1. Advance Organizers: Learn by Sequencing

David Ausubel“The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows…. Ascertain this and then teach him [or her] accordingly.” - David Ausubel

Ausubel’s theory says we should build with logically sequenced Building Blocks, beginning with what the learner already knows. The starting point is what he calls Advance Organizers. The concept is to build onto existing knowledge “in advance.” Meaning we start with what the learner knows and use that as the way to organize what comes next.

This is the method we have all experienced in past schooling and postsecondary education. And it works…

However, as I have learned from my own experience, there are additional considerations we need to make when teaching/tutoring our literacy learners. Like the other researchers in this section, Ausubel is giving us an approach based on mainstream adult learners. Our literacy learners often have needs that are not as prevalent with mainstream adult learners. Needs that should not be ignored. I would therefore preface what Ausubel is saying with the following points:

  • Our learners—many of whom have had negative experiences in past schooling—typically need to begin a step earlier than what Ausubel is saying. We should begin by explaining the process of the sequencing method that lies ahead so the learner will not only anticipate what is coming…but will feel they are indeed starting where they should be starting and not feel rushed, overwhelmed or coerced.

  • The opening days of the program will be new, but should not be intimidating. They should be exciting. Above all, the learner should be able to see the logic in the sequencing approach, and hopefully be made more comfortable by it. Their volition and sense of value should be reinforced in the first few days.

  • The fastest way to lose a learner’s interest is to go too fast. Or use a building block sequence that just seems illogical to them. Chances are they have already experienced something like this back in school…that is before they dropped out. Explaining the upcoming method as a logical approach in a nurturing manner will be very helpful.

  • You might even want to include the following explanation in your early discussion to help the learner see that “old dogs can, and do, learn new tricks all the time.” There needs to be some logic to the program from the learner’s viewpoint.

Let’s take a closer look at this method.

Why does this method make sense?

According to British psychologist Raymond Cattell, one of the major differences between how adults learn and how children learn is the difference between fluid and crystallized intelligence.

Raymond CattellChildren typically have the capacity to “sponge up information” even though they often cannot see what the information means. Mainly due to their lack of life experience. Adults, however, have built knowledge patterns with crystalized intelligence through their personal maturation process.

As Ausubel explains, our experiences, interests and needs are based on “patterns” that naturally build throughout our lives. We constantly filter out what is not interesting, not relevant or not useful as we build on that nascent set of patterns. Our “world view” evolves as we mature. As such, we learn to critique, to expand-upon, to question and to build a unique, evolving crystallized intelligence.

So, starting with what already exists makes a lot of sense. “What does the learner know already?” This is very good way to approach adult learning and our literacy learners are definitely no exceptions. But it is not the only way to teach adults. It is not without some pitfalls.


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