Sorry, too busy to have a conversation

April 14, 2013

This is the 40th anniversary of the cell phone (“On April 3, 1973, a Motorola inventor named Martin Cooper made the first-ever call on a handheld cellular phone.” )

In a 2011 TED talk, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, reflecting on how our society uses cell phone technology, observed that “reclaiming conversation, that’s the next frontier.” By that she meant old-fashioned face-to-face conversation, without the sometimes never-ending distractions and interruptions of handhelds. In this TED talk,, and in her book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” Turkle explores how profoundly handheld technology has changed our culture, and she argues that we need to make better choices about how we use this technology. We can turn off our cell phones, we can tweet less often, we can visit Facebook once a week instead of once an hour. And instead, we can have real conversations with family, friends and colleagues.

I turn off technology, and I am encouraged that Sherry Turkle, and perhaps others who have heard her and read her books, are doing that too. I take technology-free vacations in Maine, and in the Caribbean, where I camp in a tent and remove digital technology from my life. I don’t talk on any phone unless there is an emergency, I don’t bring a computer or even an e-reader. I take books.  My wife and I hike, and climb, kayak, swim, build campfires at night, look at the stars, and endlessly talk. I try to do these “retreats” at least two times a year, for at least eight days each time. I almost always manage at least once a year. I come back feeling refreshed, with new insights and ideas.

I have a friend who takes technology-free vacations in the city. She turns off everything:  land line, cell phone, television, and radio. She walks or takes public transportation.  That’s harder than what I do, and I am not sure I could manage it, but she, too, feels cleansed, reinvigorated, and more aware of herself, her friends and family, of being alive.

Our interrupted and distracted culture, accelerated by mobile technology, is not a hopeless addiction, Turkle argues. We can easily do something about it. We can tame technology, turn it off. We can be fully present when our family, friends and colleagues are talking, not be “online.”

The high-volume of  interrupting phone calls, tweets, and emails, and our frequently-Facebook-checking culture, Turkle argues, is a substitute for authentic interaction.

Here’s an example. I subscribe to several  Communities of Practice (CoPs). These are online professional discussion groups where practitioners, researchers and others are supposed to engage in dialogue, learn from each other, add to our professional wisdom, explore new ideas, think together critically, provide a sounding board, offer insights, and perhaps at times inspire each other.  However, that doesn’t often happen. Mostly, these are announcement lists of other activities, resources, and events. Each of these online professional communities has hundreds of subscribers, so the critical mass needed for good discussion is not the problem. Most have subject matter experts, although they may lack discussion leaders, who often can be helpful in seeding and nurturing discussion.

When confronted with the lack of real discussion, and even shop talk, some CoP members reply in defense that they are just too busy. For a long time I thought this meant too busy working; people in the adult basic skills (literacy, basic education, secondary education, English language teaching) field, where most teachers have two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet, and where funding has been cut and those left employed have to do the work of those laid off, are busy.  But there’s something else going on, I think. The people in CoPs are not too busy to subscribe and to skim the posts, or at least the subject headers and digests of posts. They are just too busy to engage. Of course some people would (rightly) argue that there is benefit from getting information from CoPs, that some people may participate in some of the webinars, conferences, and online courses they learn about from these discussions. Still, CoPs themselves, are intended as a community, an opportunity for sharing professional wisdom, for discussion, a place to share ideas and have them critiqued. Those who “subscribe” but are not truly members of these communities, miss an opportunity for important and genuine conversation, for reflection and professional improvement.  Are they really too busy to engage in a conversation? Perhaps its because their lives are filled with what Turkle describes as the “illusion of connectedness.”

Is your own life filled with tweets, email, and short phone calls? Can you remember the last time when you had a “a good conversation”? Are your conversations distracted or interrupted by technology?  If so, try to take control:

• Turn off your cell phone during certain hours of the day.  Carry two cellphones, one that is always on, but only to be used for emergencies. Turn the other one off and only check it at the beginning and end of the day.

• If you subscribe to several professional development CoPs, cut down the number (perhaps to only one) but then actually engage with that one.

• Unsubscribe from all commercial email advertising – use the time you might spend looking at ads in real-time (face-to-face or online) talking with family, friends or colleagues. You’ll miss a bargain or two but gain something more valuable.

• Take technology-free vacations, perhaps short ones as well as longer ones. Use the time to become more aware of yourself, your family, your friends, your community, your environment, and  the world in which you live.

• Establish new ground rules such as no cell phones used

• During meals

• While walking  (There are other important reasons for this rule: hearing safety, in some environments, physical safety)

• During meetings, and

• When you are having a conversation

I would be interested in hearing other ways to tame our technology-domineering culture. Hope you will comment below.

Beyond Student Councils: Adult Learner Leadership

March 11, 2013

The national adult learner leadership organization, VALUE, has long said that the success of the adult literacy education field depends on adult learners. This doesn’t mean only that practitioner success is measured by adult learner gains in education progress. It also means that, as a marginalized field, the best hope for mainstream attention and increased public investment, especially in economic hard times, is a large number of well-organized adult learner leader advocates.

We know, from years of experience, that legislators on both sides of the aisle pay more attention to what adult learners say than practitioners, whose jobs they often rightly believe depend on public funding. What gets legislators’ attention is passionate and articulate adult learners, people from their Congressional or representative district, especially those who are politically active and who are registered to vote.

