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How to use adult language

Good sense and sound practice: inspector William Lewis is impressed with this guide to communicating with learners


Despite the odd and rather unnerving cover which makes it look more like a manual for lipstick fetishists, "Talking it through" is an excellent guide to improving communication between providers, learners and learning communities.

More than that, it's written in a clear and accessible way, and includes regular "talking points" - checklists and questions - to provide a focus for staff development, programme review and self-assessment. It is also a rich resource of good practice and case studies, drawn from an extensive variety of sources. The best of these are vivid snapshots of creativity and sensitivity in meeting the learning needs of local communities.

The book builds on useful earlier work by NIACE, for example, Mark Ravenhall's Listening to learners, published in 2001, which sketched out some of the initial structures. "Talking it through" is a more substantial piece and consequently offers more depth and detail.

The early chapters are particularly helpful in connecting current policy and inspection findings with examples from actual practice. The engine of the book is its middle section where a range of ideas and methods are described and tested for their relevance and adequacy.

After a necessary chapter about training issues, for example, on cultural awareness, legislation and research skills, the book concludes with a thoughtful section which assists providers in evaluating what worked and what didn't, accompanied, again, by relevant tools and examples.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of authentic, open and honest models of communication so that learning exists genuinely for learners rather than for the convenience and careers of providers, funding bodies and inspectorates. It is also difficult to overstate the difficulty of doing this authentically, openly and honestly.

Adult learners are usually unused to being asked what they want from education and can be overwhelmed and daunted by "professional" staff and structured questionnaires. Their perceptions of what might be available can be limited by previous, often school-based, experience which constructs learning as something done in classrooms and divided arbitrarily into subjects.

This is well understood by Duffen and Thompson, as is the recognition that learners' judgments about the quality of their experiences can be chiefly informed by their gratitude to teachers who treat them as adults.

In this way, as inspectors often find, the presence of quite weak provision can be obscured by high learner satisfaction ratings. It is not enough, though, just to get adults to say what they really think. Those of us charged with the precious responsibility of providing and quality assuring adult learning need also to listen and to hear what they tell us.

"Talking it through" stresses the importance of "an adult education system that learns", through a management culture genuinely receptive to feedback, through consultations with learners that aid communication rather than adding to the bureaucratic burden, and for responsive systems which can quickly effect changes.

The good sense and sound practice of Sue Duffen and Jane Thompson's book make a valuable contribution to this important work.

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