The Expertise Gap: A Bedtime Story for Adult Learners

DEAR DIARY,

Instead of counting sheep, I count the ways I’ve been a teacher and then the ways I could support teachers’ becoming. When sleep doesn’t come from counting experiences as sheep, they transform into new questions to keep me up at night. Must teachers be adults? Must adults be teachers? With the notebook beside my bed I could toss and turn all night long. Jaggedly I would note answers in the glimmer cast by my cell phone to these two questions and perhaps still not come to how to address the expertise gap and assumptions made around the all-encompassing term and often finger pointed solution of “expert”.

I need no tooth fairy magic under my pillow when smart phones come enchanted with such expertise. Mine can reveal a quick Google search before I grope for the flashlight that would lead me stumbling to a book. It defines the word as “a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area”. Key words stick in my head here. I record, “comprehensive” and “authoritative”. However, they almost seem contradictory, but maybe that’s just the drooping eyelids limiting my view. Comprehensive implies that you have a panoramic view of an ever shifting horizon, something so in flux that its vision could never be 100% “true”. Next becomes the problem of “authoritative.” I am the emperor and I know and I say. Or I don’t really know but I’m repeating what the emperor said so I am an authority, especially on this particular style of nightgown. I have felt both the stability and shame of authority given when labeled “expert”, while always thinking it as elusive a specter as the monster under the bed keeping me up at night. What is in fact scariest to me is how they both assume “expert” and “teacher” as roles of adulthood. Shadows loom in the corners. My mind is dry. I need a glass of water from the kitchen.

All adults need teaching skills. But what if the adults teaching were never self-identified learners? A corner comes out of nowhere to jam my toe. This is danger more real than you think. Whether or not you were a successful student in some content to carry the label “expert”, you may very well have difficulty being a teacher. We all know how hard it is to find our way home in the dark, if we weren’t the one driving to get there. So now I am an adult learner left with only a vague recollection of direction. You may very well have a map, but only a cell phone’s reflection to read it.

Adults must be teacher and learner simultaneously in most respects in order to make progress. In general society cares more about the employee who will not be promoted to a livable wage because their literacy skills never improve than the guitar lesson dropout, but the concept is the same. All adult education is teacher training because adults must occupy two roles. They must select the content that applies to them, what they want to learn. They must decide how they want to learn it, and they must hold themselves accountable. Okay, I might have found the perfect support position for my pillows that will induce sleep.

DEAR DIARY,

In my car trip to a workshop yesterday, something else occurred to me that creates uniformity and makes all those sheep I was counting initially of the white and fluffy variety. The unifying factor is not “teacher” nor “content” nor “expert” but the "adult" in adult learner. The piece that defines success, or not, is how effective a training can be at coaching the adult not to be a teacher for someone else (which I have seen develop similarly with Guatemalan teachers, volunteer tutors, parents and myself), but to be a teacher for themselves. If I fell asleep now I would still get three hours of sleep, I muse, but even more interesting to me than dreaming of success in teaching adults is to consider the following. When they are not seizing an opportunity, is it because they didn't want to or because they didn't see that it was accessible?

Sometimes this is addressed in passing introduction, asking "what does it mean to learn?" It really should go one step further from “How have I become an expert in the past when I didn't notice?” to illuminate “How can I structure my learning now so that I am successful in a reasonable amount of time?” Had I chosen a broad flashlight I may not have stubbed my toe. Assumptions make replication of the dual teacher/learner relationship within oneself difficult if not near impossible. Is a different construct to support adults possible? That may be just a dream. Still I roll over, tuck my head deep into the pillow and watch the images that roll past from the day before like the dream you just might be able to retell in the morning if you don’t wake up too soon.

DEAR DIARY,

I am reminded of the childhood question, “Is the moon in the sky in the daytime?” The answer that, “yes, of course it is,” is similarly fascinating example to me as this educational nightmare turned dream now unable to hide in plain sight by virtue of the switch of a light. I will finally find a restful night. An interesting point of comparison hit me before, during and after an orientation session to support ESL workers at a large farming operation. It was designed to be an initial “let's make sure we're all speaking the same language regarding our goals and learning support.” Since Guatemala, I generally find those conversations insightful and inclusive.

While working a world away with literacy coaches in Guatemala, I know I spoke frequently about parallel training, because in order to be reading and writing teachers, the staff and the participating teachers/librarians needed to be readers and writers. We did not assume, as often happens in the "first world" that everyone has those skills simply by growing up in a literate world. Since then, I read many articles with that lens. In those common bedtime stories, “What assumptions are made and what type of infill in a professional development situation is missing?” was my question.

So far in my work with adult literacy/education, the first assumption I identified is that as language learners the only piece missing is the language piece, be it in speaking/listening or reading/writing. This is the dream. In broad daylight, my observation is that the language learners are in need of support both in language content and in learning content. I wrote strategy benchmarks from this, tracking the students as they progressed from students who were very passive to students who attempted half strategies. Then they stepped forward choosing correct strategies and finally analyzing to find the most efficient strategies. Whereas children have a teacher that decides what content matters, what activities to do and when milestones are reached, adults must do this for themselves, and often times that requires an explicit conversation to structure the teaching and learning.

DEAR DIARY,

I’m still awake. I can stare across the starlit sky and be amazed. I can count the stars. There are so many. Could I categorize them? Should I? Since textbooks can put you to sleep, I very may well have kept those decisions, but now I realize that it is less academic than that. I replace “professional” with learner and know that I will be up all night at the vastness of the sky. Either the adult is an effective learner or they are not. Either the adult knows how to construct an effective learning experience for themselves or not. If either of those things are missing, then support services in the way of job training or pre class content instruction are necessary, a full day’s work and not a pill to fight insomnia. The notebook looms with two of the brightest stars disappeared amidst the constant light of the daily survival of their peers. So too, for the adult learner.

Assumption 1: Adult to self as learner, “I paid attention to my learning in school.”

In reality it is unlikely. It is more likely that the adult paid attention to the activity at hand and how to finish it, but not how or why it helped them learn something. As my coworker discussed with me her math class experience, it was her realization that while she remembered developing understanding with a certain teacher and not with another, she didn’t know why.

Assumption 2: Adult to self as teacher, “You lived next to an experience your whole life, so it’s yours.”

This is even more unlikely. Simply because I grew up on a farm does not mean that I possess agricultural knowledge. My father who values my Master’s degree is disappointed daily with my incapacity to identify wind directions. Even so, I feel as though I could compose new stories instead of settling for restless or dreamless sleep. With a bit more light as cast by the refrigerator buzzing around take-out cartons, my nocturnal energy may very well outlast my fear of monsters.

DEAR DIARY,

The light may be creeping more from sun than neon light, but I wrote a bedtime story sure to tuck me in tomorrow evening. Returning to the farm, I thought about what success would look like for them. It wouldn't be “let's teach an English class”, but it would be let's create a community of practice around English learning that involves everyone using strategies from a list. The setting would include support not based on a content outcome but habits with enough buy in and frequency that they were a sustainable community of practice around the learning. My gym is currently acting upon the same principle. Adults may not identify their goals or if they do, these goals are not specific enough to choose effective strategies to reach them. As a result they are providing additional tools through community and discussion beyond participation in a workout class. What difference do the difference of a couple of stars assumed to light your way make when your room is illuminated by the full moon and the nightlight you took the initiative to plug in?

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