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Respect for Learners as Decision Makers

Respecting learners as decision makers of their own learning is a principle that involves the recognition that adults are in fact decision makers in a large part of their lives. This article is a continuation of my previous article about twelve principles that should be acquired by teachers in teaching English; need assessment, safety, sound relationships, sequence of content and reinforcement, praxis, and next is respect for learners as decision makers. Healthy adults desire to be subjects or decision makers and resist being treated as objects, something that can be used by someone else. In dialogue education, we assume that people are not designed to be used by others. Adults need to understand that they themselves decide what occurs for them in the learning event. The dialogue of learning is between two adults: teacher and student, learner and learner. For example, new content in a course can be shown to the learners with the question: What else do you feel you need to learn about this topic? This approach makes the content an open system inviting critical analysis, editing, and additions by adult learners. Quantum thinking goes beyond the subject-object dichotomy to recognize that inclusive respect honors all people as subjects in a universe of subject entities. As subjects, we evoke the world we perceive.
Here are some examples of ways to show learners they are respected as decision makers. When teaching something such as the facts of national history, we can always offer an open question that provides the vital element of choice: “Here are the dates of important events in the history of this nation. Which one seems the most important to you in terms of reaching independence? Why did you choose that date?” Before teaching the steps in a new computer program, the teacher can ask: “Which of these steps seems like it is going to be most useful to you in your work?” This question invites both teacher and learners to approach the learning as subjects. In teaching adults the personnel processes of a corporation in a job related orientation program, the instructor can begin by asking an open question: “Here is our company process for taking sick leave. Look at all the steps. Which ones would be difficult for you? How does this process differ from the process you knew in another organization you worked for?”
In approaching adult learners as subjects, the teacher must distinguish between their suggestions and their decisions. This is called the distinction between a consultative voice (a suggestion) and a deliberative voice (a decision). Engaging adults in their own learning means engage them as subjects of that learning. At times they offer suggestions; at times they make decisions. It is essential that we be clear about the difference.
Being perceived as the subject of one’s own learning is powerful motivation to learning creatively. How can we offer adult learners as many opportunities for choice as possible? One practical guide is this. Don’t ever do what the learner can do; don’t ever decide what the learner can decide. As we shall see when we examine the principle of engagement, the learning is in the doing and the deciding.
Teachers must be careful not to steal that learning opportunity from the adult learner. The example in Nepal (Chapter Nine) points out how one man’s feeling himself the subject of his learning enhanced his development of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes being taught. What happens if we recognize learners as subjects? It can mean a radical change in our way of teaching. It can lead to radical changes in the effect of teaching: fewer dropouts, for example, as learners feel themselves respected and important decision makers in their own learning. It can mean more measurable results of the learning process, as learners know they know because they have chosen to do what they are learning. It can mean better use of financial and human resources, as adult learners practice making healthy decisions in the learning process. Joye Norris, a master of dialogue education, tells of the powerful results she has seen when learners are invited to “raise their own voices” and hear themselves, often for the first time. Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator, titled one of his books Cultural Action for Freedom (1970). Inviting learners to be subjects of their own learning is indeed the practice of freedom.

Adopted from Jane Vella’s book

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