Yo Teach…! Or how to avoid teaching like Jason

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 08 2013

Thinking about adult learning/development and the career path of a teacher

*This post is taken from a paper I wrote for graduate school. I’m posting it because I’m interested in getting feedback from people who don’t spend their life in a university library. I apologize for the length, but I don’t have the time to make them shorter. 

It is an unfortunate irony that the attempts to improve children’s learning through major school reforms have often been stymied by the utter neglect and oversimplification of the unique and varied ways that teachers, as adults, learn best. The import of sustained teacher learning on student outcomes is clear both to any first year teacher comparing his or her students’ behavior to the more experienced teacher’s students next door as well as to economists looking at the effect of teacher experience—and time to learn from one’s mistakes–on academic outcomes (Hanushek, 2003). It can even be evidenced in the rubrics of most successful new teacher development programs mapping out the necessary skills of the work, such as Teach For America’s domain of continually increasing effectiveness. It is also clear from the past half century of developmental research that adults learn differently from children and each other, depending on their life circumstances. Yet, while numerous reform ideas have been implemented with the agenda of transforming student learning environments, these ideas are rarely evaluated for their ability to motivate, support, and sustain the learning of teachers at various stages of their careers and development.

This paper aims to bridge the gap between what we know about how adults learn best and how we continue to expect teachers to learn in various educational contexts. To do this, we will begin by exploring the theory of andragogy—or adult learning—as influentially put forward by Malcolm Knowles half a century ago. Knowles’ theory of adult learning takes into account adult’s particular developmental phases, so for that reason we will review some of the most widespread phases of adult development and their impact on adult learning. From there, we will apply these models to the responsibilities and expectations of teachers throughout their careers within two archetypal school environments: a “no excuses” charter school and a loosely coupled district school. Given our understandings of adult learning and development, we will assess the extent to which these forms school organizations promote efficacious adult learning environments. We will conclude thoughts on how to apply these new understandings of adult learning to improve the ability of schools to sustain continuous teacher improvement.

Adult Learning and Development

Malcolm Knowles was one of the first, and certainly one of the most influential, researchers to rethink and adapt pedagogical ideas for adult learners. In his book The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy, Knowles describes four assumptions about how adult learners contrast from young learners that impact how adults can be educated best. First, adults are generally more self-directing then children, and often need to feel active in shaping their learning environments and respected as mature people outside of the learning they do. Second, adults are beholders of a wealth of experiences that dramatically impact their learning. When utilized effectively by teachers, these experiences can serve as an incredibly useful resource to deepen and apply understandings; when these experiences are not taken seriously, adults can feel personally disrespected and may disengage. The value of experiences for adults also predisposes them to more experiential pedagogies. (Knowles, 1970)

Third, while students are socialized to learn what society demands, Knowles argues adults are “ready to learn something when they experience a need to learn it in order to cope more satisfyingly with real-life tasks or problems.” (Knowles, 1970, p. 44) He describes this as a “readiness to learn”, which may emerge from adults’ social roles in an organization or in their life: teachers struggling with management in their first few weeks may not be ready to learn emancipatory pedagogy, veteran teachers who define themselves as experts may not be ready to learn a new literacy program that challenges assumptions they’ve held to for decades. Along those same lines, Knowles argues that adults are not willing to learn with only a promise that material may be applicable years down the road; they want to immediately apply the lessons they’ve acquired. Knowles later added two more assumptions to this framework, that adults are more driven by intrinsic than extrinsic motivation and that they need to know the purposes behind what they are learning (Merriam Caffarella, & Baumgartner, p. 84).

Taking a step back and viewing Knowles’ theory as a whole, we find that his assumptions allow for some variability on the part of adult behavior based on their circumstances and developmental stages. For example, the experiences adults may draw upon in shaping their education depend heavily on their social and organizational roles, as will their readiness to learn different kinds of skills. Moreover, while adults may generally be more driven by intrinsic motivations, the shape of these motivations may change depending on an adult’s phase of life. Indeed, these larger concepts of social roles and phases are both categories that are explored through the lens of adult development theory.

A number of developmental theorists have posited overlapping and contrasting accounts of the various phases[1] humans move through over the course of their lifespan. Our discussion will focus on what these phases have in common, courtesy of the framework established by K. Patricia Cross in Adults as Learners that integrates the most prominent theories in adult development. Cross establishes seven broad phases of human life in the literature, four of which are relevant to the development of educators: moving into an adult world (ages 23-28) the search for stability (ages 29-34), becoming one’s own person (ages 37-42), and settling down (ages 45-55).

