Preparing Adult Learners to be Resilient in a World of Non-Stop Change

The people best suited for today’s world of non-stop change are different from those who were raised to fit into an unchanging world. To survive and thrive in constantly changing work environments, people in every occupation must be adaptable, highly resilient, and change-proficient.

Al Siebert, PhD

Presented at the National Conference on the Adult Learner 2000, Atlanta, Georgia

Professional Development Center, School of Business, Portland State University

Summary

The people best suited for today’s world of non-stop change are different from those who were raised to fit into an unchanging world. To survive and thrive in constantly changing work environments, people in every occupation must be adaptable, highly resilient, and change-proficient. This interactive session will focus on ways to facilitate resiliency and change-proficiency in adult learners.

Session Content

For many decades, children were trained by their parents and teachers to act, dress, talk, feel, and think as told. This training produced thousands of high school graduates who were conditioned to be "good" boys and girls. The training prepared them for employment in large, unchanging organizations. A person with a high school diploma and nothing bad in their record, could expect to find a job pretty easily. Then, if you were an obedient employee who followed your job description, were receptive to performance evaluations, and didn’t cause problems for managers, you could expect to have a job for life, and eventually be old enough to stay home and still get checks.

In recent years, however, large organizations laid off tens of thousands of managers and employees in order to make their organizations leaner and more competitive. Executives, to save expenses and have more flexibility in workforce numbers, laid off good workers when projects were finished.

Organizations are using many more temporary employees now. The emphasis in organizations these days is "faster, better, smarter." The pressure is on to get more work done with fewer people in less time with a smaller budget while keeping up with constant change.

Many adult learners feel bewildered when they discover that jobs are changing and evolving so rapidly, that many large organizations no longer provide job descriptions. Most employers now want people who can make themselves useful in new situations without being told what to do. People applying for positions must document strengths and skills appropriate for the job applied for. Adult learners raised to be modest and not brag about themselves, often find it difficult to tell interviewers what they are good at doing. In today’s world, getting a diploma or a degree is not enough.

Employers want college educated people who:

  • can work well in teams,
  • are self-motivated to keep learning,
  • have good communications skills,
  • don’t have negative attitudes about change,
  • have computer and internet skills,
  • are not "technophobic,"
  • can work without a detailed job description,
  • do not need constant supervision,
  • provide excellent customer service,
  • use common sense to solve problems,
  • hold up well under pressure,
  • are resilient and handle change well, and
  • do consistently high-quality work.

Computer literacy, for example, used to be the new skill that employers required. Now, for a person to be competitive in a career, internet skills are essential.

Does Your College Provide Good Role Models of Resiliency?

People in difficult circumstances will either react like victims who blame others for their distress or they will find ways to cope, learn, and adapt. Unfortunately, it is not unusual to hear some college staff and instructors complain about all the pressures and stresses in their jobs. People who complain and blame, however, are confusing the situation with their reaction to it. Work that is distressing for one college employee is enjoyable and satisfying for another. It is important for student morale to have instructors and staff to be good role models for resiliency and coping well with pressure. The following list summarizes the research findings about people able to recover quickly from disruptive change, illness, or misfortune without being overwhelmed or acting in dysfunctional ways. They:

  • experience few upsetting events in routine activities,
  • feel capable of taking effective action when upsetting events occur,
  • draw action choices from a wide range of inner and external resources,
  • experience family and friends as caring and supportive,
  • manage self-change well, and
  • convert negative experiences into beneficial learning.

For most adult students, the challenge is not having to deal with one major setback, the challenge is how to hold up week after week handling lots of little things without feeling helpless and at the mercy of external forces. Indicators that the pressures are getting to be too much include: sleepless nights, drinking alcohol to get to sleep, losing one’s temper over a minor incident, migraine headaches, frequent colds and illnesses, auto accidents, ulcers flaring up, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems, losing track of time, falling asleep in class, and forgetting to bring a paper the student stayed up late at night to finish. Time to recommend seeing a counselor.

Role-Modeling Professionalism and Resiliency

People who thrive in constant change do not need detailed job descriptions. They have a strong attitude of professionalism that lets them find ways to be useful and successful in new and ambiguous situations. Changes in the workplace now occur so rapidly it is rare for anyone to have an up-to-date job description.

