“Lessons Learned In 2015-2016” Adult Literacy/Basic Education & Transformative Learning

Would this Blog Theme be a Good Idea?

I proposed the idea of a monthly blog series on transformative learning a year ago at our spring SARN Advisory Board meeting. But, I did so with a lot of trepidation. Was it really a good idea? One of the questions at the board table was and how to invite stories from readers—including students? I had never done this type of blog series before…

Three Worries:

The only way we could structure the series was to send out an invitation to practitioners and hope they pass it to students—both current and past. Inviting them to submit their stories on transformative learning. But we had to explain what transformative learning is first… Hmmm.

Not all good ideas are doable. Although I have developed 10 listservs that reach well over a hundred literacy practitioners in various literacy and BE  programs across Saskatchewan, I have no direct way to communicate with students, or invite them to write a blog.

But there was another worry. I have been writing and posting monthly blogs for, I think,  four years now (see WWW.SARN.CA) —so around 40 blog instalments over time. Although most of the postings have ended with an invitation to “post a comment in the box below,” in four years I have had maybe five posted comments. I guess we had imagined far more dialogue through these blogs back when I started. And, frankly, there have been moments when I wondered if there were any readers out there at all?

Should we commit to a whole year of blogs that depends on stories from students and practitioners focusing on a topic most probably know little or nothing about? (I return to this worrisome point later).

Since there was no way we could know if students would receive the invitation via their instructors or counsellors, and since I had no idea if they had ever heard of SARN, let alone transformative learning, Jacqueline Bruce (of our Training Team) and I created a story “template”—a page of writing guidelines—to help anyone interested in submitting a story so they would understand what transformative learning is and assure them of anonymity.

Finally, while our board agreed there were undoubtedly hundreds of potential stories on transformative learning in literacy and basic education—stories where practitioners and learners come to see themselves and their world in a totally different way, often through a disorienting dilemma–what if we were wrong? What if this learning theory didn’t apply to our field like we thought? Like any research, we had to be prepared to have a negative outcome, but did it have to be so public?

Here’s what kept my awake at night, “What if we launched a series idea that failed because we had misread the field or failed because we could not really communicate with those we hoped were there, but might not be there…”

You see the problem?

“But Guess What?”

One year later, at our recent spring board meeting—I was delighted (okay, I was relieved) to be able to report that we had received more than enough stories.

The year has reminded me of how our field is made up of really good people who care about their learners. In fact, basic education counsellors and instructors across the Polytechnic and colleges did go to their students and they did explain what SARN was. They did encourage them to tell their stories. They did ask for the template guidelines….and I could stop holding my breath. Further, any editorial suggestions I sent were taken back to students, practitioners sat down with students and discussed the proposed changes. And, in at least two cases, they personally typed both the first and second drafts on the students’ behalf and sent me the students’ work for posting.  The authors were asked for and gave their Informed Consent, and we published their stories. And by the way, every one of the stories was not only well written, but was extremely powerful and on target.

Seven Powerful Student Stories

Stories came from seven current and former students: Billy Castel, two students who chose to be anonymous, Lynn, Phoenix, Crystal, and Pauline. And, we are able to send them an honorarium this summer having received summer mailing addresses for them from their instructors and/or counsellors.

But, with our own practitioners not coming forward with their stories, I invited Brenda Wright in New Brunswick to be a guest blogger.  Brenda is a friend, a former BE instructor, and is currently a government worker in New Brunswick. Moreover, she is one of the very few in Canada to have researched transformative learning in relation to literacy/BE. Brenda also agreed to post some of her research on our Website’s Resources link.  Check it out. And, the series began with an invited lead instalment by Dr. Patricia Cranton—our nation’s world leader in researching this important area of adult learning, Happily, she made the theory practical and easy to understand.

It was a good year all round….but please read on…

So What Did We Learn? Some Findings Instructors and Counsellors Might Benefit From:

  1. We learned that many of our students want to tell their stories. Maybe not in the midst of a classroom of their peers; maybe not with an instructor whom they don’t know very well; maybe not until they feel comfortable in their classrooms, but this small sample of blogger-students not only showed us that students want to talk about their past, what those stories tell us can make a profound difference in the choices made on how best to engage them in the classrooms.

Each learner has a past. Each has a story. And this matters. The literature and experience tells us that the more we know about our learners, the better we can shape the teaching, the counselling, and the materials/activities we choose to engage them (Read on for an application you can use on this point).

  1. The student blogs we saw have shown us some incredible struggles and some amazing, even heroic, examples of resilience. But what was really interesting was how the majority of the stories were about students’ lives prior to coming to programs. This is a valuable piece of learning. Here’s why…

Based on my own experience of over 45 years, many literacy and BE instructors, not to mention many counsellors, are just not comfortable “digging into a student’s past.”  There are lots of reasons but, cutting to the chase, maybe what we have learned this year  can you.

Basically:  “How can we learn about our students’ past in a way that is comfortable to both the student and practitioner? How can this happen in a way that not only protects privacy but maintains a sense of respectful professional “distance”?”