Student councils; student or graduate-led mentoring or learner support groups; student participation on program boards and advisory councils; student-produced projects, such as health literacy information and advocacy in their communities; and student-led public speaking events about adult literacy education are all important adult learner leadership activities, but they are not enough. Look at the devastation of adult education funding in New Jersey, New York, California, Arizona, and any number of states, not to mention states like Iowa and Colorado that have no state funding devoted to adult literacy education. This must be changed.

Recently the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education (MCAE), an organization I am proud to be a member of, began to mobilize adult learner and practitioner advocates to ask candidates for the U.S. Senator position left vacant by long-time Senator John Kerry these four questions:

U.S. Senate Candidates – Adult Basic Education Questionnaire

1. Do you believe adult basic education is a right or a privilege? Should we have a social contract for adult basic education the way we do for K-12 education?

2. Currently our state has many residents who lack access to adult basic education services either because there is no program in their area, the programs in their area have long waiting lists or there are scheduling, transportation or child care barriers. What steps would you take to correct this lack of access?

3. Efforts are underway at the state and national level to raise the quality and standards of adult basic education programs and services to be comparable with that of the K-12 system, yet the ABE system receives only a small fraction of the funding that goes to the K-12 system. What would you do to increase the resources allocated to adult basic education in order to promote the development and professionalization of the field?

4. What do you believe should be the vision and purpose for the adult basic education system, in good economic times and bad?

These are great questions. So great that New Hampshire’s Adult Education Director, Art Ellison, sent them out to adult basic education state directors and advocates across the country to consider using in their own state, and with U.S. Senators and Congress people. The greatest power to move legislators with these questions is in the hands of adult learner leaders. The challenge for practitioner- and other advocates is how best to help organize program graduates and students who are leaders, or who could become leaders, to meet with their elected officials, to ask them questions like these and to talk about the impact of adult literacy education on them, their families and communities.

For several years a collaboration of the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education and an adult learner leadership group organized and led by students and graduates of adult literacy education programs, the Massachusetts Alliance for Adult Literacy, have offered adult learner leadership training. This is a volunteer activity, one that does not use public funding, and where students can choose to attend. They meet for training in the morning and then many choose to visit their state legislators’ offices in the afternoon. They are told that it is their own story, how they came to realize they needed adult literacy education services and how they and their family and community have benefited, that legislators want to hear. They are also given an adult literacy education fact sheet, and they have a clear idea of what the “ask” should be, because legislators usually want to know what they think should be done about the problem of long waiting lists for services. This is one activity, but there are others in a leadership training process.

Many adult learner leadership training models involve inviting learners to take leadership roles in their programs: participation in program decision-making, and telling their story and talking about the unmet need for adult literacy education services in community venues such as rotary club meetings, church or library forum, and other activities. One part of this process can be a large annual rally at their state legislature. We live in a democracy, and adult learners need to visit their “state house” or state legislature to appreciate that it belongs to the people of their state, including them, if they are citizens. Many students have said that visiting the state house, walking through its halls in large numbers, and talking with legislators is a profound education experience. One student, many years ago, put it this way on a trip home. He said, “In my country, if I had done what I did today, talk with my legislators, I might have been shot.”

There is a natural confluence of democracy education and helping adult learners understand how to advocate with their elected officials for what they believe is needed in their community or state.

Many states, all over the country, have been supporting adult learner leadership efforts like this for years. You’ll find this in Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Missouri, Georgia, Ohio, New Hampshire, and in many other states. However, this may be a new idea in other states, and in some states it happens in fits and starts. This needs to be a regular, year-in and year-out activity with many hundreds of adult learners and graduates. If adult learner leadership is of interest to you, email me, including information about what adult learner leadership activities you have now in your program or state, and I’ll send you a list of contacts of people who can help you organize or give you ideas on how to improve what you do.

David J. Rosen


Using Free Online Instructional Videos with Adult Learners

March 7, 2013

Recently I have done an adult education professional development presentation in Atlanta, New York City, and (a webinar) in New Jersey. I will be presenting it at the National COABE Conference in New Orleans in March, and twice in Massachusetts in April. The presentation topic is Students and Teachers Learning from Free Online Instructional Videos. In a couple of the presentations, not surprisingly, I have been asked for advice on how teachers could use these videos with their students. Here’s the short answer:

Where to find free online instructional videos appropriate for adult learners

You can find lots of good instructional videos on YouTube, You may have to narrow your search using terms like “essay writing” “adding and subtracting decimals”  or “comma faults”.  A few years ago our problem was not being able to find many good videos on YouTube suitable for adult education; now the problem is that there are so many videos that it is hard to sort the wheat from the chaff.  If YouTube is blocked at your program or school, you can still preview the videos at home, and using software such as DVD VideoSoft  you can save it to a portable storage device that you connect to a computer lab LAN or show in class using a multimedia (LCD) projector. If you are looking for numeracy and math videos, I have done some of the review work for you. To download a free, 21-page list of adult basic education and adult secondary education numeracy and math video web sites, go to my drop box at: )

Always preview videos before showing or assigning them to students.

If possible, form a team of people who teach the same subject at the same level to review and share videos. This could be a group of teachers at your school or program. It could also be a group of teachers from several programs in your area or state. It could be an online team. You could use free online group software like Wiggio, Yahoo or Google groups, or for real-time video meetings for up to nine people, Google Hangouts, or Skype. Of course, someone needs to take the lead and invite others to join, moderate the meetings, and follow up.

