This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in March 2017. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here.
There are two major ways of learning: the first is the natural process we all engage in unconsciously or subconsciously like learning the lyrics to a song, the second is the more formal, planned process carried out consciously and deliberately like learning algebra by rote.
Most “education” consists of a combination of unconscious and conscious learning and both kinds of learning are common to children, adolescents and adults. The flavour of cocktail we mix for different groups of learners (i.e. the proportion of unconscious to conscious learning) may differ but children as well as adults engage in both natural and planned learning and both types of learning can take various forms with both children and adults.
So if children and adults learn in broadly the same way, what is different about learning in a school environment and learning in a post-16 environment as the school sixth form, a further education college, training provider or sixth form college?
And more importantly for our present purposes, what is uniquely adult and what makes teaching students in post-16 different to teaching these students while they are in years 10 and 11 at school?
Lave and Wenger (1991) claim that adults, unlike children, learn through communities of practice. In other words, they learn by engaging in what Lave and Wenger call “legitimate peripheral participation”, by striving to engage with others in order to enter into the membership of a chosen group.
Draper (1998) and Smith and Pourchot (1998), meanwhile, assert that – while both children and adults learn through experience and test all new learning against their prior experiences – the life experiences and contexts that adults bring with them to the classroom are different to the experiences and contexts that tend to accompany children.
While both children and adults engage directly with the world around them, the constructs they build from that engagement are different. Adults’ experiences of, for example, relationships, work, finance and so on are very different from children’s experiences of these things (if indeed children have any experiences of these things at all) and this has an impact on how children engage with learning materials and how they formulate new knowledge and understandings in the classroom.
In short, adults carry with them more baggage (in the form of prior knowledge and experiences) and this colours how they learn new information and what they do with this new information.
In a similar vein to Draper et al, Merriam (2001) and Vaske (2001) claim that the kind of tasks which best underpin an adult’s formal, conscious learning are different from the kind of tasks which children tend to undertake and learn from the best.
Finally, Brookfield (2000) proposes that adulthood consists of its own, unique developmental phase and that, therefore, an adult is fundamentally not the same as a child. In so doing, Brookfield argues against the notion of the higher stage of development which writers such as Arlin (1975), Bright (1989), and Sutherland (1997) had earlier posited. Instead, he proposes that there are four developmental areas in which most adults advance:
- Dialectical thinking (the recognition that specific sites make a nonsense of generalised rules and theories).
- Practical logic (the power to make decisions to ignore logical certainties when it’s in your personal interests to do so).
- Epistemic cognition (becoming self-consciously aware of your learning styles).
- Critical reflection (acting knowingly, which – Brookfield suggests – is different from the critical reflection younger people are capable of).
Others have suggested that adults have developed domain-specific mental schemata, the perception of large meaningful patterns that are not apparent to novices – see, for example, Hager (2001), Tennant (1991), Glaser (1985), and Yates and Chandler (1991).
So perhaps – as Lave and Wenger, Draper, Smith and Pourchot, Merriam, Vaske, and Brookfield all posit – there are differences in the way children and adults learn and it is this which makes the challenge of teaching post-16 students unique; it is this which necessitates a different approach towards their A level qualifications (or equivalents) than that which was applied when these students were studying towards their GCSEs. I am inclined to argue, however, that these differences are less pronounced in “children” aged 16 who are at the end of their secondary school education and “adults” aged 16 or older at the start of their further education journey. After all, these “children” and “adults” are divided only by the six weeks of summer.
I am also inclined to argue that recent pedagogical developments in secondary schools, such as the application of cognitive science, have required children, as well as adults, to take greater ownership of their learning.
“Children” as well as “adults” now learn through communities of practice – for example, through cooperative learning activities – and engage in “legitimate peripheral participation”; they may still differ in the life experiences and contexts with which they arrive at the classroom door, but they are now increasingly taught the importance of “transfer” and the significance of applying new learning to prior experience (see, for example, Bromley 2014 & 2016).
But the argument is an academic one (in both senses of the word) because, whether or not we accept that children and adults learn in different ways, it is clear from the sheer weight of evidence that surrounds us (student feedback, teacher feedback, exam outcomes, and so on) that students studying post-16 qualifications such as A levels (whether that be in school sixth forms, sixth form colleges, further education colleges or training providers) need to be taught differently to how they were taught the first time around in school…
Autonomy & responsibility
The difference in how we teach post-16 students lies not, then, in the different ways in which children and adults learn – or at least not entirely – but in the ways in which we, as teachers, educate them and in the nature of the relationships that develop between the teacher and the post-16 student.
Of course, every teacher-student relationship is unique because it is determined by the individual teacher and the individual student. Each teacher brings with him or her their own constructs of both child/adult and student, as well as their own identity as a teacher.