One of the best ways for staff and instructors to role-model and facilitate resiliency is to exhibit attitudes of professionalism. Everyone has an understanding of the differences between someone who has an attitude of professionalism and someone who is unprofessional in their work. In this session we will talk about the differences and discuss ways to enhance professionalism in staff and students. Most people have the inner attributes to be resilient, and appreciate the contributing qualities when given an opportunity to explore them.

In this session, participants took and discussed a resiliency self-assessment developed by the presenter. Take the quiz here or get more information about resiliency from his website, The Resiliency Center.

From Job Description to Professionalism

Lean, customer driven, agile corporations are having difficulties finding qualified employees that know something beyond the three R’s….

Developing a Highly Resilient, Change Proficient Work Force

by Al Siebert, PhD

Lean, customer driven, agile corporations are having difficulties finding qualified employees. The school systems are not graduating students prepared for employment in excellent, constantly changing corporations.

About three years ago Hewlett Packard in Vancouver devised a unique approach to the problem. They hired Doug Sessions, a former school teacher and principal, to be a liaison with school districts. Sessions says his mission "as Hewlett Packard’s K-12 program manager is to work with school districts, teachers, and students to improve work force quality."

The challenge in improving work force quality goes far beyond teaching students the three Rs. Sessions says that Hewlett Packard needs people with two skill sets. The basic set is "literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills."

The second set of skills covers social and personal attributes. In a lean,constantly learning and changing corporation with few middle level managers,these personal attributes are not optional. Every employee must be a member of a self-managed work team, handle change well, be self-motivated to achieve work objectives, and strive for continuous improvement.

The difficulties finding qualified employees is a national problem. Today’s successful organizations are much different from organizations in the past. They need a different kind of employee than they needed before.

In the past children were trained by parents and teachers to act, dress, talk,feel, and think as told. This training produced millions of high school graduates conditioned to be obedient employees in large organizations that changed very slowly. If you were an obedient employee who followed your job description, were receptive to performance evaluations, and didn’t cause problems for managers, you could expect to eventually be old enough to stay home and still get checks.

Now that corporations change internally so frequently, it is rare for anyone to have an up-to-date job description. Some corporations have stopped giving job descriptions to employees. They have job categories for determining compensation levels, but they need people who can get the right things done in new situations without needing to be told what to do. They need employees with qualities of professionalism. This means they need employees with inner standards who can adapt quickly, work well with others, succeed at reaching goals, and constantly learn and improve.

Self-motivated, self-managed learning is an essential attribute needed in employees in a changing workplace. Constant change requires constant learning. As anyone who has taken a psychology course may recall, psychologists define learning as "a change in behavior that results from experience." In other words, "change" and "learning" are inseparable.

Part of the problem that employers have in finding workers with attributes of professionalism stems from three different ways that humans experience developmental learning:

  • The first learning mode is parent to child, teacher to student, or authority to beginner.
  • The second is imitation of role models.
  • Third is self-motivated, self-managed learning.
    This third way is how we develop expert level skills and professionalism.

The problem is that the first learning mode, the one traditionally used for teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, mathematics, and history frequently suppresses the third learning mode. The curious student who asks too many questions may be seen as disruptive, as interfering with covering the lesson plan for the day, or as not being a "good" student.

For many decades school administrators allowed teachers to squelch students who asked lots of questions. School systems emphasized the importance of learning answers, not the importance of asking questions. I have asked audiences all over the country "Have any of you ever been to a commencement where a graduating student was honored for being the best student in the class at asking questions?" None of the thousands of people in my audiences has raised a hand.

The point here is that educational practices that produced employable graduates in the past have now become counter-productive. The old practices now produce graduates that many employers don’t want.

Sessions says "Hewlett Packard’s culture is that you never come to work waiting for someone to tell you what to do today. A tough teacher who drills students on the 47 steps for doing something is not producing an employee that Hewlett Packard wants. Different people work in different ways to reach a common objective. We focus on people reaching a high level of success, not on how people accomplish their objectives."

What does the future hold? Educators in Southwestern Washington have listened and responded to the concerns of employers in the area. One outcome is the Columbia River Education and Workforce Council (CREWC). Barbara Ritter, the project coordinator says "CREWC is the result of visionary planning and collaboration by business and education leaders in Clark County. It is committed to transforming the learning processes in our schools so that we will have a workforce that is well-prepared to enter the employment world."

