Vol. 1, No.3
Professional Tips for Adult and Continuing Educators
TIPS ON TEACHING AFRICAN-AMERICAN ADULTS
Margaret Shaw, Ed. D. Pennsylvania State University
These tips focus on teaching African-American adults from a cultural perspective. This teaching approach includes all the basic objectives of adult education but with a slightly different emphasis so that learning activities will have increased meaning for African-American adults. Teaching from a cultural perspective pays attention to the subject matter as for any adult student; however, the subject matter is contextualized to have meaning for the African-American adult. Teaching from a cultural perspective also pays attention to the developed knowledge structures, perceptual patterns, and the preferred processes of learning within that culture. It also pays attention to teachers and their cultural perceptual patterns as well as their effects on the teaching/learning process. Following are some tips for students, curriculum specialists, and teachers that may lead to better services for African-American adults.
Tip #1. Teachers should encourage students to interpret their own world through the students' two ways of knowing: Afrocentric and Eurocentric.
African-Americans grow up in a distinct culture that shapes their cognitive development and impacts the way they behave in an academic setting. African-Americans have two ways of knowing: an African-American and a European-American way within a largely Eurocentric culture. From their home cultural context, many African-Americans are taught an Afrocentric way of thinking and living: thus the development of the Afrocentric eye. From the larger societal perspective, they are taught the Eurocentric perspective and develop ways of knowing from the Eurocentric eye. African-Americans have learned both within and outside their own culture everyday negotiating strategies to regulate their movement and grasp meaning between the cultures. These strategies are called LENS (learning everyday negotiating strategies). They look through their LENS with two eyes at every situation. This two-ness is well documented in the literature. LENS serves as the perceptual filter through which their world is viewed and structured. The dualism provides a keen awareness that permits them to examine, evaluate, and interpret situations critically and quickly. The constant shifting between cultures creates a shrewd sense of skill and precision in perceiving the two worlds in depth, both singly and jointly. Many times it becomes critical that African-Americans hold and utilize the two worldviews simultaneously.
LENS focuses on the two worlds that African-Americans see--the world which acknowledges their presence and possibilities, and the other world which views African-Americans as maladjusted facsimiles of the European-American culture. African-Americans focus on ethnocentric orientations that increase their vision and society's orientations that limit their vision. To the degree that one lives in an overtly racist and oppressive system, one will have developed LENS.
The Eurocentric environment of schools forces the development of a Eurocentric eye as well as an Afrocentric eye. This dualistic experience influences the development of a unique pattern of learning characterized as "learning-to-learn-to-live." This pattern creates a critical perspective that is not merely an intellectual process. It is about a process of coming to believe in the possibility of a variety of experiences, a variety of ways of understanding the world, a variety of frameworks of operation without imposing, consciously or unconsciously, a notion of norm.
How does this process look in action? First, the teacher disempowers oneself and therefore gives students the opportunity to empower themselves by becoming the authority in their own voice. It shows students that there are multiple frameworks for learning in the classroom.
Tip #2. Teachers must have methods and approaches that allow African-American adults to examine and question not only the instructor but the textbook or the "official knowledge" for validity and utility.
Official knowledge is what is written in textbooks, and it may be different from what students have been taught. Many African-Americans are suspicious of official knowledge when the educational encounter is between the dominant educational system and those whose history, traditions, and assumptions have been ignored and often denigrated. If people don't feel empowered they must, as students, feel as though they are in control of their learning. Respect for what they can contribute as well as what they wish to learn is essential to their education. It is an opportunity to take part in knowledge production generated out of their own culture. For example, one group of students might question the content validity of a history textbook. In response to this, they could write their own history books.
Tip #3. Teachers must recognize that African-American adult learners are capable of complex learning in the classroom and should design learning activities that evoke and challenge these abilities.
Researchers argue that complex thinking can be observed in the streets among students who drop out, but seldom has this complex thinking been captured in the classroom. In order to use this process in the classroom, teachers must first understand how such complex thinking and learning operates. Secondly, teachers must begin helping students use their everyday critical thinking and learning strategies within the classroom environment. For example, drop-outs on the street learn rap songs quickly. Why? They understand the rhythm and beat because it is important to them. Teachers can build a classroom activity around rap music by asking students to develop their own music within the context of the planned lessons.
Tip #4. Teachers should emphasize practical application.
Teachers who experience the most success are those who illustrate new concepts or broad generalizations by using life experiences drawn from the learners. In addition, the transfer of learning and the ability to maintain that learning suggests that learners plan and rehearse application of concepts within their daily contexts. For example, for many urban African-Americans, illustrations related to using a currency exchange may be more appropriate than illustrations using banking and checkbook operations.
Tip #5. Teachers should use experiential learning methods.
Many African-American teachers have found that experiential learning strategies provide greater success than other methods. Strategies that tap the experiences of the adult learners include group discussion, the case method, the critical-incident process, simulation exercises, role playing, skill-practice exercises, field projects, action projects, laboratory methods, demonstration seminars, work conferences, counseling, and community development.
Tip #6. Teachers should look at their own culture and understand how their perceptual patterns operate within the classroom and their impact on the teaching and learning process.
In viewing African-American students through an outside culture lens, European-American teachers may have a distorted image of their students, even though it may be masked by the cloak of professionalism or be unintentional.
We must take into consideration the teacher's attitudes, beliefs, expectations and values about the academic strengths of African-American adult students. Teachers need help in looking at how their beliefs, values and behavioral styles affect their students. Training programs that take teachers beyond superficial intellectual discussions about cultural differences, racial relationships and Black history are necessary. Teachers should participate in both formal and informal learning experiences that are focused on racism and other social issues. Formal learning experiences consist of structured events such as workshops, presentations, oral histories, and other explications of traditions through storytelling, sensitivity groups, and focused group sessions. Teachers need to take a deeper look at themselves as persons, how they communicate, how they judge and value others, how students perceive them, and most importantly, how these human characteristics affect the development of the students' learning. By looking at one's own biases, teachers can build more constructive relationships with African-American students.
Resources for Additional Information
Ausubel, D. P. (1963). The psychology of meaningful verbal learning. New York: Grune & Stratton.
Colin, S. A. J., III, & Preciphs, T. K. (1991). Perceptual patterns and the learning environment: Confronting white racism. In R. Hiemstra (Ed.). Creating environments for effective adult learning (pp. 61-70). New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, No. 50. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
Gurba, C. & Briscoe, D. B. (1989). Capitalizing on culture. Tampa. FL; The University of South Florida Center for Community Education.
Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education (2nd edition). New York: Cambridge.
Shaw, M. A. (1992). African-American strategies of successful adaptation in response to diseducation: A phenomenological investigation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. Illinois,
Margaret Shaw is an area representative with the Office of Continuing Education at Pennsylvania State University in Harrisburg. Her responsibilities include teaching and coordinating non-credit programming.
Professional Tips for Adult and Continuing Educators is published by the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education. Permission is granted to reproduce the contents of Tips.