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I had a meeting last week with some people involved in adult education. As a writer who counts teaching creative writing as one of her jobs, it’s an area that I hover at the fringes of. On the one hand, yes, I teach adults (some of the time) – they are evening classes; they are for self-improvement; they are usually people who come not just in search of facts and figures but how to apply what they already know to what they’re trying to do next and how to learn in this new field. On the other hand, they are not practical in the sense of providing one with a certificate that can be used to go on and do something else with; they are not things you pass or fail.

I’m on the fringes of ‘ordinary’ education too. I’m not an English teacher. I sometimes go into English classes or school libraries, but I’m not there to teach the syllabus and get students passing their exams. I teach on specialist programmes, things that complement the ‘normal’ education people get in school. So it maybe wasn’t too surprising that I found myself surprised by the way ‘adult education’ was conceptualised as something opposed to ‘ordinary education’, as though children will simply absorb whatever you say without questioning its purpose while adults need to see the relevance of something to their own experience. When we talked about the kinds of activities that might be suitable to adult ed, I found myself drawing on activities I use at a summer course I teach to/facilitate for teenagers. It seems so bizarre to me that lines are drawn between the adult ed student and the regular student, the grown-up and the adolescent. When you teach the stuff that’s not on the syllabus, in environments where learners are more often than not there because they want to be, you see the similarities much more than the differences.

The same week, I read yet another book about gifted children, When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All The Answers. One of the specialist programmes I teach on is aimed at gifted kids and teens, and it’s an area that fascinates me, so I try to keep up with the books and guides and research as much as I can. There’s one part that stays with me – a comment about how we so often tell kids it’s okay ‘as long as they did their best’ or we tell them ‘just do your best’. At everything. And it asks us, how many adults do we know that do their best at everything they do?

We live in an era of retraining and career-shifting, a time when adults are often continuing education formally or informally, trying to improve themselves or change themselves. We see what works for adult learners and we develop new ways of teaching and facilitating accordingly. I just wonder how much of that we can apply to younger learners, rather than assuming they are somehow ‘built’ to learn or that there are skills necessary for learning that we want young people to have but don’t have ourselves and somehow manage to get by. There are things that younger learners don’t know, haven’t experienced, have trouble with, sure – but they’re not entirely different creatures.

For any of the rest of you, readers or contributors, what do you think of the differences between learning as an adult and learning at a ‘standard’ age? Do we expect something different from our experiences learning as an adult – or do we respond to the different way we’re taught?

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