Published on 2012/12/20

The Five Greatest Joys of Teaching Adults

Adult higher education is typically as rewarding for the educators as it is for the students.

The joyous holiday season is usually a series of countdowns: so many days left until Christmas, a reciting of partridges and their entourage, the debate over exactly how many reindeer Santa has and, of course, the number of seconds left until the New Year. To this numeric pageant, here is a new addition (pun intended):

The five greatest joys of teaching adult students

5. The Primary Equation: If not relevant, then not real

When a cadre of participants enrolled in an executive education course were supposed to be dissecting a case study on Apple, Inc. and its management style, rather than debate the leadership theories presented, they decided to call the company to see if the person named in the case was still employed there. Simple. If the person was still there, the theory worked. If not, so much for theory. Staying relevant, staying aware and keeping current is, for faculty teaching adult students, refreshing and rewarding.

4. Lesson Plan: Today’s lesson—tomorrow’s action

On the carousel of teaching, we hope our students grab the brass ring known as the ‘Aha!’ moment. The adult returns to the classroom because he or she needs something for work, for ego, or for an immediate future as yet undefined. When the student grasps that ring, and uses it at work or in life, we, too, are rewarded.

3. Ignorance is Bliss: If you don’t know it, they do (and that’s okay)

It is absolutely exciting to not know everything. Certainly, our adult students take pride in teaching us how little we often know. It is gratifying and blissful to gain from our ignorance—through the rich experience that adult students bring, encouraging deep deliberation with classmates and instructors.

2. Friends: Student this week, colleague next month

We meet the adult student as a peer, or a colleague. Our students may work at our institutions, co-author manuscripts, write us recommendations, introduce us to new methods, guide us in foreign countries, or show us local restaurants in unfamiliar cities. To teach an adult is to gain a new friend and a new colleague.

1. Transformation: Theirs and ours

The greatest gift is when the person who hardly speaks in class, the one who hides in the back row, or who usually comes to class in well-worn sweats clutching a half-eaten yogurt suddenly shows up, sits in the front, and engages with you, the material, and the class. There is no way to quantify this absolute majesty and magic as the transformational educational experience unfolds.

This holiday season, in between counting days, partridges, reindeer, and seconds, take time to count the ways you are renewed because you teach adults.

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Readers Comments

Quincy Adams 2012/12/20 at 9:01 am

Interesting…the joys of teaching adult students sound a lot like the joys of teaching at its best; I think teaching methods being used in adult education, in being innovative, open-minded, in touch with reality, and respectful of learners, should be copied across the board in higher ed. Any student could benefit from a “guide on the side” as opposed to a “sage on the stage” approach; it could never hurt to let your students’ knowledge and experience guide and inform the class, whether they are 18 or 30.

Susan Farber 2013/01/05 at 12:44 pm

I concur with Leslie Hitch’s 5 joys of teaching adult learners. Through relevance and students’ motivation to ask probing questions, desirable transformation of student/instructor attitudes and skillsets occur. Just as important, there is an enhancement of the course and a richer experience for all.
Students’ rich experiences, if they choose to share them when instructors create such a nurturing environment, can create an energy to fuel continual exploration of content for deeper understanding of the topics defining the course.
The concept of distributed cognition – that knowledge is to be shared and is provided by all who enter a learning environment (face to face or online) bring knowledge to be shared – produces the outcome as depicted by Ms Hitch’s 5 joys of teaching.
More importantly, the connections or interactions within educational settings make the difference.

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