Monday, April 10, 2017

Adult Educators as Empathetic Provocateurs

These are the days of alternative facts and sweeping declarations of the so called truth. In this complex world, I often find myself reflecting about the role of dialectical thinking in my own life. What are those different views that I am missing? What can I do to become more aware? And more importantly, as an adult educator, what can I do to foster critical thinking in others? 

As per Wikipedia, "Dialectic or dialectics (Greek: διαλεκτική, dialektikḗ), also known as the dialectical method, is a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments. Socrates favoured truth as the highest value, proposing that it could be discovered through reason and logic in discussion: ergo, dialectic."

From the book, International Handbook of Education for the Changing World of Work, Page 2664 "From Mezirow’s perspective, the educator is described as an “empathetic provocateur” and role model who is critically self-reflective and encourages others to consider alternative perspectives. Mezirow ( 1991) contends that a central goal of adult education should involve creating conditions to help adult learners become more critically reflective and “advance developmentally” toward “integrated and discriminating meaning perspectives” (p. 225).”

As an adult educator, when I take on the role of an empathetic provocateur, I am able to encourage critical thinking, challenge underline assumptions and help my clients and participants by providing encouragement to think differently and engage in self-reflection. As an empathetic provocateur, I try to question them in a supportive way and see myself both as a facilitator and a partner in their learning journey. 

Fostering dialectical thinking is perhaps the most challenging yet the most rewarding way to learn and teach. One way that I have been applying dialectical thinking is to challenge any underlying beliefs that my participants may have. For example, some of the participants I interact with believe that ‘students learn best when instruction matches their preferred learning style.’ They come into the session believing they are more ‘visual’, ‘auditory’ or ‘kinetic’. Some clients also expect the use of different instructional strategies to support different learning styles. Although much has been written about how learning styles are a myth including several peer-reviewed scientific articles, TED talks, research reviews, blog posts and videos, this belief continues to be propagated via books, online articles, international conferences and companies that sell products and services based on this myth. When participants or clients bring up this belief in a discussion, I try and point to various resources to offer them another point of view. We are then able to engage in a discussion around our own underlying beliefs and assumptions about learning styles and why this concept may or may not be useful for learners and for adult educators.

As a learner, I find that the use of dialectical thinking enables me to become a better version of myself. When I am learning, I respect facilitators who are able to go beyond what's written in the textbook and encourage me to think in the grey zone. When I am encouraged and supported to engage in dialectical thinking, I find it extremely helpful when others present different views than mine and I am able to accept those views positively. By leveraging dialectical thinking, I become more aware of my own beliefs about certain issues and my underlying assumptions are able to come to surface. I am better able to see my existing frames of reference and filter bubbles and move past those. 

I recently participated in a session on understanding cultural contexts and diversity in the workplace. The facilitator used an interesting technique to encourage dialectic thinking. She cleared the room of all chairs and tables and posted signs that read ‘Agree’ on one side of the room and ‘Disagree’ on the other side of the room and somewhere in the middle she posted signs that said ‘Mostly agree’ and ‘Mostly disagree’. She then shared a few statements and asked us to ‘choose our state’. As she read the statements about culture and workplace behaviour, we were physically supposed to move closest to the each of these four states and then share why we felt the way we did. It was interesting and quite dramatic to see how for a few statements, we were pretty much all on one side of the room and for a few other statements, we were all spread across the room. The discussion that followed was extremely useful in understanding competing views and the paradoxes and contradictions associated with culture and diversity at the workplace. But what was more interesting was that she encouraged us to move and ‘change our state’ after hearing the discussion especially if we believed perhaps we were in the wrong state. 

Arne Tiselius, the author of the book, Place of Value in a World of Facts (Nobel Symposium) said. “We live in a world where unfortunately the distinction between true and false appears to become increasingly blurred by manipulation of facts, by exploitation of uncritical minds, and by the pollution of the language.” 