Evaluating Videos

Create a simple, shared video evaluation form that the teachers would use, something like this:

  • Would you assign this to your students? If yes, continue. If no, stop.
  • What subject and level?
  • How many minutes long is the video?
  • What’s the video’s web address?
  • Is there an accompanying assessment? If so would you assign this, too?
  • Are there accompanying print materials that could be downloaded? If so, would you assign these?
  • Rate the video: E = Excellent, G= Good, O= okay

Develop a simple way to get video evaluation comments from learners for the videos you show or assign – a simple questionnaire such as this:

  • What did you like about the video?
  • What didn’t you like?
  • Did it help you learn? (yes/no)
  • If so, what was helpful?
  • Other comments:

Where your students may watch the videos

Videos can be shown in class, but students can also, or instead, watch them from a computer at home, work or a library, or from a smart phone. They could watch them before and/or after class, connected to the classwork, or as a supplement to classroom instruction. The Khan Academy “flipped classroom” model, where students watch a demonstration before class, and take a quiz whose results are instantly organized in a class data display for the teacher, enables the teacher to work directly with the students who have not passed the quiz, while assigning other videos to students who “got it” or asking them to be peer mentors to those who didn’t.

Teach your students how to watch online videos

If you assign videos for students to view outside class, on their own in a class, or in a computer lab, be sure that your students know how to access the videos, and also how to use the video controls:

  • Play
  • Pause
  • Stop
  • Rewind
  • Fast forward
  • Slider to move ahead or back
  • Enlarge the video to fill the screen
  • Turning on closed caption (CC)

Encourage students who don’t understand the content, or can’t do what it is demonstrating after watching once, to rewind and play it again (and again).

Consider using the (often free) assessments or supplementary print materials available for some of the videos

If the video has a quiz, encourage students to take it. For some vides, e.g. Khan Academy, USA Learns, TV 411 there are quizzes and/or accompanying downloadable print materials. Be sure you know what’s available and show students how they can access the materials.

Professional Development videos

If you are looking for adult education professional development videos, check the (free) Media Library of Teaching Skills, and also YouTube. For some topics, for example,  essay writing, YouTube has lots of videos. You can check out several different approaches, and choose the one that you think is most effective.

Do you use online instructional videos with your students? If so, what’s your advice for other teachers who want to try this?

Noncognitive or Performance Character Skills in Adult and Transitional Education

February 1, 2013


How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough is about an important set of skills that Tough, and a slew of researchers whose work he describes, believe that students need in addition to academic or cognitive skills. In no particular order, here’s a list of some of the main ones described in Tough’s book:

  • optimism — believing that you can achieve (able to simultaneously concentrate on your goal while simultaneously concentrating on how to overcome the obstacles in the way)
  • curiosity
  • zest – engaged and fully participating in learning
  • gratitude — the habit of verbally appreciating it when someone helps you
  • social intelligence — the “ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations)
  • self control
  • perseverance
  • diligence
  • grit — the ability to pursue a goal, stick to it, overcome obstacles in the path of meeting that goal
  • volition — not just motivation (i.e. “I really want to finish a college degree.”) but also the will to make it happen, to break the goal down into steps, and one by one and over time to overcome the obstacles to accomplish those steps. (Maybe this is the same as grit with optimism and perseverance.)

Tough describes “volition” based on the impressive research on performance character (not moral character but things like self-control and willpower) of Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth’s premise is that “[performance] character is at least as important as intellect” to help chronically low-performing but intelligent students. She is interested in issues like metacognitive strategies to teach people to maximize self-control. Duckworth separates out “motivation” (wanting something — even wanting it a lot, or more than anything) from “volition” (willpower, self control, and grit strategies). She says both motivation and volition are needed.

Duckworth has worked with schools, including KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools that serve very low-income children, to help them develop tools to evaluate performance character strengths like self-control, grit, social intelligence, zest, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. She has helped them use these assessments in the schools with students, their parents, and teachers who review them together, like a performance character report card.  She has also helped teachers who want to teach these performance character strengths. Tough writes, “But Angela Duckworth believes that thinking and talking about character isn’t enough, especially for adolescents. It’s one thing to know abstractly that you need to improve your grit or your zest or your self-control. It’s another thing to actually have the tools to do so. This is the flip side of the distinction Duckworth draws between motivation and volition, or willpower.” Tough continues, “Duckworth is now trying to help young people develop those volitional tools…”(Tough, page 92.)

I wonder if this kind of research also applies to adult learners. I think, for example, of workshops offered by the Canyon Ranch Institute and other health literacy organizations to help motivated low-income adults to learn and practice strategies to change their health-related (nutrition and exercise for example) behaviors. I think of many adult learners whom I know, some of whom I have taught, who have had to learn volitional skills to match their high degree of motivation to pass the GED test, make their dream a reality.

Here’s another set of noncognitive skills (Tough, p 161) that are needed to prepare for college. They come from Chicago researcher Melissa Roderick who works with the Consortium on Chicago Schools Research. She thinks thee following five “academic noncognitive skills” are critical:

  • Study skills
  • Work habits
  • Time management
  • Help-seeking behavior, and
  • Social/academic problem-solving skills

At least three of these: study skills, work habits and time-management, are common adult education transition program, work-readiness, or workplace “soft skills” that may be addressed in the adult literacy education field. Perhaps many adult education teachers also address social/academic problem-solving skills, depending on how that’s defined. I am intrigued, however, by “help-seeking behavior.” Do we need to pay more attention to that?

I have a colleague (let’s call him James) who was a top-performing GED student but who went on to college to find that he had neither the academic skills, nor knowledge of how a post-secondary environment functions, that he needed to succeed. He was highly motivated, and on his own he developed some successful volition skills/strategies that eventually enabled him to earn a B.A. with high honors. One key strategy he developed was how to use office hours.

