Fostering a Shared Responsibility Between Instructor and Learner
As a surgeon, Dave Drummond was well known for his expertise using innovative heart surgery techniques. He had pioneered the use of lasers in open heart surgery and was part of a team developing an artificial heart that would go beyond what the Jarvik model had accomplished. Surgeons from around the world contacted Dave on a regular basis for his advice and he was in heavy demand as a speaker at international meetings dealing with heart transplants.
Dave, however, had just participated in an exasperating continuing professional education workshop entitled, "New Developments in Cardiovascular Immunology." The workshop leader seemed to be well prepared for the session but had failed to consider the composition of the group. Present were other leading surgeons and several immunologists who could have made valuable contributions to the workshop. Dave thought about his own presentations and how important it was to find out who was in the audience. He had come to realize that spending a few minutes during the beginning of a session finding out who was there and why they were there helped improve the experience
noticeably. He even found comments to this effect on the workshop evaluations customarily made at the conclusion of each event. Dave wondered why this had not occurred in the current workshop and concluded that helping each learner take more responsibility for the overall learning experience through sharing their expertise would have made the session more satisfying.
As we noted in Chapter One, an important assumption undergirding the individualizing of instruction is that learners have the ability to take considerable responsibility for their own learning. This includes making various choices regarding the learning approach, establishing evaluative criteria, and seeking appropriate resources. In our experience such decision-making fosters those feelings of personal ownership that Dave had come to recognize as important. In this chapter we discuss methods of promoting individual ownership of learning experiences.
Promoting Personal Ownership
Most adults, when given the opportunity, prefer to control their own learning activities and projects. Considerable research on adults' learning projects in the past two decades led by Tough (1979) and substantiated by many others has shown that individuals can take considerable control of various tasks. For example, in interviewing people on their learning projects it was not unusual for these researchers to find many individuals who had planned and carried out a variety of learning activities, including participation in traditional "courses," as a means of achieving a larger learning goal. (The resources section later in the book provides more information on this line of research.)
Knowles (1984) even identifies several strategies for using self-control processes. They center on (1) selecting well-defined objectives, (2) making contractual agreements, (3) keeping objective records of behavioral changes, (4) being able to alter stimulus conditions, (5) narrowing the stimulus control,
(6) using self-reinforcing operations, and (g) making gradual changes.
Pratt raises the caution that adults vary considerably in their readiness and ability to exert control over such tasks as "collaborative planning, management, and evaluation of education" (1988, p. 161). He suggests that the amount of support required by instructors or the ability of learners to accept responsibility is based on such variables as dependency, competence, commitment, and confidence.
Even with this cautionary note, we contend that individualizing the process enables each learner or trainee to build on such variables as those described above to the limit of personal ability. It has been our experience that individualizing instruction empowers each person to take action, find resources, figure out a comfortable learning pace, and plan the kind of learning that is most appropriate for meeting any particular, specialized needs.
1. Access routes to learning resources need to be varied to meet the different individual requirements for educational support.
One way to fill this need is to provide a variety of learning resources. This includes audiotapes and videotapes made available through resource centers or for personal loaning, reading materials in a library, a workbook or study guide filled with supplemental reading materials, and notations of various other resources in the community. Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) provide the following scheme for organizing such resources:
There is a constant need to find or build resources, to plan for varied activities in any learning setting, and to encourage learners to find their own resources. We have found it necessary to add new materials to our learning resource collection on a continuous basis. Some learners may need help in learning how to access and use various resources, so the availability of various resources and their relationship to potential areas of learning needs to be clearly communicated. We provide lists of resources in our workbooks, facilitate discussion about resources in the learning setting, and provide feedback about potential resources when learners turn in first drafts of learning contracts. We also provide assistance to learners needing help in using libraries, electronic networks, or information data bases.
