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Iowa State University

Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

CTE Newsletter - Jan/Feb 2004 (Vol 16, No 3)

Stephen Brookfield: Teaching and the Adult Student

On November 18, 2003, Susan Yager, Associate Director for the CTE, met with Dr. Stephen Brookfield, a nationally-known expert in the field of learning, teaching and critical thinking to discuss his perspectives on teaching and the adult student.

Dr. Brookfield is the 2003-2004 Helen LeBaron Chair in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences and currently holds the title of Distinguished Professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Q. What made you decide to become a teacher?

It was not so much a deliberate decision as that — which happens with a lot of people — I fell into it. I had thought about social work, or journalism, but I needed money for graduate school, and took a job as a part-time teacher. That included teaching adults in the evening — I liked that part particularly. I did a Ph.D. in adult education after working for several years, wanting to know more about it.

Q. Is the teaching enterprise different in the United States as compared to England where you have spent time teaching?

I think England has moved closer to U.S. style in the 23 years I've been away. England looks more like America in its higher educational system — also, opening higher education to a wider population is new in England. Mostly, at the graduate level, I learned that you have to take a lot of coursework in the U.S., unlike in England, which requires an enormous research project and that's it.

In England, it's accepted to be publicly critical of another in a seminar or on panels. In the U.S., people seem more concerned with manners; it's seen as discourteous to be frank.

Q. Do you see a difference between public speaking or "workshopping" and classroom teaching?

One big difference is the amount of power you have. As a teacher, you have the power of the grade, and of moving students through the program. At workshops, attendance isn't mandatory, and there's more freedom than in the classroom, where you're constrained by curriculum.

Another big difference is that it's easier in a workshop to talk autobiographically — it's not as natural in a classroom. Grounding one's speech in the personal keeps an interest. I like to build intentionality around the autobiographical in a workshop.

Q. You've done an enormous amount of work in the area of adult learning, and you've perceived some myths, as well as much work that needs to be done, in that field. What are the essential things that college and university professors need to learn about adult learning?

One basic idea would be, what characteristics of teachers do adult learners value? Credibility and authenticity, as I've written about, are desirable in instructors. Credibility means that the instructor is competent, really knows something. Authenticity means honesty, openness, being responsive, and having one's words and actions be consistent. Both credibility and authenticity are important, and need to be held in tension in teaching.

Adult learners bring emotional responses to their learning. One way this appears is in the phenomenon of "impostorship" — [you get the feeling] you're the only one who's not smart, your admission to the program must have been a mistake. Adult learners also have a fear of committing what I call "cultural suicide" — when adult students talk in homes or communities about how higher education is changing them, this can be seen as an act of betrayal. The students need to move between two worlds.

Generally, adult learners bring their experiences to the classroom — not all good, or always enriching, but adults potentially can add knowledge to a classroom. And finally, adults have multiple work roles and commitments, and instructors must be aware of that.

Q. Is "cultural suicide" an issue of class, or race?

It can be, but it can also be related to ideology, or to spirituality.

Q. How old are "adult" students?

Some would say 25 years old, but I define "adult student" experientially, as someone who has been away and then returned to the educational milieu. A straight-to-Ph.D.-candidate wouldn't be an adult student by this definition, but a 16 year-old high school dropout who comes back at age 21 or 22 would be an adult student.

Q. What happens when adult and traditional-age students are in the same course?

There's often a divide. Adult students are often focused, goal-oriented, take their studies seriously, and do the assignments. Of course I am generalizing, but they seem to want to get the most from college. Traditional-age students can see that behavior as brown-nosing or putting on airs. They could resent the adult students' experience.

Q. How has the field of adult learning changed since you began your career?

There has been an incorporation into the field of areas that weren't considered adult education before: workplace training, learning in the military, continuing professional education. It was something non-credit, non-vocational, when I began — that's how people defined adult education. The field of adult literacy has mushroomed over the past 20-30 years with the growth of second-language teaching.

Q. Will adult education in media literacy and technological literacy change as the current traditional-age student generation makes its way through the educational system?

We can't predict the future, of course, but I'd guess that there's a cyclical process that will be reoccurring. Technological literacy concerns the way television and other media shape our worldview, both in terms of knowledge of the issues of the day, and the learned tendency to see life as 30-minute sitcoms, resolved at the end. We need education about news programs, and images of our cultural commitments.

Q. Can you talk a little about what you've called "adult education's social mission," specifically, "learning democracy"?

This is linked with the question above. We watch, for example, network news, and assume a lack of bias. But it is in fact a giant corporation, a business, needing to gain wide viewership. Awareness of that is necessary in a democracy. Also, adult education should run its own processes democratically. There should be negotiation in the adult-education classroom — even about curriculum, papers, and so on.

Q. Does adult learning have a reflexive component – after all, professors are also adults, and are (one hopes) still learning?

Yes. I think we are all learning — and one of the things I am interested in is how, as teachers, we can study our experiences and gain insights on them to become better teachers. I think that once a year, teachers should put themselves in the position of a learner, and reflect on it. What did I learn about learning? What did I, as a student, find helpful, or demeaning?

Q. You've made a link between adult education and lifelong learning. How can we make "lifelong learning" more than just a slogan?

If we try to have a commitment to lifelong learning, we have to model. We have say what we have newly learned, how we've questioned assumptions, past ideas, past analyses. We can mindfully incorporate reflection in our teaching and activities.

Q. Are you still playing in a rock band?

Very, very occasionally! When people no longer recognize the songs, it's time to stop.

Brookfield Books to Investigate

Learn more about what Stephen Brookfield has to say about education and learners. Check out the following books available in the CTE library.

The CTE library is located in 3024 Morrill Hall.