Realizing the Potential of a Personalized Approach
Marge Winter had just returned from her first evening class of the semester. The title of the course was "Contemporary American Fiction" and she was excited because it really sounded interesting. The instructor was enthusiastic about the subject and there were many older learners such as herself in attendance. One thing stood out for Marge; the instructor had started the class in a most unusual way. He had group members first introduce themselves to a partner and then to the group as a whole, then he talked about his own background as an instructor, and, finally, he discussed the course purposes and his own instructional philosophy.
Marge thought about how helpful this approach was since it enabled her to know something about the other learners, the instructor, and the course material. She thought to herself, "I think I'm really going to enjoy this course. All of the learners seem so interesting, and I especially appreciate being treated like an adult. What a refreshing feeling it is to have an instructor who seems to understand something about teaching adults. Yes, I think I'm going to like this course."
As we have demonstrated throughout this book, successful instruction such as that Marge Winter experienced does not happen accidentally; it requires an instructor to have good knowledge of the subject matter, an understanding of the clientele, careful planning, a good deal of patience and flexibility, and a commitment to helping learners reach their potential. Perceptive instructors of adults realize this and measure their success accordingly. For them, instruction is never a routine matter taken lightly; it is too precious a commodity much like a diamond or ruby.
Many people may wonder if they can experience the same kind of instructional success perceptive adult instructors do. In this book we have presented many ideas and a six-step model to help you become more successful. Yet, you may feel like the person in a recent airline commercial who kept answering the telephone and saying, "Yes, I can do that," "Yes, I can do that," "Yes, I can do that," and finally realizing, "How am I going to do all of that?" This is understandable since there is a great deal of material for you to consider relative to the nature of adults and adulthood, and how such knowledge suggests a particular way of organizing instruction. Many times during the initial development of the individualizing process, we felt overwhelmed by its numerous details and subtleties. We wondered if it was possible to incorporate adult education principles into a workable system for instructing adults. But with a commitment to the idea that adults have the right to expect instruction that is consistent with their roles, responsibilities, maturity, and expertise, the process was born and perfected. Thus, you should be able to adapt the process to your own context with commensurate success.
So what needs to be said that hasn't been already mentioned? In this concluding chapter, we synthesize the various elements described in preceding chapters that comprise the individualizing process. We offer a checklist related to the six-step model for you to use in examining and organizing your instructional efforts. Additionally, we provide some ideas for successfully employing the process, along with our views on possible implications for the future and needed research.
Individualizing Process Model
The individualizing model is designed for optimum use with adult learners and consists of six specific steps. Each step involves continuous planning, analyzing, and decision-making on the part
of the instructor. The model should be used flexibly as a framework for organizing instruction. If certain elements do not seem applicable to your particular context, then simply modify or remove them; that's one of the strengths of the process.
As you can see from this repeat of the earlier Figure 3.1, the model begins with a number of preplanning activities prior to the first session of the learning event. Items for consideration include developing a rationale statement that describes why learners should be interested in the learning experience, how and why it will enable them to develop additional competencies, and what the instructional experience will be like. Other preplanning activities include identifying suggested learning competencies and requirements, locating support materials such as books, articles, and media-supported items, and securing human resources such as community experts. Other preplanning activities include the preparation of a study guide or workbook where materials like a syllabus, bibliography, and suggested readings are collected and organized.
In step two, emphasis is placed on creating a good learning environment. Here, you will want to assess the physical environment,
noting how it can be made most conducive for learning to occur. This may involve rearranging the room, adding color to the space, and bringing creature comforts such as refreshments and food. In addition, you will want to think about how to best introduce the contents of the learning experience, how each participant will become acquainted with each other, and how you will get to know the participants.
The third step stresses development of the instructional plan. How you create this plan is crucial in operationalizing the individualizing process. The optimum approach we have employed is through a needs assessment process where learners first individually complete a checklist of potential study topics on the basis of experience and competence. Once completed, small groups are formed for sharing and consensus building. The instructor then takes this information and develops a learning plan that describes the topics to be studied, in what sequence, and through what kinds of instructional techniques.
The fourth step of the model consists of identifying the various learning activities that learners may undertake in preparation for and implementation of their learning contracts. Here, learners identify what it is they will learn, how they will learn it, and how they will evaluate their learning. Typically, learning activities take many forms, are dependent upon the competency needs of each individual learner, and are negotiated between the learner and instructor.
The fifth step of the individualizing process involves putting the learning plan into action and monitoring learner progress. The instructor decides what instructional techniques will be used such as mini-lectures, case studies, or field-visits, and implements these accordingly. In addition, as the learning unfolds, the instructor monitors learner progress though formative evaluations which enable modifications to be made as needed.