Ritter says "CREWC is committed to improving the quality of life and economic competitiveness in the communities in Clark County." She says its mission specifically states that one of its purposes is to "develop expanded learning systems that increase individual responsibility for better education and self reliance."

Til Klem, a vice-president and commercial loan officer with SeaFirst in Vancouver, heartily agrees with the CREWC purposes. "We do not have job descriptions, "she says, "we give people objectives. In employment interviews we ask applicants what problems they have solved. We look for someone who is a self-starter who can work independently. I can’t waste my time with a problem employee who is not producing. We look for creative people with initiative."

Can the schools produce graduates with initiative? Graduates whose self-motivation to learn has not been stifled?

To do so, educators are going to have wrestle with a significant teaching challenge: attributes of professionalism can be learned, but they can’t be taught.

In traditional classroom settings the teacher teaches a lesson, the students study the lesson, then the students take a test to see how well they have learned the lesson. Expert learning and professionalism come from a reversed sequence. In the school of life first you get tested, then you learn a lesson afterward.

Another way of understanding the teaching challenge is to look at an important personality variable psychologists have researched. Humans vary significantly on a dimension described as the "internal or external locus of control."

People with an external locus of control want an authority to tell them what to do. They feel bewildered and flounder in ambiguous situations. These are students who respond well to a teacher who to tells them what to learn. These are employees who cooperatively follow their job descriptions.

People with in internal locus of control are self-motivated and self-reliant.They ask questions, challenge authority, invent ways to deal with problems they encounter, and take action without asking for anyone’s approval. As employees they felt constricted by job descriptions. They resisted being regimented into large organizations that wanted only good employees.

In the past the educational system has valued and rewarded students with an external locus of control, while it devalued, punished, or medicated internal locus of control students. This was a perfect training ground for traditional organizations who wanted employees with an external locus of control. Many managers reprimanded or got rid of workers with an internal locus of control.

Now employers are saying to educators "Stop the production line! We no longer want the kind of graduate we used to want. We no longer manage with instructions, now we managing with questions. Change what you are doing quickly!"

Educators find themselves being asked to do what commercial organizations must do to survive in a rapidly changing world-listen to consumers, adapt quickly, set new goals, and succeed in providing what the consumer requests.

The shift will not be quick or easy, however. A cultural change of this magnitude will take time. Barbara Ritter points out that many courses are mandated by the state. No school district, on its own initiative, can drop or significantly alter many of the courses taught. Further, the economics of instructional practices are such that a certified teacher must teach twenty to thirty children of the same age clustered together as a group.

Posted with permission.

One sign of progress in Clark County is the Business and Education Succeeding Together program. "The BEST strategies," says Ritter, "are designed to create the ‘best’ prepared workforce in the world. Employers will be encouraged to use BEST students….and can be assured that the young person will be a valuable asset."

The litmus test for CREWC and the BEST program will be the methods they use to develop the desired strengths and qualities in students. Will they undercut their goals by using the traditional teaching based model, or will they implement a learning-based model that facilitates the life-long, self-motivated learning that leads to developing the expertise and professionalism that employers need?

Teaching Adult Learners the Way They Learn

The Instructor’s Role In Retaining Adult Learners and Increasing Their Chances of Success in College — Teaching adult learners requires more advanced teaching skills than teaching traditional students.

The Adult Student's Guide to Survival and Success, grad capThe Instructor’s Role In Retaining Adult Learners and Increasing Their Chances of Success in College

by Al Siebert, PhD

Summary

Teaching adult learners requires more advanced teaching skills than teaching traditional students. This interactive session will focus on ways for classroom instructors to help adult learners overcome their fears, handle the transition into college, develop support groups, and be less likely to drop out. Participants in this interactive session will ask questions, share experiences, and tell each other about their successful efforts with adult students.

Session Content

Adult learners begin college classes with more fears and concerns than traditional younger students. A skillful instructor devotes much of the first class meeting to reducing the fears and concerns, then develops strong intrinsic interest in the course by connecting each student’s plans for the future and past experiences with the course material. To facilitate learning in adult students, an instructor needs many diverse skills, including creating a non-competitive atmosphere that encourages cooperative learning.

The following classroom activities improve the retention of adult students and enhance their motivation to learn:

First. While waiting for stragglers to show up for the first class, have the students introduce themselves to others sitting nearby. Have them interview each other about their reasons for taking the course, and talk with each other about any fears or concerns they have.

