Chapter 3- Applying the Theories to Practice: A Model of Effective Adult Education


The underlying structure of the syllabus used in this research is based on the following trajectory:

This cycle can be used to design an entire semester, a single class session or units of instruction within a session. While most people are familiar with education that focuses entirely on the presentation of content, especially within the context of large lecture halls, the beginning and ending of a course are crucial. Thomas Reid, the professor from whom I learned the basic outline of this model compared it to the first and last notes of a concert: if the band misses them, the entire evening is soured even if they play every other note perfectly. Similarly, if a teacher does not introduce a topic, or does not provide closure, the information presented will not be absorbed as well, even if it has been flawlessly given (Reid, 2001).

There are many different formats for lesson plans, but many of them focus on a single session. An advantage to the framework above is that it can be adapted to different timeframes, which provides a deeper level of structure to a multi-session course. Given the above-cited definition of “pedagogical content knowledge,” it is important to remember that this structure provides principles and general guidelines that each educator will have to adapt to suit specific purposes. Each subject and each group of learners will require a new understanding of the processes that the model above can support.

Using a model such as the one described is valuable because it can help reduce bias. Scriven (1998) makes the distinction between systematic error and bias as the disposition to systematic error, which he describes as being similar to the difference between dissolved and soluble. He writes that differentiating the two is valuable because “it creates the possibility of controlling bias without having to remove it,” and he suggests that developing explicit criteria can help us reduce the effective component of bias, whether we can control the affective component or not. The model of adult education described below was designed to be consistent with the field’s literature and research. By making the criteria by which education is judged more clear, it can help educators control their biases whether or not they reduce them.

I believe that the importance of this can not be overstated. Cervero et al. (2001) write,

“Because the question of who should benefit is answered in practice, there can be no politically innocent place for adult educators. At the heart of practice, then, we must clearly understand that every adult educator is a social activist, regardless of his or her particular vision of society.” (p. 13)

I acknowledge that other researchers draw different conclusions from the same literature and that there is room within the field for multiple interpretations of the same information. My hope is that by making my own biases clear, I can justify some of them in terms of the literature on effective teaching practices while controlling others that are rooted in my personal preferences. I further hope that this model will inspire other educators to explore their assumptions just as I have continually questioned mine as I developed and used this model.

I strongly believe that my work as a sexuality educator for adults is social action work, especially within the context of Mezirow’s (1991) discussion of the term, as discussed above. For me, the process of supporting and deepening authenticity, whether my own or another person’s, is inherently a political act, as well as one of social justice. I believe that in a world in which people are attacked, blamed, vilified, shamed, and killed for trying to be true to themselves, moving towards authenticity is deeply interwoven with issues of social justice and is, in fact, revolutionary. I also believe that the scale of an action is irrelevant with respect to the question of whether it is an act of social justice; a single person moving towards authenticity can be just as ground-breaking as a community doing so.

It is important to remember that this model may not work for every educator or in all settings. While a well-planned structure can help ensure that important ingredients are included and that many crucial steps are taken, it can also lead program planners “to believe that if they simply follow such a process, they will succeed in planning the perfect program.” (Kilgore, 2003, p. 82) Working within this structure to design and implement the syllabus for Sex and Shame, Spirit and Power was an ongoing process of reflection and returning to education principles in order to ground my teaching in effective practices and in my authenticity. In this way, the model of adult education became a touchstone, rather than a script; thus, I was able to avoid the pitfall that Kilgore describes.


Clearly stated objectives tell the learners, as well as any program administrators and other stakeholders, what will be accomplished in the class. Developing a set of objectives and goals is sometimes challenging at the beginning of a program when one hasn’t yet met the learners, but it is important because it shapes the entire planning process. A prior assessment of the learners’ needs, as well as the goals of any organizational administration, will clearly help one develop relevant objectives. If this is not possible, many educators suggest integrating this process into the first class sessions in order to ensure relevance and to democratize the course (Knowles et al., 1998).

There is some debate as to whether objectives should be phrased in behavioral terms or whether objectives can be well-crafted without being measurable (Brookfield, 1986; Mehrens & Lehman, 1991; Sork & Caffarella, 1989) . One advantage to measurable objectives is that they communicate to learners exactly what criteria will be used to determine if they have succeeded in the class, which can foster a sense of safety for them (Wlodkowski, 1999) . However, as Eisner (1985) states, “to expect all of our educational aspirations to be either verbally describable or measurable is to expect too little.” (p. 115) When the learning is going to be more abstract, objectives need to be flexible enough to allow for true exploration of the topic. Whatever form the objectives take, they are most effective when they are “stated clearly enough to indicate to all rational minds exactly what is intended.” (Houle, 1996, p. 196) While I have some questions as to what Houle means by the term “rational minds,” as well as “exactly,” I agree that objectives are most useful when they are understood by all of the participants in the class, as well as any other interested people. In addition, behaviors that are not strictly measurable can still be observable. For example, rather than describing what learners will know, an objective can describe what learners will discuss, explore or articulate. This makes explicit the expectation that learners will understand the material and that they will participate in such a way that they use their knowledge (Barnett, n/a).

