This morning I was writing a short essay about adult learning for an online course I am taking. I am not sure why but I found myself writing about an incident that happen in a classroom at Boston University over forty years ago. As I re-read my little essay, it struck me that we all have moments like this. Moments when a teacher helps us to see something that changes the way we look at ourselves and the world. My account of one of those learning moments follows. After you read it, if you chose to do so, please share any similar moments you may have by adding your own comment.
During the period 1971-1973, I had the honor of studying with and having Professor Malcolm Knowles as my thesis adviser while working on my M.Ed. in Adult Education at Boston University. I remember the very first day of class with Malcolm (yes, he made us all call him Malcolm not Professor). He held up a copy of the text for the class, his book on Adult Education, and asked us how many of us knew what was inside that book. Only a few hands were gingerly raised. Since not many seemed to know, he then asked us how we were going to find out.
A chorus of students replied, “By reading it.” “But how?” he asked. One brave student, not me, offered, “I guess I would start at the beginning and go to the end.” Malcolm replied, “That is certainly one way. Any other ideas?” Silence and quizzical looks reigned.
He then then said, “Suppose you were reading something and came across a word that you did not know the meaning of. What would you do then?” Petty much in unison we replied, “Look it up in the dictionary.” “And how would you do that?” he enquired further.
One brave student described the process of looking up a word in a dictionary and the rest of us tacitly concurred. “So, you would not start at the first word in the dictionary and read each definition from beginning to end until you came to the word whose meaning you wanted to know?”
We all looked around at one another as if to emphatically say, “of course not.” “Why then, if you wanted to know something about Adult Education would you start at the beginning of this text and read until you found the answer to your question?” he asked with a pleasant smile on his face.
“Think about it now,” he said. “If I asked you to define the word ‘andragogy’ and you only had this text handy, what would you do?”
You could almost see the light bulbs flashing in our minds, “Look it up,” we offered. “Where?” he continued. A thoughtful silence followed. And then someone, sadly not me, said, “In the index. I would look up ‘andragogy’ in the index and see if I could find the definition.”
“And what if you found a word in the definition that you did not know the meaning of? Like the Greek word pais? What then?” he asked.
The room was now filled with light (metaphorically speaking). “I’d go to the index again,” someone replied. “Exactly,” said Malcolm, “In that way, you could more quickly answer YOUR question without going through a whole lot of material that at the moment was not immediately relevant to your question. And, you could do that again and again until you had answered a good many of your questions and read the whole book at the same time. You would have had a dialogue with a inanimate object–a book,” he concluded.
I have never forgotten that first class in “Introduction to Adult Education” and the very simple example that taught me that education was:
- not so much about learning “stuff” as about pursuing answers to problems I had whether conceptual, procedural or skill-oriented, and
- that it required a kind of dialogue or collaboration between myself and my learning resources (teachers, fellow students, day-to-day experience and even books).
We learned a great deal more in that class which space will not allow me to cover here. Suffice to say that online education for adults (and I would say children as well) needs to be student and problem centered not teacher and subject matter centered. Online education can be particularly good at offering self-paced problem-centered education. For example, branching instructional material can enable students to follow a line of inquiry using hot links. Online programs can offer interactive exercises which allow students to practice and hone a new skill
Online education can also promote learning dialogue and collaboration essential to the learning process not only with the use of interactive resources but also through synchronous Web-conferencing, seminars and discussion groups. Students may be geographically separate but technology can enable them to learn and work together both in real time and through the electronic exchange of documents, data and online references.
We were not using personal computers in 1973. It took ten more years for the first IBM PC to be launched. But the principles of Adult Education developed by Malcolm forty years ago, are as applicable to online education today as they were to the classroom of the early ‘70s. At a minimum, effective education has to be student and problem centered as well as collaborative. As Malcolm repeated often, “Students are not empty vessels into which instructors or even college professors pour information. ….Rather, they are voracious and inquisitive problem solvers alert to novelty around them from their first to last breath.”