From education to employment

In pursuit of excellence for adult learners

The benefits of adult and lifelong learning have been championed extensively, and much has been written about the significant and positive impact on individual learners, their families, communities, workplaces and society as a whole.

Some adult learners are doing accredited work-based training, as a step on to or up the career ladder, or with a view to starting and running a business enterprise. Others, including those who did not fare well at school, are seizing a second or third chance to achieve academic or vocational qualifications or acquire the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed in daily life and at work. For many, including those who develop a lifelong love of learning, the main drivers are personal fulfilment, social interaction or cultural development.

Whatever the individual learner’s motivation for embarking on a programme or course, the decision to invest time, effort and money in learning is not taken lightly. So, whatever their aspirations, whether they seek economic or sociological outcomes, or both, learners need and deserve high standards of teaching and learning to help them stay motivated and achieve their goals.

During a debate in the House of Lords on 28 February about a City & Guilds report on vocational pedagogy, Baroness Garden of Frognal said that too little attention had been paid to the quality of the education and training offered to young people and adults after compulsory school age. Teaching so diverse a group – with ages ranging from 14 to over 90 and widely varying levels of experience and capability – calls for different skills and presents different challenges from those required in school classrooms, she said.

The truth is that much of the teaching and training offered by colleges and providers in our sector is excellent.  The challenge is to build on that, by understanding that excellent teaching and learning does not happen by accident; by learning what works best; and by finding ways to identify and share effective practice where it exists.

Since 2008, IfL has been collecting and analysing evidence from thousands of teachers and trainers about their professional learning, and we published our fourth annual review of members’ continuing professional development (CPD) in March. Our focus for the latest review was on the strategies employed by teachers and trainers to assess the impact of their professional learning and the evidence gained about CPD that improves teaching and learning and benefits learners most. It was clear from our work that teachers and trainers can have a significant impact by making their professional learning visible and explicit to students and peers, learning from and talking to each other about teaching, research and evidence from their own practice.

IfL’s report included recommendations that teachers should routinely gain feedback about their impact; that peer observations should focus on learners, their learning and the effectiveness (or otherwise) of different practices; and that teachers should engage in collaborative action research, supported and entrusted by their leaders to exercise professional autonomy, learn collaboratively and improve teaching and learning.

Having a sound research base helps assure leaders and senior managers that they can and should take the risk of adopting more inclusive approaches, allowing teachers to play a far greater role in shaping and delivering their own professional learning and development. Another benefit of IfL’s growing and flourishing research base is that it creates a professional territory beyond organisational boundaries, supporting the development of ideas and gathering of evidence, for the benefit of professional teachers, their organisations and their learners.

And there seems to be a real appetite to participate in research and contribute to developing and sharing knowledge, judging from the numbers of teachers and trainers who routinely volunteer to take part in various IfL initiatives. Our practitioner research programmes with leading academics at the universities of Oxford and Cardiff have been oversubscribed; our surveys and consultations regularly elicit significant numbers of detailed responses; and members from around the country give up their time to take part in focus groups and workshops to build a shared body of professional knowledge and insights.

Members are clear too about the importance of initial teacher training, and the overwhelming majority of the many thousands who engaged in debates with us around professional identity in 2012 associated their professionalism with the requirement to hold a professional qualification for teaching or training. IfL’s view is that all learners deserve to be taught by qualified teachers.

We also think there should be strong support for new teachers in their early years of practice, and have recently established a joint research centre and chair at the University of Wolverhampton to focus on this. The new Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education (CRADLE) will increase and share educational research and practice in support of members, providing research opportunities and new horizons for ambitious teachers and trainers, especially in the early stages of their career.

It is right that high-quality teaching and learning should be at the top of the sector’s agenda. There is still much to do, but we definitely now know much more than we did five years ago about what works best. IfL will continue our important work with members, the 157 Group, Institute of Education and other partners in pursuit of our shared endeavour to develop excellent teaching and learning for all young and adult learners.

Jean Kelly is director of professional development at the Institute for Learning (IfL), the professional body for teachers, trainers, tutors and student teachers across the further education and skills sector

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