Shining a spotlight on adult learners

Shining a spotlight on adult learners

Adult education is an important, but often misunderstood part of the education continuum.  Here’s why we’re happy there’s a week to celebrate adult learners.

Adult education programs give people a second, and sometimes a third or fourth chance to develop the skills they need for today’s world.  The programs are usually community-based and target youth and adults who were not successful in the school system.  These programs include academic upgrading and skills-based courses.

In recent years, governments increasingly gear their support for adult education to economic outcomes, that is, getting a job. That’s important, but adult education is about much more than that.

It’s also about gaining personal, practical and relationship skills that help to improve the lives of individuals, as well as their families, communities and society as a whole.  In our non-academic outcomes research, 54% of adult learners went back to school because they wanted a job or a better job; 23% went back because of their children.  “This is for my girl.  It’s not for anybody else.”

In fact, children factor into the stories of many adult learners, such as the mom who now has the confidence to read to her children, “I wouldn’t have read to her before.  I wouldn’t have known any of those words in those books, but now I’ve got books and I read to her, and she likes it!”  Or the dad who wanted to be a role model for his son.

People often criticize the length of time it takes an adult learner to successfully complete courses, but adult learners often face and have to overcome multiple barriers, in addition to this kind of negative community attitude.  The barriers are often classified into five categories.

Situational barriers are the often conflicting and enormously challenging responsibilities that learners may face.

• reliance on income support, since they’re not eligible for student financial assistance
• no means of getting to and from school
• housing issues
• access to affordable, dependable childcare
• balancing home, school, and sometimes paid work

We found in a recent project, that almost every young woman who dropped out of school cited child care issues.

Attitudinal barriers include things like low self-esteem, fear, shame, embarrassment, lack of confidence.  In our research, every adult learner told us they were scared of failing … again, and they were happy when they overcame these feelings.

Institutional barriers are systemic or structural barriers that can interfere with learning, such as how courses are delivered, attendance and other policies, no prior learning assessment, or lack of adequate student supports like counselling.

Academic preparedness refers to the basic skills that learners need for the classroom environment.  Many adult learners don’t feel prepared to return to learning because they didn’t do well in school.

Andragogic philosophy and approaches -- a mouthful, but important.  Adult education and school-based education have different philosophies and use different teaching approaches.  This is about how well instructors understand the ways in which adults learn and are able to respond to their needs.

When we researched factors that help adult learner succeed, people told us about their learning journey, and about how they felt when they experienced success in learning – sometimes for the first time.  “It feels so good inside!” Most were grateful for the opportunity to be able to go to adult education programs.

Helping adult learners succeed is a complex job.  Adult learners earn our respect and our congratulations every day of the year, as do their instructors.  Adult Learners’ Week lets us shine a spotlight on the adult learners who persevere against many odds to make life better for themselves and their families.

-- Helen Balanoff

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