Peculiarities of designing curricula for adult learners

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №4 - 2012

Author: Yelakov Vladimir, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

The issue of curriculum development has an important place in the entire field of education. Curriculum represents the framework of the educational process, and along with the philosophy of education, it underlies this process. The indispensable role of curriculum consists in that it provides all the necessary information about a particular program for which it is designed including its goals and objectives, the program policy, methodology and mode of instruction, evaluation techniques, and the program outcomes. That is why, curriculum, when effectively constructed, plays a very important role in setting the whole learning process on a better understanding of goals and objectives pursued in a program. Thus, if a curriculum is effectively designed, it can facilitate the educational process, enhance students' abilities to learn efficiently, and even help them overcome challenges that learners face while learning (Diamond, 2008).

The problem of effective curriculum design is becoming more and more important in the field of adult education. This issue is important for several reasons. Adult learners tend to be more independent and self-reliant in their learning. "The learner is self-directing" (Knowles, 1984, p. 9). Besides, other educators such as Brookfield (1986) emphasized that being self-directing, adults are able to control their learning. Also, as adults mature and accumulate more life experience, they develop their self-concept. "Their self-concept becomes that of a self-directing personality. They see themselves as being able to make their own decisions and face the consequences, to manage their own lives" (Knowles, 1980, p. 45). Adults are more intrinsically motivated than traditional students, and they can therefore self-direct their learning process (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). Thus, curriculum designed for adult students should be more learner-oriented and inclusive. Moreover, curriculum designed for adult learners should be more practice-oriented as adults have a wide range of personal experiences that can be a basis for, and incorporated into, their learning (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 2003).

Evidence from research suggests that adult learners constitute a special category of learners that differentiates them from traditional college students. Various scholars and educators investigated adult learning process and hence pointed out adult learners' peculiarities. For example, Smith (1982) stated the following in regard to adult characteristics as learners:

Adults are characterized by a special orientation to life, living, education, and learning; a relatively rich experience base to draw on and cope with; different developmental changes and tasks than preadults; and their own brand of anxiety and ambivalence. These essential characteristics generate some optimum conditions for adult learning. (p. 47)

Merriam, Caffarella, and Baum-gartner (2007) provided a holistic view on adults as learners as well as summarized other scholars' viewpoints characterizing adult learning. Adult learners are considered those who are twenty-five years old or older and nowadays this population is steadily growing among college students all over the world. Thus, the issues concerning adult education and adult learning are becoming more and more important in the educational system. Actually, this is the reason why adult education has been differentiated as a separate filed of educational sciences.

Before discussing the peculiarities of adult learners, I think it is necessary to delineate some philosophical foundations that underlie the process of adult learning. Elias and Merriam (2005) analyzed the philosophical foundations of adult education that can be used to determine what content should be included in the curriculum from a certain philosophical perspective. As I see it, the following philosophical theories can be best applied in adult learning. The first one is progressivism, which stresses the importance of the learner-centered approach and implementing theory in practice. Thus, according to Merriam and Brockett (2007), the progressive philosophy emphasizes “a focus on learners and their needs and experiences rather than on predetermined content” as well as “a shift from teacher as authority figure to teacher as facilitator of learning” (p. 36). The second educational philosophy is humanism. Humanistic education strives for developing a self-actualizing person. It is also learner-oriented and centered around individual freedom, the learner's responsibility and his / her self-directedness. In the humanistic learning process, the teacher plays a role of facilitator and guide. In other words, the educator's role is to provide favorable conditions in which learning takes place (Elias & Merriam, 2005). Moreover, the humanistic learning process highlights the significance of intrinsic motivation, which also reflects the nature of self-directed learning. Speaking about the intrinsic character of motivation in humanistic learning, Elias and Merriam (2005) stated that "motivation is not something put upon learners, it emanates from the learner" (p. 128). Finally, the third philosophical concept that can be effectively applied to adult learning is critical theory. This philosophy challenges the traditional way of the teaching-learning process. Therefore, according to the basic principles of critical theory, the main goal of education is to liberate, transform, and empower adult learners in order to make them mature citizens of their society (Elias & Merriam, 2005). In critical theory, the traditional role of the learner and teacher is challenged as well. Thus, the learner is not a passive object that acquires knowledge formulated and transmitted by the teacher. The learner is placed in the center of the educational process. Therefore, only in this case can education be effective bringing about liberation of and transformation in the learner's self.

Given the aforementioned philosophical tenets of adult education and learning, it becomes possible to identify the characteristics of adults as learners. The most distinct features of adult learners are autonomy and self-directedness. According to Tennant (1991), the idea of autonomous and self-directed learning is firmly established in the adult education literature. It implies that adult students are able to set goals and objectives, choose appropriate learning resources, determine their learning styles and strategies as well evaluate their learning outcomes individually. In other words, adult learners are more responsible for their learning than traditional college students and they are also self-reliant in choice of techniques and procedures for their learning. Further, adults are able to make critical judgments about their learning process (Chene, as cited in Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). Approaching their learning from the critical perspective, adults can identify and challenge their drawbacks as well as reinforce their strengths in the learning process. This enables adults to monitor and direct their learning.