Effective objectives are designed so that the organization of a course is driven by the logic of learning, not the abstract order of the topics. This helps the teacher “set priorities among decisions about any particular content, choices of materials and activities, and textbooks.” (Wiggins, 1997) There are many tools available to help develop relevant objectives. For example, Caffarella (2002) lists ten: questionnaires and surveys, observations, interviews, group and community forums, job and task analysis, tests, previously generated research, performance and product reviews, social indicators and interpersonal conversations. Each technique has advantages for different situations and the educator can choose from among them, depending on the available resources. The ultimate goal is for the educator to understand as fully as possible the hopes, desires and constraints that affect the learners in order to craft relevant and appropriate objectives. In this respect, a familiarity with qualitative research methods may be helpful (Kumar, 1996).

From a practical standpoint, some educators with whom I’ve spoken advocate developing a maximum of three objectives, both for each session and for the entire program. They have suggested that this helps the teacher maintain focus on the primary information and that more than three objectives can be distracting for the learners. These opinions are based on their experiences and anecdotal evidence and I have not been able to locate any research on this topic. Nevertheless, given that the purpose of the objectives is to provide a central point of emphasis, it seems reasonable to accept the idea that limiting the number of objectives can be a useful practice.


At the beginning of the class, one of the most effective steps an educator can take is to foster a sense of safety and community among the learners. There are dozens of articles and books offering exercises and strategies. Some steps that can be taken include making the group’s norms and expectations explicit (Johnson & Johnson, 1996) and developing a sense of both collaboration and cooperation among learners. When cooperation is supported, people more easily develop relationships across gender, ethnic, language and social class groups (Johnson & Johnson, 1995). This does not rule out the possibility of competitive activities; some educators find that when there is freedom of choice around participation, competition can inspire higher levels of achievement (Wlodkowski, 1999). Nevertheless, a primary goal of the warm-up is to create both intellectual and social connection among the learners and between the learners and the teacher. When this is successful, the learners’ persistence to learn increases (Tinto, 1998).

The warm-up can also be used to make the relevance of the class to learners’ lives and current situations explicit (Kitayama & Markus, 1994). When adults understand why they need to know something and how it connects to their past and present experiences, their motivation to succeed will increase (Knowles et al., 1998). When the warm-up phase is used to communicate how the class will help learners respond to their concerns, interests and goals, they are more likely to feel motivated to succeed.

Needs Assessment

There are many ways in which an educator can use dialogue with the learners to adjust the flow of a class. Soliciting feedback about either content or process can help provide valuable information that can be used to modify a lesson plan to increase its relevance. Menges and Rando (1996) developed the “Four Ps Model” of gathering information, which has four areas of inquiry: preconditions, plans, procedures and products. Preconditions refers to any circumstances that precede the actual instruction, including background characteristics of the learners, how the course fits into the larger curriculum, and external events that may affect the instruction. At the beginning of a lesson, it is often useful to explore the learners’ expectations and previous experiences in order to adjust the lesson plan to better meet their needs (Adams et al., 1997). Feedback regarding the plans allows teachers to determine if the course designs are relevant. For example, are the course objectives clear? Do learners have suggestions for ways in which they might be adjusted? Is the workload appropriate for these learners and do any of them have specific needs or concerns that should be addressed? The procedures are the processes through which the lessons will be taught. When learners are able to offer genuine feedback on how the class will operate, the lessons can operate more smoothly. Finally, the products are the course’s more enduring effects on the learners. As the end of the course approaches, what have participants learned, and what can they do with what they have learned? Different information will be pertinent at different phases of the course, so the format of the needs assessment will vary over time. However, whatever form it takes, the goal is for the teacher to genuinely ask the learners for information that will help make the lesson more useful and run more smoothly.

Checking in with the learners on an ongoing basis can help the educator take these influences into account, which demonstrates respect for the learners. This may be especially important when there is a high degree of diversity among the learners, when there are learners from cultures with high power distance, i.e. “cultures in which power, prestige and wealth are unequally distributed” (Wlodkowski, 1999, p. 95), or differences in how learners define status and its acquisition. A needs assessment can also be used to help the teacher understand the learners’ assumptions about and attitudes towards the content and the process of the class. This can then be used to adjust the format to better meet their needs by helping find a balance between challenge and safety (e.g. Brookfield, 1990; Dick et al., 2001; P. L. Smith & Ragan, 1999).


