The Meaning of Past Schooling

The Meaning of Past Schooling

One easily generalized point about our learners is that almost all have been early school-leavers. One of the complications of our teaching is we have adults who have dropped or stopped out, with some feeling “remorseful or guilty,” while others feel they have been “pushed out” and enter our programs with some resentment if not cynicism (Quigley, 2006). Others are trying to adapt to an entirely different approach to teaching and learning, even those who have come from Canadian English as an Additional Language classes. Past schooling has a huge, life-long impact on us all and it is often the only frame of refence our adults have walking into our classrooms or tutoring programs.

The point is, the formative experiences in the earlier lives of our learners are often very hard for us to recognize. Why? Most of us have completed high school. Many of us have done fairly well in school and many will have completed university, often with more than one degree. As the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu wrote, “Reality is not an absolute…it differs with the group to which one belongs” (cited in Quigley, 1997). We need to be able to see through our learners’ eyes if we are to be learner-centred tutors and teachers.

As Knowles says, many adult learners come with the “self-perception that they are not very smart, at least in regard to academic work” (1980, p. 46). This is an extremely important point for our unique field. We are teaching adults that typically bring a high level of vulnerability into our classrooms and tutoring programs. Their past experience is very often based on ambiguous, if not negative, memories of previous schooling. They typically walk in to our programs fearing they are “not very smart.”

For our part, we are often seen in the role of “Teacher-Authority-Figures.” The first few days are critical. If one characteristic separates our adult learners from mainstream postsecondary and higher education, it is the impact early school drop-out has had on our adult learners.

Teaching adult literacy is not straight-forward. It is far more complex than many assume, including, at least in my experience, many political decision-makers and many institutional administrators. Our own teaching challenge is one of being aware and adaptable if we are to meet the evolving needs and goals of our learners.

Therefore, we need to begin with nurturing and begin by building self-direction with our learners early in the program. But let’s consider some of the pitfalls first.