The Art, Fun, and Some Science of Teaching Adults

by Debi M. Rowe

I have been teaching adults in congregational settings for over 20 years; I taught in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School for two years, and I have been an instructor for intensive teacher training of Religious School teachers for nine years. The only training I have received in this context was through the Melton program—several hours with my colleague Roberta Louis Goodman, then the Associate Director of the Mini-School program. So, the thoughts I share with you are gleaned mostly from experience, and partly from reading some of the literature on adult learning.

I love teaching adults. They are self-motivated, most are experienced self-directed learners, and they are driven to succeed. In the main, this makes for the ideal group of students. Any teacher who enjoys watching the spark of understanding shine in the eyes of her learners should teach adults.

On the other hand, adults are often burdened with professional or familial pressures and time constraints. (On the day that I am writing this, one student has dropped my Beginning Hebrew class because his consulting business keeps him out of town too often.) These students frequently enter our congregational adult education classes as beginners, and, thus, feel that “everyone knows more than I do” or feel daunted by the road they see ahead.

So, let’s explore a bit about the learners themselves and some teaching strategies that might help maximize their chances for success.

Adults who come to us are, for the most part, successful professionals and/or veterans of at-home child rearing—or at least they have been, if they are currently retired from the work force or childrearing. They are used to following patterns that have yielded good results in the mainstream of their lives. Adults are “mature responsible people who are capable of autonomous functioning in life and work.” (Raymond J. Wlodkowski in Adult Learning Methods © 1990, Michael W. Galbraith, editor. p. 99) They haven’t been “beginners” for a long time.

Many of the circumstances in which adults find themselves in our classes place them precisely at that “beginner” level. Whether students sign up for “Beginning Hebrew,” “Introduction to Judaism,” the weekly Torah Study or “Pedagogy for Novice Teachers,” they find themselves in a situation that may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable—that of neophyte—when they are used to being an expert or a department manager or the grownup in a household of children. It’s a role reversal that teachers of adults must be aware of when approaching their class, especially for the first few sessions.

Diane Tickton Schuster in Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning notes:

The voices of individuals who have suffered a lack of competence—and a corresponding lack of confidence—in Jewish learning endeavors have resounded in my work with Jewish adults. Though these people may be “grown up” chronologically, as learners they often sound (and feel) like children…. While they see themselves as capable and competent in other domains, they are hesitant and unsure when it comes to Jewish study. (pg. 44)

Raymond Wlodkowski asserts that adults “need to be successful learners” (Adult Learning Methods, p. 99). Anything that gets in the way of that success can detrimentally affect adult’s motivation to learn. So, how can we best guide learners who suffer from confidence and competence deficits and may not meet their own standards of success that will keep them motivated to stay with us?

Shuster cites numerous examples from both adult students and their teachers to illustrate her theoretical discussions. One such example focuses on Rabbi David Nelson, who describes his “openings” this way:

Usually, first, I have people share some sort of personal story…This does a couple of things. It allows each person, every single person in the room, to speak, to have their voice heard, which I think is extremely important…That’s the first thing. And the second thing is that the first thing they’re invited to say is something about which they are the ultimate expert: their own lives, their own experiences, their own memories, their own stories. (p. 153)

Every time I start a class, whether it’s Hebrew, Torah Study, Pedagogy, whatever, each student always gets to share his or her own story. It’s always amazing to me to listen to the otherwise confident and competent grownups shamefacedly admit that they don’t know as much as they think they “should” or as much as their child does. What’s important for each learner is to understand that he is not alone in his lack of knowledge or skill. She finds herself in a room full of people just like herself!

There is great comfort to the adults in this simple personal story sharing. The stories are remarkably powerful to each of the class members. They’ll refer back to each other’s stories throughout the course. They remember. They bond through the commonalities. Because these learners now know details of each other’s personal lives and motivations, they offer specific support and encouragement that wouldn’t otherwise find its mark. I think it helps plant the seeds of success that Wlodkowski and others so rightly assert as essential for these learners.

A second element of helping ensure student success is encouraging participation and validating student participation. The first time a student shares a thought about a Torah portion it may not be profound; in fact it may even be similar to a comment said earlier, but if it’s a new experience for that student, it’s a momentous occasion. A student may struggle to sound out a Hebrew word, intimidated by a “long” collection of consonants and vowels. Approximations are still worthy of recognition and praise. Every success, however small, brings students closer their desired learning goal and closer to that sense of competence they enjoy in other arenas of their lives.

When one of my students recently shared her interpretation of the angels ascending and descending on the ladder in Jacob’s dream, it was only the second time in two months of weekly meetings that she had contributed to class discussion. She created an insightful and cogent midrash that others in the class agreed with and referenced throughout the rest of our hour together. Two days later I had the opportunity to teach the same story at the Board of Directors’ Meeting. I was able to teach in my student’s name her interpretation of the story. Her friends at the Erev Shabbat service praised her comments two days later at the Erev Shabbat service. In two months this student had moved from tentative participant to teacher beyond her own classroom.

When introducing a new consonant sound in my beginning Hebrew class, I usually ask students if they can think of any Hebrew words that begin with the new consonant we’re learning. Often they’ll come up with familiar terms from Jewish life: matzah, menorah, mezuzah, and mensch. So, praise and kudos for the first three answers, and praise for the last answer, which, while not technically correct since it’s not Hebrew, still indicates a student’s understanding of the proper initial consonant sound. This approximation of the correct answer still helps the student move closer to learning the sounds of Hebrew and applying new information to the body of knowledge she already knows.

Many aspects of teaching adults are the same as teaching anyone—well-planned lessons, clear goals that are carefully articulated for students, varied teaching modalities that take into account the differing needs of individual students, a sense of creativity and fun. As explained above, the delights and challenges of teaching adults make this a most rewarding endeavor.

Debi M. Rowe, MAJE is Director of Eeducation and Programs at Temple Beth El in San Pedro, Calif.