In addition, we provide materials and training to participants who will be utilizing special techniques to obtain needed information. For example, a learner who plans to interview agency administrators or adult learners can receive any needed help with interviewing protocols. We also provide feedback to learners on the resources they use and ask them, as well, to evaluate resources so we can make more informed recommendations to future learners. Several useful books are available to assist learners in choosing resources (Gross, 1977, 1982a, 1982b; Knowles, 1975; Smith & Cunningham, 1987). Knox (1980, 1986) and Smith (1982) urge collaborative learning where learners use each other as educational resources.
2. Self-discipline and self-confidence are requirements for successful individualized study.
A very important factor in successful individualized learning is confidence in one's ability to determine needs, set goals, find appropriate resources, and evaluate how well any activities have met the goals. Brundage and MacKeracher (1980) refer to this as the "self-seen-as-learner." In other words, promoting a learner's ability to learn is an important instructional goal. Knox (1986) raises a related question: "How do you help participants become more confident in their roles as learners? A strengthened
sense of educational efficacy can motivate adults to venture and accept the risk entailed in trying to learn and change. Success experiences from mastery of increasingly difficult tasks can increase self-confidence" (p. 47).
In Wlodkowski's (1985) view, the relationship between success and further promotion of self-confidence is directly tied to the competence a person achieves in carrying out learning activities: "Competence allows confidence to develop, which leads to emotional support for efforts to master new skills and knowledge" (p. 56). We add to this outcome emphasis on the need for self-discipline as a learning tool. We try not to burden a learner new to the individualizing process with an immediate emphasis on the development of self-discipline, but rather attempt to model self-discipline in our instructional approach and then encourage the development of such discipline as learners become more advanced.
Success in promoting self-confidence and self-discipline will be different for various learners. Some learners will come to realize their own potential much quicker than others. As mentioned before, the instructor needs patience and faith that an individualizing approach eventually results in most learners being able to carry out self-directed activities with considerable success.
3. Instructors should serve as facilitators as well as emphasize the mastery of specific content areas in helping learners assume responsibility.
Providing content expertise to learners while at the same time managing a learning experience is complicated no matter what approach to instruction is being used: "Any teacher must discover how to balance encouragement, compassion, and support for students with rigorous evaluation and intellectual honesty, as well as--given the usual institutional context--issuing grades that affect the student's life chances. . . [this] notes a tension between the role of teacher as evaluator, screener, certifier, and the role of helping students" (Robertson & Grant, 1982, p. 346).
This mixture is further complicated when such tasks as evaluating and helping learners are thought of within an individualizing framework and where a facilitative process usually must be intermingled with a certain amount of content acquisition. Caffarella (1988) even suggests that such a mixture presents an ethical dilemma and Brockett (1988) notes that the potential for abuse exists in terms of promoting
a nontraditional approach, such as an individualizing process which emphasizes "learner self-direction without adequately considering the actual needs of the population to be served" (p. 5).
Thus, it is not easy for an instructor to help learners take personal ownership for learning while at the same time balancing individual or institutional expectations rooted in traditional teaching practices. It requires a complex mixture of instructional activities: "The teacher-facilitator has some responsibility to give of self in terms of personal expertise and ability. This includes dealing with learners openly and honestly, letting them know what is expected of them and what they should be able to expect of the facilitator, and attempting to establish a climate of mutual respect. . . there are ways this responsibility can be carried out without jeopardizing individual learner growth or lessening the impact of the teacher with that expertise" (Hiemstra, 1988a, p. 102).
4. The instructor's attitude toward the ability of learners is very important when using an individualizing approach.
Letting learners discover their own potential is a necessary cornerstone to success with the individualizing approach. However, some people will discover this potential much more slowly than others. There will be times when instructors, in promoting the notion of personal ownership, may have to accept poorer performance, at least initially, than the learners are in fact capable of.what they know is possible related to learners' capabilities.
In our experience, such approaches pay off in many ways for most learners. In addition to the type of success described above, other important results include an introspection, inquisitiveness about personal abilities, and willingness to go that extra mile in their educational endeavors. Wlodkowski (1985) details the importance of helping learners develop a positive attitude toward learning. Obviously, the promotion of personal ownership is possible within any instructional approach, but we believe that an individualizing process fosters this potential in all learners because in permits individuals to set their own rates of growth.
