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Cultivating Adult Learner Leaders: Putting Research Into Practice

by Jeffrey Elmore

Here in Virginia, we’re fortunate to have a strong adult education environment with a wide range of great things going on. One particularly effective element is the organization Research Allies for Lifelong Learning, led by researchers Margaret Patterson, Ph.D. and Wei Song, Ph.D. Their mission is to support adult educators and learners by applying high-quality, rigorous research to adult education practice (Research Allies, 2020).

For two years, from 2014 through 2016, Dr. Patterson worked on the ALLIES project, collecting student voice and leadership data from both experimental and control groups in a range of adult education programs. In May, 2019, Turonne Hunt and Amy Rasor, doctoral candidates at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, joined Dr. Patterson to analyze the data and publish their findings. The team examined how adult education programs and practitioners facilitate the growth and development of adult learners’ voices through leadership training. They published their findings as We Are The Voice To Speak Up: Cultivating Adult Learner Voice Through Leadership. Their paper appears in the fall 2019 leadership edition of the COABE Journal. After reading the paper, I wanted to learn more about their work and their ideas about how programs can put their research into practice, so we set up a Zoom meeting and chatted candidly for about an hour.

Dr. Patterson, Ms. Hunt, and Ms. Rasor observed a few key overlapping themes in programs where learner voice and leadership were actively part of the curricular goals. They found that in successful programs linguistic risk-taking was valued and supported by both the teachers and students. For those learning English as a new language, these programs created an environment where it was OK to have errors in vocabulary, grammar, and speaking, and that these errors were seen as opportunities for growth. Getting the English right was not the goal; taking the chance and learning from mistakes was the goal. In this environment, the teachers fostered a sense of comfort and safety that extended throughout the class.

Building on open communication among students and teachers, the researchers also found that successful programs all held an atmosphere of respect and dignity for the adult students. A number of things stood out to the researchers. While the teachers in less successful programs at times treated their adult students like children, in the successful programs, the adult students were always treated as adults. The adult students were given ‘voice’ to be involved in decisions about instructional planning and curricular design. Every student was treated with the belief that they had both the right and the ability to be a leader. Self-direction was supported, fostered, and scaffolded, as opposed to being simply expected without any assistance from the teacher.

Third, the researchers found that laughter and humor were essential elements to creating environments where the adult learners could become comfortable finding their voices and developing as leaders. In successful programs, the researchers observed teachers and students laughing with one another as peers. Their laughter was more than simply a way to diffuse a tense situation. Instead, their laughter came from a genuine sense of comfort and humor among everyone in the class. As well, the researchers saw that effective instructors didn’t need to take themselves too seriously. These instructors were able to weave humor into content and curriculum, making learning into a fun, enjoyable activity for the whole class.

Finally, the researchers observed that successful programs developed a sense of community that extended beyond the class itself. They saw that within classes, relationships were important and everyone knew one another at a personal level. Within the class, both the teacher and the students shared common goals, and everyone in the class was valued for their contributions to those goals. The sense of community didn’t happen overnight, but was purposely fostered by the teacher through respect and encouragement for all of the students to participate and contribute to the class activities. Over the course of time, the researchers identified that as the learners became more confident in their voices and comfortable as leaders in the class, the teachers took increasingly indirect roles in class leadership. By the end of the project, Ms. Hunt noted that for an outside observer of one class, it might not be immediately evident who the teacher was because all of the students had assumed leadership roles.

As adult educators, we strive to make our classes places that our students want to be. We want our students to feel safe, valued, and respected as adults. We also want our students to be successful in their learning, life, and career goals. For us, instruction has to be so much more than content and teaching. By fostering voice and leadership among our students, we can build the kind of learning communities our students need. If you have questions about developing these practices in your class or program, I encourage you to be in touch with Dr. Margaret Patterson at margaret@researchallies.org.


Research Allies for Lifelong Learning (n.d.)


Jeffrey Elmore

As the VALRC Adult Academic Programming Specialist, Jeffrey Elmore works with regional program managers and other leadership staff to implement regional professional development in accordance with local program needs and goals. Jeffrey also works with programs that have implemented the National External Diploma Program (NEDP), to train new staff and to keep existing staff current with the demands of the NEDP. Under the College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) initiative, Jeffrey creates and delivers CCRS-aligned professional development for classroom instructors around the content and practices necessary for completing high school equivalency. Within this scope, his primary focus is mathematics instruction.

Learn more about Dr. Patterson’s CAPE study from her June 2019 PROGRESS article: Moving the Needle in Virginia Adult Education: Reaching One Adult at a Time

Hear directly from Dr. Patterson in an in-depth interview with Barbara Gibson at the Virginia Adult Education and Literacy Conference.