Learner-centeredness: treating adults as adults.

How we view learning will dictate how we practice teaching.

learning theoriesYou can’t expect a group of young adults to just do as they are told without questioning it. The proposition which states that teachers view of learning dictates how they will teach, or how they were taught will contribute to this view is true for learners as well. They have their own way of viewing how learning a language happens if they have given some thought to it. Even the most passive learner is passive because they believe that is the way to be taught. So they embrace this role and do not dare to question the teacher as he/she is the expert and the authority.

I support the notion that a classroom should be a community of learners who get together to support and help each other understand and use language more effectively. The teacher is part of this community and act as a more competent user of the language who monitors, guide and offer feedback and corrections, but who is not the only one able to help learners achieve their goals.  As a language learner myself who learned to speak two languages without the help of experts but the community around me, I find that creating this kind of environment for adults important to develop confidence, foster autonomy and promote awareness about their own learning journey. Hence helping them become longlife learners too.

Not formally, but informally these three stages are present in what happens in my classroom. I’m quite aware though that by the end of a semester or year, not all learners will have achieved this level of understanding of a community of learning as it depends of how education had tamed them and we can all agree that changing habits is really hard. But at least they have a chance to contribute with their own experiences and ideas,  experiment with new ones and think about them.

Diagnostic stage: What do I know?

Where they have time to assess themselves through practical activities.

Thinking ahead: What do I need to know/do/learn/? and How?

Where they can set goals and are not just told what to do to achieve someone’s else goals and objectives so motivation is intrisically, not external to them.

Assessing goals and objectives: What am I able to do now?

Where they have the time to reassess and establish new goals for themselves. None of these are done formally and learners are not asked to share those. Each person knows what they want and what I want to promote is the mindset of a lifelong learner who constantly think and reinvent oneself. The process is ongoing and personal.

In our current system where a syllabus is imposed on English learners, shifting paradigms is not easy. I’ve thought long and hard by comparing what I was trained to do and what happens in the classroom to the experiences I’ve had in life as a language learner. Did I ever use grammar books and dictionaries, sure thing! Not saying that understanding the language doesn’t have a place, but presenting it in a super controlled way kills natural communication and students desire to communicate and take risks.

What they think counts, and a lot!

If a learner thinks he only becomes fluent by speaking with a Native Speaker or if he/she takes an exchange program, this will affect his view of classroom interaction and preferences. Because of that, a way I found useful to overcome this is to create a community of sharing and learning where expectations are put on the table, data collected through speaking and writing, and feedback/correction based on samples of what learners do. After all they are adults or adults to be and they deserve this much.

Learners Beliefs & Attitudes #1

Learners Beliefs & Attitudes #2

Although I don’t follow andragogy principles as pointed out by Knowles, it is easy to spot similar lines of thought in my own practice as my studies in University cover literacy and adult education which Paulo Freire’s work was all about- adult literacy education. I thought of searching the term and see if anyone in ELT actually had written about it in the ELT context and I was disappointed with my search.

I did find however a mentions in this post by Rachel Roberts where she discusses Oral Correction Insensitive or Vital?. And I totally agree that correction is an essential part of our job and we should not rob our students the opportunity to know where they are in their learning journey. By correcting and giving feedback on their performance, they can assess themselves according to real expectations and goals.

I haven’t read all posts by Rachel but I highly recommend her blog. Here is a list of posts related to correction.

In this post Learning Adults Tony Gurr questions if children and adults are really different or just should be managed differently when comes to learning.

In this post Motivating Adult Learners I found useful thoughts, but it’s a very short post.

The term andragogy doesn’t seem to be a welcoming one in ELT, so I tried adding autonomy to the search and found interesting readings but still not mainstream in ELT I reckon and wonder why.

First, What is learner autonomy and how can it be fostered lies some ground for understanding learner-centeredness and the different ways the term autonomy is being used.

Curtis Kelly explains andragogy with practical examples in this article. He also answers “To what extent should learners be given choices when they engage in classroom activities?” A must read interview piece.

I found this article thought-provoking but couldn’t read it yet. The author discusses the teacher as both authority and facilitator of learning.


11 thoughts on “Learner-centeredness: treating adults as adults.

    • Hi Geoff, thanks for reading and pointing out the problem with argument.

      Basically, as you know, my blog is about reflections as such I just write my thoughts in order to document for my own future reference. I appreciate your criticism though. I’ll try to be more careful next time so whatever I’m trying to say becomes more clear to people who read it.
      As I said on Twitter, thanks for a candid critic.


  1. Hi Rose,

    To add to your list of definitions: in The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages, p 61 (http://issuu.com/eswi/docs/the-common-sense-of-teaching-foreign-languages/c/sugsot0) Caleb Gattegno defines autonomy in a foreign language as the possibility to generate equivalent expressions. For example, “You’re on my right” is equivalent to “I’m on your left”. of course, the point of view is different.

    After learning the sounds of a language, complete beginners can produce equivalent expressions just by being prompted to “Say it another way!” If teacher and students don’t share a language of communication, the teacher can indicate by gestures what they want the students to do. it’s not difficult to get them to understand because all languages function that way. Very quickly they don’t need to be prompted and spontaneously try to respond to situations in different ways.

