The Science of Learning: It’s for adults, too!

At Deans for Impact, we’ve published a number of posts debunking common misconceptions about how our brains work. And we’ve also learned how to present our arguments more effectively in order to better persuade our readers about the myth of learning styles. So when I came across Stephen Brookfield’s article in the journal Adult Learning about the “myths and realities in facilitating adult learning,” I was more than intrigued.

Brookfield is primarily interested in myths about facilitating adult learning in professional or educational settings that, taken together, represent what he calls “an espoused theory of adult education.” Brookfield’s five myths of facilitating adult learning attack a variety of suspect ideas, but three myths stood out for me: that adults are innately self-directed learners; that there is a uniquely adult learning style; and that adult learning is essentially joyful. Brookfield describes how facilitators of adult learning are often disappointed at the results of learning experiences where adults are “expected to plan, conduct, and evaluate their own learning.” He also points out that there is no evidence to support the idea that adults “learn in a way that is wholly separate and distinct from…children and adolescents.” In other words, facilitating adult learning doesn’t require a special class of adult educators, it just requires attention to the science of learning more generally. I was struck by how closely Brookfield’s perspective aligns with how we design learning experiences for deans and other ed-prep leaders that are grounded in the science of learning.

Despite the applicability of learning science to adults, when I talk with educators, teacher-educators, or leaders who are implementing the science of learning in their classrooms, they almost always talk about their students. I rarely hear educators of any stripe apply the science of learning to other educators, to professional learning plans of educators, or to themselves. In fact, some educators resist the idea that the science of learning could be the basis for their own professional growth. Indeed, when I’m learning something difficult, I regularly catch myself resisting the scientific learning principles that I promote, usually by suggesting that I’d be better served by a task designed for my unique tastes in learning or a facilitator who better understand the needs of educators like me.

We take seriously the perspective of adult learners because we regularly convene them at our Impact Academy, a year-long leadership development experience for deans and other leaders in educator preparation. There are many professional learning opportunities out there for dean leaders, but we think Impact Academy is unique in large part because it IS designed with scientific learning principles in mind. At Impact Academy, we push the fellows to the edge of what they know and are able to do. This learning is often uncomfortable, and it’s rarely joyful — at least not until dinner time.

It’s natural to resist learning like this, and so we’re testing four design principles that we think support learners as they overcome the initial resistance to this challenging learning experience:

1) We make learning objectives explicit through a carefully sequenced curriculum that includes explanations by more experienced member deans, modeling, and case study examples that can help ensure that fellows are challenged with new content without feeling overwhelmed. Although each dean brings their own challenges and a unique context to the experience, the learning objectives are the same for everyone.

2) We space the learning experiences and practice over the course of a year-long fellowship by reinforcing and reviewing content that was first introduced in-person through five distance learning modules. This allows our fellows to revisit and remember content over the long term. For example, in the first distance learning module, we ask fellows to hold a focus group with some of their teacher-candidates and report back to us about what they learned from the candidates, and how it will inform their leadership moves in the coming year.

3) We make sure our fellows receive regular feedback that is specific, clear, and focused on improvement. We use protocols and facilitators to structure feedback sessions in a way that allows learners to focus on their progress towards acquiring new knowledge and leadership skills. One of the most powerful protocols for this purpose is a consultancy protocol, where fellows present a leadership challenge to a small group of their peers and a member facilitator. The protocol includes stages of clarifying and probing questions for the fellow, followed by an extended period where they listen to others discuss their problem.

4) We purposefully convene a diverse group of leaders from a diverse set of institutions. Empirical research shows that racially diverse groups, for example, help surface assumptions and biases that may otherwise go unsaid. Everyone benefits from having a more racially diverse working group. We actively recruit fellows from public and private institutions, including small colleges, large research institutions, MSI’s, HBCU’s, and alternative preparation programs.

Our second cohort of Impact Academy fellows are about halfway through their year-long journey, and they tell us how much they value their professional relationships with their coaches and other fellows. The application for our third cohort of fellows will be released in late January, and we’re excited to continue to learn alongside our fellows.

Click here for more information about Impact Academy, or sign up to be notified as soon as the application is released.

John Roberts

Senior Program Director

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