integrated with mainstream approaches to both K-12 and higher education. Online learning continues to increase access and opportunity. It started by reaching out to those who were not served or undeserved in traditional contexts, and it has now gained a solid grounding in the broader landscape of P-20 education. Today online learning is one of many forces that is helped move higher education from an education of the elite to an opportunity for the majority.

 Living & Learning in a World of Constant Change

Others focus on the reality of modern life, that lessons learned in school five, ten or twenty years ago are not enough to prepare us for the constantly changing world in which we live. We must embrace a mindset and commitment to ongoing learning: acquiring new knowledge, skills, mindsets…and we must further develop important character traits as we face increasingly complex challenges and gain access to greater opportunities. Within this perspective on lifelong learning, we see champions of ongoing formal and informal learning experiences. We notice reminders that education can’t be segmented into an early stage of life, as if you get and education and then go on with the rest of your life. Learning does not stop with primary school, secondary school, a first college degree or even a doctorate or other terminal degree. It requires a lifelong commitment.

What is the role of learning organizations?

Here learning organizations are partnering with companies to provide formal and custom training to meet the changing needs of organizations, and the changing demands of work in these organizations. There remain many leaders and individuals who are overwhelmed and less interested in the “teach a man to fish” approach. They want packaged training and educational programming that will help them achieve their goals and meet the immediate demands. As such, there is a massive market for startups, educational publishers and content providers, and traditional learning organizations who are willing to partner around these goals, or to simply create and market produces and courses that address high-demand training needs.

MOOCs, personal learning networks, online communities of practices and many other develops are helping to meets some of these needs as well.

Preparing for Life in a World of Constant Change

This is largely the same argument as the last, but the difference is on the preparation. Now we are looking at the approach to lifelong learning that is less focused on creating increased access and opportunity to ongoing learning experiences, and more focused on equipping people to be competent and confidence self-directed learners. It is a survival skills approach. Make sure people can survive and thrive in a constantly changing world by being able to own and manage their own learning, becoming confident as both the designers of and general contractors for a life of continual learning. This is something that can be nurtured in formative years, but it can also be developed in adulthood. This short video from Salman Khan illustrates this perspective.

What is the role of learning organizations?

We see more learning organizations embracing the importance of a curriculum that is not simply about learning to know, but about learning to learn. On the K-12 level, there are schools fully committed to nurturing a generation of self-directed learning by creating new types of learning environments where students take greater ownership for how and what they learn. The same thing is happening in some higher education institutions as well as new approaches to professional development in the workplace (like Jay Cross’s excellent work around informal learning).

There are countless online resources and communities to support people who want to learn how to learn, but it takes a certain measure of drive and initiative to pursue them. As such, formal learning organizations and educational companies still have a role to play to help people learn how to help themselves. This might seem counter-intuitive from a business perspective. Why would you want to equip people so well that they don’t need you anymore? Yet, that is the ultimate aim of all great education. While it may seem this way at first glance, I am certain that any organization capable of nurturing and empowering deeply competent and highly confident self-directed learners will have no problem addressing the financial realities of running a learning organization or educational company. Besides, being a self-directed learner is not about being a lone-ranger learner. As such, there will continue to be a valuable role for learning organizations that help people connect, collaborate, network, and co-learn.

Preparing for Changes in Life Circumstances

Just as the world around us is in constant change, people make changes in their lives; and those changes often require new learning, formal and/or informal. As Jeanne Meister points out, Job Hopping is the New Normal for Millennials, with an average of 4.4 years in a job. Some are shifting a job in one organization to a similar one in another. Others are making small or massive career shifts. Both often (or almost always) require some measure of retraining, retooling, and new learning. Sometimes these changes are by choice. Other times, people experience changes in their lives beyond their control that require them to look for new lines of work.

What is the role of learning organizations?

Adult education programs in community and technical colleges, traditional Universities, online schools, and other organizations already offer a multitude of options for this purpose. There is no evidence that this is slowing. There will continue to be huge demand for programs and services that help people transition from one context to another, or that prepare people to do so through formal and informal education (and training) programs. Any program, product or service that proves its value in helping people make these changes will find plenty of opportunities.

Ongoing Personal & Professional Development, and Peak Performance

A fourth why for lifelong learning relates to the traits of those who achieve true expertise and excellence in one or more domains. It is about reaching new heights in one’s life, goals and aspirations. How does a concert pianist become that skilled and continue to develop throughout her career? How does one grow as an increasingly effective or excellent leader, educator, government official, parent, community organizer, gardener, designer, or entrepreneur? This is an area that has its own domains and disciplines, and is sometimes separated from what we refer to as lifelong learning, but it is certainly a vibrant part of learning throughout life.

What is the role of learning organizations?

At different stages of life, people experience plateaus. Sometimes this leads to frustration, other times to boredom. Achieving new goals, growing and improving helps people remain engaged in their work. Companies want people who are deeply engaged in their work in ways that help the organization achieve its goals. Similarly, there are many other aspects of a person’s life that are important to them: health and wellness, family and relationships, avocations and hobbies, leadership capacity for future possibilities, financial goals, citizenship and activism. As such, there remains a valuable role for learning organizations that help people improve and advance through training, resources to help with accountability, networking with like-minded peopled, formal coaching and mentoring, rich and engaging interactive content with feedback, along with guides and tips for taking things to the next level.

Lifelong learning is the new normal. It is a perspective on education that has largely shattered past notions of education as something limited to primary school, secondary school, a college degree, or a formal training program. The shift from a schooling to an education mindset is largely complete, even as some only focus on the former. What does this mean for learning organizations? As I see it, this further solidifies the value of agile, innovative, and learner-centered organizations. It invites them to consider the distinct role(s) they will play in the 70+ year education of people in the modern era.