Principles underlying Effective Practices in Adult Education

Brookfield (1990)lists six principles which he believes underlie the effective practice of adult education. These will be summarized in this section with some additional perspectives from other authors.

The fact that adults are voluntary participants in the learning situation has profound implications for how learning occurs. They are generally highly motivated and primed to get the most out of the situation as possible. They will tackle tasks with enthusiasm, provided they are seen as relevant. This means that they are more likely to embrace participatory learning techniques such as discussion, role playing, small group work and the analysis of personal experiences. The above probably applies equally to online and offline situations. However the former does impose certain constraints, as well as provide unique opportunities. For example meeting online only might curtail certain aspects of role playing. On the other hand, discussions become feasible at any time of the day or night without having to be physically in the same room. Online discussions do not necessarily follow the same patterns and procedures as face to face meetings. Gregory (1992) makes two important points. One is that there is a tendency to use the online medium for routine matters rather than for more complex communication. Second, it would seem that there needs to be a critical mass to initiate and sustain an online discussion. Harasim et al (1995) suggest that "discussion groups of about fifteen to twenty five seem to work best in general, while teams of two to four people are effective in complex group projects." (p. 180)

The reverse side of voluntary participation by adults is that they can just as easily withdraw. Unlike the disruption that occurs when participation is mandatory, adults are likely to do one of two things. They will either quietly withdraw altogether or, if that is not really an option, they will continue to show up and do what is minimally expected of them, but will essentially become passive participants.

A second principle is that adult learning should be characterized by mutual respect among participants. To display disrespect to others, to denigrate their contributions, or to embarrass them publicly is likely to ensure withdrawal. This does not mean that criticism and reflection should be avoided in the discussions. It does mean that increasing the sense of self-worth of all participants should be uppermost in the minds of all concerned. "One of the most daunting and difficult (but essential) tasks of the facilitator, then, is to set a climate for learning and to assist in the development of a group culture in which adults can feel free to challenge one another and can feel comfortable with being challenged" (Brookfield, 1990, 13-14).

Third, adult education can and should be viewed as a collaborative activity. The facilitator need not be the "expert" with all the answers and feel responsible for providing all the information and structure. The content and sequence of the learning situation can be open to negotiation by all participants. Leadership roles can be assumed by different persons at different times. This collaboration should be ongoing and involve a continual renegotiation of the activities and priorities of the shared educational experience. In writing on mentorship programs for beginning teachers, Feiman-Nemser and Parker (1992) stress that good teachers are also learners. Mentors need not present themselves as the experts, but as fellow learners.

The fourth principle has been termed praxis and is associated with the work of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1970). It contends that the purpose of education is not just learning for the sake of context-free learning, but should be geared towards personal liberation and action. In Freire's case, for example, he taught literacy to adults, not just so that they would be able to read, but so that they would begin to understand some of the causes of their poverty and become empowered to do something about it. Certainly adult education in the telecommunications field has potential for action. Literacy in this field naturally leads to questions such as "Who decides what technology is best for schools?" and "Who controls access to information and communication?" Praxis may be defined as the alternating and continuous engagement by teachers and learners in exploration, action, and reflection, and that this process is central to adult education.

The fifth principle is the logical counterpart to the previous one. While praxis values action and reflection on that action, critical reflection suggests an examination of the basis of ones beliefs and the premises underlying the learning that is taking place. Education should be concerned with the development of a critically aware frame of mind and not with the uncritical assimilation of skills and bodies of knowledge.

Finally, adult education should strive towards developing self-directed and empowered learners. Feiman-Nemser and Parker (1992) report that in successful programs, mentees were allowed to set the agendas for their interactions with their mentors. Self-directed means that the learners assume control over all aspects of their education - what they learn, how they learn it , and how it is assessed. It is not a set of techniques to be applied, but rather perspectives and attitudes to be cultivated and embraced.