Learner-Focused Adult Education

I have been holding onto this post in my head for a few weeks. I attended a convening in early September held by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation in Kansas City, MO. The purpose of the convening is for organizations like C4 Atlanta to meet and discuss current trends, issues, etc. affecting our field. That is an anemic description but I really want to talk about one portion of the convening in which we learned about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The session was presented by Allison Posey, CAST.

What is UDL?

From the CAST website:

Universal Design for Learning
is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.

UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.

Why is UDL necessary?

Individuals bring a huge variety of skills, needs, and interests to learning. Image that says, "One size does not fit all"Neuroscience reveals that these differences are as varied and unique as our DNA or fingerprints. Three primary brain networks come into play: Recognition networks, strategic networks, and Affective Networks.

So what does this mean, exactly? Well, it means that learners (yes, even adult learners) need to experience the aquisition of knowledge in a variety of ways to make the learning meaningful. You may be familiar with Dr. Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences, (MI)” in which GarComic illustration that shows show how not all animals can climb a tree equally: "For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree."dner posits that there exists eight ways in which learners exhibit intelligence; thus, integrated learning styles are necessary to reach different types of learners. When I was in grad school for a degree that focused on information technology, Gardner’s work was highly regarded. Both UDL and MI support a learning environment that includes ALL learners. As a colleague pointed out, UDL has a little more neuroscience behind it.  So what about adult learners? 


“Change the learning environment, not the learner.” – Allison Posey, CAST (presentation in KC)

The above phrase has been bouncing around in my head. I think about it everyday. Have you ever noticed that not much attention is giving how people learn past high school? Does dyslexia, dysgraphia, and other learning disabilities (really, this is about perspective) go away once we become adults? Or is the expectation that we have learned how to deal with it? My daughter, who is now a freshman in college, and I talk all the time about the difference between subject matter experts and teachers–people who actually care about learning. Is it fair to have a class for adult learners and to not think about UDL? Maybe fairness isn’t the right question… I had to challenge myself with this question: “As a leader of a nonprofit dedicated to adult learning (regardless of the subject matter), don’t I want every person sitting through our classes to have access to the best learning environment possible?”

The staff and I talked through UDL. I brought it to my board during our annual retreat. I am proud to say that UDL will be integrated into our strategic plan as a programmatic goal: to redesign ALL of our classes around the core principles and guidelines of UDL. This will take some time. The thing about this type of work, teaching continuing ed, is that the field is constantly evolving. We don’t just hammer out a class and are done with it. All of our classes have gone through curriculum updates–some simple, others drastic. For example, Chelsea, our Operations Manager, completely rewrote the curriculum for the Website Bootcamp course to ensure it stayed relevant. Our Hatch curriculum had several collaborators and the staff took weeks to map the content. We did our best to include multiple strategies for delivering the curriculum content: movement, improv, role playing, writing, visual presentations, doodling/drawing, small group breakouts, games, etc.

In a later blog, Audrey, our Education Manager will be discussing all of the elements that go into curriculum building at C4. We put a lot of thought and time into the learning progression, pedagogical framework, evaluation, and touch points. We are also reducing the number of panels we host as a way to promote a more equitable learning dynamic between facilitators and learners. We love what we do and want to be as transparent as possible about our work. All of this takes time and resources but the goals are in place. We will be adding specific tactics and objectives to a timeline soon.

As you think about your professional development trajectory, mull over this: “how do I best learn?” Let us know. Email us. Adults have specific learning needs, that is true, and they may differ from that of younger learners; however, some principles in learning are the same across the board: variety is key. Death by PowerPoint is out. As a field, it wouldn’t hurt us to think more about how our professional development offerings can be more inclusive. Not only more inclusive, but more engaging as well. Even if you are a visual learner, sitting in one spot staring at a screen while a person drones on is not conducive to inspiring genus.

While there is no large body of research to support that the neurological factors that may account for dyslexia are linked to creativity, there are researchers, artists, and educators that are exploring a possible link. Whatever the conclusion, I prefer the challenges of this quote:

…because many Dyslexics do show wonderful visual and spatial skills, we look for an analogous extra something in the brain to account for that. But perhaps we should be doing the opposite – looking for what inhibits creativity.

I look forward to exploring how C4 can modify the learning environment. It will be a journey.

Image of a neuron - National Science Foundation



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *