This posting is posted to continue my previous posting about twelve principles that should be known by teachers. The fourth principle after need assessment, safety, and sound relationships is Sequence and reinforcement. Sequence and reinforcement are vital but often overlooked as principles of adult learning. I have an axiom: do it 1,142 times and you will have learned it! Those 1,142 times should be properly sequenced: from easy to difficult, from simple to complex. This seems such a basic concept. Failing to honor it, however, can lead to adults dropping out of courses, people acting out anger, fear, and disappointment, adults believing they cannot learn. As a budding pianist, I can corroborate that number, which in my case is immensely conservative. Suppose a group of adult learners comes together to study opera.
They are newcomers to the art. A focus group with three of them has shown that the learners want to know something of the development of the genre, but above all they want to learn how to listen to an opera for maximum enjoyment and intelligent response. The design ensures sequence and adequate reinforcement by taking a familiar opera such as Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and listening for five or six basic forms. The learning tasks would move from basic recognition of forms—That’s an aria! That’s recitativo!—to a judgment on the quality of the music, with use of new terms heard in demonstrations by the teacher. The teacher listens to the adult learners and then changes learning tasks to meet their needs for reinforcement.
If the task is too difficult for most of the learners, it must be changed. This process is what we mean by learning as dialogue. It puts the adult learners in the position of decision makers as to what tasks are appropriate—in a healthy relationship with the teacher, who is not afraid to ask: How does this task feel at this moment?
Sequence means the programming of knowledge, skills, and attitudes in an order that goes from simple to complex and from groupsupported to solo efforts. Learning tasks can be readily examined for sequence. Manifestations of safety and enthusiasm and readiness to achieve in learners indicate that sequence is being honored. When you, as teacher, see fear, confusion, and reluctance to try in the learner, test the sequence of the learning task. You may find you have not honored their need for small steps between tasks and their need for reinforcement.
Reinforcement means the repetition of facts, skills, and attitudes in diverse, engaging, and interesting ways until they are learned. The design of reinforcement in adult learning is the job of the teacher. Although adults may do their own reinforcement through practical work and study, our teaching designs, if they are to be accountable, must carry adequate reinforcement within them to ensure learning. This is the heart of the matter. In adult learning situations—in industry, community, family, or in learning sessions for personal advancement—the teacher is accountable for a design that works for the learners there and then. In formal school situations, young students are “taught” and then admonished to go home and learn what they have been taught so they can pass the test at the end of the course. They are accountable to the teacher. In adult learning, accountability is mutual. Busy managers attending a course on strategic planning, busy community people trying to learn how to organize for new legislation, families trying to learn how to communicate more effectively, individuals learning how to use a new word processing program—all need an accountable design and an accountable teacher providing the necessary tasks. Learners will do the work that enables them ultimately to know that they know. It is our job as designers of adult learning and teachers of adults to ensure that the principles of sequence and adequate reinforcement are honored within the learning program.
When we work diligently to design learning tasks that are in simple and sound sequence and that reinforce learning, we address the disparity in political power more directly than if we preach loudly on social and economic injustice. These rather technical principles and practices—reinforcement and sequence—are tough to use. They demand attention and diligence in design. When you do that hard work, you are in fact addressing sociopolitical-economic inequities. It is all of a piece. This is essential quantum thinking: the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
The example of building sequence and adequate reinforcement into a program preparing teachers to teach English as a second language and literacy skills to migrant workers in North Carolina demonstrates the importance of this principle.