I can attest that, in adult education programs at the university level, adults can’t wait to tell about their lives. But, and I have been there too, most adult literacy/basic education students (not all) just don’t want to talk about their  past in a classroom–ultimately a “public setting.” Few want to share their past (and current) struggles, fears, or describe the mountains they had to climb just to come to basic education. This is all very understandable, but not very helpful when trying to retain learners by, for instance, trying to alleviate learning anxieties and trying to help them with future plans.

Here’s A Tool You Can Perhaps Use?

It just a suggestion, but maybe the attached story template that we designed can open that door in a respectful, research-based way, that might just make all the difference to a student’s life.

The attached template worked for us. And, it insists on privacy through clear “informed consent” before it can be used.  It asks students if there was a “trigger” or special event that helped them decide to attend BE? Or if some event has changed them during their classroom experience? It asks about the impact of the program on their lives. Take a look at the template. It might be adaptable and useable for you.

How would it work?

  • Maybe this form can be adapted and used as a catalyst for a student journaling project? Or a counselling session. Or even have it used as something that a student could read aloud as part of a group activity?
  • Maybe, given a student’s informed consent, and after checking with your institution…if such approval is required, some of these transformative learning stories could be used for reading content in your program.
  • Maybe you could conduct an action research project with SARN assessing the value of this tool in your counselling and teaching?

Just a tip, saying “research” in an institutional or semi-formal setting somehow puts an extra layer of formality, distance and “objectivity” onto what is otherwise a straight forward the process of sharing.

 AND, some Learnings That Might Be Helpful For Administrators and Policy-Makers

Although it was in an earlier lifetime, I worked as a BE instructor in an Alberta college and, later, at a Saskatchewan college. I also worked for several years at the Sask. Department of Advanced Education as the province’s ESL/GED administrator…even had the responsibility of ABE on top of that until we created and filled the first ABE Co-ordinator position for the government. So, I can say I have no illusions on how hard it is to get literacy and basic education “on the agenda” at the governmental decision level or board table when the post-secondary system is faced with scarce resources on one hand, pressures of competing institutional and programmatic needs on the other.

I also know how often literacy and basic education programs so often get seen as “one more ‘needy-program,’” and how it often gets folded into the same institutional mould as all other training program. Read on..

Some Observations That Might Be Helpful For You When Working With Administrators and/or Policy-Makers

When we talk about literacy and basic education, we need to talk about levels of support that are considerably higher than normative levels of student support common to most post-secondary institutions.

BUT…. Trades programs typically need large investments in special equipment and shop space. Health and medical programs often need large expenditures on laboratories and specialized equipment. Technology training programs are often extremely expensive…  But, literacy and basic education resource needs are minimal be comparison.

As one blog series reader who recently wrote me said:

[I was surprised] “how often the transformative experience happened before the students entered ABE.” Implications for policy and practice, as seen in the blog series and in literacy/BE programs every day, are that our “students need support.”

She went on to say: “If students are in ABE as a result of a transformative experience, this new education-centered lifestyle needs to be encouraged. If ABE is where they experienced transformative learning, then we need to help them figure out what their next step is, and how they can build on their momentum.”She concluded: “We [often] don’t realize the type of life situations [our students] are dealing with.”

Bottom line, the learning outcomes from these blogs for administrators and policy-maker is essentially:

  • Literacy and basic education students often need much more support than mainstream students.
  • They often need administrative and policy exceptions to institutional rules.
  • They often need more professional help and, yes, they often need more compassionate consideration than is the institutional norm.

Obviously most students have struggles—before, during and after programs. But multiple studies make it clear that the majority of adults with lower literacy skills live in—or come out of—hard poverty. And, often do so having faced so many extreme socio/economic/cultural challenges that simply walking into the classroom is a triumph in itself for many of our learners.

Here’s what I suggest… If you should have a supervisor, administrator, board member, or maybe a Deputy Minister or Minister who insists that it is all about motivation, saying, for instance: “These students need to learn how to function on the job. Or, they need to be motivated… Why all this support stuff?” )r, as a counsellor I once worked with said, “We aren’t here to spoon feed them”….  I suggest refer them to this year’s student blogs. As Pierre Bourdieu once stated: “Reality is not an absolute, it differs with the group to which we belong.” Our job of educating does not end with our students…

A Closing Comment: And Something I Learned

Remember how I wondered if anyone read this blog? Well, at the last board meeting I was able to report some statistics from our Website Manager. Guess what? Over the course of the 2015-2016 academic year, we had nearly 1,930 website users… And, of these, 791 (25.65%) were blog readers. Most were in Saskatchewan and Canada, but the website is visited word-wide. Yes, people do read this…and thank  you for hanging in for such a long, year-end, installment.

Oh, by the way, see the below box if you want to add a comment  

Hoping to (virtually) see you again in 2016-2017.

Dr. Allan Quigley and the SARN Team

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