Common fears and concerns expressed by adult learners:

  • I haven’t studied in years. I’m out of practice. My brain feels rusty.
  • I’m not sure I can read, write, or do math well enough to take college courses.
  • I was always nervous taking tests. I’m afraid I’ll be too upset to do well.
  • My past history in school is not good. I won’t be able to compete. Only a few smart students receive high grades.
  • Do I have to use a computer? Why did they give me a student e-mail address?
  • All this internet talk is too confusing.
  • I won’t fit in. I’ll be an outsider in a world much different from my own.
  • I don’t know anyone here.
  • Instructors won’t like having older students in their classes.
  • I’m afraid it will take too long to get a college degree if I’m a part-time student.
  • My friends and family will suffer. I’ll have to spend so much time doing schoolwork that my family will feel rejected. What if my partner and/or friends feel threatened by my attempt to improve myself?
  • As a student, I’m afraid I’ll never have time for my family, friends, or outside interests.

Comment: Adult learners begin courses with more fears and concerns than younger students. This initial getting acquainted activity helps adult learners relax and makes them feel more free to speak up in class than hearing reassurances from the instructor.

Second. Quiet the group and have each person introduce himself or herself to the rest of the class. Have them state their reasons for taking the course and express any fears or concerns. Have brief interactions with students, but avoid long dialogues. Aim to get around the group quickly.

Comment: Adult students often begin courses feeling anxious, isolated, and out of place. Nervousness and fear are greatly diminished by expressing them openly. This activity also lets students make mental notes about someone they identify with and may want to talk with after class.

Third. Now talk about yourself, your background, how you became interested in subject, and your way of teaching the course.

Fourth. Pass out the course syllabus with all dates for papers due, examinations, and other required work. Ask for questions about the course.

Comment: Do not start the class by passing out the course syllabus and explaining it. By focusing attention on the students first, and having them express their concerns, interests, and goals, the students develop a more positive emotional connection with the course and the instructor.

Fifth. Facilitate the formation of support groups. Adult learners increase their survival chances and do better in college when they form support groups with other students. The following guidelines for starting a “College Success Support Group” have received excellent ratings on course evaluations:

  • Get together with a few other beginning students. Urge any new students who seem “lost” to come along.
  • Meet in a place where you can sit comfortably and talk with each other, perhaps in the college cafeteria.
  • Introduce yourselves. Keep repeating and checking that you have each others’ names right as you talk and listen.
  • Take turns talking about your feeling, impressions, and experiences starting college.
  • Find out why you each decided to go to college. Ask about difficulties that have to be handled. Talk about your dreams and plans for the future.
  • Ask about the courses you are each taking. Find out what program each person has selected or is considering.
  • Make certain each person feels heard. By the time you finish, make certain each of you feels “A few of my classmates know about me and understand what I am feeling and experiencing right now.”
  • Discuss the benefits from having a small support group. Talk about why it will be useful to get together to study for tests, read each other’s papers, problem solve difficulties, encourage each other, and applaud your successes.
  • Plan to meet again soon to discuss what you are learning in this book about how to succeed in college. Read the chapters, for example, on ways to increase self-confidence and how to gain support from family and friends.
  • Exchange telephone numbers. During the first weeks it will be useful to telephone each other daily and meet frequently.
  • Congratulate each other for having the courage to take this exciting, important step in life.

Comment: Research into stress-management and resiliency has established that people in friendly support groups cope with pressure better, stay more healthy, and are more successful than isolated individuals.

Conclusions

Instructors who get the best evaluations from adult learners relate to the students with empathy, use a flexible teaching style, and teach in an “adult to adult” ego state (ala Eric Berne). Research has shown that adult learners do better in courses where instructors:

  • Create a relaxed and safe atmosphere.
  • Accommodate different learning styles.
  • Present information using both visual and auditory methods.
  • Talk with students, not at them.
  • Recognize student uniqueness.
  • Validate cultural differences.
  • Let students influence course coverage.
  • Match teaching method to content.
  • Build on students’ experience.
  • Encourage self-motivated learning.
  • Include team learning projects.
  • Avoid setting up competition.
  • Support theory with real-life examples.
  • Make class sessions interactive.
  • Provide frequent positive feedback.

Presented at the National Conference on the Adult Learner 2000, Atlanta, Georgia
Professional Development Center, School of Business, Portland State University

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