As part of the IES 20th Anniversary, NCER is reflecting on the past, present, and future of adult education research. In this blog, Dr. Daphne Greenberg, Distinguished University Professor at Georgia State University, reflects on her connection to adult education and gives advice to researchers interested in this field. Dr. Greenberg has served as the principal investigator (PI) on three NCER grants, including the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy, and is also co-PI on three current NCER grants (1, 2, 3). She helped found the Georgia Adult Literacy Advocacy group and the Literacy Alliance of Metro Atlanta and has tutored adult learners and engaged in public awareness about adult literacy, including giving a TedTalk: Do we care about us? Daphne Greenberg at TEDxPeachtree.
What got you interested in adult education research?
During graduate school, I was a volunteer tutor for a woman who grew up in a southern sharecropper family, did not attend school, and was reading at the first-grade level. Her stories helped me understand why learning was important to her. For example, her sister routinely stole money from her bank account because she couldn’t balance her checkbook.
I began wondering whether adults and children reading at the same level had similar strengths and weaknesses and whether the same word-reading components were equally important for them. I later published an article that became a classic in adult literacy research about this.
Over the years, I have grown to admire adult learners for their unique stories and challenges and am deeply impressed with their “grit” and determination even when faced with difficulties. When I watch a class of native-born adults reading below the 8th grade levels, I am inspired by them and yet deeply conflicted about our K-12 system and how many students aren’t getting what they need from it.
How does your personal experience influence your perspective?
I think my childhood and family planted the seeds. My grandfather ran a grocery store but had only a third-grade education. My parents were immigrants who worked hard to navigate a new culture and language, and I struggled with reading in English and English vocabulary growing up. As a result, I understand how people hide and compensate for academic weaknesses.
Also, my brother has profound autism. As a child, I insisted that I could teach him many skills, and I did. This taught me patience and the joy one feels when even the smallest gain is made.
As an adult, I mess up idioms, use Hebraic sentence structure, and need help with editing. I also have a visual condition that causes me to miss letters when I read and write. These difficulties help me relate to the struggles of adult learners. I often feel deep embarrassment when I make mistakes. But I am very fortunate that I have colleagues who celebrate my strengths and honor my weaknesses. Not all of our adult learners are as fortunate.
What should researchers new to adult education know about the system?
Adult education serves students with significant needs and numerous goals—from preparing for employment or postsecondary education to acquiring skills needed to pass the citizenship exam or helping their children with homework. But the adult education system has less public funding than K-12 or postsecondary systems.
Many of the educators are part-time or volunteers and may not have a background in teaching—or at least in teaching adults. There just aren’t the same level of professional development opportunities, technological and print instructional resources, infrastructure, or supporting evidence-based research that other education systems have.
What should researchers know about adult learners?
As a starting point, here are three things that I think researchers should know about adult learners:
- What it means to live in poverty. For example, I once worked with a researcher who, when told that adult learners wouldn’t have access to the internet, replied “That’s not an issue. They can take their laptops to a Starbucks to access the Internet.”
- That adult learners are motivated. The fact that they have inconsistent attendance does not mean that they are not motivated. It means that they have difficult lives, and if we were in their shoes, we would also have difficulty attending on a regular basis.
- That adult learners’ oral vocabulary often matches their reading vocabulary. If you want adult learners to understand something, such as informed consents, realize that their oral vocabulary often is very similar to their reading grade equivalencies and consider simplifying complex vocabulary and syntax structure.
What specific advice do you have about conducting research with adult learners?
Testing always takes longer to complete than anticipated. I never pull students out from classes for testing because their class time is so precious. So they have to be available after or before class to participate in research, and this can be problematic. We often need to reschedule an assessment because public transportation is late, a job shift suddenly changes, or a family member is sick.
Finding enough of particular types of students is difficult because sites often attract different demographics. For example, one site may have primarily 16- and 17-year-olds, another site may have mostly non-native speakers, and another site may have either lower- or higher-skilled adult learners.
Having a “clean” comparison group at the same site is challenging because of intervention “leakage” to nonintervention teachers. Adult education teachers are often so hungry for resources that they may try to peak into classrooms while an intervention is in process, get access to materials, or otherwise learn about the intervention. Their desire for anything that might help students makes contamination a concern.
What areas of adult education could use more research?
I think that policymakers and practitioners would benefit from many areas of research, but two come to mind.
- How to measure outcomes and demonstrate “return”: Many funding agencies require “grade level” growth, but it can take years for skills to consolidate and manifest as grade level change. In the meantime, adults may have found a job, gotten promoted, feel more comfortable interacting with their children’s schools, voted for the first time, etc. Are we measuring the right things in the right way? Are we measuring the things that matter to students, programs, and society? Should life improvements have equal or even more weight than growth on standardized tests? After how much time should we expect to see the life improvements (months, years, decades)?
- How to create useful self-paced materials for adults who need to “stop-out”: Due to the complexities of our learners’ lives, many have to “stop-out” for a period before resuming class attendance. These adults would benefit from resources that they could use on their own, at their own pace during this time. What is the best practice for delivery of these types of resources? Does this “best practice” depend on the adult’s ability level? Does it depend on the content area?
Any final words for researchers new to adult education?
I extend a warm welcome to anyone interested in research with adult learners. You will discover that many adult learners are eager to participate in research studies. They feel good helping researchers with their work and are hopeful that their time will help them or be of help to future learners. I highly recommend that you collaborate with researchers and/or practitioners who are familiar with the adult education context to help smooth the bumps you will inevitably experience.
This blog was produced by Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), research analyst and program officer at NCER.