Monday 14 November 2016

Important research for those working with lower-skilled adult learners 

It is quite common for literacy and numeracy tutors to have big hearts. Many of us got into the tutoring business out of a desire to improve the lives of others. This sometimes orients us toward protecting learners. The post below is not meant to be mean-hearted, but comes from my years of doing exactly what I describe.    

The tendency to protect manifests in several unproductive ways (and here is where I lose friends). The first is parental positioning. This is often evident when tutors say things like, "My learners...". 

While it may feel like it, they are not your learners. They are adults, not children. Your job is to educate and prepare them. It is a question of roles. In all likeliness, no one else is being paid to do your job. If you decide to put your education role into second place while you adopt another role such as counselor, friend or parent, then who is doing your job? I am not saying not to adopt these roles, but be careful of your priorities. Your first priority is to educate. I have learned this the hard way.   

The urge to protect also manifests with maladaptive expectations for learners. This is evident when tutors say, "My learners would not be able to do that... they can only..." or "this won't work with my learners, they can only...". Essentially, tutors become arbiters of the learners' experiences. They attempt to protect them from failing and in doing so impose their own limited expectations on adults. Here is the truth - the individuals you are working with are capable of much more than you realise.  [See the research below for more]

Limited expectations are constructed because tutors occupy an echo chamber of sorts. The learning situation is constructed in reciprocity between the tutor and learner, and settles into an equillibrium of non-threatening social norms. Unless you take steps to combat this it will just happen. You are like a fish in water, you cannot sense the water because it is all around you. The environment is safe, but unchallenging. Learn to beat this, and you will be on your way to being a great educator.  If you want to explore this concept investigate 'didactic contracts' or read Brousseau.   

Why this matters
The problem with a safe protectionist environment is that growth only occurs as a result of struggle. A recent Facebook post (the font of all wisdom) talked about the growth of a lobster. Take a look.

"The stimulus for the lobster to grow is to feel uncomfortable." 

In numeracy we use the word 'purtubation' to describe a necessary state for the re-organisation of existing cognitive patterns - in other words 'learning'.

  1. anxiety; mental uneasiness.
    "she sensed her friend's perturbation"
    • a cause of anxiety or uneasiness.
      plural noun: perturbations

Yup - anxiety, mental uneasiness. Now knowing how to regulate this so it does not lead the learner to disengage is vital. But without it, you are not doing a fair service to the adult learner who is putting their trust in you. The lobster must feel pressure.

Final point

Below is a cautionary study. It shows that attempting to protect students, not only limits their exposure to content, but also reinforces negative beliefs - making their life much much tougher. 

“It's ok — Not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory
comfort (and demotivate) students

Rattan, Good & Dweck (2012) 

Can comforting struggling students demotivate them and potentially decrease the pool of students pursuing math related subjects? In Studies 1–3, instructors holding an entity (fixed) theory of math intelligence more readily judged students to have low ability than those holding an incremental (malleable) theory. Studies 2–3 further revealed that those holding an entity (versus incremental) theory were more likely to both comfort students for low math ability and use “kind” strategies unlikely to promote engagement with the field (e.g., assigning less homework). Next, we explored what this comfort-oriented feedback communicated to students, compared with strategy-oriented and control feedback (Study 4). Students responding to comfort-oriented feedback not only perceived the instructor's entity theory and low expectations, but also reported lowered motivation and lower expectations for their own performance. This research has implications for understanding how pedagogical practices can lock students into low achievement and deplete the math pipeline.

The key lesson to tutors is this. There is a world of difference between being nice, and being kind.  Be aware that you have a tendency to impose your expectations on learners.   

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