5. The instructor may need to play a counseling or mentoring role with some learners.
Many adult learners will need some sort of counseling intervention at certain points in their pursuit of new knowledge or skills. Miller (1986) notes that a variety of problems confront many adults today: Career changes, family role conflicts, changing family patterns, and various social and economic trends. If left unresolved such personal or family problems can serve as a barrier to learning or training efforts.
For example, special child-care needs may require a learner to leave the training session early each week. Another learner may reveal to you at some point during a learning experience that a marriage separation has forced some reevaluation of how free time needs to be spent now that more family responsibilities are required. A trainee might note that a loved one's illness has made future commitments to special training tenuous. A learner that you do not know well may come to you seeking some advice about a career change. Chapter Two described various social, emotional, and other characteristics that need to be considered when working with adult learners. Such characteristics or situations may fall somewhat outside the instructional role, but often are factors with which you must deal in some way if your individualizing efforts with learners are to be successful.
Goldberg (1980) reviewed many sources and suggested that there exists an increasing urgency for special knowledge and techniques related to counseling to solve such problems as those described above.
Dean (1988) offers several potential solutions to counseling problems and reviews recent literature to support the idea that effective counseling is urgently needed. DiSilvestro (1981) supports this urgency notion, too. He and several colleagues describe the type of learners and programs where adult counseling efforts will be most useful, although Knox (1981) cautions that many of us do not have appropriate training or preparation for formal counseling activities.
What then can we do as instructors if we have not had much formal counseling experience or training but are faced with learners needing our assistance in some way that is not directly related to the instructional activity? Brockett (1983) urges instructors to establish a helping, facilitating relationship with learners. He contends that there are at least three helping skills each instructor can develop:
The individualizing approach described in this book provides a mechanism for instructors to meet many of the counseling needs that will surface. Such instructional actions as establishing informal settings, paying attention to the physical environment, advising learners as they assess needs, guiding learners in their development
of personal learning plans, and modeling lifelong learning skills all help to create a climate in which interpersonal relationships are possible. Obviously, any instructor must feel comfortable with the nature or depth of interpersonal relationships and issues of objectivity in the evaluation role must be addressed. With some learners you will feel comfortable in assuming a close helping or even mentoring role; with others you will feel the need to keep some distance or will need to help them seek out professional advice of some sort. It has been our experience, though, that various counseling actions may be needed so as to enhance your instructional efforts and the abilities of learners to assume personal responsibility.
Obstacles to Promoting Personal Responsibility
An instructor needs to be alert for personal, individual learner, or institutional problems that may affect the ability of certain learners to assume personal ownership for their learning efforts. For example, some individuals will have initial difficulty in accepting control of certain learning activities. Some colleagues may have difficulty understanding individualizing approaches you employ. Your sponsoring institution may actually have in place various barriers that inhibit the employment of individualizing instructional techniques. Instructors attempting to change from a more familiar socratic or didactic approach to the facilitative, individualizing approach may need to make such changes quite slowly until they reach a high level of comfort with or confidence in the procedures.
6. Occasionally recalcitrant learners will abuse or take advantage of the individual freedom given to them by an instructor who uses an individualizing process.
Are there some learners who will misuse the freedom given and urged in an individualizing process? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Some individuals will try to do the very least possible in meeting your minimal expectations for a learning experience. Such learners have probably been unsuccessful in accepting personal responsibility for learning, and they waste their energies trying to figure out at what minimal level it is possible to work and still meet the basic requirements of the course or training session.
This difficulty in taking personal responsibility may stem from assumptions or beliefs that the instructor's role is to direct all educational activities or to at least prescribe the requirements for a learning experience. At times the difficulty will be related to cultural expectations regarding the "teacher's" role such as we have found with some of the international students with whom we work. At other times it may be related to an individual's intellectual and ethical development where the role of an instructor is expected to be highly directive (Perry, 1970). Occasionally it appears that a learner may simply have either philosophical differences with us regarding our stress on individualization or a personal learning style that requires directive actions by an "authority" figure.