If such is the world today, what is the role of dialectical thinking in your life?
How do you take on the role of an empathetic provocateur to distinguish between alternative facts and the truth?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What Makes a Successful Self-Directed Learner?

Source: (Creative Commons CC0 license)

Tough (1967, 1971, 1979) proposed the first comprehensive description of self-directed learning, which he termed self-planned learning. Knowles described self‑directed learning as "a process in which individuals take the initiative without the help of others in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating goals, identifying human and material resources, and evaluating learning outcomes".

With these definitions as a guiding lens and after reflecting on the two instruments, Oddi Continuing Learning Inventory (OCLI) and Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS) to assess self-directness as a personality trait, here are the top 3 attributes that, in my view, are critical to the success of a self-directed learner:

1) Initiative

I was drawn to Guglielmano’s SDLRS quantitative measure of self-directed learning. One of the psychological qualities involved in readiness for self-directed learning as identified by her was initiative. In my view, initiative is the foundational characteristic of self-directed learners. One of the goals of SDL as grounded in the humanist philosophy is personal growth and an underpinning idea espoused by this is the notion of taking a proactive approach towards learning. (Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, Sharan B. Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella, Lisa M., Page 107)

For me, this need for taking a proactive approach is fulfilled through initiative. When learners take initiative, they are designing their own learning experiences that best meet their learning needs and goals. 

2) Self-discipline

The second important attribute of self-directed learners according to me is self-discipline. This is an all encompassing attribute since it relates to many psychological qualities as identified in SDLRS with the most important being accepting responsibility towards one’s own learning, being goal-oriented and staying persistent. 

With self-discipline, learners are able to manage their time and resources and organize their learning as a means to reach their goals. Self-directed learners take control and the responsibility for their own learning and are able to monitor and evaluate their own progress. The OCLI also includes variables like self-efficacy, self-concept and personal responsibility that highlight the same set of characteristics.

3) Autonomy

The term, learner autonomy, was first coined in 1981 by Henri Holec. Autonomy is seen either (or both) as a means or as an end in education. Chene (1983) defines three elements that describe an autonomous learner: independence, the ability to make choices and critical judgement. Further, Candy (1991) adds to Chene’s notion by characterizing autonomous people as those with a strong sense of personal values and beliefs (Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, Sharan B. Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella, Lisa M., Page 122). These values and beliefs give autonomous people a foundation for identifying and selecting goals, exercising choice and restraint and utilizing critical reflection. 
Benn (1976, cited in Candy, 1991: 102) likens the autonomous learner to one 'whose life has a consistency that derives from a coherent set of beliefs, values, and principles and who engages in a still-continuing process of criticism and re-evaluation'. 

Since critical thinking and reflection are core to learning experiences, autonomy as the underlying attribute reflects some of these process or methodological dimensions of self-directed learning. I could also relate autonomy to a few qualities as identified in SDLRS including independence, the tendency to view problems as challenges, a high degree of curiosity and finding enjoyment in learning.

Are you a self-directed learner? What attributes make you successful?

Monday, January 23, 2017

My Core Beliefs About Adult Learning (CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

What are the core beliefs about adult learning and development that guide your practice as an adult educator?

This is the question that our facilitator posed for us for Week 1 of a course on 'Adult Learning and Development ' that I am undertaking with the University of Victoria as a part of the 'Certificate in Adult and Continuing Education/CACE' program. Week 1 is all about understanding our frames of reference (FOR). He explained that 'We think from our beliefs every day as they guide our practice as adult educators; but we too infrequently think about them.'

I must admit that I had not really thought about my core beliefs in a long time. This exercise was all about developing a critical rationale for my practice as an adult educator. I was expected to state my top 5 beliefs, elaborate on their meaning and share how the belief impacts my thoughts, feelings, attitudes, perspective and/or behaviour as an adult educator.

This was a powerful reflective exercise for me and I thought I might be able to start a dialogue with others by sharing my beliefs on my blog. 