Knowing How to Use Office Hours

Research at Portland State University several years ago had interesting findings on the perceptions of first-year, first-generation (i.e. first one in their family to attend college) students about how the university worked. From a survey researchers learned that nearly all the first generation students had heard of office hours and correctly understood them to mean when the instructor or professor was available to meet with students in her/his office. The researchers also learned, however, that almost no one had actually used office hours. To find out why not, they met with a sample of the respondents. There were many reasons given for not using office hours, but the main one….. before you read further, guess what it might be, then scroll down to the last paragraph to read what it was.

Back to James: he had developed a strategy. He immediately went to each of his instructors during their office hours. He told them that he was concerned that he didn’t understand the material, what was expected of him, or how to meet the expectations. He said he knew that he was failing and that he desperately wanted to succeed. He said he was prepared to work hard, but didn’t know how to do this effectively in a college environment.

It turned out that this was a brilliant strategy. Every instructor understood that he was an underprepared student who cared about success, and that he was motivated but needed help. Instead of suspecting that he was a slacker, they now understood that with some extra effort on their part and his, he believed he would be a serious student who could really benefit from what they had to teach.

And now, what the first generation college students thought about office hours……

The students didn’t go to instructors’ office hours, they said, because they didn’t think they were in trouble. This meant they didn’t think they had done anything wrong, as in high school when someone was “sent to the office” or when someone was in “academic trouble.” Their frame of experience, not surprisingly for first generation college students, was how their high school had worked. They had not explicitly been taught how a university works, and they didn’t understand how office hours might help them.

Teaching noncognitive help seeking skills like how to use office hours, or how to get other help from a teacher, would be useful for all adult learners, whether in adult basic, secondary, transitional or higher education.

Defining Digital Literacy

January 14, 2013

Last year the print and digital magazine  TEACH, the largest national education publication in Canada, asked readers “What Does Digital Literacy mean to you?” In the June 13th, 2012 English version of the magazine,, two responses were published. I wrote the first one, in the contexts of digital literacy for older youth and adult learners, and in the context of myself as a learner. Contexts for the author of the second definition, Mudita Kundra, are secondary school students, but also the author herself as an educator, graduate student and job seeker.

Is digital literacy really literacy? Why does anyone care how digital literacy is defined?

In his 2012 book, Adult Basic Education in the Age of New Literacies, Dr. Erik Jacobson, Assistant Professor of Education  at Montclair State University in New Jersey, wrote: “…I believe positing something called ‘digital literacy’ makes the same mistake previous accounts of literacy did by assigning too strong a definitional essence to the media being used. One of the responses to great divide theories has been what has been called the New Literacies Studies (e.g. Street, 1994; Heath, 1983; Barton & Hamilton, 1998), whose key methodological stance is to look for specificity in how individuals and communities use the written word on combination with other semiotic resources).” “Digital literacy” may not be a separate kind of literacy but rather a descriptive phrase for how people get and perhaps use meaning in a digital milieu.

Definitions of digital literacy range widely, from computer basics to highly sophisticated understandings of technology, and critical thinking about what we read in a digital milieu. As you will see in both definitions reprinted below, for both Kundra and me, there is a sense in which it means savvy, comfortable, fluent and adept in reading and acting in the digital world. Given that range of meanings we who use the term need to define how we are using it and, more important, keep in mind what practices these literacies may have in common, what is different, and what is actually new. Asking ourselves, “Is this a new practice, a new combination of existing practices, or just a new medium for a well-established practice?” might clarify our thinking and might have an effect on what we and our students learn.

In the spirit of TEACH Magazine’s inquiry, What does digital literacy mean to you? Use the article Leave a Reply feature below to tell us what you think, and please include your name and, if you wish, your location and email.

Below is a reprint of the the TEACH Magazine definitions.

Digital Literacy: What does it mean to you?

Image retrieved from on January 14, 2013

As part of TEACH Magazine’s Digital Literacy Initiative, we asked our readers, What Does Digital Literacy mean to you? Readers wrote in and explained how being digitally literate impacts them as educators, librarians, administrators, or principals.

At one end of the spectrum digital literacy means basic comfort and competence in using computers, smart phones, electronic tablets, and other web-accessible devices. Toward the other end it means what some call information literacy, the ability to judge the quality of information one receives through electronic means. If literacy is getting meaning from print, then digital literacy is getting basic meaning from what you read — or have read out loud to you – through the use of a digital electronic device. It is also, at the higher end of the spectrum, sorting out wheat from chaff, using the higher order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

For me digital literacy involves reading widely, keeping informed, knowing when and how to be critical and when to embrace new information, new ideas. It also means how to approach new technologies – hardware and software – skeptically, fearlessly, and with enthusiasm. It means being limber in how one thinks, agile in using technology, expecting as normal seismic shifts in new information and communication tools.

Digital literacy is also fun. Unlike print literacy, we expect through digital literacy to be offered visual and sound embellishments of text. Digital magazines should be beautiful to see and hear. They should be interactive, with opportunities for talking and writing about what we read with others.

Digital literacy opens a door to digital learning. We are seeing the dawn of online courses, digital chautauquas and online study circles. We are also seeing the early stages of using digital technologies to learn anywhere, anytime, and as fast or slowly as one wants, with more easily accessible and better learning resources.

David J. Rosen, Ed.D. is President of Newsome Associates in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His interests include integrating technology in the adult education classroom, using technology for learning outside the classroom, and education and employment for out-of-school youth. He is an implementation advisor for the Learner Web, a major national adult learner support initiative.