They also have norms to which they expect their students to conform. Teachers construct their students, too: they expect the children to be both children and students in their own terms.
When it comes to post-16 students, however, there is a much wider range of constructs to be employed: some teachers expect post-16 students to be more adult than student, or they reconstruct the concept of student to be very different from the traditional model of student you’d expect lower down the school; others expect their students to temporarily abandon their adulthood so that the traditional teacher-student dynamic can be established and learning can be achieved.
Most post-16 teachers believe that A level students should be treated more as adults than as traditional students. And adults, they claim, are different from children when it comes to their motivations for learning…
As Illeris (2002) said: “What we all must realise is that the adult’s way of learning is very different from the child’s and that (post-16) education must, therefore, be based on quite different premises…
“(Post-16 students) learn what they want to learn and what is meaningful for them to learn. (They) are not very inclined to learn something they are not interested in, or in which they cannot see the meaning or importance.”
Illeris concludes that: “The fundamental requirement is that the adult must take, and must be allowed to take, responsibility for his or her own learning.”
Is this the crux of the matter? Is the real difference between teaching students in years 7 to 11 and teaching them in years 12 and 13 the simple fact that “adult” students must be allowed to take greater responsibility for their own learning, that adult students must be afforded greater autonomy and control?
Certainly, as teachers of post-16 students, we need to understand the different ways in which they are already learning outside the classroom, unconsciously and subconsciously. This is the most important part of learning but also much neglected. Once we understand the ways in which our post-16 students learn outside the classroom, we can then introduce elements of that learning into our formal, conscious learning programmes or indeed build our learning programmes around the experience of learning that our post-16 students already possess.
With all this in mind, here are some top tips for teaching post-16 students…
Ten tips for teaching post-16
According to NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education), post-16 lessons (particularly in English and maths for those students who need to re-sit) work best when:
- Learning is fun, interactive and practical.
- There is a strong understanding of the purpose and importance of holding post-16 qualifications, and these qualifications are related to real-life situations.
- Learning has a personal relevance which is explained to students, and the feedback given to students about their performance relates activities to the qualification they are studying towards.
- Appropriate time and support is given to students to practise challenging topics, both in and out of the classroom.
- There is a clear assessment process with clarity on mark schemes, enabling students to adequately prepare for exams and assignments.
- Timely initial assessments are carried out in order to identify students’ individual support needs, and any additional support that students require is put in place as soon as possible at the start of year 12.
- Class sizes are kept small, enabling teachers to have sufficient time to support all students.
- Teachers have strong behaviour management skills which they use to good effect in order to reduce the impact of students distracting their peers during lessons.
- The teacher fosters a supportive environment in the classroom and students are encouraged to ask for help from the teacher as well as from peers
- Teachers listen to students’ needs and tailor their approaches accordingly.
Finally, one of the most common problems in post-16 education is students showing their disaffection and/or a lack of motivation by not turning up to lessons. As such, here are some strategies for improving attendance at post-16.
Be passionate about teaching
You need to show your post-16 students that you are passionate about the subject you teach. Even more importantly, you must show your students that you are just as passionate about helping them to succeed. When you make this explicit, through your words and actions, students begin to understand that you are with them, trying to help them succeed, not against them, trying to make life difficult.
Show students they are important
Post-16 students who know that you care about them are far more likely to come to school. While being passionate about teaching demonstrates this at the whole-class level, it is also important to forge productive relationships with individual students.
Students don’t always remember what you do, but they do remember how you made them feel. So make them feel important, accepted and cared for. Take the time to talk to them outside of the classroom, show an interest in their lives and offer genuine empathy for any difficulties they are going through.
However, don’t let this understanding lead you to excuse poor behaviour and don’t let your empathy cross the line into being too friendly – you’re not their friend, you’re their teacher.
Encourage extra-curricular activities
Students are more likely to attend classes when they feel connected to the wider school or college, not just the sixth form or their year group. Schools with high rates of participation in school-based extracurricular activities have significantly lower rates of student absenteeism than other schools.
Effective extra-curricular activities might include sport, dance, arts, debating, and community service. Such activities nurture school pride and help develop the student in ways which will prepare them for higher education and the world of work. What’s more, extra-curricular activities provide an opportunity for teachers to forge yet stronger relationships with their post-16 students outside of the classroom.
Post-16 students are more likely to come to school if they are succeeding, and they are more likely to succeed if you teach them well. Effective teaching at post-16 is not synonymous with entertaining students, giving them easy tasks to do which they accomplish quickly, or over-praising work that doesn’t deserve it. Good teaching at post-16 is about helping students to genuinely master the key concepts they need to learn.
To read all 10 parts in this series, click here.
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