The sixth and last step of the individualizing model consists of evaluating individual learner outcomes. Through the use of learning contracts, learners identify and complete various learning outcomes based on individual needs and competency levels. The instructor assesses the evidence or products presented by each learner and assigns the appropriate grade or achievement measure.
As we have noted throughout, the underlying intent of the individualizing process is to promote good educational
practice through the recognition of individual differences, experiences, and learning needs. By capitalizing on the resident expertise so typical with older, more mature learners, you are creating the conditions for good learning to occur. Not only will they appreciate this, they will thrive in the situation.
As a means of helping to organize your instructional efforts and assess the degree to which the various instructional elements are incorporated, we have developed a checklist of items to be considered (Table 5).
Murphy's Law and the Individualizing Process
Most of us are familiar with Murphy's Law which says "if anything can go wrong it will." We suspect that nearly every instructor remembers some occasion where Murphy paid an unwelcome visit and disaster struck. In fact, many instructors may believe that Murphy lives on their shoulders! While we believe such disasters are unfortunate indeed, it has always been helpful for us to remember that you can't always predict what will happen no matter what you do. As a means of giving you the courage to press on and try the individualizing process, let us recount a few times Murphy paid a visit to us as an unwelcome visitor and what we did to control the damage.
Take for example the time one of us showed up for a class in an off-campus building only to find the room occupied by another group. In checking to see what had gone wrong, someone mentioned that a guy by the name of Murphy had called to reserve the room. A sympathetic custodian was finally found and the problem resolved, but not without some valuable time being lost.
Or another time when one of us was conducting a two-hour training session for 50 community college teachers. The teachers were all sitting in a larger circle around the room. We had just finished introductions and a quick informal needs assessment activity. Poster paper had been used to organize the main points coming from several buzz groups and about 80 minutes remained for the content. In order to present the information, a decision was made to use a fairly large number of transparencies and an overhead projector. They were located on a table next to the projector with a cup of coffee situated close by. All of a sudden, one of the table legs gave way, and the table crashed forward with the transparencies spewing
Table 5. Individualizing Process Checklist
|Step 1: Preplanning Activities||Step 4: Learning Activity Identification|
|___ Learning rationale described?||___ Self-directed learning concepts emphasized?|
|___ Potential learners understood?||___ Learning contract process understood?|
|___ Instructional options considered?||___ Learning objectives identified?|
|___ Learning competencies determined?||___ Necessary timelines established?|
|___ Necessary support materials and resources considered?||___ Needed learning resources and strategies discussed and located?|
|___ Workbook or study guide materials collected and learning objectives prepared?||___ Needed evidence to show achievement discussed?|
|___ Organizational constraints discussed and approvals negotiated?||___ Necessary validation and evaluation strategies identified?|
|Step 2: Creating a Positive Learning Environment||Step 5: Putting Learning in Action and Monitoring Progress|
|___ Physical environment examined?||___ Optimal instructional techniques decided?|
|___ Ice breaker activities considered?||___ Variety of instructional techniques used?|
|___ Opening activities decided?||___ Conducting formative evaluations understood?|
|___ How to make learners feel at ease decided?||___ Frequent feedback to the learners provided?|
|___ Personal comforts of learners considered?||___ Feedback from learners encouraged and received?|
|___ How will learning materials, contracting examples, examples, learning resources etc. be introduced?||___ Feedback from learners used to make ongoing adjustments in the instructional process?|
|Step 3: Developing the Instructional Plan||Step 6: Evaluating Individual Learner Outcomes|
|___ Suggested learning activities determined?||___ Appropriate summative techniques selected?|
|___ Appropriate needs assessment tools created and used?||___ Competency and the transfer of learning to skills emphasized?|
|___ Responded to related questions and concerns about the learning experience?||___ Various linkages from the learning activities and materials made to practice?|
|___ The role of experience emphasized?||___ Ensured that mastery of learning took place?|
|___ How learners will be helped to feel comfortable with the process determined?||___ Assessed that quality learning and critical thinking took place?|
|___ Learning plan laid out and matched with resources?||___ Prepared for the next instructional situation?|
out in a fan across the floor, the coffee spilling across most of them, and the bulb burning out as the overhead projector hit the floor. Fortunately, the session was saved by some humorous sharing of ways to deal with Murphy's Law while someone found another overhead and a couple of people helped dry off the transparencies.