The presentation is the heart of the lesson and therefore often takes the most time. When it has been developed in a way that is relevant and responsive to the learners’ goals, and is taught with a minimum of digression, the presentation demonstrates respect for the learners as a group. One way that this can be accomplished is through the use of the objectives during the planning process. One strategy is to focus entirely on meeting the objectives; anything that does not directly support them is not crucial, or it should have been included in them. While this helps the teacher maintain the emphasis on the topic, this does not preclude questions or comments from the learners that may diverge from the objectives. Instead, the teacher can either respond and then return to the primary subject, or he can explain that the question is off the topic and ask the learner to meet with him later to discuss it. In either case, the educator has prioritized respect for the group’s needs over an individual’s interests, including his own (Reid, 2001) . Since it is rare that teachers can include all the material that they might like to, Smith and Delahaye (1987) suggest dividing it into what learners must know to meet the objectives, what they should know because it supplements the essential material, and what they could know because it is interesting and relevant, but not fundamental. Well-designed objectives can be referred to throughout the planning process, as well as the implementation of the lesson plan and the assessment of the learners’ success (Caffarella, 2002).

The presentation can also work with the many diversities among the learners. Gardner’s (1986, 1993, 1999) work on multiple intelligences and Kolb’s (1984) research on learning styles are two of the more well-known sources of information on diversity in learning style. However, care must be taken to avoid inappropriate use of their work in an attempt to appeal to all learners at the cost of suitable presentation strategies (Gardner, 1993). Recognizing and working with cultural diversity can be a challenging exercise for many teachers, but the reward in terms of learner motivation and success are well worth the effort (Wlodkowski, 1997; Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995). Each of these areas has a large body of literature that educators may find useful.

Another challenge adult educators face is responding to the previous experiences of the learners. While their individual histories are likely to be sources of motivation to learn, they may simultaneously be a source of resistance. For example, people with less formal education are often more reluctant in adult education settings than people with more previous education (Hayes & Darkenwald, 1990). This is especially important given the ways in which privilege and oppression intersect with access to education (Anyon, 1998; Berlak & Moyenda, 2001; Cervero et al., 2001; D'Amato, 1993; hooks, 2000b; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Nieto, 1994; Ogbu, 1995a, 1995b; Sleeter, 1993; Snider, 1996; Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995).

There are also many perspectives on the developmental phases of adulthood. Levinson’s (1986) model of life stages, Erikson’s (1959) identity tasks, and Loevinger’s (1976) ego development are some of the fundamental work on the transitions of adulthood. Although all three have been critiqued and developed since their first publications, they continue to be influential on conceptions of adult education through their descriptions of some of the transitions that adults experience and how they influence the desire to learn. In almost any classroom, there will be learners experiencing different stages and transitions and the ability to respond to these factors presents another range that adult educators should be prepared for.


The practice phase of a lesson is where the information that has been presented is transformed into specific skills. It gives the learners the opportunity to try out their new knowledge in a safe and supportive setting. The more accurate the performance task is, the more it will support the learners’ self-confidence, motivation and competence (Wlodkowski, 1999). According to Wiggins (1998), practice is most effective when it is realistic, requires learner judgment, simulates the real-life contexts in which skills will be used, and provides opportunities to rehearse, consult resources and receive feedback. This differs from traditional tests of knowledge which tend to be disconnected from experience, are designed to be easily scored and must be unknown by the learners in advance in order to be valid. Practice can also use self-assessment and reflection as a way of helping learners develop these skills, especially during longer learning situations (MacGregor, 1994). Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences provides a foundation for developing opportunities for practice that will be helpful for different learners. Campbell, Campbell and Dickinson (1992) offer a variety of examples that are useful for each of Gardner’s intelligences.


The primary role of assessment in this model is to determine whether the learners are meeting the objectives. I use the present tense deliberately, since I believe that assessment is most useful wheen there are still opportunities to address any issues that are limiting the learners’ abilities to achieve the goals of the class. An important assumption in adult education theory is that the learners’ successes are indicative of the teacher’s successes. This requires teachers to recognize their roles in providing a foundation for the learners, as well as their abilities to use the results of the assessment to develop their instructional skills (Banta, 1996). This is in some tension with, for example, many university courses in which the only feedback occurs as part of mid-term or final exams or papers, and there are few opportunities to overcome challenges to comprehension.

