Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Stephen Brookfield

Stephen Brookfield is widely respected as a leading contemporary thinker in adult education. His academic research and writing is informed by his experience of teaching adults in England, Australia, Canada and the USA. Born in Liverpool in 1949, he has written extensively on adult learning, critical thinking, discussion and critical pedagogy. His work should be on the reading lists of all adult educators who are committed to reflective practice and critical pedagogy.

Stephen Brookfield

Stephen Brookfield

His personal website gives more information: http://stephenbrookfield.com/Dr._Stephen_D._Brookfield/Home.html

He is probably best known for the concept of ‘Brookfield’s lenses’, which describes four perspectives that teachers can consider in their critical reflection. He identifies these as:

  1. the autobiographical, (the teacher’s own view)
  2. the students’ eyes (the students’ views)
  3. our colleagues’ experiences (fellow professionals’ views)
  4. theoretical literature.

These four lenses bring together the processes of self-reflection, student feedback, peer assessment and consideration of relevant academic literature. They sum up various elements of critical thinking that reflective practitioners bring to their teaching with adult learners.

Giulia Forsythe, who tweets as @giuliaforsythe, has produced this wonderful visual summary of Brookfield’s 1995 book, “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” (Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education). It would make a fantastic poster and is shared with Giulia’s kind permission.

Giulia Forsythe's visual summary of Brookfield's, “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher"

Giulia Forsythe’s visual summary of Brookfield’s, “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher”

This blog scratches the surface of Brookfield’s work. Have you got any comments or observations about the impact of his work on your professional practice, your experience as a student, or pointers to other relevant resources?

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Learning from crime fiction – means, motive and opportunity

Most readers of crime fiction and viewers of detective dramas know about the concepts of means, motive and opportunity that the writers use to establish criminals’ guilt. The MMO checklist is memorable and highly relevant to adult and community learning as well. MMO Understanding that adults need the means, motive and opportunity to benefit from education can help us to engage people into relevant courses in their communities. It’s not enough to provide courses and hope that people will turn up and join them or to set up digital learning activities and hope that people will find them.

Local resources and specialist tuition led to success for these WEA students interested in digital media.

Local resources and specialist tuition led to success for these WEA students who wanted to learn about digital media.

Do people have the means: the money for fees, equipment, bus fares, tea and coffee breaks, the initial skills, digital literacy, internet access, childcare….?

What might give them a motive to learn? Is it the real prospect of a proper job, better chances for their children, improving their health, gaining confidence, meeting new people, learning more about an interest, campaigning for something…..?

The flip side of this is just as important: “What type of learning demotivates someone?”

Is there an accessible opportunity to learn? Where can people go to learn? How will they know where to go and what’s available? Are there community networks, role models and venues where people feel secure? Is there access to digital learning with appropriate support?

Too many people will remain “hard to reach” unless policy makers and planners of adult and community learning try to understand the concepts of means, motive and opportunity.

Of course, engagement is only part of successful adult education. Once we have hooked people by negotiating the MMO, we have to make sure we move on to another three-letter acronym – with top quality TLA: teaching, learning and assessment.

What will people think?

Thinking about what other people think can be a sign of inhibition or empathy. It can be timid and constraining or open-minded with active curiosity about other people’s perceptions, leading to deeper understanding and intellectual growth.

The “Three Rs” have been with us for a very long time and are the accepted basics of education. Technological and social changes mean that they are no longer enough to prepare us for a productive life.

The “Four Cs” of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity are now described as key twenty-first century skills. They are essential elements of teaching and learning as we encourage students to be curious, aware and open to learning from different viewpoints. They are integral to education for social purpose.   empathy This simple illustration can prompt a lot more thinking. It shows why dialogue is important.

We can explore the “Four Cs” in terms of teaching and learning, lesson planning and curriculum development. Adult educators might also think outside the confines of our own experience and enthusiasm to think about how others feel about the prospects and potential of adult learning. Do they see what we see?

What do you think?

Lev Vygotsky – in tweets

Twitter isn’t all about what people had for their lunch. This week Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) tweeted his summary of a book on Lev Vygotsky’s work. Although the focus is on children’s education, the Russian psychologist and educational thinker’s work is relevant in adult learning too.

Vygotsky suggests that the experience of learning on an individual basis is not as rich or deep as learning alongside someone who is more knowledgeable about a subject and that learning should have a social context. It’s interesting to think about how online learning might be designed in response to this and how children’s experience of school-based education might affect their later attitude towards learning as adults.

Summarising a book in fewer than 20 tweets is quite a challenge but Tim conveys some quick basics about Vygotsky, giving a brief but useful taster. For non-tweeters and members of TLATLA (The League Against Three Letter Acronyms), the abbreviations are:

ATM = at the moment

ch = children

Ed = education (obviously!)

ZPD = Zone of Proximal Development

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky

Thanks to Tim for his generosity in sharing the notes from his reading and for introducing others to Vygotsky’s work or providing a refresher.

There is a range of opinion about Vytgotsky’s views and his theoretical work is often compared and contrasted to that of Jean Piaget.

Do you have any further thoughts about Vygotsky’s ideas or links to other resources?

Teaching for Understanding

Learning facts can be a crucial backdrop to learning for understanding, but learning facts is not learning for understanding.

From ‘What is Understanding’ 

Teaching for knowledge or teaching for understanding? This is a hot topic for some educators who use social media. It can become a rather abstract and artificial debate at times but it’s important to think about how ideas of ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ influence curriculum design and day-to-day practice in teaching, learning and assessment.

Is the curriculum relevant to the students?

Can students use the knowledge being taught?

Do students understand the knowledge being learnt?

‘If you can’t actually take an idea outside the classroom and use it, you don’t really get it. But once you use it on your own, its yours forever.’

