Linking The Real World To The Classroom
Since the 1960s adult learners have been returning to post-secondary study in increasing numbers. The diversity inherent in this student group puts a different pressure on the instructor to make the classroom experience relevant to each student’s professional goals and personal life.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The success of making a link will depend on the instructor's creative thinking, an ability to present a broad view of practical, real-world experiences that connect to the class subject, and a willingness to share personal insights with students.
Michele Kane is a member of the adjunct faculty at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. She has been teaching adults for 22 years, especially graduate students pursuing a master’s degree in gifted education. Over the summer, Kane teaches adults at the community-based College of Lake County where she works with adults who get credit for work experience and volunteer jobs. Kane emphasized that the adult learner, just like every other student going for a degree, needs to answer the question: “What is the work environment like?”
For example, Kane says if you ask students who want to become attorneys what they know about the work, they often answer that they have seen what attorneys do on TV. "Of course, that is only the glamorous part," Kane says. "They don’t know that attorneys spend most of their time researching law books."
“Being a writer probably sounds glamorous, too, but students probably don’t know about all the time a writer spends thinking about how to turn a phrase, or about all the time spent alone in order to write,” Kane says. “It is very important for people who are pursuing a degree to understand what that degree prepares you to do. Instructors can recommend job shadowing,” she says.
Kane likes to be clear about the direction her teaching will take in each class. To that end it is important for her to know why her students are taking her class. “It’s a whole different client base,” says Kane of the adult learners she encounters. “Their motivations to be there are not the same. I ask them to write the information on a three-by-five card. If you find out the motivation for the study, you’ll save yourself time in knowing how to focus your teaching. Sometimes, I just laugh and say, 'I need this information to know how hard I have to work.'"
One source of support for this view can be found in the Characteristics of Adults as Learners (CAL) Model by P. Cross. The CAL model consists of two classes of variables: personal characteristics that include aging, life phases, and developmental stages; situational characteristics such as part-time versus full-time learning and voluntary versus compulsory learning. Although there was no known research to support the model developed by Cross in 1981, she intended it to provide guidelines for adult education programs giving this example: Consider a nursing student, a new parent, and a middle-aged social worker about to take a course on child development. Each of these individuals differs in age (20, 30, 40) and life/developmental phases (adolescent/searching, young/striving, mature/stable). They also differ in terms of situational characteristics. For the nursing student, the course is full-time and compulsory. For the parent, the course is part-time and optional. For the social worker, the course is part-time but required. According to the CAL model, a different learning program might be necessary for these three individuals to accommodate the differences in personal and situational characteristics.
To bring the real world into a study session, Kane says, “I always make use of my own practical experience in the classroom. Oftentimes if I’m teaching teachers, I might illustrate a concept and use an incident from my own teaching experience," she says.
To illustrate different modes of thinking for problem solving, Kane might say to her students, “With my parent head I may reason in such and such a way. As a taxpayer, I might have this perspective. As a teacher, I believe thus and so." Seeing different views through different sets of eyes helps immensely with problem-solving.
“I think that specific skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic were skills for the last century," Kane adds. "This century the skills we need are problem solving, decision-making, how to work as a team, and how to work individually when the work requires it. These are the things that are critical for people to know.”
Dorcas Gonzalez-Lantz finds a great difference between teaching her teenage students and instructing an adult intern teacher. Gonzalez-Lantz works with the Michigan State University Internship Program in Teacher Education. She conducts periodic workshops for student teachers, and she trains an MSU intern each year in her middle school class in Lansing.
“For adults, it is not all that natural to be in a learning mode,” Gonzlez-Lantz says. “Adults have to make a conscious decision to be taught, and sometimes it is difficult for them to take the step of humbling themselves to allow you to teach them. There are habits of trains of thought. They have to be convinced within themselves that a certain process did not work. Then they can recognize the need to correct it,” she says.
One of Gonzalez-Lantz' interns was a 48-year-old widower who returned to the university for a teaching degree so he could spend more time with his three children. “This adult knows a lot. He was a successful salesperson when his wife died. He has children the age he is teaching in my class, and he thought teaching would be easy."
To speed up the learning process, Gonzalez-Lantz says, “I have them start teaching the moment they come in. I believe you understand it when you do it, and that leads to understanding how the management of teaching young students works,” she says.
Other instructors recommend “thinking cross-curriculum.” Geography is not just about looking at a map to retain names and locations. Armchair travel can add a sense of the "bigger picture." Seeing a photo or video tape of the Seine River flowing under the bridges of Paris, lovers stealing a kiss on the Pont Neuf, or the bateau mouche with a full load of tourists looking upward at the Cathedral de Notre Dame will stimulate a wider interest in the culture, the history, and the people of a place.
Some instructors use the summer months to join the workforce in a field that is seemingly unrelated to their subject specialty and then find they can use their various experiences to illustrate classroom situations for their students. In today's world, instructors should encourage the use of the Internet as another valuable link to the real world.
Linking students to the work world through cooperative education adds a strong learning resource. One helpful source is “Teachers Learning in the Community: A Field Guide,” offered through the “Connections: Linking Work and Learning” series from the Laboratory’s Education and Work program. “Lessons related to real issues in the community often have greater meaning to students than textbook ones,” stress the field guide authors Leslie Haynes and Dionisia Morales. The guide recommends job shadowing, internships, telementoring, and learning site analysis (more at http://www.nwrel.org/nwreport/dec98/article2.html).
When the class ends, students should be able to do more than just pass the final test. They should have gained knowledge in the subject, and they should see how that subject fits into the bigger picture that includes personal professional goals and relationships. Creative instruction is needed to help students see these links.
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory
“Real-World Experiences Can Revitalize Teaching"
"Teachers Learning in the Community: A Field Guide"
The Kansas City Star
"Adjunct Instructors Share Real-World Experiences"
Plato White Papers
"Principles for Teaching Problem Solving"
"Learning Instructional Philosophy"
"Meeting Adult Learner's Needs - A Vision of What Can Be"
Cross, K. P. (1981) Adults as Learners
Knowles, Malcolm (1978) The Adult Learner - A Neglected Species