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Listen to the learner

If we want adults to persist with their studies, we must remove the many barriers we erect, says Ursula Howard

For all the hype about learning as bite-sized fun, it is a serious business for adults going back into a system that failed them first time round. Most are deeply apprehensive about setting foot in a centre of learning. And persisting with study is even more difficult than starting out.

John Comings of Harvard University recently presented findings from eight years of research on why learners persist - or not. And he raised some awkward questions.

Do we professionals - teachers, funders, researchers and policy makers - truly understand what it is that adult learners really want? Just think of the condescending language we use to talk about people and their willingness or otherwise to submit to what we think best: participation, retention, drop-out, apathy, hard-to-reach groups, the disaffected, non-learners. It's all about institutions' interests and the social pecking order, not about learners.

We reproach ourselves, but never develop a more democratic discourse and persist with it. Why should we? We're nearly always speaking to ourselves anyway.

What do we mean by persistence, from a learners' point of view? The Harvard study says it's a balance between what motivates people and the barriers they meet and feel. It's a balance between what a learner thinks the benefits will be - and the costs of learning, financial and otherwise.

If we are really going to help more learners stay on and make progress, we have to change radically. Take the issue of time. John Comings calculates that learners need at least 100 hours of tuition to help them progress significantly - let's say to move up a level in the English Skills for Life system. Where are they going to find this 100 hours?

I tried to relate this to my own learning goals. Suppose I want to get fit.

I assume that I need at least 100 hours to lose half a stone, touch my toes again and jog for 15 minutes without fear of seizure. But I'm lucky, because my gym is open from 7am till 10 pm, seven days a week. And there are heaps of videos and materials to support me at home if I can't attend.

It's still almost impossible to persist.

Adult literacy learners have at least the same number of joys and troubles to manage, juggling family, work, health and money. And difficulties with literacy and numeracy make things harder for people, knowing the long haul they face to get the skills and knowledge they missed at school.

So just when exactly are they going to fit in their 100 hours when our "providers" can't fully adapt to offer learning when and where the learners need it?

What more can providers, supported by policymakers and funders, do to help a learner who's decided to go for it - and keep going? We can act on research and reduce barriers that we are actually putting up. There are some important findings from a three-year study at Lancaster*.

One critical message is that learning is social. It is about strong relationships between teachers and learners and between learners themselves. They often spend too long silently ploughing through worksheets, however well-pitched at their needs and level. Many disenfranchised young adults do not want to be reminded of school. Boring.

They want to learn in workshops, picking up literacy and numeracy, if they have to, as part of vocational skills.

Everyone needs talk, stories, feedback and dedicated social time and space.

Lessons and materials need to be relevant to people's lives and intentions, and be exciting, demanding and help them progress.

Support is crucial. Young homeless people want teachers who can understand what has happened to them. They want teachers who know their way round the system and can steer them towards expert support. It is hard to sustain learning and move on when you are "marked" as a problem to society.

And finally, why do we expect everyone to come for two, four, six hours, every week, on the same days, often in a "classroom" , when we live in an age that vaunts flexibility and consumer power as virtues? In the age of ICT and "personalised learning", if someone has another priority for a few weeks or months, why don't more bricks-and-mortar based providers make supporting people at home or work mainstream? Plenty of money goes into ICT-based learning and assessment.

When there is an increased use of ICT in the first six months of learning, says the Harvard study, learners put in more hours. In Adult Learners' Week let's resolve to listen better, act on what learners say, work in partnership with our fellow providers, be creative, innovate, take risks.

Learners do - endlessly.

Ursula Howard is director of the National Research and Development Centre at the Institute of Education in the University of London* Three-year Adult Learners' Lives project led by David Barton and Roz Invanic at Lancaster university

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