Every time there is a buzzword in the education world, we look for definitions. Internet search engines show a neat set of no more than 30 words describing terms such as digital literacy in no less than 20 different ways. The basic definition of literacy remains the same: the ability to read and write. But to be literate in any given field is the ability to comprehend and to be well versed in it. I shall define digital literacy by sharing the different contexts it exists within the world of education. I write as an educator, a graduate student, and a job applicant.

As an educator, I have applied digital literacy skills in my secondary school science classrooms. I have used instructional media like iClickers and SMART boards for interactive activities and virtual laboratories. I have also used grade management software like MarkBook to deduce and analyze trends for individual students and whole classes. Online instructional tools such as Wikis empower digitally smart educators to collaboratively design and deliver resources to nurture young minds.

For students to be digitally literate, they not only need to learn how to use technology, but to be critical of the information they gather. Students are exposed to information digitally—articles, statistics, videos. They require explicit instruction that information might be old, biased, fake, illegal, or discriminatory. The Ontario provincial curriculum, like many others, talks about imparting 21st century skills, and digital literacy falls under that category. Educators are evolving instruction to teach students to discern information by being analytical thinkers.

The need for this evolution has been evident during my master’s degree in Educational Studies, which I recently completed at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. The course assignments emphasized technology integration. And despite being familiar with e-databases like ERIC, I got a lesson in digital literacy as I worked entirely from online libraries to conduct literature reviews. My digital knowledge base kept expanding.

Just as I was beginning to think that I am digitally savvy enough, I ventured back into the arena of job-hunting. Not only did I have to learn where to look for job postings requiring my new skills, I needed to understand the digitally focused language of these postings. Applications submitted electronically often go through a preliminary scan and the use of correct keywords in my cover letters is critical. A considerable number of jobs also ask for the ability to develop courses for web-based instruction. The need to improve digital literacy and grow my digital skills has only just begun.

Yes, literacy is the ability to read and write, but it is also the ability to understand. It is this understanding that has allowed me to be educated, to be scientifically literate, and to teach. It is this understanding that now allows me to be digitally literate, to learn and employ instructive and assistive educational technology, to search and critique information, and to learn more and apply further in this century of e-learning.

Mudita Kundra is a secondary science educator formerly based in Toronto. Her academic background in chemistry and interest in stargazing led her to pursue a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University in teaching earth and space science.

Reaching out to Learning Disability Children

October 18, 2012

Archie Willard is an adult learner from Iowa who learned to read when he was in his fifties. He has been a state and national leader of adult learners, and he was a founder of VALUEUSA, the national adult learner leadership organization. He has also played an important role in health literacy.  I met Archie in 1995 when we were among those chosen as U.S. National Institute for Literacy Research Fellows. Archie’s research was on adult learner leadership. I invited Archie to write a guest blog about his experiences over the years as an adult learner leader who speaks to classes of children. Note: If you would like permission to re-publish this story, please email me at djrosen& (Substitute @ for & in the email address.)

Reaching out to Learning Disability Children

Archie Willard, Adult Learner

I have come full circle in the literacy field, from a small boy trying to read in first grade to a retired Senior. Before I started school I looked forward to doing something with my life. After trying and failing at learning to read, I lost hope. I shut down inside and I didn’t want my classmates to see me fail any more so I gave up on myself. Later in my school life I tried again. I barely got through high school and two years of college. I left school without any dreams to take me into life. I went to work in a meat packing plant. I didn’t need to know how to read there; I just needed to work fast with my hands. When you are dyslexic you have a hard time finding your way in life and you live your life very differently from those who have easily learned to read.

In my fifties my wife encouraged me to enroll in an adult reading program, and after that my life changed forever. I spent over two years in the adult reading program. Before I left, I did some public speaking for the reading program. One of my talks was to some LD kids. I just told them my life story.  Afterword they stood next to me like I was someone important, and I could see in their eyes that my words had made a difference to them.

The word got out and other schools ask me to come and speak. The lady next door to us was a teacher, and she was working on her masters degree at Iowa State University. She told her instructor, Dr. Ruth Barnhart, about me and then I was asked to come to her class to talk. Dr. Barnhart liked my story so I continued talking to her classes two times a year for the next eight years.

A lot of student teachers from the class got to know me and later, when they became teachers, they would ask me to come to their schools to speak. The more I spoke the more energy I got, and this also brought healing to my life. I became very interested in why some people struggled to read and others did not. I went to a lot of LD conferences to learn more. I asked a lot of questions, and people got to know me and became interested in me. I was able to have conversations with some of the researchers. I learned from people who worked in the reading and adult literacy field. I even did some work with them. The more I learned, the more confidence I got to tell my story.

In 1989 I started to volunteer at a middle school in Eagle Grove, Iowa, to work with the LD kids two days a week. The kids felt comfortable reading to me. When I was asked to speak at a wellness day at a school in Ames, Iowa, I thought it would be nice to take the LD class and their teacher with me. I made arrangements with the two schools and it was okay. A local meteorologist, Pam Dale, was speaking at this event because she was disabled due to an accident. When I finished speaking she came over to me and invited our group of students to visit her WOI television studio. I thought, what a beautiful opportunity.

The TV studio was part of Iowa State University’s campus at that time. When we got there, only one parking space was left and the sign said “fifteen minutes parking”. This was the only parking space for many blocks. Mary Sersland, the LD teacher, said that the meter person was just leaving and probably wouldn’t be back for an hour, so I parked the van and we went in. Pam was there to meet us. She explained things and showed us around. It took a little over an hour. This was a treat for all of us. We all got into the van and just as we were leaving we could see the meter lady coming. The kids got a kick out of how close we came to getting a ticket.

