More than a jam sandwich

March 2011


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Adult learners return to the classroom more than 30 years after their own indifferent high school years. Carol Walden asks can they cope?

The role of Te Whāriki, the early childhood education document, is to provide a foundation for life-long learning. Can it have any relevance beyond the woven mat of the preschool years? How does it relate to Alisha’s experience – a middle-aged parent, who signs up for a tertiary course for the first time?

Alisha, the mother of a teenage son at a West Auckland high school, started panicking when she re-encountered the barriers to education experienced as a teenager in high school. Like many of the 40 students in one of three classes held over three semesters, she had not completed high school. It had been about 30 years since many had formally studied. So how did these students overcome previous barriers to formal learning?

The course was a pilot programme between Unitec and two West Auckland high schools. It was offered as a level 4 tertiary programme on identity and community for parents interested in gaining community skills. It was intended to help local residents deal with barriers to accessing tertiary education, and to gather research that would help adults to overcome a range of barriers to progress in their lives, including barriers to education. Alisha gradually became hooked on learning. With others in the course, she was able to articulate her initial fears through interviews, focus groups, course assessment tasks, class debriefing sessions and through written feedback.

Associate head of the Unitec School of Community Development, Geoff Bridgman, said that as he collected the research findings from 40 course participants, he found emerging themes concerning their identified barriers.

“There seemed to be two main issues. The first involved intrapersonal concerns about their own identity as a student. These included some of the following: fears of failing the course; being seen as ‘dumb’; needing to face behaviours that hindered their success; and feeling anxious about entering an unfamiliar learning environment,” Bridgman says.

The second group of themes concerned how they related to others – including how to make friends with previously unknown classmates; how to feel comfortable in contributing in unfamiliar group situations; and how to maintain family support throughout their study.

For example, Ana felt “dumb” at first, but the tutor’s support lifted her level of self-belief in her ability. After 20 years of not studying, Erica’s newly acquired confidence enabled her to progress from “hating school” to “opening the door” to tertiary education. Mere got past “hating writing and reading” through the efforts of her tutor and her whānau “pulling her through”. Hannah overcame intolerance for opposing opinions within the class and conquered personal fears by learning to speak up on matters. Some experienced social unease in the classroom and wrestled with thoughts that “everyone hates me”, “I’ve got nothing good to say”, and “I feel so uncomfortable”. For others, being silent in the class was a way of dealing with feeling intimidated and insecure. Students reported overcoming barriers through feeling accepted, affirmed and being helped to “face up to things”. It also helped to have the opportunity to practise some specific strategies for overcoming these personal barriers.

“However, I was struck by an unexpected paradox,” Bridgman says. “The two main groups of issues I identified as interpersonal and intrapersonal barriers mirror the strands and principles of the ECE curriculum

Te Whāriki. Not only does it appear that this ECE foundation is important in the preschool years, but it is also seems important for educational success right into tertiary years. Not only is it relevant for preschoolers, but it is also seems relevant for middle-aged parents.

“Furthermore, I realised that a diagram in the ECE curriculum clustered the strands and principles into two groups. These groups appeared to reflect the identified intrapersonal and interpersonal categories arising from my research. I called one cluster the warp. This represented the intrapersonal intelligences. I called the other cluster the weft. This represented the interpersonal intelligences. Together they form the woven mat, Te Whāriki, which is the foundation of our childhood education system,” Bridgman says.

“How did each of these curriculum strands and principles relate to the personal barriers than need overcoming to help students succeed in education? Firstly, I looked at the warp – the intrapersonal intelligences. This is being aware of personal feelings and emotions. Barriers are overcome here through the following curriculum areas: wellbeing, holism, empowerment and belonging. The participants in the course defined what this meant for them. For example, wellbeing is to be “comfortable in your own skin”, or at ease within yourself. Holism involves using personal history to find meaning in the present situation – understanding why you do things a certain way. The third, empowerment, helps you increase personal confidence through such statements as “I can be an adult student. I can do this”. Belonging helps you to “fit into the environment”.

Bridgman says the students also defined how the weft – the interpersonal intelligences – helped them deal with barriers to education involving other people. This ‘second intelligence’ is the ability to respond sensitively and appropriately to others. Barriers are overcome here through the following curriculum areas: contribution; family and community; relationships; communication; and exploration. Contribution, as the first interpersonal intelligence, means sharing and supporting others in preference to “shutting down, not saying anything” in the class. Family and community include receiving positive outside support through such things as negotiating with family members to respect study time.

“The third intelligence, relationships, involves reciprocal interactions with others in a variety of group roles in the class. The fourth, communication, is to practise strategies of listening and exchanging information so all have opportunity to share ideas. The fifth intelligence, exploration, is to apply learning in practical contexts in class, home or at work in the community.”

These intrapersonal and interpersonal barriers the students faced and overcame throughout the course became an effective foundation for their learning. As a result, they gained the skills and competencies for passing the tertiary course. They also gained the ability to become life-long learners, with many progressing to other courses in the programme.

Many, like Alisha, had found it a personal challenge to come back to school as an adult, but the opportunity to learn about interpersonal and intrapersonal principles changed their whole life. These principles were pivotal to their educational success. As a result, they acquired practical strategies for dealing with their previous barriers to progress. Clearly, a strong foundation makes a difference in the classroom.

“My son is proud of me that I have gone back to school,” Alisha says. “I just went to high school as a kid to eat jam sandwiches. This is so different. It’s fun.”

Alisha’s barriers to learning had been removed. She had gained the foundations for becoming a life-long learner.

Carol Walden is a literacy support teacher at Lincoln Heights School in Massey. Her research, from which these findings are drawn, is entitled ‘Minor fall and major lift: raising educational capacity through community partnerships’.