During the search for stability, adults tend to establish their initial life structure, seeking out mentors, beginning to construct idealistic dreams, and focusing on doing what is necessary to work their way up in career and social ladders, initially unencumbered by familial obligations. As they transition to their thirties and face increased familial obligations, adults tend to seek “stability, security, [and] control” while simultaneously reexamining relationships and their life structure and searching for personal values (Cross, 1981, p. 174).  The becoming one’s own person phase follows in the late thirties and continues on the path of reevaluation; adults may cutoff ties to former mentors and peers in pursuit of personal values and priorities, which also face continual scrutiny. As adults settle down in their late 40s and early 50s they enter a time of peace and self-awareness, and may seek out mentoring and community opportunities, reestablish family relationships, and seek out new activities (Cross, 1981).

Though these phases are highly generalized, they can provide us with some insight into how to best apply Knowles’ theory of adult learning at various stages in a teacher’s career and life. The next section will attempt to do just that in evaluating a couple archetypal and prominent forms of school organizations.
Archetype I: The loosely coupled district school
The most salient metaphor to describe traditional public schools over the pest half century has been that that of the loosely coupled organization, where despite rhetoric of coherence and conformation to certain policies, teachers are generally given the autonomy to teach as they see best (Meyer & Rowan, 1977). Besides increased autonomy, this implies that teachers will often superficially participate in certain school activities or practices (e.g. using new instructional materials, interacting with staff in particular ways, implementing certain behavior systems, conforming to prescribed classroom layouts) while their core work is essentially independent over time. Paradoxically, explicit non-instructional regulations (e.g. length of the school day, teacher pay, personnel policies, and professional expectations) are strictly enforced—often to ensure long-term stability for teachers.

This structure of work has some interesting alignments and tensions with adult development. The tacit expectations that teachers will instruct as they see best certainly resonates with Knowles’ ideas that adult learning needs to be self-motivated, guided by personal experiences and intrinsic motivations. Especially with the morally infused work educating, trusting teachers’ desire to do right by their kids may facilitate self-motivated learning and improvement guided by the problems teachers find most pressing. On the other hand, teachers often have ideas that are in conflict with the typical structure of a school (e.g. changing the schedule, implementing tutoring programs, increasing collaboration time, changing the school-provided curricula), and this type of school generally does not have the resources or flexibility to allow teachers to regularly advance such ideas. As teachers confront this inflexibility, receive no satisfactory reason for why they cannot make such changes, and face off against the burdensome side of such a loosely coupled organization, teachers will begin to realize the extent to which their ideas, experiences, and values actually aren’t respected, and will likely disengage or exit. If they are not disillusioned by personal experiences with the formal side of schooling organizations, teachers may also feel demotivated by the general lack of personal respect implied by constantly changing and never fully-implemented demands placed on them with each new round of reforms.

It is informative to align these affects with the trajectory of adult development. Young teachers who are moving into an adult world—looking for mentors, organizational identity, and recognition or promotional opportunities for their effort—are likely to be highly frustrated by an organizational environment that stifles formal change and values superficial gestures over substantive efforts at improvement. Given the affronts to self-directed learning described previously, it is likely that not only will the most unsuccessful teachers leave, but so too will the most visionary, especially since the latter likely have other career options that could provide stability without the frustration. Nevertheless, if one doesn’t mind this organizational inflexibility and makes it through their first few years, those teachers who are searching for stability or becoming one’s own person (ages 29-42) may benefit from the stability and classroom control of this organizational structure. They are developmentally in a place to explore their practice in line with their personal values, and avoid the encompassing professional relationships that could eventually encroach on their space. But such an attitude arising from both circumstance and self-selection (since the more ambitious have left) will contribute to the environment that alienates young teachers as well pre-retirement adults settling down, who are looking to connect with others, form meaningful relationships, and discover new activities.

In sum, while such schools certainly are a safe option for teachers, especially those in their 30s and 40s, this often comes at the expense of alienating, frustrating, and disillusioning those who enter the system to establish meaningful professional relationships, continually improve upon their practice, and make an impact that extends beyond their own classroom.


Archetype II: The “No Excuses” charter school

One of the most promising and controversial models of education reform is the proliferation of “no excuses” charter schools. The term “no excuses” often refers both to such schools’ strict behavioral and academic expectations for students as well as their ambitious and quite often rigid professional expectations for teachers. These schools typically have centrally planned curricula that can be heavily scripted, continual assessments to evaluate both students and teachers, and specific demands for the structure of lessons, behavior management strategies, and pedagogical techniques. However, they also have an overarching and ubiquitous social mission, strong development systems to guide teacher improvement and promotion, and close professional relationships among both teachers and coaches.

Applying our understanding of adult development, it is not surprising that these schools are incredibly attractive to recent graduates, but are rarely able to retain them past their late twenties. Those moving into the adult world are often looking for strong relationships with peers and mentors, an enveloping organizational identity, and the possibility of hard work resulting in organizational promotion. Moreover, their relative lack of teaching experience leaves them open to more micromanagement, especially when they can see positive examples all around them, giving them a clear answer to the question of why they must adhere to such practices.

