Teaching adults… This is a post I’ve been stalling on for weeks, but, difficult to write as it is, I can’t put it on hold anymore.
I’d like to begin by sharing three seemingly unrelated anecdotes which, by the end of the post, will hopefully have made some sort of sense.
Anecdote 1: therapy
I’m no stranger to therapy, but I’m not big on the more orthodox, Freudian approaches. I’m a Flower Remedy kind of guy. Last year, for example, I tried something wonderful called EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), which draws heavily on NLP and basically tries to help you get rid of some of your emotional baggage by means of the repetition of key sentences coupled with a firm but gentle finger tapping applied at certain points of the meridian system. One of the tenets of EFT, my (great) therapist used to insist, is that you don’t need to understand or relive the pain to get rid of it. It so happens, however, that I am a pretty intense and hyperbolic kind of person, verging on melodramatic at times. So, needless to say, I wanted to relive my memories and understand them in hindsight, rather than simply see them fading away into some sort of ignorance-is-bliss oblivion. My therapist would then, session after session, remind me that I was using the wrong “learning style.” Her principled and well-meaning advice would often take me back to the days when I used, for example, to try to talk students out of mentally translating the new input: “No, no, no. Don’t think in Portuguese.” Or when I used to persuade them not to take notes in class and simply “go with the flow.”
In hindsight, she was right, of course, in trying to help me open up to a new way of “learning”, but I can’t help but wonder what role my intrinsic “learning style” played in the whole process. Would I have achieved better results if I’d really allowed myself to surrender to the idiosyncracies of the process and let go? Or would the whole experience, wonderful as it was, have been even more fruitful if she’d somehow tried to meet me halfway? And what does have to do with teaching adults? Please bear with me for another paragraph or two.
Anecdote 2: the mouse that just isn’t there
To say that I’ve been busy lately is quite an understatement, so unfortunately there’s been hardly any time left for more mundane pursuits (which I miss badly!) such as watching TV. To keep my sanity, though, I do try to squeeze in at least three or four hours a week, but the viewing experience is definitely not what it once was. It’s getting harder and harder to simply sit through an entire show (however entertaining) without -are you ready for this- trying to reach for a mouse or a hyperlink, which, duh, just aren’t there – It’s a TV, not a computer, for heaven’s sake. And that’s really the whole point. I have grown so used to being able to determine what it is that I watch (read “learn”), for how long and in what sequence, that being simply a passive spectator (read “student in class”) can be excruciating sometimes. I don’t want to generalize beyond my experience, of course, (especially when I spend an average of 15 hours a day in front of a computer), but there must be people out there who feel the same way. Anyway, thank God my movie-going habits have remained relatively unscathed.
Anecdote 3: “Whatever happened to this place?”
Last week I spent a few hours at a shopping mall I hadn’t been to in four or five months. Honestly, I was taken aback. Not really by the building itself, but by the closing down of old (old = 1 year old) stores and restaurants and the mushrooming of new ones, which, in their majority, I’d never even heard of. It seems these days things are happening way, way too fast. I know I’m stating the obvious here, but it’s getting harder and harder to see things happening. They just happen, in the blink of an eye, and suddenly you’re jolted out of your pseudo-comfort zone, which, well, didn’t last long enough to even qualify as “comfort” in the first place.
And this is exactly how I felt in class last month, teaching adults after a year-long absence.
I’m not teaching these days – just (just?) writing, doing course design and the occasional teacher training. One day, though, I had to sub for a colleague who was ill and, in many important ways, I felt like a novice teacher in class. It was as if one year away from the classroom had been multiplied tenfold – just like the mall experience.
Twenty minutes into the lesson, I found myself wondering ‘how could students’ profile have changed so much and so fast?’ They were all adults in their best behavior, of course, but there was a palpable sense of chaos in class, which I wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on ten or even five years ago, I think. I felt as if the teaching I was doing -technically competent as it might have been- was simply being allowed to run parallel to eight or ten personal, self-driven syllabuses, each belonging to a different student and manifesting itself in the most haphazard manner throughout the 80 minutes in which I was there. An orchestra playing out of synch, if you will. How could teaching adults have become so difficult?
Me: “Ok, so I want you to read the text quickly and choose the alternative that…”
St 1: “I have a question. When do we use fewer and less?”
Me: “Repeat after me… older than… don’t stress the “than”… older than I am. Ok, now this side only.”
St 2: “Mas quando que eu uso older e the oldest? Eu ainda tô um pouco confuso.” (But when do I use “older” and “the oldest”? I’m still confused.)
Me: Now in pairs, you’re going to look at the pictures and compare…
St 3: “Why the best place in Brazil and not of Brazil?”
Me: You know… prepositions have no rules sometimes. You just have to … (bla bla bla bla).
St 4: Tem algum livro bom de preposição que o sr. recomenda? (Can you recommend a good book on prespositions?)
Me: Sure, I’ll tell you soon, ok? So, take a look at the pictures and compare the two…
St 5: How I say “perceber?”
The students, nice and receptive as they were, struck me as extremely analytical. ‘So what?’ you must be wondering. After all, there have always been analytical and over analytical students in our classes, ever since English 900 was the latest craze.
What I mean is that this sort of profile might have been less of an issue, say, five or ten years ago, when the need to “reach for the mouse that isn’t there” wasn’t nearly as acute. Today, in many important ways, when teaching adults, we’re dealing with individuals who want to choose what to learn more than ever before and yearn, first and foremost, to have their immediate needs met and their questions answered – whether or not these are even marginally connected to the lesson at hand. It’s as if we’re being forced to redefine words like “aim” and “focus.”
The funny thing about what I just wrote is the choice of the word issue. Take a look at the beginning of the last paragraph. What do I mean by “might have been less of an issue?” Do I mean that those students’ tendency to over (and I say over) analyze is inherently negative? Or do I mean that the students’ own agendas ended up seeping into my tight and well thought-out lesson a little more than they should have – hence the orchestra out of synch analogy? I’m not sure I can answer either of those questions at this point.
But that may not matter in the end. Maybe what does matter is the repertoire that the 21st century teacher needs to develop in order to learn how to cater to all the individual, parallel syllabuses competing with each other and, above all, with the lesson and the textbook. In other words, when teaching adults, what do we do when, in the middle of a pre-listening, João wants to know the difference between less and fewer? How do we handle Paula, who, two minutes into a drill, switches into grammar analysis mode and wants to be reminded of the differences between comparatives and superlatives? Do we gently bring them back into focus (which my therapist used to do with different degrees of gentleness and success, for that matter) or do we allow ourselves to be sidetracked when teaching adults? And what is the optimal level of productive chaos in that case?
When teaching adults, what is, I wonder, the ideal balance to be struck between the course syllabus / processes and the learners’ own syllabuses / learning styles?
A few years ago, this might have been just one of those mildly stimulating DELTA niceties, over which teachers could split hairs for an entire afternoon. They would naturally come to no conclusion and, after the session, would simply allow themselves to get on with their day-to-day teaching, happily impervious to all that “theoretical nonsense.”
Not anymore. And having stepped back into a 21st century adult classroom for eighty minutes last month, I learned it the hard way.
Teaching adults in the twenty-first century is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Thanks for reading.
Click here for another interesting post on teaching adults.