When worlds collide, inspiration can strike

The wide reach of adult education brings together students from all walks and stages of life - and the results can be remarkable

If you pull the short straw at the adult learning service where I work, you'll find yourself teaching the teenage apprentices. Hearing that you have been assigned the task of tutoring these 16- to 19-year-olds in maths or English is enough to make even the most experienced teacher twitchy. It's not the students per se - many are very nice - and it's not the job. It's just that classes of this age group are tough.

School is not such a far-off memory for these learners. But, having turned their backs on education in order to get a job, they now find themselves in the classroom once again. Many of them would rather be anywhere else.

Contrast that with the older learners, the ones returning to the classroom after 10, 15, 30 years. They definitely do want to be there. Juggling jobs and children, they are, on the whole, a joy to teach - dedicated, committed and hard-working.

So wouldn't it make sense to combine both age groups and hope that the enthusiasm and maturity of the older students would rub off on the younger ones? I think so, and Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, agrees. He says that when it comes to apprentices, anything that moves teaching and learning away from a school-like environment and closer to the workplace is beneficial. That means not sitting alongside your peer group but next to people of mixed ages, mixed abilities and mixed backgrounds.

"Replicating the workplace as much as possible puts a distance between the apprentices and school, which is somewhere they've already failed," Segal says.

Earlier this year, I taught a man in my level 1 English class who was in his early twenties and had just been released from prison. He was bright and lively - so lively that there were clashes with other learners of his age.

This young man had a short attention span and no qualms about telling me when he was bored. He was in the class reluctantly, having been coaxed along by his sister who was also attending. Yet, despite his lack of enthusiasm, he really needed to achieve level 2 in English and maths - his criminal record meant that job opportunities were scant and these qualifications could only improve his chances.

The odd couple

In the same class was a gentle woman in her sixties who struggled with the work. Facing retirement, she wasn't there to better her employment prospects or even to gain a qualification. She was there to improve her English.

Aside from sharing a classroom twice a week, these two students had little in common. But I paired them up for a task early on and something clicked. She turned to him for help and he explained concepts to her patiently and clearly. She reined in his immaturity and he showed her respect.

After a while they gravitated towards each other. It was fascinating to observe this mutually beneficial relationship. He was less likely to tell me how "stupid" or "boring" the work was when he could see that she was engaged and found it challenging. And when she told him that her day started at 6.45am, he seemed to think twice about disrupting the class and playing games on his phone under the desk. He didn't mind wasting his own time, but he was reluctant to waste hers.

"The traditional pattern of intergenerational learning, where younger adults learn alongside and from more experienced adults, is often overlooked," says Caroline Berry, head of learning for work at adult education body Niace. "This is an important two-way process, where each individual's learning is enriched as new and different experiences, understanding and approaches are shared."

From my point of view, the positive working relationship between these students freed me up to focus less on the young man and more on others. And teaching classes of mixed age groups means that learners are more resistant to peer pressure. Forests of research have been devoted to the effects of peer pressure, showing that young people are particularly likely to alter their behaviour to conform to the majority.

When I taught at a sixth-form college, I found it frustrating that promising students would fail to attend, pay attention or do their homework simply because they wanted to save face. When I lectured them about the fact that this was their final year of free education before the shock of tuition fees, it fell on deaf ears. They shrugged my words off and said they would get jobs. I didn't have the heart to ask: "What jobs?" Some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

"Younger people can take further education lightly," Segal says. "Then they see someone who is 60, who tells them it's their first chance to improve themselves, and it does have an impact. It makes them think and take it seriously."

Logistically, mixing apprentices with other learners can be difficult as they tend to have a set day at college. But if there were more flexibility to enable them to study with older people, I wonder if results and retention rates would improve.

"It is vital that we continue to empower people to benefit from opportunities to learn in different settings and ways at every age," Berry says. "This will help us to make the changes we need to become a society of lifelong learners."

We are short of statistics to prove that mixing ages in adult education is mutually beneficial. Yet, having observed this in my own classroom, I do believe it is true. And it makes us teachers a little less twitchy, too.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches English to adults in East London. She is also a journalist.

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