Education System and Preparing Adult Learners

During my over 15 years conducting training in the Information Technology sector, I  noticed that people come to training with many presupposed ideas about how they learn and if they are “smart enough” to assimilate the new information.

We, as adult educators, inherited learners from a broken system. Please do not read into these comments that K-12 educators do not do their jobs well. What I am saying here is the traditional (US) education system is broken. Many teachers get into education because they want to help the next generation thrive. Unfortunately, what they often find is an institutionalized system forcing them into boxes and how they wanted to teach turns into “getting the job done.”

What are the key issues?

  • Students are taught to the Test
  • Students who excel in traditional learning do well, while those who do not flounder
  • Society puts fear into learners before they even enter the classroom
  • Those who finish just high school and do not go onto vocational or university education, often, think they are “dumb” or “don’t test well.”

Let’s look at these individually:

Students are taught to the Test

Whoever thought that assessment-based learning was a good idea, really has no idea about the ways many students learn. Sure, we need to mark learning success somehow, but taking tests is just one way (albeit simple) to accomplish this. Albert Einstein said it best:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

I was a “Learning Disabled” student, diagnosed in 3rd grade. My dyslexia and, what I found to be, ADD made it hard for me to learn within the traditional classroom. However! Looking back, I know that had the teachers found a way to raise the bar for me, I would have been able to take all the advanced courses some of my friends attended. What was missing?

  1. Confidence that I was smart enough to succeed
  2. A different approach toward my learning

I didn’t believe I could learn and excel in the educational world, until college. I knew I was a reasonable and thoughtful person, but I lacked the confidence that I actually was smart. I chose to attend community college, not for financial or family reasons, but because I refused to take the SAT’s. Even with the accommodation of un-timed testing, I felt that the testing would not reflect what I did know and comprehend. I was a Math assistant my Junior and Senior years in high school. These teachers had enough confidence in me to teach me the equations for the lesson in my class to be a resource when they were not able to be in class. Yet, I didn’t believe I could be a mathematician, I didn’t even believe I could be a teacher. Society had told me I was “Learning Disabled” and I believed them. Instead of finding a path toward learning that would help me excel, I was removed from mainstream classes, and missing the lessons there, to work with my resource teacher. I have to give that teacher credit, she did find new ways to learn without even noticing. However, not one skill in the resource classes helped me understand how to make it through in “regular” classes.

When I became a full-blown trainer, I discovered that if I was just left to train in the style that worked best for me and my learners, they assimilated the new information and retained it much longer. As soon as my company asked me to build assessments to gage learner success, I found I easily slid into the “teaching to the test” style. “Now remember this! It is on the test.” I was so focused on the learners passing the test to “show” I am a quality educator, I lost some of my natural talet to educate.

Those who excel in traditional education do well, while those who do not flounder

I was one of the latter learners. I understood topics well, but I could not express myself properly in a testing situation. I was a solid C student all the way through high school, the last time, before that, I had straight A’s was in first grade. I knew I was just as capable as the group of middle of the road learners. Looking back, I know I manipulated the educational system to make my path through high school as smooth as possible. Had even one counselor, or teacher, stood up to the manipulation, I may have been challenged enough to produce, or I would have flunked completely. When I arrived at NOVA (Turnpike Tech, as it was lovingly named), I discovered the lounge, and that no one was “checking” that I attended classes. I finished my first semester at school with a resounding 0.0 GPA and was placed on Academic probation. It was then I learned that you get out of education what you put into it. Really? I had to make it all the way to 18 years old, and 6 F’s on my transcript, to learn I am the only person responsible for my education.

This brings me back to those who are “good students” already have what they need to succeed in traditional education and either inherently have, or honed them early, the skills to be fully committed to their learning. Those who struggle with any one of 50 (or more) educational challenges lose hope, and heart, toward the same goal. In today’s society, this is NOT a tradition we want to carry forward.

Society puts fear into learners before they even really start

Who remembers the Barbie that had several phrases she said, one of which was “math is hard”? We have at least one generation, if not more, who is afraid of math and sciences because they are taught from early on that “math is hard.” Why aren’t we teaching students to “solve for X” from the very first introduction to Math? Why aren’t we showing kids that photosynthesis is a really cool thing that helps us all breath and plants to live?

I was actually quite good at biology and algebra, however, memorizing times tables made me shy away from math and science education. At 43 years old, I still struggle with doing math in my head. But should that stop me from learning about mechanical engineering? Or biology? No, but it does. Once again, our educational system doesn’t find a way to help someone, “who did great on the labs but not on the tests,” find their way to practical science application. We are more than our test scores.

Those who finish high school but do not go onto college, or technical school, often believe they are “dumb.”

Given the nature of the workforce in my industry, many of my learners in my training classes are those who often “feel dumb.” I meet them when they are experiencing fear of the unknown, transitioning from something old and familiar to something new and unknown, and many do not believe that they are equipped for classroom learning. This starts my courses attempting to convince them that this software is not that scary and they too can learn this. I often don’t warn them that there will be a test, that way they aren’t focused on the concept that they have to KNOW everything I cover.  Often these learners did not gain confidence through the traditional educational system.  Some, may be absolutely excellent at understanding mechanical engineering, but their educational experience told them they were less than others because they didn’t learn the same way.

This generates a huge challenge for me as an adult educator.  I have to muddle through all these preconceptions and suppositions that are not reality.

So what are the answers?  

How can we help turn around these ingrained fears and assumptions?