There is a variety of techniques appropriate for each of the five generally recognized categories of learning goals: acquiring new knowledge, enhancing cognitive skills, developing psychomotor skills, strengthening problem-solving abilities, and changing attitudes, beliefs, values and/or feelings (Bloom, 1986; Caffarella, 2002; Kemp et al., 1996; P. L. Smith & Ragan, 1999) . When the assessment tools offer learners the opportunity to demonstrate their successes in ways that are conceptually aligned with their learning, they become a more accurate reflection of the learners’ experiences (Angelo & Cross, 1993; McMillan, 2001; Wiggins, 1998). However, Caffarella (2002) points out that many techniques, especially journals and portfolios, can be used to assess multiple categories of objectives. She also observes that based on prior education experiences, many adults bring their anxiety regarding assessment to the classroom and that the teacher can take steps to help alleviate that tension.

An advantage to describable objectives is that they can support the development of appropriate methods of assessment. Clear and specific descriptions of how success will be measured helps the learners’ sense of motivation and safety (Wiggins, 1998; Wlodkowski, 1999). However, there is some debate over how well competency standards support learners. As Kerka (1998) points out, the connections between observable performance, the intention to act, and the context in which action is situated are all factors in the “indeterminate nature of real-world solutions” that may never be accurately modeled in the classroom. Taking these concerns into account requires flexibility in shaping objectives and in assessment.

Wlodkowski (1999) suggests allowing learners to self-assess through reflection, especially through the use of journals. This is consistent with the concepts of supporting self-directed learning (Kerka, 1999) and critical reflection (Stein, 2000). There are several types of journal assignments (Kerka, 1996) from which teachers can choose depending on their goals. It is important to note that while there are many examples of the uses of learning journals (e.g. Grennan, 1989; Kerka, 1996; Moon, 1999; Varner & Peck, 2003), much of the literature is based on the authors’ personal experiences or on the links between journals and theories of adult education, rather than empirical evidence. As a result, using journals to effectively assess learning may depend on the teacher’s conceptual clarity with respect to education theories and the goals of their course.


The model of adult education described so far represents a cycle from objectives to assessment. These cycles can take place over different timeframes, such as an entire semester, multiple class sessions, a single class session, or a portion of a single session. Regardless of the scale of a given cycle, the recap offers an opportunity to find closure and, when applicable, link one topic with the next. As a final summary, it can also serve to acknowledge and possibly respond to lingering questions. While I have not been able to locate any literature specifically on this topic, my personal experience has been that the recap is a valuable tool in managing the flow of a class. This was also supported by my observations of educators in different sexuality classes as part of my doctoral studies and my internship, and indicates a possible avenue of future research and exploration.

Other Important Factors: Interactivity, Time Management and Speaking Skills

From talking with people about their experiences as learners as well as with educators from different disciplines, I found that the three elements of interactivity, time management and speaking skills emerged as areas of the classroom process that teachers need to be able to manage. Everyone with whom I’ve discussed these topics has talked about their experiences with teachers whose lack of skills in at least one of these areas had negatively affected their ability to learn.

Johnson and Johnson (1995) summarize several hundred studies that compare different interaction patterns and their influences on learning. Their work shows that promotive interdependence, in which individuals encourage and facilitate each other’s efforts to achieve, supports a high emotional involvement in learning. This process works with intrinsic motivation, high expectations for success, greater persistence, and other factors that have been identified as increasing educational success. One way in which a teacher can foster promotive interdependence is to step outside the role of “expert” and serve instead as a facilitator. Another is for the learners to become involved in the development of the class and the agenda. However the details of this dynamic are shaped, it is clear that they all depend on the ability of the teacher to step out of the traditional role of controlling the class and to increase the level of interaction, both with and among the learners.

Time management in the classroom can be challenging, especially for a teacher who is emotionally engaged with the topic. The two skills of “getting out of the way” and “focusing on the objectives” can be of assistance. The first helps educators to serve the needs of the learners rather than their own and the second helps provide focus by reminding the teachers what the purpose of the class is. In effect, if it doesn’t directly relate to an objective, or can’t be linked to an objective, it can be set aside for discussion outside the class, assuming that the objectives are well-defined and relevant for the learners.

Within the classroom, the primary mode of communication between the teacher and the learners is often verbal, so the ability to self-monitor and self-regulate one’s presentation is clearly a useful skill. Through the use of intonation, modulation, pitch, tone and body language, the teacher can convey emphasis and meaning. She can also convey her affective response to the material, which can stimulate a similar response in the learners through affective resonance (Nathanson, 1992). It is commonly asserted that non-linguistic cues offer the majority of the information we receive in an interaction and the ability to deliberately convey the message one desires is a useful faculty. Many workshops on public speaking and business presentations are easily available through community colleges, universities, business organizations, consultants and workshops and they offer educators valuable opportunities to develop in this area.

The three areas of interactivity, time management and speaking skills have a large impact on the creation of effective education. From the perspective of skill development, self-reflection and journaling can assist teachers in these areas. In addition, classes and workshops on speaking skills, while often designed for business settings, can help teachers find new ways to present information in a manner that is aligned with their goals.

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