As a candidate in the Master’s in the Art of Teaching (MAT) Program at Brown University many years ago, I learned lots about how to approach classes of potentially disinterested and even mildly hostile students. When my varied teaching career led me into six years of teaching adult education programs I found
I needed to take a fresh look at my teaching techniques. Lots of what I had learned was still relevant . Still, whether I found myself working at poolside, teaching gray haired ladies how to swim or stepped behind a rostrum to deliver a class in religious education, I knew my teaching principles needed to be revamped to accommodate an older more mature group. Eventually I reworked my style and began to develop approaches for how to teach adults just about anything.
1. Respect. I had learned as a graduate student the importance of respecting all of the children you teach. But when I shifted gears and began working with adult learners, “respect” took on a whole new meaning and colored my entire approach about how to teach adults just about anything.
What I very quickly discovered about adult learners was that for most of them getting to the point where they made the choice to seek instruction sometimes had taken a lot of time and effort. For example, the senior citizen women in my swim classes arrived on the first night in brand new bathing suits. They might have been trying to make a late in life fashion statement, but more likely in order to take this class they had to physically go out and buy a new bathing suit, because they honestly didn’t have an old one. Being 65 and setting out to buy a bathing suit means some effort and some commitment and probably even some embarrassment. When I recognized what they had done I was humbled and very respectful of the expense and effort they had put into simply getting themselves to the class. It made me want to do my best for these women.
In my adult religion class, adults told stories of their own religious conflicts, battles with their conscience and feelings of guilt that had led them to join this religious education experience. I had an immediate feeling of respect for these adults too. They had not, like most of us, simply been born into a religion and stayed put, they had made a decision about their faith and they were counting on me to help them achieve more knowledge of that faith.
These kinds of experiences with adult learners has convinced me that most are very worthy of my best efforts and that knowing how to teach adults just about anything needs always to begin with a very healthy and humble respect for the adults themselves.
2. Preparation One way that teachers can show adult learners respect is in the level of teacher preparation for classes. Adults easily recognize the difference between a teahcer of any skill or subject who has planned and prepared a lesson and a teacher who is simply punching the clock and picking up a check at the end of the week. One encourages learning the other is often wasting everyone’s time.
If adults learning in any subject area can see that the teacher has put a good deal of effort into preparing a session, they are apt to respond by becoming a bit more motivated and interactive themselves. if you really want to know how to teach adults just about anything, put a serious effort in preparing sessions that are provocative, interesting and even fun and then step back and watch the learning begin.
3. Teach Adults As Adults. Sometimes it is difficult for teachers working with adults to make the transition from teaching young people. The temptation is to simply talk down to adults using the same examples and methods that perhaps worked very well with younger learners.
Knowing how to teach adults just about anything means that you must make a conscious effort to refrain from talking down to your class. The fact that they are trying to learn a new skill or subject material doesn’t make them into 8 year olds. Teaching adults shouldn’t involve dumbing down your curriculum. It should mean working to present subject matter using adult language and references to people who are in fact adults.
One of my favorite examples of this teaching practice is recalling how when I attempted to teach an older women to get her face into the water. It was clear very quickly that I couldn’t use the tricks or approaches I had used with four year olds. A sixty year old woman just doesn’t want to put her face in the water and “blow bubbles” the way a child does. Knowing how to teach adults just about anything means remembering to teach adults as adults with the same language and examples that you would use in everyday discussions with adults.
4. Sensitivity to Adult Needs. While it is very important to teach adults using language that is neither condescending nor demeaning, it is equally important to be very sensitive to what ever inadequacies your adult learners may be feeling or experiencing. Many adult learners have resisted the education you are now providing because they felt self-conscious about things like social skills, memory problems, or their ability to communicate. There are often several areas in which adult learners may need encouragement , assistance and your personal patience. While you are only teaching in one subject area, it can be extremely affirming to the adult student when his or her teacher shows a polite awareness of and sensitivity to other areas in which a given adult’s development may lag behind the norm.
5. Using Questions with No Right or Wrong Answers. Adult learners are often timid learners. They may be unwilling to respond to questions for fear of making a mistake or being laughed at. To encourage more frequent in class participation and exchanges, those who teach adults should try more often to use questions that don’t ask for a right or wrong answer. Instead try to develop questions that ask adult learners to share their thoughts or opinions on an issue or their suggestions for how something might be accomplished. As they build confidence in themselves and their classmates, eventually you may be able to throw in a right or wrong answer question. More important, by carefully selecting your questions you can turn a quiet room into one in which there is lots of conversation going on, where no one is intimidated and where you have found an avenue for how to teach adults just about anything.
6. Re-evaluating What You Are Willing to Give. Sure adult learners are supposed to do a lot of the work in acquiring new skills and abilities. But knowing how to teach adults just about anything means that as a teacher you are willing to re-evaluate your own teaching style. As you look at your performance for example are you sure that you are more interested in teaching than in impressing the adults you work with? Are you willing to accept questions that are offered incorrectly or seem to be off target, or do you lose patience quickly ? How about your willingness to go beyond the letter of your contract? Are you willing to come in a little early or stay a little bit beyond the meeting time to help bring someone along ? How much of you are you really willing to put into the teaching of adult learners?
In many ways knowing how to teach adults just about anything is not unlike teaching teens or even younger children. But there are some important distinctions. Remembering who is in your class and reaching out to them with respect, sensitivity, patience and sincerity can really help you and them to get the job done.