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Motivations for Learning: Voices of Women Welfare Reform Recipients NCAL Technical Report TR93-10, November 1993

May 1994

SOURCE: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory

AUTHOR: Karen Reed Wikelund

PURPOSE: The purpose of this study was to document the experiences of a group of female welfare recipients who have been required to "go back to school" as part of the national welfare reform movement and to focus on literacy development in the context of individuals' lives. Literacy development is viewed as an ongoing aspect of adult life in society.

PARTICIPANTS: A group of 27 female welfare recipients made up the participant group, average age 32 with an average of 2 children each made up the participant group. Many had not finished high school prior to joining the program and experienced low self-esteem despite the fact that most of them were not lacking in basic skills, according to standardized test scores.

METHOD: The education track of a Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) reform program, Pathways to Progress, was chosen. Informal, individual, and random small group interviews were held with the participants over a period of one month, during which time all women were actively engaged in training in a life skills class that focused on career education and in-depth vocational assessment. Topics covered included self-esteem, work values, effective communication, assertiveness, problem solving, parenting, and support system development. The study included follow-up interviews; observations; and quantitative data (test scores.) Additionally, 15 of the 27 participants were involved in open-ended interviews.

RESULTS: Interviews revealed that the key motivators for participating and not merely attending the program were: ensuring continued income, improving their childrens' well-being, hope for a better job, independence, self-improvement, and the desire to provide a positive role model for their children. Most admitted to having had little sense of direction or reason to succeed in high school. Many assumed that they would "get married and have kids." For the 20% who did get their high school diplomas, it had been important to do well in school.

Participants reported to have improved or acquired interpersonal communication skills, assertiveness, the ability to set and to accomplish goals, and improved office skills. Thus empowered, many claimed to have gained a sense of the future as well. Sixteen of the 23 women interviewed after the coursework had been completed were actively pursuing their career and/or academic goals.

CONCLUSIONS: The complexity of adults' lives influences their participation in skill training. Adults' innate capabilities and curiosities for learning should be fostered, rather than attributing their disinterest to lack of motivation. Adult self-concept, life context, and relative control over their lives constitute a perceived opportunity structure, which frames their expectations about what kinds of situations will arise and what their outcomes will be. The degree of belief in the chance of success may affect the investment people are willing to make in improving their basic literacy skills and in acquiring other new skills. Fostering this concept of control is essential to a successful teaching.

IMPLICATIONS/ APPLICATIONS: Literacy and basic skills training should be developed to reflect the perspectives and the needs of students, rather than from the point of view of a society trying to fix "deficient" individuals. Congruence between program and participant goals and reasons for learning can strengthen the participation and the retention of adult learners.

Policymakers and practitioners need to be aware of unfounded assumptions about adult "lack of motivation" to participate. Research suggests that nearly all adults are motivated to learn in some context. Adults' innate capabilities and curiosities for learning should provide the basis for learning.

Program practices that address individuals' views of their lives, their sense of self, and the power to control their environments can have a positive impact on participation.

All literacy programs, even those focusing on job training, need to adopt a more holistic view of their clients. In addition, teachers must avoid stereotyping and unfounded assumptions. This combination of program focus of program focus and teacher attitudes may be critically important for supporting program participation.

A copy is available from the National Center on Adult Literacy, Dissemination/Publications, 3910 Chestnut Street, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104-3111. All orders must be prepaid. Make check or money order payable to "Kinko's Copy Center."

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