    Gattegno’s definition gave me ideas about what to do in class to allow learners to express their autonomy. Some of the other definitions just leave me puzzled. I’m not sure what they imply for classroom practice.


    Liked by 1 person

    • More reading to do Glenys! Thanks for adding your voice and experience here. Btw, I started watching few videos of silent way this morning but I have to be honest with you and say that I don’t see it working here as a method to subscribe to. I’ll for sure do my best to understand it and experiment with my learners as I am very curious about it.

      I learned about cuisenary rods and I have a set at home but to work math with children, not language. Today Emanuel was playing with them – forming letter shapes.


  2. Hi Rose,

    I liked your article – Rose – thought provoking as ever. You mention Learner Autonomy – here’s my critique of Learner Autonomy which boils down to: ‘As a concept, Learner Autonomy can’t take us where we want to go’ – there are so many different understandings of the concept of Learner Autonomy which doesn’t help when you are trying to implement an LA approach – though I’m broadly sympathetic to LA. https://www.academia.edu/9141772/Sailing_with_Learner_Autonomy

    Also, Andragogy sounds much like my concept of decentralised teaching. I don’t know much about Andragogy – but you need to have a robust concept in order to build propositions. From my (very) brief look, it appears more like a set of good practices or recommendations e.g. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

    Other people point this out in the following article: http://infed.org/mobi/andragogy-what-is-it-and-does-it-help-thinking-about-adult-learning/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Paul, thanks for reading and commenting.
      I understand exactly what you mean about autonomy. I’d say that it is one of those terms that can be whatever one wants it to be.

      I see that you have been pretty much bitten by the same bugs I have and here is what Decentralised teaching would be:

      “Devolving power, resources and responsibility down to the learner in order to optimise learning.”

      I totally agree with that quote!

      I never read Knowles and I read that nowadays people connect him to the term andragogy very easily. The thing with theorists is that they end up having their names attached to terms and explanations because they manage to put the ideas out in the world. A lot of time we read something and then we realised that you had been doing that all along. It’s a weird feeling.


  3. I think we need to approach teaching adults as we ourselves would like to be trained/taught. A lot of (post-)Communicative Language Teaching methods are rejected by learners because they don’t correspond with learners’ ideas of what learning is. I think sometimes there needs to be a period of priming toward using their own initiative and ideas rather than having a teacher spoon feeding grammar. It should also be the case that adults who want to learn should acquire a great deal of language through extensive listening and reading than through teacher input. In an ideal world I think I’d be more of a coach than a teacher for any students beyond intermediate level.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Marc for adding your thoughts to the post. I don’t have the time to pull references and quotes from Freire but what he did with adults who could not read or write their own names shows how much it can be achieved if we respect who the person is and what they bring with them, in terms of knowledge and skills. But ELT usually narrows the view of the person imho by looking at the people as someone who knows nothing and what they know needs to be fixed.

      Coaching is an interesting way of seeing learning/teaching relationship.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Rose, I used to teach adults some years ago and your reference to Knowles, andragogy and learner autonomy in the context of adult education rang a distant bell. In my case, the group I used to work with was characterized as “socially vulnerable” its members comprising of unemployed, ex-convicts, refugees, migrants, Roma people. The in-service training seminars I had attended at that time, after visiting relevant literature in the field, favoured Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. Here, learning is viewed as a change process that transforms the structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences. Actions and behaviors then will be changed based on this changed perspective. Important theory though more psychologically influenced and drawing attention to individual rather than social change contrasting it with Freire’s. This makes it friendlier to institutionalized adult education policies and practices. I think, however, that you should have a look at his theory. Knud Illeris’ and Peter Jarvis’ contributions, too. I remember growing a slight suspicion towards Knowles’ Andragogy, mainly having to do with the fact that I’m a woman and the stem “Andra” in Greek means adult male and not adult of either sex, so I guess it has to do with the gender laden context of the term. Of course his definition of andragogy was developed as a parallel to pedagogy, but I have not been convinced this is not a false dichotomy, so I carry this suspicion with me ever since, haha. More specifically for SLA do you think this could be useful to you? http://www.tesol.org/docs/books/bk_CP_AdultLL_615 Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Chrysa for the recommendations. I’ll certainly look out for them.

      Good point about Freire’s work. It aimed at social change. But only though because by acquiring the dominant language, poor people would be able to change their own reality by using language as a powerful tool, thus changing social reality as well. If not the whole community, at least the individual’s reality.

      I prefer discussing than just using terms that might interfere with dialogue. But I was curious if the term andragogy had been explored in anyway in ELT. Mind you the term Pedagogy isn’t clear cut either here, and a lot has changed as the way children is viewed changed. But unfortunally not for everyone. The importance of playing for children instead of schooling too early for instance. And schooling here I mean looking at children education as a time for preparing them for successful academic life.

      Thanks for sharing your experience and contributing to the blogpost too.

      Liked by 1 person

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