One of my favorite places to talk was Cedar Falls, Iowa. There were four different classes of LD students brought together to hear me. Beforehand the teachers told me that some of the students were hyperactive and that they would have a hard time sitting still. After I was introduced, and they understood that I had been one of them, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. They had never heard an adult talk to them in this way before. It was hard for them to believe that adults had reading problems. I spoke for over thirty minutes The teachers were amazed, they told me that they had never had a group of LD students sit so quiet. This seemed to be a pattern when I went from school to school.

In a visit to the Quad Cites, a group of five Eastern Iowa cities on the Iowa–Illinois boundary, I was speaking to regular and LD students together. As I was speaking I could see this small boy looking at me intensely, and hanging on to every word I was saying. At the end, there was time for questions. When it comes to asking me questions once the kids get started they are never shy. The little boy, who may have been learning disabled, asked me questions such as “Do you like to read now?” and “Why is it that you struggled so much to learn to read?” Maybe he thought he was not hearing me right. Looking at him I could see some of myself in him. I feel it was hard for him to believe there was still hope for him to learn to read.

In the past I had taught an adult education class at the Iowa Central Community College at Fort Dodge. Understanding Learning Disabilities was a three-hour class that met once a year in the fall. The people who attended were mostly parents and teachers. Because of this class, a lot of parents would call me looking for help, advice and some understanding. What I had to say can only come from experience living life as a dyslexic. There wasn’t anything I could say to make their child’s problem go away. Sometimes I wished I had a magic wand and could make things happen. One thing I could give them, however, was encouragement. My advice, always the same, was not to give up, to keep trying and that there was hope.

A lady who I had never met in person would call me on many occasions to talk about her son’s reading problem. I gave her as much of my time and encouragement as possible, and told her she should try to find someone to work with him one-on-one outside the school, and never give up on him. About five years later I was in the hospital for some health problems. One day a strange nurse came into my room. She told me we had spoken on the phone before, and who she was. She thanked me for listening to her at a time when she needed someone to talk to. She said she needed someone to give her encouragement and advice at that time in her life. She told me her son was doing fine now in school after a lot of help and hard work. Getting this kind of news, especially in the hospital, was very uplifting. I’m sure there are many other good stories that happened that I will never know about. I still get phone calls from parents, and I try to help.

From the time I was tested for dyslexia in 1984 until now, much has happened. I have learned a lot from the children in the classes I spoke to, and I became close to them. We have cried together when things were not going well, and I have seen their faces of joy when they found some success in their lives. The good memories of going to these different schools will always be with me.

There has been a lot of good research done on learning disabilities. Good books have been written. There is better training for teachers now. More people with reading challenges have become open about their reading problems and become role models. But there are a lot more people coming out of the closet today who have not been helped – and our country is not equipped to take care of all of them. Society still does not understand our disability. This is a hidden disability and you can’t tell by looking who has it. You can’t take a pill to cure it – that’s why it is so hard to understand. But there is still hope… and our dreams still live on.




Changing Teacher Expectations by Changing Teacher Behaviors

September 27, 2012

You may be familiar with the 1968 Pygmalion in the Classroom study in which Robert Rosenthal found that teachers’ expectations of their students’ performance affects the students’ actual performance in that classroom. (Read about the study at .)

Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform, a recent  (8 ½ minute_ National Public Radio Morning Edition podcast, (also transcribed as printed text) references and updates this study; Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia,  “has studied teachers for years, and [told the interviewer, Alix Speigel] that it is truly hard for teachers to control their expectations.”

Spiegel continues, “But Pianta has a different idea of how to go about changing teachers’ expectations. He says it’s not effective to try to change their thoughts; the key is to train teachers in an entirely new set of behaviors.”

“Pianta and his colleagues recently did a study. They took a group of teachers, assessed their beliefs about children, then gave a portion of them a standard pedagogy course, which included information about appropriate beliefs and expectations. Another portion got intense behavioral training, which taught them a whole new set of skills based on those appropriate beliefs and expectations.”

“For this training, the teachers videotaped their classes over a period of months and worked with personal coaches who watched those videos, then gave them recommendations about different behaviors to try.”

“After that intensive training, Pianta and his colleagues analyzed the beliefs of the teachers again. What he found was that the beliefs of the trained teachers had shifted way more than the beliefs of teachers given a standard informational course.”

“This is why Pianta thinks that to change beliefs, the best thing to do is change behaviors.”

You can hear or read the whole interview at

Do teacher expectations research findings for teachers of children apply to teachers of adults?  Is it time for the Rosenthal study, or another study of teachers’ expectations of their students, to be done with teachers of adult learners?

David J. Rosen

Finding and losing our way

September 25, 2012

What do we gain and what do we lose when we learn a new technology?

Many years ago my wife, who was then an elementary school art teacher in a suburb of Boston, came home one day with some astonishing news: third graders no longer knew how to cut with scissors. She had to re-design part of the art curriculum; she could no longer assume that children had this basic (I suppose once “cutting edge”) skill.

How did this happen, I wondered. My theory was that computers were to blame, that the time parents in previous generations would have spent helping children learn how to use basic hand tools (including glue, tape, scissors and paper punches) had given way to using computers to word process and play computer games. Also, my wife thought that in the early grades the focus had moved away from skills like manipulating materials to computer skills. Ten years later the trend had not reversed. Although children had even better digital abilities, with some skills they could no longer “cut it” .