Or still another time when both of us were making a presentation before a regional chapter of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). Our topic was on the linkage of self-directed learning and training. Both of us had spent a good deal of time preparing for the session and we had developed a number of overhead transparencies. The morning of the session, one of us (the one who was to bring the transparencies) had an emergency at home that required personal attention. Well, as you might imagine, the time needed to solve the emergency put everything behind schedule, so much so that the individual responsible for the transparencies dashed off with what was thought to be the correct set. Arriving, just as the session was scheduled to begin, we pulled out the transparencies only to find that they were the wrong ones. Like the scenario above, the day was saved by one of us talking about Murphy's Law and the other drawing up new transparencies (admitted briefer ones) by hand.
On another occasion, one of us was initiating a week-long, intensive summer workshop. One of the participants just happened to be having a nervous breakdown that first day. He proved to be disruptive in several ways, making learning for the rest of the participants almost impossible. Kind but firm directions to help the person focus on some specific tasks helped salvage some of that first day and some quick phone calls to a university counselor and then to family members of the participant that
night resulted in medical care for him starting that evening. As he did not attend the remainder of the workshop, the learning situation returned somewhat to normal. The total group spent the first two hours of that second day processing what had happened and talking about the implications for teaching, learning, and just plain caring for others. At the end of the workshop, many participants noted that the entire experience, including the first day and the way it was handled, was one of the most meaningful they had ever had.
Coping with the Unexpected
Despite the vagaries associated with Murphy's Law, as described above there are a number of things instructors can do to control, even diminish the effects. The first and perhaps most important is planning, planning, and more planning. If one analyzes programs looking for reasons why any failures occur, inevitably the causes have to do with some breakdown in the planning process. In fact, nine out of ten failures are the result of some mistake in the planning process. The remaining ten percent is attributable to an act of providence or Murphy's Law. In order to control for potential breakdowns, we recommend that you err on the side of over planning. As a rule of thumb, we suggest you build in redundancy measures--backup systems that will work if the primary system fails--and, if possible, over plan. By following this rule of thumb, you will diminish the probability of some breakdown in the instructional process and reduce the effects of Murphy's Law.
However when some disaster or Murphy does strike, it is imperative that you handle the situation gracefully and professionally. We have found that being open and honest is a good policy that learners appreciate, and, as was described above in the case of the person with some medical problems, doing some immediate processing of any particularly disruptive situation often becomes very instructive for everyone. In addition, the ability to laugh at yourself and the situation is another way of defusing the situation. Humor tends to have a cleansing effect and helps demonstrate that you are human after all.
Another way of countering Murphy's Law is to do a dress rehearsal, particularly if the learning experience is new to you. Remember the importance of trying something three times before making any firm conclusions. The old adage of practice makes perfect certainly applies here and usually is a sure way of reducing the effects of Murphy's Law. In addition, your confidence will be heightened to a point where any unplanned interruption is little more than a mild annoyance.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is carry an "instructors first aid kit." We have carried one for years and recommend you do so as well. The kit contains essential items that
often mean the difference in dealing successfully with the effects of Murphy's Law. Recommended items include: a grounding adapter for two-way electric cords and outlets, extension cords of various lengths, magic markers that work, poster paper, masking tape, extra blank overhead transparencies and frames, extra bulbs for audio visual equipment, pencils and pens, extra paper, spare food or snacks, note cards, rubber bands, paper clips, stapler, glass cleaner and paper towels for cleaning overhead projector glass, chalk, telephone numbers of important people, extra institutional forms such as registration cards, maps, resource guides, throat lozenges, aspirin, antihistamine, tissues, Swiss army knife, magnet, thumb tacks, scissors, post-it stick-on papers, folders, envelopes and the like. By assembling such a kit, you are lowering the chances of an unforeseen problem affecting the instructional situation, while at the same time increasing the odds for success.
Benefits of Individualizing Your Instruction
Perhaps the greatest benefit from individualizing your instruction with adults, is the notable joy you will derive from teaching and the notable joy that learners will derive from learning. We have seen this repeatedly and are confident in saying that the individualizing process is a big part of the reason.
But there are other advantages. One is how much easier you will find your teaching in the long run. This is because the individualizing process stresses flexibility, adaptability, utilization of various human and material resources, cooperative learning, and personal responsibility for learning which reduces the anxiety ever present in conventional pedagogy. You will actually find learners thriving in the individualizing process, motivated to engage deeply in learning and actively working toward their potential.
A second benefit comes from the satisfaction you and the learners will experience in learning together. This may seem mundane, even unimportant, but our experience suggests that satisfied learners are motivated learners and to the extent that you create this kind of enthusiasm, all the better. The old adage of leading a horse to water may be appropriate here: your role isn't to make the horse drink, rather it is making the horse thirsty. And so it is with satisfied learners; they are ever thirsty for more.
