Designing Learning Experiences for Adults

By Suparna Diwakar, Project Advisor for Regenerative Development Practise at Rashtram

This piece was originally published on Medium.

Over the past couple of decades I have been engaged in the design, facilitation and bricoleuring of learning spaces and experiences for adults. They range from teachers and head teachers in government schools to faculty in the District Institutes for Education and Training, and young development professionals in a development leadership programme. The programmes ranged from 36 days (spread across 15 weeks) to 11 months. And this for several batches. As I have been engaging with a lot of amazing young people who are putting their heads together to design programmes for adults, many times more experienced than them, I thought that putting down some of my insights and learning might be useful.

As many of us know, the way that adults learn is quite different from the way that children learn. Knowles (1985) wrote about

  1. the need to take into account the experience of adults
  2. the focus of adults on a goal or set of goals
  3. the need to relate learning to practice
  4. that adults need to be facilitated in ways that enable them to move from dependence on the ‘teacher’

This is useful to know and keep in mind.

Transformative learning is an area of great value for people who are designing for paradigm shifts. For example, when we would like teachers to explore constructivist methodologies in their teaching practice, it requires a shift in paradigm, a shift in the way that they theorise about how children learn. Teachers are adults. To enable this shift we cannot adopt the tools and techniques that teachers would use in their own classrooms with their children. This transformational shift needs to be facilitated in other ways, and the possible actions with children may need to be co-created with teachers for deeper meaning-making, and fostering ownership and reflective practice. Jack Mezirow, Edward W Taylor, Patricia Cranton and others have written about this extensively.

This leads us to the point of this article — design of learning experiences for adults. I have found it very useful to use the P2C2 framework, a framework that I made up — Purpose, Process, Context, Content. Of course these are deeply interconnected but this helps one to gather ideas and thoughts meaningfully.

I have found that a lot of the facilitation we do with adults falls, broadly, in four buckets:

  1. Facilitating learning of existing knowledge. This includes getting participants to engage with and make meaning of concepts, theories, frameworks etc, apply them through problem-solving of various types designed to ensure clarity of the knowledge piece. In this case there is an end-outcome that the facilitator has in mind, eg as learning outcomes.
  2. Facilitation of deep learning that includes the design of experiences for transfer of knowledge as well as a process that enables reflection on action. Here the facilitator focuses on both substantive outcomes as well as process outcomes. There is a focus on the building of some meta-skills required by a professional. For example, if the adult has taken up a project (by design) to apply concepts learnt, the learning process would include inquiry into what worked and what did not, but also attempt to answer why and how it worked.
  3. Facilitation for nudging collaborative processes. Here the facilitator is focused on relationship building, knowledge and resource sharing, towards achieving a broad, collectively agreed, objective. Here the facilitator creates a safe space for sharing experiences, knowledge and wisdom, to enable all participants to contribute to the larger objective. There is inclusion. This is particularly valuable when we know one size does not fit all, and that yet, there are underlying principles that are universal and can be contextualised meaningfully.
  4. Facilitation for co-creation. This is one of the most challenging spaces to facilitate. There is a collective sense of the direction that the group would like to go in but the outcome is unpredictable. The process requires one to give of oneself fully, to be open to being challenged on assumptions, confront biases, open to transformation, and to set aside a sense of self and become one with the ‘we’. This is a process that leads to the creation of something new that is of meaning to all participants, and relevant and appropriate to the context. Through this process there is the emergence of new knowledge.

The way we design learning spaces and the learning experience is dependent on the purpose and context i.e. process and content are determined by purpose and context. The design process is a creative one that dips into what we already know but also challenges us to empathise and build relationships with the participants in a way that the design is evolving and emergent, almost co-designed with the participants. Naturally, listening with an open mind and heart is critical. Every design is an opportunity to manifest the infinite quantum potential in ourselves and others.

My experience has shown me that real change and transformation has been brought about by teachers when there was space created for dialogue, meaning-making, collaboration and co-creation. There needs to be safe-spaces created for experimentation and risk-taking that will enable learning to take place. When teachers are attempting to do new things, they need to leap across the ‘liminal space’, from the known to the unknown; scaffolding that gives them the confidence to move out of the comfort zone. This process needs to be facilitated with love, designed to allow for risk-taking, and for peer support. Change and transformation are difficult for all of us. Can we design the experience in a way that kindles a sense of adventure and wonder?

Then there is the question of time. The ‘dumping’ of huge quantities of unrelated material makes it impossible for cognitive coherence to emerge for the participants. This is as true for adults as for children; perhaps more true in the case of adults. How do the ideas that adults encounter fit, or not fit, into their existing schema? If they fit, they are likely to try them out. If they do not fit there is a cognitive dissonance. There is a need to design spaces for conversation, for experiences that will help the participants to examine their own existing schema in the light of new data emerging, to clarify where the gaps lie, and why etc. Sometimes it is necessary to convince the participant to try a new way by designing a structured process, technique or tool, providing the necessary support, and debrief the experience, reflect on it and make explicit the learning.

Depending on the type of learning situation (of the four described above), the facilitator locates herself in different places on a continuum from expert to equal participant. To be sensitive and discerning about this is critical. When are you a teacher, trainer, tutor, coach, facilitator, bricoleur? This requires a deep awareness and listening to the living system, the space we are in.

Facilitation is as much an art as it is a craft. In common parlance, it is spoken of as a skill. But it is more than a skill. It is also about who one is being. An awareness of the participants and what they are experiencing, a nod here, a look of confusion there, listening deeply and listening actively, reflecting in action and reflecting on action. It is embedded in the relationships that are emerging in the learning space. If the learning space is alive, there is love and laughter. It elevates the learning process to something that is life-enhancing and creative. If the learning space is machine-like, focusing on delivery of content, it will be just that-mechanistic, uninspiring and certainly less creative.

One sees very little of such a nuanced understanding in the process of design of learning spaces and processes for adults. The cascade model that we have been following for the longest time with in-service teacher training needs to be relooked at urgently. If the dreams of NEP 2020 have to be realised, we need to look at the learning processes for our teachers, head teachers, and faculty in the education system very very differently.

Design and facilitation of learning experiences for adults has a lot to do with who we believe our participants are — our own assumptions and biases, and perspectives. It is about who we, as designers and facilitators, are BEING. The DOING is dependent on this BEING for the whole self to participate in this process with love and joy. Learning is life, and life is about learning to manifest the infinite potential in us. Let us imbue it with love and joy.

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