Another characteristic that differentiates adults from traditional college students is life experience. In comparison with children and adolescents, adults have more experiences because they live longer. What is more, adults have different kinds of life experiences, which are organized differently depending on the age, educational, social, and other backgrounds of adults. In addition, adults construct their self-identity through experience. According to Knowles (as cited in Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007), "Adults derive their self-identity from their experience. They define who they are in terms of the accumulation of their unique sets of experiences" (p. 423). Possessing richer life experiences, adult learners can represent a good source of knowledge and skills as well. Thus, they are able to contribute not only to their learning but also to other adults' learning. Following this idea, adult educators have an opportunity to base their explanations on adult learners' previous experiences. In this way, teachers can link the known with the unknown. Lastly, the experiences adults possess can be scrutinized from the critical perspective that allows for adult learners' critical thinking and reflection (Tennant, 1991).

Autonomy, self-directedness, and rich life experiences of adult learners are closely interrelated with their motivation. This is another important feature of adult learners that should be taken into account. Adults are more goal-oriented and self-motivated, thus they know what they are supposed to learn and what they should know about a particular knowledge area in which they are interested. As adults in general are more mature than the young, they have developed a more elaborated set of attitudes, needs, and competences that ensure adults' better understanding of the reasons why they need to learn something new and how they will benefit from new knowledge and skills in the future. As stated by Wlodkowski (1985), attitudes can be a powerful means that determine human behavior and learning since with the help of attitudes adults are able to identify a particular behavior that can be most effective in dealing with a problem or challenge the adult learner faces. Also, adults' needs play the role of internal incentives that can be a driving force for a person to pursue a goal. Thus, adults' attitudes and needs are transformed into desires, which make a person aware of a particular goal he / she wants to achieve (Wlodkowski, 1985).

Overall, based on the aforementioned views, it can be concluded that adult education is perceived as a separate field of general education nowadays. Adult learners possess certain characteristics that differentiate them from traditional college students. Being autonomous, self-directed, intrinsically motivated and having life experiences enables them to greatly contribute to curriculum development. Given this perspective as well as the philosophical principles outlined above, adult educators will be able to construct more effective curriculum for adult learners.

The learner-centered approach to curriculum design is drawing more attention of adult educators nowadays. The reason is that more educators and scholars have to admit that today's education can be characterized as lacking coherence, poorly structured, and outdated (Diamond, 2008). Also, at the present time education functions as a market, it abides by the market rules and regulations and is influenced by the market. That is to say, it is not an exaggeration that education has become a commodity in the 21st century. In this case, to be more marketable and competitive, adult and higher education institutions have to reconsider their educational policies and be more learner-oriented in order to attract more students. Moreover, the shift towards student-centeredness will provide more effective and sustainable educational outcomes.

Following this idea, Diamond (2008) suggested a model of curriculum design, which starts with the assessment of learners' needs. According to this model, the first step in the process of curriculum development is needs assessment. Actually, learners' needs can be assessed in three domains: in terms of the student, community, and field of knowledge. The second step is stating the goals, which should be stated from general to specific. This way of goal setting provides a logical sequence and it can be gradually narrowed towards specific needs of particular learners. After goals and objectives of a program are set, the next step is designing instruction and assessment techniques. According to Diamond (2008), this stage of curriculum design is important to consider especially in terms of evaluation because "many of us [educators] feel to discuss assessment before we have agreed on the goals for the program or course" (p. 11). Further, the next step in this sequence of curriculum design is implementation and assessment that are referred back to the goal setting stage and proceed to the revision stage eventually. Referring implementation and assessment back to the statement of goals is a very important part of this process as it enables educators to adjust specific goals if needed and thus makes the curriculum more student-oriented.

Another curriculum model that can be successfully implemented in adult education is Houle's curriculum model (as cited in Langenbach, 1993). According to this model, an educational activity is identified first. Second, the decision making process based on the identified activity includes goals and objectives setting which is followed by designing an appropriate learning format. Greater importance is stressed in terms of fitting a particular learning format into life patterns, therefore learning activities should be tied to the learner's life experiences. Overall, such a learning plan is put into effect and then the learning results are evaluated in the final stage of the learning process. Hence, coherent and logical, one of the advantages of this model is that it may be utilized in a broad variety of learning settings that can be both formal and non-formal.