A third benefit comes from the satisfaction you will feel in knowing that learners are responding to a learning approach tailored for them. Yes, many will balk when first exposed to the individualizing process and this may dampen your enthusiasm for it, too. But soon, as the learners understand the process and begin experiencing the freedom of choice permitted, they will respond in an infectious way. This infection will spread to a point where you will know the harmony of teaching and learning.
Problems with the Individualizing Process
As good as we have experienced the individualizing process to be, we realize there are certain problems in using it. For example, if you work in an agency that frowns upon giving learners a voice in their learning, then you may have difficulty in employing the process. You will probably need to be cautious initially in using individualizing techniques, but we have found that once co-workers and supervisors see the kind of results that are sure to occur, they generally become at least tolerant. Some may even ask for assistance in emulating what you are doing.
Some learners with very rigid learning styles may have difficulty with individualizing notions. We recommend you not penalize such learners and actually provide lots of encouragement for their learning efforts and point out options they may want to consider. Actually, this is one of the strengths of the individualizing process since you work with each learner individually. Thus, with certain learners you may need to be more directive than you would with others.
Some instructors who have fairly rigid teaching styles may have difficulty in adopting or adapting the process we have described. If this is the case, we recommend that such instructors give the individualizing process at least three honest tries. This is to prevent reaching premature conclusions or generalizing on the basis of one or two experiences. We are confident that once you become comfortable with the process so will your learners. However, there still may be some who are more comfortable with a classical socratic or more directive approach, and, if this is the case, we still hope such people have received some useful tips from our materials.
As we peer into the future, we suspect that the individualizing process will become commonplace and aspects of it will be available to learners of all ages. We say this because the future demands it. The need for an instructional system that capitalizes on the intrinsic capacities of learners, helps them to be more critically aware of the deceptions about them, and links personal choice with responsibility will be necessary if we are to survive the next century.
In order for us to realize this vision, several changes will need to be made in the way instructors are trained. Currently, most instructors who receive formal training do so based on knowledge of children and adolescents. While this practice may have been acceptable in the past, it will be less acceptable in the future. As the number of adults requiring continued learning swell, the need for instructor training based on knowledge of adulthood is required. This means that colleges and universities who provide the bulk of instructor training must revise and expand current curricula so that principles of adult learning are incorporated. More importantly, those collegiate instructors who will provide the training of future adult instructors must themselves be trained in adult learning principles so that they will model consistency in their own teaching.
Significant changes also must be made in the way physical environments are designed and created if we are to serve adult learners well. Currently, most learning environments are designed for young people. With increasing numbers of adult learners demanding educational services, the need for adequate physical spaces that are consistent with adult learner needs will be required. Already, there is a mounting literature base on the subject and we suspect more will come in the future. Educational leaders, when thinking about and planning physical environments, must do so with an eye for serving learners of all ages including adults.
Lastly, we envision the need for agencies and institutions to be more supportive and understanding of self-directed learners and their learning needs. The days when education was reserved almost exclusively for youth, and schools were places where the bulk of learning occurred, are over. Frankly, we wonder if they ever existed in the first place. We know for
example, that the majority of learning conducted by adults is of a self-directed kind occurring in the home or work setting. We also know that the prime motivations for learning revolve around some anticipated benefit. If adult learners see little or no benefit in continuing their learning in institutional contexts such as colleges or universities, then they will not. One sure way of ensuring that educational settings will be desirable places for adults to attend is to organize them on the basis of what we know about adulthood, providing services and instruction that are in keeping with this knowledge. The individualizing process is one proven way of organizing and providing the kind of instruction most adults want and in which they will thrive.
The individualizing process grows out of research in self-directed learning, knowledge of how adults grow and develop, material pertaining to andragogy, and our own teaching and learning experiences. We are confident that you will find the individualizing process an effective way of organizing and delivering instruction, particularly with adults. At the same time, we realize that more research needs to be done to demonstrate the veracity of the process with various groups of adults, in various educational settings, and in various types of agencies or institutions. This is the proper function of research and we welcome any comments readers have as to their experiences and outcomes.
A Final Word
The joy of watching adults grow and develop is something so special that we wanted others to benefit from our experience. That is why we developed these materials. Despite our feelings about instruction (and we have some fairly strong ones at that) the true test is up to you. We believe that the individualizing instructional process will enable you and associated learners to experience mutual success. Yet this success will be won through the trials and tribulations of working jointly toward the goals and potential each individual possesses. For in the words of John Ruskin, "Education does not mean teaching people what they do not know .... It is painful, continual, and difficult work to be done by kindness, by watching, by precept, and by praise, but above all--by example."
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