Fundamentals of Adult Teaching and Learning


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As a side gig (because I'm a millenial and we're all about gig culture), I'm a soldier in the National Guard. I've been doing it for about 15 years now - all of which has been spent in the Infantry.

“You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.” - T.R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War

My branch is near and dear to my heart but that isn't quite what this particular entry is about. Really, the introduction was just a clever way to write one of my favorite quotes. Back on topic. I recently attended a course on becoming an Army instructor called the Common Faculty Development Instructor Course. In the broadest sense, it's a course that produces new instructors for the Army's school houses with a major focus on adult teaching and learning.

I know, right? The Army is full of adults and they have a vested interest in figuring out how adults learn and teach. Weird.

So, I'm going to go over the two different exercises that I did during the course that helped me to identify my teaching and learning styles.

Exercise 1: Teaching Goals and Methods

The first exercise was to determine teaching goals and methods. Developed by the Center for Occupational Research and Development, this exercise was a short questionaire that tries to analyze how you might respond in a variety of teaching situations, through the way you might behave, think, or feel. The end result is a plotting on two different graphs that suggest your teaching goals and methods.

Goals

Teaching goals are what you might try to accomplish as an instructor. We don't often think of it but we've all had a variety of teachers that prioritized different results in their class. Some had us train for the test and focus on memorization of exactly the material we would encounter on an exam. Other teachers seem to enjoy providing us with an array of abstract tools in the hope that we somehow re-invent the calculus all on our own. It's important to understand how you tend to teach things by default so you can become more aware and accommodating to students who don't learn that way.

Here is my result:

Instructor prefers analysis to rote learning and focuses on familiar applications.

What I understand that to mean is that I prefer to have students think about problems over performing repetitious actions. Which, is partly true and depends entirely on the subject that I'm teaching. I think that there's inherent value in developing motorskills and muscle memory through repetition. For example, if I were instructing machine gun crew drills then there is no substitute for doing the drills over and over again. Software engineers trying to understand a new algorithm or technology, however, have no business performing such manual tasks and would likely benefit from analysis.

Methods

Teaching methods, in constrast to goals, are how you might structure your lesson in order to arrive at your goal. The structure of the lesson includes everything from your lecture and speach patterns, group discussions, projects, question and answer periods, checks on learning, and so on and so forth.

And my result:

Instructor prefers to have students process information via symbols and language and work in groups.

Again, accurate, but I also think it depends. I like having people think through problems. I also like having people work collectively - one team one fight type of stuff. There is a time and a place for very direct instruction at an individual level in order to help someone succeed.

Exercise 2: Learning Style Inventory

The second exercise was to help us understand our own learning styles. The exercise was created by David Kolb who developed experiential learning theory.

An important aspect of communication in education is understanding how different students learn. We all intuitively understand that we have tendencies to grasp material and tasks better when the content is delivered in different mediums. Some of us grok well when lectured, others love trying stuff out for themselves, and, I suppose, there are some monsters that relish death by powerpoint.

Learning Orientation

A learning orientation is a fancy way of saying how I tend to think about problems. This is not the same thing as how I learn. Rather, it is a component of my learning in that I typically begin to frame problems in mind in a particular way by default.

The result of my questionnaire was:

An Abstract Conceptualization orientation focuses on using logic, ideas, and concepts. It emphasizes thinking rather than feeling; a concern with building general theories rather than intuitively understanding unique, specific areas; a scientific more than an artistic approach to problems.

I think that this was an accurate assessment on how I frame problems. I like organizing my thoughts, framing the problem out into components, and driving toward a result.

Learning Styles

This next part was an interesting view into my learning style. I seem to recall plenty of conversations with people about their learning styles which have been colloquially known as: visual learning, audio learners, and doers. Well, turns out there's a more complete and complex theory about learning styles. Of particular note, in this theory of learning there is the idea that individuals learn in many different ways and we're better at some ways than others. That said, we're fully capable of learning in any particular mode - we simply have preferences.

Here are the results I received:

My dominant learning style is convergent. The convergent learning style relies primarily on the dmoninant learning abilities of abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. The greatest strength of this approach lies in problem solving, decision-making, and the practical application of ideas. The style works best in situations where there is a single correct answer or solution to a question or problem. The style suggests a preference for task accomplishment or productivity rather than for more socio-emotional experiences.

My weakest learning style is divergent. The divergent learning style has the opposite learning strengths from the convergent. It emphasizes concrete experience and reflective observation. Its greatest strength lies in imaginitive ability and awareness of meaning and values. The primary adaptive ability of divergence is to view concrete situations from many perspectives and to organize many relationships into a meaningful "gestalt". The emphasis in this orientation is on adaptation by observation rather than action. It is called divergent because it works best in situations that call for generation of alternative ideas and implications, such as a "brainstorming" session. The style suggests a preference for socio-emotional experiences over task accomplishment.

So what

Admittedly, I think the short questionnaire format is hardly a definitive way to determine such complex topics. There's a lot of nuance that goes into how humans teach other humans. That said, if nothing else, it was a nice peek at what might be and, at least for my results, upon reflection I found them to be generally true.

In the end, I gained insight into my personal learning style and a projetion of my teaching style. Both of these are important to understand when becoming an instructor because it helps you understand how you might adjust your delivery of matieral in order to accommodate a variety of students and the myriad of ways all of them may or may not be able to learn some arbitrary subject.