Robert H Frank, economist

Teachers and researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education, including Howard Gardner*, David Perkins, Vito Perrone, Rebecca Simmons and Martha Stone Wiske, have put some of their thinking into action and worked collaboratively for several years to develop a “Teaching for Understanding Framework” based on four main ideas:
  1. Generative Topics: These topics are connected to students’ interests and experiences. They can be learned in many different ways and build on previous topics.
  2. Understanding Goals: These are statements or questions describing what students should aim to understand during a course.
  3. Performances of Understanding: These are activities that require students to apply their knowledge in new ways to show their progress and their grasp of the Understanding Goals.
  4. Ongoing Assessment: This is the process of continual feedback to students about their Performances of Understanding in order to improve them.

The framework goes beyond “show and tell” and encourages students to “grow and show” their understanding and application of knowledge.

There’s more information about the Teaching for Understanding project here and you can find some practical workshop resources here.

How does this framework fit with practice in adult learning? Where does ‘knowledge’ fit in? Thoughts?

(* There’s more on Howard Gardner in an earlier guest blog by Mary Hunter here.)

Adult educators – an ageing profession?

Is there a problem brewing as many of our most skilled and experienced adult educators are growing older and a significant cohort is nearing retirement? Is our profession becoming a grey area? If so, we need to act now to make sure we have continuity by developing younger colleagues to pick up the baton. We need to make sure that much-needed enthusiasm, passion, understanding and know-how is not lost from this important area of teaching, learning, educational outreach and management.

(This blog is based on observation within the wider sector and awareness of the age profile in meetings and events. It is not focusing specifically on the WEA although we have to be aware of succession planning for our future sustainability.)

Adult and community educators have worked with determination and professionalism in a too-often overlooked field of education for decades. They act as teachers, advocates, advisers, mentors and managers who know the difference that second chance learning can make to adults. They develop mature students’ potential. They link them into multi-agency support networks to complement learning activities and can steer them sensitively towards further learning and development opportunities.

These professional experts are often unnoticed in education debates yet they play a crucial role in many communities, especially where there is poverty and social breakdown. They are a comparatively small, specialist and effective group of change makers. They negotiate and develop courses and nurture relationships. They eke out funding. They teach people who are often the most reticent and reluctant learners and who need the benefit of specially honed approaches to teaching, learning and assessment.

Some WEA tutors meet the General Secretary and Trustee members of the Education Strategy Committee

Some WEA tutors meet the General Secretary and Trustee members of the Education Strategy Committee

It seems that people need their distinctive brand of customised professional support more than ever. Recent statistics on adult English, maths and digital skills show the scale of some problems facing the UK and reinforce the need for education that extends beyond school years and throughout life. English, as a first or second language, and maths skills have become critical issues for our economy and society.  Recent years have been hard for many people, but austerity has affected people who can’t speak, read or write functional English especially hard and this has had a knock-on effect on the public purse in various ways.

English and maths are only part of a bigger picture. Adult educators’ unique roles contribute to several policy areas, including school-based education, health, work and pensions, communities and local government, criminal justice and culture, media and sports. They enhance employability, health and wellbeing, community engagement and involvement in culture. They improve life chances for countless adults and their families. They enrich people’s lives, adding fulfillment, social benefits and enjoyment.

We need to build greater awareness and raise the status of adult education and community learning in policy debates and developments in initial teacher training and continuing professional development.

What do you think should be done to develop and secure continuity of professionalism in community learning?

How can we raise the profile of teacher educators who are preparing people to work in adult learning?

What’s the point of reflective practice?

As educators we put a lot into what we do. We think, we question, we plan, we learn, we teach and we reflect. Praxis, the cycle of reflection, practice, reflection and improved practice is fundamental to good teaching, learning and assessment and most outstanding teachers are expert learners who continue to develop their subject expertise and their professional practice.

So far, so good, but the big question is, “What difference does all this make to students?” In other words, “What’s the point?”

The WEA context

The Workers’ Educational Association works exclusively with adult learners so we have to consider all sorts of starting points, personal circumstances, educational experiences, barriers and motivations and to tailor our practice so that they can have the best possible learning experiences. Our professional development is about our learning to improve their learning through our teaching and planning.

The WEA’s teaching, learning and assessment happens in a complex networked organisation supported by many volunteers, with a democratic membership structure and elected governance. We work at community levels across England and Scotland, as part of a wider international family of Workers’ Educational Associations. We run part-time courses, working flexibly and adapting to locally identified situations and partnerships. Without campuses and with very few of our own learning centres, we’re very mobile and adaptable. We try to turn the ‘hard to reach’ cliché on its head by recognising that most educational opportunities for adults are hard to reach and so taking our courses to them.

Our dispersed model of working brings advantages and challenges as we work to bring our vision and values to life through our classroom practice, which is rarely in dedicated WEA classrooms and more usually in hired rooms in community-based venues where people can feel more at home.

Proof of the pudding

The logistics alone give us a lot to think about, but the practicalities are ‘backroom’ issues. What matters most is the difference that we make to our students and the difference that their learning makes to their lives. That’s where reflective practice is essential and where we have to balance our thinking about what we put into teaching, learning and assessment with the crucial matter of what our students gain from it. As we’re committed to education for social purpose, we’re also interested in the wider effects on their friends, families and communities.

This short film shows the impact of WEA learning and our tutors’ expertise:

WEA leaders and managers use data to help us to reflect, shape and improve what we do, but we’re a ‘head and heart’ organisation that combines our use of statistics with a constant stream of students’ stories that inspire and motivate us.

Here are 2 short films of students telling their stories about family learning.

These are examples of what drives us and our professional practice in teaching and learning.

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