We have even worked with an occasional learner who overtly resisted the approaches we used, for reasons that were never quite clear. Such a learner is usually uncooperative in efforts to assess needs, refuses to complete a learning contract or complains to other class members about the teaching approach. Such a person also can have a negative effect on the work of small-group activity by being obtuse during group discussion or by refusing to carry out an equal share of the responsibilities required to complete some project.
We can only recommend dealing with such situations as best you can and by taking into account any knowledge you have specific to a particular group or individual. In addition to the counseling or advising requirements described in the previous section, common sense responses based on your experience in dealing with humans usually is the best course. This means you simply work with this person on a human to human level by "demonstrating patience, respect for the dignity of each person, and by attempting to reach through individual to individual negotiation some sort of a compromise on the best way to proceed" (Hiemstra, 1988a, p. 122). Occasionally this will even entail asking the person to withdraw from the class or calling on some outside person to serve in some arbitrating role to resolve remaining differences.
Individualizing the instructional process does not mean that every learner will be able to go off freely on some self-determined path. For most of us involved with facilitating adult learning, we have a responsibility to ourselves, to our teaching colleagues, and to
some institutional base, as well as to the learner. This means we, as instructors, must play a role to ensure that learners stay within certain boundaries, that they set reasonable goals but ones that stretch them, and that they learn to think critically.
Thus, this two-way relationship between an instructor and learner, often within some organizational framework, requires the formation of a learning partnership where all participants work together for the enhancement of knowledge and skill. We have found that this partnership almost always greatly enhances the potential for personal growth and development.
7. Sometimes an instructor will work with learners who must be challenged to do better or to accept more personal responsibility.
No matter what instructional approach you use, you will occasionally encounter learners who appear to be falling short of their potential. You may realize that a certain person appears is willing to settle for a minimal grade or performance level. You may even discover that a learner is leaning on others for basic information required to complete some assignment, to pass some test, or to achieve some level of proficiency.
On other occasions you might find yourself spending lots of time with a learner who seems to have difficulty accepting personal responsibility for completing planning activities, locating resources, and making decisions about the types of projects to be completed or turned in for evaluation. The learning style of such a person might require an outside "expert" to establish guidelines, or the person might have a low self-concept that inhibits the active assumption of personal responsibility (Bonham, 1988a, 1988b).
Dealing with these situations on a case by case basis is the usual procedure. We tend to use one-on-one discussions with such people or ask more experienced learners to work with learners who are having difficulties with certain components of the individualizing process, such as completing learning contracts or carrying out needs assessment activities. We also provide quite specific models or guidelines for those needing special assistance in dealing with such components.
There is also the issue of the appropriate level of quality in regard to individual involvement, participation with others in group activities, and completed products. Brookfield (1988) urges us
to think about the role each instructor of adults should play as a critical reactor to learning plans, initiatives, or actions. He believes this can include questioning original planning by learners, suggesting alternative learning activities, and challenging the evaluation or validation criteria chosen by people.
In keeping with our mainly humanistic philosophies that, in essence, gives considerable autonomy to each individual learner, we are willing to let a learner settle for a lower level of quality than what we believe is possible if that is the person's decision. However, we constantly urge each learner to strive for high quality, attempt to provide fairly specific guidelines on what we believe is high quality for group participation or products to be completed, and provide considerable feedback on all aspects of learning plans. We also provide opportunities for learners to renegotiate their learning contracts if they decide at a later date to upgrade their quality level.
Finally, we think that Brookfield (1987) is correct in urging those involved in the education of adults to give some attention to the development of critical thinking skills. There are a variety of learning activities that an instructor can facilitate, such as brainstorming, interactive reading or writing experiences, study group experiences, and artistic experiences, to promote critical thinking. In subsequent chapters we describe such techniques in more detail.
Go to the bibliography.
Return to the book's table of contents.
Return to the book's index.
Return to the first page.