My top five fundamental beliefs about adult learning and development are:
  1. I believe that life experiences are critical to learning.
Elaboration: Adults accumulate a wealth of knowledge and life experiences. These positive and negative experiences provide connections between old and new learning. Adults appreciate when this knowledge and experience is respected and the value that participants bring to the training is recognized.

I use prior knowledge and skills as a hook or a context for participants as they process new knowledge. I draw out the wisdom that exists in the room by asking participants to think about what they already know and how their existing knowledge can be applied in new situations. This linking of new material to existing knowledge and experience creates a powerful and relevant learning experience. I am currently designing a training program on customer service skills. One of the activities that I plan to begin with is to ask participants to recall their own experiences of receiving good and/or bad service and identify the characteristics of those customer service experiences. I will then encourage them to draw on these experiences as they relate to the topic.
  1. I believe that adults learn when things are relevant to them.
Elaboration: Adults learn when the material is significant to them and to their current lives. If adults do not see the immediate relevance of the content, they quickly figure out that they don’t need to know it.

As an adult educator, it is important for me to answer the ‘WIIFM’ (What is in it for me?) question on behalf of my participants. Adults want their learning experiences to be relevant, to meet their needs and to help them achieve their goals. When a learning experience demonstrates these characteristics, participants find the learning process more valuable. One of the ways I am able to apply this principle is by having clearly defined goals, objectives, and agenda for the training. Early in the training, I try and highlight to the participants how the training will help them achieve their goals.
  1. I believe that knowledge is constructed in a social context.
Elaboration: Adults need dialogue and social interaction to learn and knowledge is co-created by a community of individuals. Collaborative learning enables participants to use their shared experiences to build upon concepts in ways that are not possible through instruction.

Because of this belief, I have a positive attitude towards social and collaborative learning, which brings me to online CACE courses. I appreciate online discussion forums that enable other participants to add their thoughts to my reflections. When I design learning based on this principle, I create a respectful and open climate and ensure that everyone is treated equal in the learning process. I create structured projects where participants work together. I encourage participants to feel accountable and try to foster an environment in which participants feel free to exchange ideas that are different and leave the room with new shared meanings.
  1. I believe that adults learn by doing.
Elaboration: Adults learn best when they are engaged with the content and are actively involved in the learning process. This happens when they get opportunities to apply what they are learning to solve real-life problems. 

One of the biggest challenges in adult learning and development is bridging the gap between learning and application. The way I see it, learning is not about knowing; it is about doing. When I design training programs, I am conscious of this and focus on the outcomes of learning and what the participants will be able to do at the end of the training. I use examples, scenarios and problem-solving activities that allow participants to apply their learning and see the connection between what is being taught and how it applies on the job.
Recently, I was involved in the design and development of foremen training at various ports in Vancouver. We (jointly with my colleague) implemented a design, which was centered on key tasks that foremen perform on a daily basis. We identified the expected performance standards for each task and the underlying knowledge and key behaviours that must be demonstrated. There was no classroom training and all learning happened on-the-job where foremen performed key tasks and a more experienced mentor provided feedback, direction and support based on the expected performance standards.
  1. I believe that failure is critical to learning.
Elaboration: Learning involves trial and error. True learning happens when participants try to do something and they fail. This expectation failure, when things turn out different from what is expected, is when participants learn.

I have been influenced by this belief around learning from mistake and failure. We learn when we reflect on our mistakes and strive to find better ways. I have designed several learning experiences built around mistakes that participants are likely to perform on-the-job. To scope the training, I focus on 20% of mistakes that cause 80% of problems; critical mistakes. I use task-based scenarios that challenge underlying assumptions and provide an opportunity to make mistakes in a safe environment (instead of on the real job). I program the experience in a way that if the participant makes a mistake, they are prompted to review specific, supporting knowledge and feedback. The participants are then taken back to the scenario where they attempt to select the best way forward based on the new found knowledge. 

What do you think about my beliefs? Do you agree/disagree? 

I pose the same question to you now:

What are your core beliefs about adult learning and development that guide your practice as an adult educator?