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Research to Practice: There are Many Advantages to Using Staff Development Resources to Help Teachers Ask and Answer Their Own Questions

Lytle, Belzer, and Reumann (1992) of the National Center on Adult Literacy at the University of Pennsylvania challenge us to rethink staff development in adult literacy education. They point out that the traditional training model which regards teachers and volunteers as passive recipients needing to be trained is based on two faulty assumptions. The first assumption is that knowledge is passively acquired. We now know that this is false. Knowledge is actively constructed. Our current understanding of the dynamic nature of the learning process is transforming the ways we teach adult learners and also the ways we teach their instructors. The second faulty assumption is that adult literacy practitioners are dedicated but ill-prepared in the field of adult education.

Research findings by Lytle and her colleagues suggest that we may need to revise our estimate of adult literacy practitioners' knowledge. Recently they conducted indepth interviews with teachers from one-to-one tutoring, ABE, GED, ESL, workforce-oriented and family literacy programs and found that they brought with them a rich and diverse background of prior knowledge and experience. Most had taught in elementary and secondary schools. Some had taught the physically handicapped, the deaf, the gifted, and those labeled as learning disabled. Others had no prior teaching experience but possessed a wide array of education and non-academic experiences which they believed were relevant to their work in adult literacy. For example, they had worked on issues related to poverty, racism, and sexism. They had set up, run, and worked in organizations. They were familiar with other cultures because they had lived, worked and traveled in multi-cultural settings. Lytle and her colleagues came to the following con-clusion based on information gained in the interviews:

" is evident that practitioners bring extensive prior knowledge to the teaching of adults and to the administration of adult literacy programs, although many enter the field serendipitously with little or no formal training in adult literacy instruction" (p.19).

The interviews also revealed that adult literacy practitioners were handicapped because they had few, if any, opportunities "to improve their practice through participating in on-going, collaborative learning within or across programs" (p.23).

To provide these collaborative, active learning opportunities, Lytle and colleagues have proposed an inquiry-based staff development model in which practitioners:

  1. Pose problems to be considered
  2. Conduct some type of field-based inquiry into daily practice (for example, collect and interpret data)
  3. Make changes in their daily practice.
Teachers, like university researchers, can generate new knowledge as well as receive it. There are many advantages to facilitating teachers to become researchers.

First of all, teachers are uniquely positioned to study how students learn. Their classroom is their laboratory. Second, when they co-construct a curriculum and a learning environment with their students, both teachers and students are empowered. Third, the problem of trying to get teachers to translate research finds into classroom practice is eliminated.

What, then, is the role of staff development in helping teachers, tutors and administrators form "researching communities"? One role is to let practitioners know that their knowledge is valued and will be used. Another role is to teach the inquiry process--asking questions, interacting with the professional literature and with colleagues, collecting and interpreting data, drawing conclusions, and making changes in daily practice. Finally, a most important role is to give literacy practitioners opportunities to talk to each other and reflect on their work. One participant in Lytle et al.'s study summed up well the need for inquiry-based staff development:

"I feel that what I'm doing is a good job but I don't have anybody really to tell me that... You know, when you work sort of in a vacuum and you don't get a lot of interaction with other professionals, you don't know... It's that professional spark. You only need one idea to bounce off another idea and then you can create your own idea. And you feel like you're being a professional" (p.23).

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