Houle's curriculum model can be slightly modified by adding the stage of adult learners' needs assessment. Basically, the models outlined above represent a useful piece of information on curriculum development in the field of adult education. Indeed, one of the most important things in the process of curriculum development is focusing on meeting adult learners' needs. This aspect is meaningful to both planning and design of curriculum and sustaining learners' interest, hence keeping them motivated and inclusive in the teaching-learning process. In spite of the fact that there is a great diversity of adult learners which implies that they have different needs, Deci and Ryan (as cited in Sell, 2008) proposed the model of needs in terms of self-determination theory. This model is considered universal because it determines common needs of all adults. Following this, the model outlines the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

Accordingly, in terms of competence adults tend to connect this need with self-efficacy as they believe they will be able to perform certain tasks upon achieving competence in a particular field in which they are interested. That is why, the need for competence is one of the basic needs adult strive to achieve caused by professional or personal incentives to develop. Also, competence is often associated with self-actualization of adults since becoming more competent, adults feel more independent of external societal circumstances. Thus, "effective educational programs for adults (a) build on competences that learners already possess and (b) focus objectives on knowledge and skills to be acquired or further developed" (Sell, 2008, p. 260).

As for the second universal need for autonomy, it stresses the importance of a learner's choices and the way they are organized in a sequence. In this case, adults by themselves can determine the reasons why they need to acquire certain knowledge and skills in order to improve their professional and personal characteristics. This fact implies that adult learners value flexibility in their choices, which also determines what, where, when, and how they want to be involved in the learning process. Therefore, an autonomous learner can be defined as being independent in their learning environment, able to make appropriate choices and then critically reflect on them, and also regulate their level of autonomy depending on a certain learning context and circumstances (Chene, as cited in Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).

The third basic need for relatedness "signifies a sense of belonging or affiliation with others" (Sell, 2008, p. 260). It is quite evident because a human is a social being and connections with other members of society in which a person lives and which secures his / her relationships with other people. This is especially valuable in the adult classroom as establishing connections with other classmates provides a basis for collaborative learning. As a result of collaborative learning, the adult learner has a great opportunity to engage in various types of communication and develop friendship with other adults participating in learning projects. Moreover, if appropriately addressed, the need for relatedness can significantly contribute to enhancing the effectiveness of the learning process in case students are included in respectful learning environments and feel they are trusted and supported by other group members who are open-minded and welcome each individual's self-expression (Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 2010).

As is known, an effective curriculum should be coherent and have a well-structured sequence of its constituents such as stating goals and objectives, developing appropriate learning tasks and techniques, establishing learning outcomes, and designing the program assessment. Diamond (2008) suggested that all the goals should be distributed into two categories: basic and specific. The basic goals represent those knowledge and skills that should be acquired by all the learners upon their graduation. Speaking about a particular program, basic goals are usually set for required courses. For example, based on my teaching experience, the EFL Teaching program requires that students be competent in English for basic language skills, i.e. they should be highly proficient in listening, speaking, reading, and writing abilities. Also, students should know methods of teaching English as a foreign language from the theoretical and practical perspectives, as well as they should possess good knowledge of pedagogy / andragogy and human psychology. As for the specific goals, they can be determined by individual learners based on their needs assessment. Thus, specific goals are usually outlined for elective courses. Again, I can provide an example from my teaching experience: students who major in the EFL Teaching program are allowed to gain additional knowledge in translation techniques, public speaking skills, English-speaking country studies (geography, history, economy, political systems, and culture of the English-speaking countries), and the like. Accordingly, depending on the specific fields students choose, they elaborate particular learning goals for each of the field. That is why, it is very important for an educator to ensure that the elements of the curriculum, both required and elective, combine to make all the goals achievable.

Moving from goals setting to the implementation of concrete instructional techniques, careful planning is important as well. For example, if a basic goal is to develop speaking skills, teaching public speaking also must be incorporated into the educational process (Diamond, 2008). Thus, goals should be linked to the content of a program in terms of its learning instructions, techniques, and procedures. Furthermore, it is necessary to arrange content in a logical sequence as failing to do so will lead to abrupt transitions in learning tasks, which results in the learner's distorted knowledge. Therefore, sequencing the content may be a challenging task since there are various ways to arrange it in a logical and coherent order (Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 2010).

In a coherent curriculum, the statement of learning outcomes provides a detailed description of knowledge and skills the learner should be able to possess to achieve the goals outlined in a curriculum. It is important for educators in this case to take into account the learner's prerequisite knowledge and skills in order to better connect them with the present learning outcomes and facilitate the learning process. Further, ongoing assessment will be helpful in monitoring the effectiveness of the entire learning process. This kind of assessment is a useful tool as it provides a better insight into the program advantages that can be reinforced and on the other hand to minimize its negative aspects (Russ-Eft & Preskill, 2009).

To sum up, this article provided only a brief description of some aspects of curriculum development for adult learners. They all stressed the importance of taking into account the learner-centered approach based on meeting learners' needs. Although curriculum developers still face challenges from various economic, political, and cultural domains, the field of adult teaching and learning is gradually shifting from traditional teacher-centered methods to structuring the educational process around the learner taking into account their personal, professional, and psychological characteristics. Overall, the literature review and its analysis along with the teaching experience provided in the article may serve as a source for further development of this field of study.


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Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №4 - 2012

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