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Standing on an Empty Box

“The improvement of understanding is for two ends: first, our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver that knowledge to others.”     John Locke (the philosopher, the character on LOST)

At our last class session, we had a guest instructor.  She made a statement toward the beginning of class about teachers of adults.  She asserted that some are “standing on an empty box” in that they ‘teach’ (or train, or give lectures) because of their subject expertise, but have been given teaching autonomy before they have developed the ‘box to stand on’ of the skills and knowledge it takes to facilitate the learning process.

This was an ‘aha’ moment in the world of the difference between teaching adults and children for me. For the most part, teachers of children hold a degree in education and have devoted much time and effort to filling their ‘box’ before they actually teach. The many discussions in this class from instructors that have had autonomy and are now filling their box emphasizes the need for ‘improving understanding for two ends’ if our purpose is to teach so others can learn.

Our session focused on Learner Engagement and Jane Vella’s Model of Instructional Design. (Taking Learning to Task:  Creative Strategies for Teaching Adults, 2001, Jossey-Bass).  Vella’s assumptions about learners and the learning process are:

  • Learners arrive with the capacity to do the work involved in learning.
  • Learners learn when they are actively engaged – cognitively, emotionally, and physically – in the content.
  • New content can be presented through learning tasks.
  • Learning tasks promote accountability.

This is not so different from John Locke’s philosophy of the late 1600’s  The origin of the mind being a blank slade (tabula rasa) is attributed to Locke.  He maintained that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience derives from sense perception.

Do I really believe in these assumptions?  One attribute about adult learners that is named as different from children is that they do come ready to learn – they want to be there.  I believe I’ve always assumed the first assumption.  It took me awhlie to understand and feel comfortable with the second assumption.  Partially because we teach like we were taught.  Nuns don’t appreciate ‘active engagement.’  Now I don’t hold a learning session without active engagement.  In fact, I’ve had a colleague suggest that some people just want to have you lecture.  I can’t do that.

As for the third assumption, I think it is a great one.  While doing the exercise of Vella’s 4I’s (Chapter 4) we were assigned, I experienced as a learner that new content can not only be presented through learning tasks, but evaluation of understanding can occur that way as well.  I felt I was accountable (4th assumption) more so than the instructor who facilitated the learning process by providing content and evaluation.  (Plus I learned how to make a beer-butt turkey:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpSzh3LYO-k)

Daniel Boorstin (historian and author of books on world intellectual history) said,  “Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.”  It is important for teachers of adults to stand on a full box so learners can benefit more fully from their knowledge and expertise.

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2 Responses to “Standing on an Empty Box”

  1. Hi, Joanne,
    Thanks for this comment on your blog, which I have enjoyed “catching up” on in my end-of-semester reading. I wish I had gotten to this one earlier! I am so looking forward to your opportunity to take The Adult Learner with Dr. Muth. I think you will relish the discussions and explorations of the differences between how children learn and how adults learn, and that you will gain a lot of valuable knowledge about andragogy (for your expanding “box!”)

    Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed (in which he describes his work with peasants in teaching them the basic skills that allowed them to gain a sense of freedom and empowerment in their lives), refers to the detriments of a “banking” system of education in which educators think of their learners as blank slates into which they make “deposits” of knowledge.

    In contrast, the primary theoretical stance on adult learning today is constructivist in nature in which we recognize that adults are constantly engaging in meaning-making, and learning is a meaning-making process. Adults construct their knowledge and need time and practical experiences that meet their learning needs in order to do so.

    Thanks for your many contributions to our class discussions in Groups and Teams this semester and for the excellent work that you and others in Not in Mayberry Anymore did in your team assignments. It’s been a good semester! tjc


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