The problem is, as teachers continue in the system, they build up experiences and develop personal philosophies that may diverge from what the organization allows. Since schools must neglect these individual characteristics to a degree in pursuit of organizational coherence and evidenced-based practice, teachers may feel increasingly disrespected and frustrated. These problems will likely compound over time, especially as adults begin to enter the search for stability phase of life where they are inclined to reevaluate the relationships and identities of their early twenties, and the exciting high professional expectations imposed on them in their twenties now may conflict with increasing familial obligations. Just like in district schools, those who leave may do so not out of incompetence, but because they had an instructional or organizational vision that these schools were not designed to tolerate.

However, these schools are adapting promotional tracks that allow successful teachers to quickly transition to mentors, administrators, or educational leaders in other capacities. Such roles allow for new relationships, responsibilities, and ways of incorporating personality into work, and could allow for otherwise developmentally ill-fit teachers to continue learning and growing in the organization. Yet, even these roles are bound by the necessarily rigid pedagogical and epistemological underpinning of these schools, and even many administrators are likely to feel confined, replaceable, and at odds with some of the tasks before them, especially as their experiences continue to grow. To some degree, the very elements that make these charter schools reliably successful also make them developmentally incompatible with adults in their search for stability and becoming ones own person phases of life.


Concluding Lessons

This paper has attempted to discuss the major ideas in adult learning and development, and use them as a framework for evaluating two prominent—but archetypal—forms of schooling: traditional public schools and “no excuses” charter schools. We found that with a few exceptions—charter schools are relatively successful at promoting learning for young adults and district schools were better at promoting a more modest form of learning for mid career adults—both forms of schools were unable to accommodate adults who wanted to continually improve as a teacher in developmentally appropriate ways.  We will conclude with a few brief lessons about promoting and sustaining teacher learning throughout a career.


  1. Learn the rules. It is both developmentally appropriate and professionally necessary for new teachers to receive strict guidance, constant feedback, and diminished professional autonomy. If implemented well, this will attract, not drive away, the most ambitious teachers. Ideally, schools would be upfront about their particular vision for young teachers, so applicants can choose schools that are more likely to align with their predispositions.
  2. Break the rules. Given the diversity of classrooms and teacher characteristics within any school, it is preposterous to think that any two classrooms will require the same things at the same moments. Since more experienced teachers who have mastered the organization’s strict requirements have both the skill and desire to stray from an agreed upon framework in a variety of ways, they should be encouraged to (not just allowed to when no one’s watching). Just as there is becoming a role for teacher coaches, positions of expert or experimental teachers should emerge whose job it is to push the boundaries of the school’s philosophy, test out new curricula when appropriate, and ensure the instructional rigor of the entire organization. This should provide a unique space for successful teachers to continually learning in ways that are not in conflict with their organization.
  3. Change the rules. Students, technology, and educational research are all dynamic, changing from month to month and year to year. Schools must adapt, but unfortunately adaptations are currently coming from the policy and district level, not emerging organically from teacher needs. This makes little sense from an economic perspective (teachers, not officials, have the best information) or a developmental perspective, since many top-down changes will alienate and frustrate teachers whose experience suggests different solutions. Thus, it is important that school systems move toward decentralization, so that the decisions most important to teachers’ sense of efficacy are made at the school, grade, and classroom level. Part of the job description of any successful teacher should be to improve the organization they are a part of, not just the one out of fifty rooms they inhabit. This will also allow for meaningful distinctions between schools, so that teachers in disagreement with their school’s direction can switch to one their better suited to without leaving the profession.

This is quick example of the many ways enhanced understandings of adult development can improve the way we think about, build, and evaluate educational institutions. Hopefully, readers of this paper will emerge realizing that a great deal more work could be done in both understanding adult learning and development and also applying those lessons systematically to current educational initiatives and organizations.



Works Cited


Cross, K. P. (1981). Adults as Learners. Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning

            San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Hanushek, E. A. (2003). The Failure of Input-Based Schooling Policies. The Economic Journal, 113(485), F64–F98.

Knowles, M. S. (1970). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy (pp. 40–59). New York: Association Press.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2012). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. John Wiley & Sons. Chicago

Meyer, J. W., & Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony. American Journal of Sociology, 83(2), 340–363.


[1] Many (see Cross, 1981) view two strands of the theory of human development. One looks at each stage of life as dependent on the completion of and expanding upon the previous stage, so that humans are on a trajectory towards greater complexity or wisdom. The other views life as phases, which correspond to various social roles at different ages but do not build off nor depend on the completion of the other. There is no hierarchy of these phases. This essay will focus on theory around this latter strand of thought.


About this Blog

Pontifications of the Unplaced


Subscribe to this blog (feed)