A Key Support For Students: Supporting Adult Learning for the Sake of Learning

July 18, 2012 by

There is a fairly settled body of research that links the quality of the teacher to the success of the student.  As we move into a more personalized, competency based and increasingly decentralized learning environment how do we build the competencies of adults to better support the learning of students?

For the past year, I have been a student in Harvard University’s new doctoral program in Educational Leadership (Ed.L.D).   The first year involves an intense focus on one’s own “adult development” which I skeptically approached with somewhat of a “been there done that” attitude.  As a leader of a fairly large non-profit, I had my share of 360 evaluations, professional development seminars, executive coaching etc.  I was secure, almost cocky, in my understanding of my strengths and weaknesses and how they did or didn’t support the outcomes that I was hoping for in my own organization and more importantly for the almost 22,000 youth under our watch each year.  As a leader in the sector, I had grown fatigued from all of the efforts that I made to tie the “professional development” that I was being given to the goals that I was striving to achieve.  It felt like work and I had to WORK to feel personally or professionally “developed.”

But low and behold this time the journey was different and something funny happened on the way to “adult development.”  For the first time in years, I reconnected with myself as an adult learner.  Not the kind of adult learner who was trying to learn something to either be in compliance or to improve the various metrics on which I was being evaluated, but as an adult learner who had my own interests and passions, anxieties and questions.  I was asked to actually be curious, to better understand myself, and to pursue new ways of learning that often stretched me beyond my comfort zone and towards my learning edge.

I gained new insights through this personal and professional self-reflection, in particular the Immunity to Change work led by Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey.  My curiosity led me to endless hours of research on mindfulness, brain development and learning theory; enrolling in a free course in Model Thinking offered by a professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan through Coursera – just to see what it was like; and becoming a problem solver for InnoCentive to help me to better understand challenge-based learning.  I found myself excited and passionate about what I was doing, neurons firing on all cylinders, making connections and understanding, through my own experience as a learner, how to integrate these strategies into my education-related work.

About half way through this process, it hit me – why have we stopped thinking of adults as learners and what would it look like to create a fractal-like system where the learning of adults actually increases and enhances one’s own ability to understand new ways of learning that then results in better support for students?  Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Create a Meaningful Reflective Community:  A big part of the success of the adult development work was the expectation that everyone would be engaged.  It wasn’t an add on, was woven through all of our coursework and part of the culture of the program.  How can we build meaningful opportunities for integrated reflection through peer coaching and professional learning community structures?  How do we create a “cultural norm” that provides the psychological safety for adults to transparently pursue their own development as part of a school-wide culture of learning?
  • Make Time for Adults to Be Learners:  Using time differently for students is one of the greatest areas of innovation in a competency-based environment.  What if this same idea applied to adults?  How can we take a “Google-like” approach to adult learning building in time for adults to pursue their own learning?
  • Mirror the Student Evaluation System: In a competency-based environment, students are continuously working on competencies embedded within a novice to expert trajectory.  Why not so for the adult learners in the building?  How can teacher evaluation systems mirror this competency-based approach?
  • Build in Experiential Learning for Adults:  Whether it is “teacher in the workplace” models or creating an open innovators platform just for educators, how can we create opportunities for adults to learn how to support students through their own learning?

At the core of what it takes to make these changes, I believe, is trust.  I don’t think we trust the fact that if we turn adults free to learn – maybe even during “work time” – it will result in better outcomes for students.  Somehow it doesn’t feel controlled or focused enough on outcomes.  It takes a leap of faith in the power of passion and creativity to move in this direction.  We know for sure though that we want this for our young learners – why not for our adult learners as well?

About the Author

Laura Shubilla is currently pursuing her doctorate in Educational Leadership at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. Prior to entering Harvard in 2011, Laura served as Co-President and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving educational and economic outcomes for youth. Prior to coming to Philadelphia, Laura developed and opened one of the earliest New Visions High Schools, Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx.

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