About the same time, when the price of pocket calculators dropped so that every American could afford one, and when they began to be allowed on tests, some teachers were concerned that students would lose some math skills. They were right; many children and young people can no longer do long division. (I can, but I haven’t used the skill in years.) On the other hand, perhaps some of those children are learning more math thinking and reasoning skills now that they don’t have to spend so much time learning how to do the calculations by hand. Still, what if – as Revolution, a new post-apocalyptic television show asks us to imagine – the world should lose all electricity…. I suppose if this were to happen there would be more serious concerns than doing long division.

Now, Eiizabeth Spelke, Director of the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard, is concerned about what Harvard students (and other Americans) may be losing in navigational skills because of their reliance on GPS technology.

Spelke has done cognitive skills research in an Amazon village in Brazil with uneducated Munduruku adults whose navigation skills equal or exceed Harvard undergraduates’. Spelke also found no differences in navigation skills based on gender.
‘I am worried we’re all going to be using GPSes all the time,’ Spelke said. ‘The Mundurukus are better than Harvard students because they have to keep navigating all the time.’
“Drivers in modern societies rely heavily on GPS navigation. Looking at a map is almost old-fashioned.”
‘I’m worried it will cause our systems to atrophy,’ Spelke said. ‘We’re doing this enormous experiment on ourselves and our children and grandchildren,’ she said. ‘Innate systems disappear if you don’t use them. It’s a real question of what’s going to happen with all this.’

Source: Finding our way: Researcher expands on human navigation By Judy Rakowsky, Harvard Correspondent, Harvard Gazette , Harvard Science, Science and Engineering at Harvard University. Retrieved 9.25.12 from

Integrating Technology into Adult Literacy Education

September 17, 2012

What does it mean, in 2012, to Integrate Technology into Adult Education?

In February 1998 I wrote on the National Institute for Literacy (now the U.S. Department of Education) LINCS Technology discussion list that I saw three major ways in which adult literacy education teachers were integrating technology:

1. Integrating computer-assisted instruction. A teacher looks at her curriculum, looks at what software s/he has or could buy, then tries to fit the software (usually computer-assisted instruction) into the curriculum objectives or topics or skills. The reasons for using software are: appeal of computers to some students, variety of instructional methods, especially useful where skill practice is needed, and in a few cases because the software is very well designed and is actually an admirable means of instruction.

2. Using computers as tools in a learning process. A teacher looks at how computers can be used as tools for accomplishing project-based learning. Students:

a) word process their writings,

b) publish online cookbooks or school or program newsletters,

c) carry out research using CD-ROM encyclopedias or the Internet,

d) learn science for example by dissecting frogs online, or by following actual scientific expeditions and posing questions to the scientists, or

e) practice writing skills with key-pals, using email.

Anyone Following me on Twitter already knows what I did this past summer.

3. Distance education. (Broadcast T.V., interactive T.V., videotapes, email courses, Web-based courses) joined with direct instruction, (with face-to-face, real-time instruction or as they say in chat rooms, IRL that is, in real life) Some times this is pure distance learning, sometimes blended with face-to-face instruction, and sometime supplementary to classroom learning, as homework or enrichment.

Fourteen years later these are still important ways that teacher integrate technology, but there are some new ways as well:

4. Blended learning. Increasingly, teachers and programs are trying to fit online learning what happens in their face-to-face classes and tutorials. This may mean more careful choice of a commercial online learning product or of individual (usually free) online learning materials, including videos, and linking them to existing curriculum or state content standards. One of the first comprehensive examples of this was Pima College Adult Education’s Splendid ESOL Web that indexes free learning resources with the Arizona ESOL content standards. Another model is the Learner Web, which has a wide range of online curricula (Learning Plans) that use primarily free, online learning resources. often built on top of an existing structure of face-to-face classes or tutorials.



5. New Digital hardware. In 1998 tech hardware meant computers and peripherals. Today it also includes netbooks, smart phones, electronic tablets, smart boards, and digital multimedia projectors. In 1998, if students wanted to access the web, their choices were a computer lab at their adult literacy education program, a public library, or possibly a community computing center. The hardware didn’t belong to them. Now the hardware is just as likely to a web-accessible computer at home, a smart phone and increasingly a tablet, hardware that is theirs. In some cases now, students who cannot afford these devices can borrow them from their local library, from their adult literacy education program, or buy them on time or at a considerable discount. Low-income families in many states can get Internet access, for as little as $10 a month. Will BYOD (bring your own device) be the next hardware technology phenomenon in adult literacy education?

6. Teaching Digital Facility. Increasingly high stakes tests are offered primarily or only on computer. Beginning in January 2014 the GED® high school equivalency exam will be available only on computer in an approved testing center. Digital facility (what some call digital literacy), i.e. competence and comfort in using computers and other web-accessible devices, is now essential for: job applications, almost all now online; searching for basic information such as health information; completing government forms; communicating with children’s teachers, communicating with family and friends who are far away; and for an ever-increasing number of other essential tasks.  Many teachers and administrators are concluding that fast and accurate keyboarding (typing) and basic word processing; efficient web site navigation; effective information searching and evaluating; email; retrieving, sending and managing attachments; and other digital facility skills need to be taught in adult literacy education programs along with other basic skills such as reading, writing, and math.

In our near future may be some other features that are becoming popular in higher education and K-12 education. These include:

7. Digital textbooks. Some Higher education institutions and K-12 schools have given up on (expensive) print textbooks. They provide Pads to all their students. Will adult literacy education move in that direction, too?

