“Adult learning theory” in the Kindergarten classroom

From the New York Times on October 8, 2008:

The IBPYP model is based on inquiry, participation in the process of learning, and exploration. It is learner-driven, not-teacher dominated. Teachers act as facilitators in the learning process and children’s questions and interests are at the center of the classroom.

… In the current national climate of testing, we have to make time for creative expression. It is urgent. Children need some constructive form of release.

… Children express their creativity and intelligence in a variety of ways. By allowing students to safely explore beyond their typical boundaries, we are encouraging them to express themselves in unique ways in a positive, safe, non-judgmental environment. Performance and open-ended inquiry help us move beyond traditional models of education. The arts, performance, and inquiry are small steps we take to help our students regain ownership of their learning.

I have not been comfortable making a significant distinction between adults and children when looking at the needs of learners for the purpose of developing an idea of what an online component of a classroom could look like.

I have tended to think of learners in a spectrum, and have found that the factor of a learner’s chronological age has not been particularly useful as a way to make distinctions between learners.  From a developmental standpoint, I know that it is a factor due to the physiological processes that happen as we age.  However, it has seemed clear that some children demonstrate adult learning needs, and some adults have learning needs that resemble the needs associated with children.

In this article, we have principles that I have come to associate with adult education now being applied to children in kindergarten.  Children are being encouraged to be self-directed learners.  The idea that children cannot “own” their education is being challenged.

In our classrooms, inquiry comes alive through performance. This week in our kindergarten we are starting a unit called “We are Peacemakers.” In this unit, the children learn about sharing, cooperation, conflict resolution, expressing feelings, and building community. We start the unit by asking the children what they know about peace and being a peacemaker. We then use their questions and interests to guide the inquiry process.

One of the great challenges I see as existing for the practice of adult education is how to undo the damage facilitated by “traditional models of education.”  Some adults enter the classroom after being infantilized by their previous educational experiences.  Adult educators are then tasked with facilitating the development of the “self-directed learner” and empowering students to take personal responsibility for their education.

However, some adults arrive at the classroom already empowered to take personal responsibility for their education. The great diversity that exists in learners, regardless of their chronological age, is why I have sought to develop a theory of education that does not specifically reference the distinction between adults and children:

technagogy: I first read about this term on the blog Tales from a Grad Student, by AJ Barse.  Barse defines the term as “the method and practice of teaching through modern technology, esp. as an academic subject or theoretical concept.”  In reference to part of the Knowles definition cited above by Merriam and Brockett, I think it is fair to describe technagogy as “the art and science of helping people learn with Internet technology.”

internet learning theory: I consider this term similar to “technagogy” and have started tagging posts on this blog with the terms “internet learning theory” and “internet learning theories.”  One of the ideas involved is that the Internet facilitates a new kind of learning that is a substantial improvement on the kinds of learning facilitated by “traditional” educational activities.

I have previously talked about the disservice the “traditional” methods of education appear to provide children:

I believe that the Internet can effectively facilitate the development of new habits of thinking and learning. I also think that teachers are a necessary part of effective education programs, especially during this historical transition as billions of people gain access to the Internet. Dr. Fidishun writes:

It is the job of the adult educator to move adult students away from their old habits and into new patterns of learning where they become self-directed, taking responsibility for their own learning and the direction it takes.

According to Dr. Fidishun, this is related to how “adults resent and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them.” (Knowles, Holton, and Swanson, 1998, 65). I wonder how kids feel about it if it is considered so toxic to adult learning.

I don’t like the idea of using adult education as a means to remediate the learning habits imposed on children, but I see it as a necessary part of adult education so long as childhood education does not prepare children to be self-directed and autonomous learners.  Essentially, when an “infantilized” adult first arrives in a classroom, they have “adult learning needs” but technically are still “children” in their actual development as learners. The term “child” becomes a proxy for an “undeveloped learner.”

In the post cited above, I look at an alternative way to define the spectrum of learners without a direct reference to their chronological age:

The Internet can provide a lot of positive reinforcement to critical thinkers, and it facilitates the development of those skills by its very nature and in its coordinated application to a classroom environment.

Adult learning theories suggest that there is going to be a gap between groups that Dr. Fidishun describes as “dependent thinkers” and “independent thinkers.” I am curious about whether the Internet will make independent thinking a habit and offer the kind of skills practice that Dr. Fidishun describes as typically denied by childhood education.

I think that the Internet has the capacity to produce ‘adultified’ learners and that distinctions based on age are less helpful than distinctions based on the development of critical thinking skills and independent learning.

and I look at G.O. Grow’s Staged Self-Directed Learning Model in the context of the development of online educational resources:

Grow outlines four stages of learning, and it provides a useful reference point for describing the intended audiences of an online educational resource. If there is going to be no discussion component, all learners are going to be treated as “Dependent” learners. According to Grow, if the materials come across as “authoritarian,” this will be a “severe mismatch” for the “Self-Directed Learner” and a “mismatch” for the “Involved Learner.” However, a “Dependent” learner is a “match” for materials that do present as an expert authority.

The complication is that all kinds of learners could arrive at an online educational resource, and what may be useful to some learners could alienate others. However, I have been thinking about the site design in terms of how to present options for the visitor. The framework offered by Grow seems to suggest this could be a way to address the issue of diverse learners.

A slideshow related to Grow’s theories can be seen here.

I have a general sense that there is an unhelpful cultural overlay with regard to the differences assigned to adults and children.  In my schoolwork, I am being encouraged to look at the purposes and goals of education to tease out philosophical foundations, and to contextualize various approaches to the practice of education in the historical context in which they arise.

If the goal is to have children simply be “obedient,” then it seems clear that there will be little emphasis placed on their development as autonomous learners and the cultivation of a capacity to think for themselves.  I keep wanting to refer to this as a Victorian definition of children, except I also see it in operation in today’s “abstinence only” education programs.  There is a dissonance between the ideal of an “obedient” child and the reality that children do already think for themselves, which may help explain the tragedy in novels like Wuthering Heights and the epic failures of “abstinence only education.”

Based on what I recall from a Bridges out of Poverty training several years ago, there is a critical stage of development that occurs during childhood, where a child needs to have the “why” explained to them in order to develop cognitive skills later in life, such as long-term planning.  This is where childhood education seems to have the greatest potential to damage adult learners.  In a quest to create “obedient” children, it appears that traditional childhood education intentionally fails to facilitate the development of critical thinking skills at a time when human beings need it the most.

I imagine that Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin would argue that if we fail to promote autonomy in learners we risk losing the foundation of democracy.

To be continued…

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