8. Live streaming classrooms. At least one workplace ESL program, English Under the Arches, sponsored by the McDonalds Corporation, is co-taught as online classes. Students, often in pairs, access their class from the computer in the back of their restaurant in the afternoon. This is an effective workplace ESL/ESOL model especially for learners who, because they often have two or more jobs, can only attend class online from work. Will it become more popular in the workplace? In the public sector?

Do you think these are fair characterizations of how we are using integrating technology in adult literacy education? Are there other ways this phrase is being used? Do you have good examples to add? If so, please comment.

Competency-based Adult Education in the Cloud Age

September 12, 2012

Competency-based education was in vogue in adult basic and vocational education in the United States from the 1960’s into the 1980’s. Although the term hasn’t been widely used since then, sometimes one sees its close cousins: mastery learning, performance-based learning, and outcomes-based learning; and by whatever name it is referred to, the approach is still widely used in vocational education curriculum throughout the world.

A common problem I see when reviewing adult and out-of-school youth curricula used in the U.S. and elsewhere is curriculum writers’ lack of familiarity with the underpinnings of competency-based curriculum design. For a quick refresher, here’s my take on what those are.

Twelve underpinnings of competency-based education

  1. A competency-based or mastery learning approach focuses on learning objectives (expected learning outcomes or competencies), not seat time in class.
  2. The approach assumes that all the students will master the competencies (learning objectives). Time on task may vary from student-to-student, and by subject area; however, mastering the competencies is held constant for all the learners in the class. Students learn at their own pace; some quickly or more slowly.
  3. In competency-based education, curriculum and instruction are driven by the learning objectives. In some contexts, for example work-related or vocational learning, these intended learning outcomes may need to be aligned with what is needed in the context, in this example, for what is needed at work in a particular industry.
  4. Students and teachers can correctly describe and explain the learning objectives of each lesson or module, unit and course.
  5. Instructional materials and activities are aligned with the learning objectives. More students will reach mastery of learning outcomes if their instruction is designed to help them acquire the intended learning. Although not required for competency-based education, there is evidence that contextualized materials and activities (embedded in a highly-motivating context or content) are most effective.
  6. Lesson/module, unit and course assessments are all aligned with the learning objectives at each level.
  7. Learning objectives:
    • Describe what learners can demonstrate that they know or can do, after the lesson/module, unit or course; they do not describe what a teacher will do in the classroom,
    • Include the conditions under which they will be measured, for example, what materials or tools are needed to perform the task, and
    • Include a performance standard that is measurable, one that clearly indicates how well a student needs to perform for mastery (for example, 4/5 or 80% correct, or that includes a list of specific measurement or observation criteria for determining mastery.)
  8. A teacher or other expert observes or measures and records how well each student has mastered the learning objectives.
  9. If students are pre-tested (at the beginning of a course or unit) they can “place out of” lessons, units or courses for which they can demonstrate that they have already mastered the competencies.
  10. Competency-based models greatly benefit from individually paced rather than solely group-paced instruction.
  11. Learning takes place inside and/or outside of a classroom. It is not important how students master the learning, only that they do. This means students may benefit from a wide range of instructional resources outside as well as inside a classroom.
  12. Although some people misunderstand “competency-based” to mean “minimum competencies”, the approach is not limited to only a minimum performance, and often mastery is expected.

These curriculum features or underpinnings are not dependent on having computer or Internet technology. The approach can be used in designing curriculum for villages in poor or developing countries where there may be no electricity and possibly few or no phones; however, they are especially interesting and rich in the context of blended learning that offers a combination of face-to-face and online, web-accessible learning.

Competency-based Curriculum Design with Blended Learning

Computers and other web-accessible devices (smart phones, tablets, and netbooks) enable curriculum writers and teachers to more easily individualize instruction and assessment for each student, providing greater ability for classroom teachers to assure mastery of the learning objectives for all their students. With thousands of online instructional videos available now, some with print-based practice pages and  sophisticated data management systems, teachers can benefit from a model that blends face-to-face and online learning for easy, practical solutions to individually tailored and mastery learning.

Changing Role of Teachers

Use of a blended online and face-to-face instructional model has implications for changes in the teacher’s role. As Dr. Robert W. Mendenhall, the President of Western Governors University, a large nonprofit, competency-based, online university, wrote in a recent Huffington Post blog post,

“[We must] fundamentally change the faculty role. When faculty serve as lecturers, holding scheduled classes for a prescribed number of weeks, the instruction takes place at the lecturers’ pace. For most students, this will be the wrong pace. Some will need to go more slowly; others will be able to move much faster. Competency-based learning shifts the role of the faculty from that of “a sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side.” Faculty members work with students, guiding learning, answering questions, leading discussions, and helping students synthesize and apply knowledge.” [1]

The web provides teachers and students with a wide array of excellent (often free) web-based learning resources, including instructional videos and podcasts (mp3 or audio files), and it increasingly provides teachers with tools for finding and organizing these resources. Among these tools, I have recently published a list of free, short instructional numeracy and math web-based instructional videos, many designed for adult learners. This free publication may be useful to numeracy or math curriculum writers or teachers who want to integrate free instructional videos into their existing curriculum. [2]

In the digital, and now cloud, age, especially with the acceleration of access to the web through smart phones and tablets, it may be time to combine the power of competency-based approaches and online learning.  Individually paced blended learning leading to mastery learning, once pie in the sky for most classroom teachers, is now as close as a digital cloud.

[2]The ABE and ASE/HSE Math Videos List will be found in my public dropbox folder (you can subscribe to dropbox for free) at: