The Importance of Social Interaction and Support for Women Learners: Evidence from Family Literacy Programs

From September 9 - 22, 2009, Blaire Willson Toso, Esther Prins, and Kai A. Schafft led a discussion on the Diversity & Literacy List on The Importance of Social Interaction and Support for Women Learners: Evidence from Family Literacy Programs. This discussion focused on what are often considered peripheral or serendipitous aspects of adult education, including access to and expansion of social support networks, the social meanings learners attach to education, and the psychosocial benefits of participation.

ABE, ESL, adult literacy, and family literacy programs are typically evaluated by measurable outcomes such as increased standardized test scores or student job placement. However, there is growing evidence that learners—particularly women who are poor and socially isolated—value not only the academic but also the social aspects of their educational experiences. Educators, too, recognize the psychosocial dimensions and benefits of participation in adult education, but seldom have opportunities to document them. Participants in this discussion reviewed a recent research study that explores how family literacy programs provide a supportive social space for women in poverty and enhance their psychosocial well-being.

Thanks to Ryan Hall, a graduate student at Georgia State University, the following represents a compilation of the various topics discussed by listserv members while Blaire Willson Toso, Esther Prins, and Kai A. Schafft facilitated the discussion on the importance of social interaction and support for women learners. Each topic contains one or more discussion threads arranged by questions and answers. All of Blaire’s, Esther’s, and Kai’s questions and comments are labeled with their name, while questions and comments from listserv members are labeled with first and last initials. Most of the postings were copied and pasted verbatim, with a few words edited here and there to facilitate reading. For complete postings, along with author information, go to the Diversity & Literacy Discussion List and look at postings between September 9-22, 2009.

Background reading:

Goodling Institute Research Brief: The Importance of Social Interaction and Support for Women Learners: Evidence from Family Literacy Programs

Prins, E., Toso, B., & Schafft, K. (2009). "It feels like a little family to me": Social interaction and support among women in adult education and family literacy. Adult Education Quarterly, 59(4), 335-352.

Guest Facilitators
Blaire Willson Toso coordinates the English Language Acquisition Collection for LINCS (Literacy Information and Communication System), is a doctoral candidate in the Adult Education Program at Penn State, and a researcher for the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy. Her interests are literacy, gender, student leadership, and family literacy.

Esther Prins is an assistant professor in the Adult Education Program at The Pennsylvania State University and the Co-Director of the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy. Her research explores the social context of adult and family literacy; gender, racial, and class inequalities in adult education; civic engagement; and participatory approaches to education, community development, and research.

Kai A. Schafft is an assistant professor of education in the Penn State Department of Education Policy Studies where he directs the Center on Rural Education and Communities and edits the Journal of Research in Rural Education. His research focuses on the relationship between spatial and social inequality, particularly within rural settings.

1. Welcome & Background Info

BLAIRE: Welcome to the guest discussion: The Importance of Social Interaction and Support for Women and Learners: Evidence from Family Literacy Programs. There has been a great deal of response to an article that we recently wrote, which indicates that others in the field find the role of social interaction in adult education both of interest and consequence. We are delighted that this topic has found an audience that is interested in further exploring the social outcomes of family literacy and adult education classes. We are looking forward to a fruitful discussion on this topic.

Please note that I, Blaire, will be the lead discussant. Esther and Kai will participate in the discussion as their time permits. Esther has written the introductory post providing background to her interest and involvement in adult education's role in supporting women socially, emotionally, and intellectually. There will be some questions at the end of Esther's post to get us started. Or, as you may already know, feel free to post your own questions, reactions to Esther's post or the article, etc.

ESTHER: To frame the discussion, I'd like to explain what motivated my interest in social interaction and support in adult education and family literacy. In retrospect, I can trace my interest in this topic to my role as the coordinator of an adult education program in Chicago. During my 3 years in this role (1994-1997), I taught ESL classes to Latino/a immigrants, as well as GED classes for a shorter time period. I soon realized that learners—especially the women—enjoyed socializing in class, talking with each other, having potlucks, and the like. These social aspects of the class, it seemed, were as or perhaps even more important than the pursuit of academic goals. I recall a teenage student, probably 9 months pregnant, who braved fierce winter weather to bring a pastel de tres leches (3 milks cake) to a GED class potluck dinner at the teacher's house. That kind of dedication spoke volumes about how much she valued her participation in the class and her relationships with her classmates and the teacher.

The importance of social interaction surfaced again during my dissertation research in rural El Salvador in 2001-02. Both men and women spoke of making friends in the class and building confianza, or trust, with classmates—an important finding in a postwar setting marked by deep mistrust. However, it became clear that women and men valued the literacy classes as a social space for intriguingly different reasons. For women it was mainly a chance to escape isolation, since they typically had to ask their husband (or, in the case of girls, their parents) for permission to go out. Women and their daughters were primarily responsible for housework and had few opportunities simply to go out and have fun. They described such isolation as intellectually, psychologically, and socially debilitating, as demonstrated by the following comments: Before attending classes "I didn't even think anything, since I didn't go anywhere." "Every day you feel sad. Sometimes being closed up in the house you can't find anyone to talk to. You feel bored." Such statements poignantly express our human longing to connect and communicate with others.

I was also struck by how the women learners treated class attendance as a social event—putting on their nicer clothes, walking to and from class together, chatting and joking on the way there and back, talking about their problems, exchanging advice, and so on. They also claimed they "felt better" because they were able to "desahogarse" (get a load off their chest) by talking with female classmates and having a time for themselves, undistracted by housework. Simply having someone to talk to also meant a great deal.

During data collection for 2 studies on family literacy that I conducted with colleagues (including Kai Schafft, among others) in my role as Co-Director of the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy at PSU, staff members and women learners alike often referred to the social aspects of classes. Although the studies examined different topics, the social functions of family literacy programs surfaced as an important finding. My colleagues (Blaire and Kai) and I decided to pull out the data concerning learners' social purposes for participation and the programs' social functions, and then published these findings in the AEQ article.

The informal conversations we have had with program administrators and teachers have validated these findings, suggesting that state and federal program performance criteria do not adequately capture all the ways that adult ed. and family literacy programs can help support women in poverty.

I hope that this listserv discussion will help participants to reflect on the role of social interaction and support in adult education settings and the ways in which these are intertwined with inequitable gender relations in North America and internationally. Here are some questions to get us started:

What are your experiences with social interaction and support among learners in your classroom or in your own life?

How do you see students providing each other with emotional and material support (e.g., emergency babysitting, rides, lending money, giving used clothes) both in and outside the classroom?

How does the government emphasis on measurable outcomes and accountability influence the extent to which educators pay attention to the psychosocial aspects of adult education?

2. Social Interaction & Support

JI: … [I] shared one of your articles with a small group of practitioners who meet monthly in Providence to discuss issues related to learner (and practitioner) well-being and the impacts of life experience and challenges on learning.

During our last meeting, "only" one practitioner showed up, but we had a very rich discussion about the article –and its power to affirm, for the practitioner, that it's ok to foster relationships in the learning center. Without speaking for this practitioner (to whom I will share this posting

and invite her input—not sure if she's on this list)—I can report that we talked at length about how critical it is for learners (and practitioners) to feel part of a community. As you've expressed in your post –and as I think many of us can also attest—without that underlying ease and ability to come and go, learning is indeed very, very difficult.

Finding balance—boundaries, common ground—is important in this process, but as people on the Special Topics list have also been noting this week, even before many of us had heard of Freire or other popular and progressive educators, we came to know that we had to build community in our classrooms in order to learners to know that it was OK to be there. Jenny Horsman and others have participated in research that has demonstrated this over and over again (see, for example ) so I don't want to take up any more airspace, but do hope that others will share their learning and ideas around supporting learning and naming the fact that these 'soft' outcomes do, in fact, count tremendously in helping learners reach their many goals.

ESTHER: I could not agree more. I think we're seeing more and more evidence of this. Just the other day I came across an article in a popular magazine about the physical costs of social isolation. The author cited a study showing that social isolation is equivalent to smoking in terms of the health risks.

I would even argue that these outcomes are not necessarily "soft, especially since social scientists have developed precise ways of measuring social support, psychosocial well-being, and related concepts. That we do not use such measures in ABE is telling; it reveals what is really valued. So perhaps the problem isn't so much that the outcomes are less concrete than, say, a TABE score or a GED diploma, but rather that they are not considered legitimate and therefore not measured, either qualitatively or quantitatively.

HK: Jenny Horsman has done major studies of the effects of trauma, especially on learning and especially among women. She has also written a book called "Too scared to learn". She writes about rather extreme trauma which is interesting & useful, but my own view is that effects on learning occurs even at much lower, more everyday levels of trauma. Jenny used to have a website, too, but it wasn't very much used last time I looked.

ESTHER: I think the issue of traumatic experiences is an important one, and one of the reasons that social support is so crucial. When I think about the difficult times in my life, I’ve had people to turn to for help, whether lending money or a listening ear. I recently re-read 14 out of 17 transcripts of interviews with 16 women and 1 man in the residential mobility study, which we drew upon in the AEQ article. I was struck by how many of them had experienced some kind of trauma. Of the 14, only 2 hadn’t experienced what I would label as a traumatic event. The other 12 had collectively experienced the following: domestic violence, the death of a biological or step-parent (suicide, fire), dropping out of school as a teenager to become primary caregiver for sick parent or grandparents, sexual abuse, living in foster care, losing custody of children, dealing with court system and child protective services, drug addiction, serving jail time, moving 14 times in 5 years, having their own child abused by the other parent, and finding out as a teenager that she had been illegally adopted.

I have no reason to believe that such experiences are atypical. Even if these experiences happened long ago, learners still bring the memories and scars with them. When we consider these traumatic legacies, adult education programs stand out as a potential site where women and men can forge supportive relationships with each other and with teachers, relationships that can help people feel they are not alone.

BLAIRE: Building community and creating a safe, welcoming place for students can also lead to a place where learners become comfortable sharing some of their experiences and taking on roles of leadership (another area where Jenny Horsman has done wonderful work). We found that as learners listened to one another they became aware that their experiences were often shared by other members of the class, reducing their sense of isolation. Furthermore, in these moments advice, support, and resources were shared. This has two consequences for learners: the essential sharing of resources (where to go for information, solutions for solving problems, passing along hand-me downs, ride sharing, etc.) and even better learners felt that they had value - in other words, they had information that was valuable to others - they were experts. This builds self-confidence and also supports learner persistence (this is supported in many arenas, see, for example, the newly released findings from the New England Persistence Study at

This leads me to some of my burning questions (or wonderings): Why are these types of interactions - essential for mental health, learning, and building social networks - overlooked in policy and funding discussions? Should they be measured as an outcome?

BB: Working with adult ESOL students for a number of years, I have found that social support is needed by both men and women. Many men have left their families behind as they seek work in fields that do not match their education level. Not only are they left out because of limited language skills, they experience an extreme loss of daily family interaction as well as the camaraderie of peers. A student quote we use in many of our community mailings is "You fill a hole in our hearts." This is a quote from a middle-aged man. He worked long hours, came to class straight from his job, often without eating and without showering to improve his English skills, meet people, and share a cup of coffee.

He attended classes for a little more than 2 years and then moved on to Europe. Today he walked into the council for a brief visit. It was important for him to stop by. He restated his appreciation "for the cordiality he received from the staff and how we do not know how important it is to foreigners to be treated so kindly." His visit today confirms what we are all reading and talking about on this site. I have no doubt that "un-measurable" acts often live well beyond what we imagine.

BLAIRE: We found that the friendships these women formed were of great benefit to them. They expressed this in terms of friendship but as adult educators we should also note that research shows that by increasing one's social networks women (and men) also increase their information gathering system (important for increased access to social services, problem solving options, networking for jobs), they gain extra emotional support, they feel happier with their life situation, and state that they have more control over things in their life and the decisions they make.

So in addition to measuring social skills, could we not also identify who students consider to be a part of their social network, the support they can count on from these people, the control they perceive having over their lives, their satisfaction level - It would be particularly interesting to see how the social network grows and who is included. In our work it was impressive to see how many women counted their teachers as part of their "family."

How do theses items measure up in importance to gaining a job, or increasing a reading or English level, or passing the GED - all items that are measured as progress here in the US (and necessary to gain funding for many programs).

CT: I heartily second what you have to say about psychosocial benefits. I've been on both sides of the teacher's desk and I know how helpful it was to join adult education classes when my children were young. Many of my female students say that their English class is the only time they have to themselves as they care for young children and sometimes other relatives as well. Some have few chances to use English outside class. Most say they gain confidence, not just in their ability to use English, but in themselves. I don't want to over-generalize about south Asian women, because some of my students are well-educated, confidant women right from the start, but some come from backgrounds where women's skills are not valued very highly and their voices are not always heard. This is one of the reasons that we offer the option of women-only classes.

Insofar as we can do so, creating a collegial, friendly atmosphere in class benefits everyone including the teacher. Sometimes it takes a while to teach people how to function in this kind of classroom and some people need quite a lot of reassurance that games and chat are in fact part of their learning, but it is worth while. The benefits include lowering affective barriers to learning, more direct involvement by students in the whole learning process and opportunities for the psychosocial benefits being discussed here. We are now allowed to write a 'soft' target such as 'gain confidence to speak to neighbors’ on students' learning plans again after these were barred for a few years.

BLAIRE: Another part of the findings on adult education classes is that classes give students a place to talk about their problems (also noted above). I had always thought that if a student had a large family or came from a numerous ethnic group (in the case of ESL students) that they had support. This is not always true, having these groups can often increase a women's responsibility and constrain their freedom, including sharing of confidences or seeking support (see research by Belle or Stromquist). Other women, educated or not, can also find themselves without such a group, isolated, say, in rural Pennsylvania (women in ESL classes often say they come in order to get out of the house or talk to other people). CT notes in her post how taking classes was helpful for her when her children were young. Esther also noted in her posts that these psychosocial factors of education are true for students in college. I know I was always delighted to leave my books and go to classes for some conversation and interaction.

I just finished doing some interviews with women in a program that had recently switched from classes to individualized learning due to funding cuts; the women were all very clear that they both missed having a collective time to talk to each other (lots of personal problem solving, encouragement about continuing one's education, and general conversation went on during this time). They both missed the company (many said their friends had come from this class) and the outlet. Interestingly, they also stated that many women were not coming because they did not have the group lessons to draw them to class. In this we can see that psychosocial aspects of adult education have very concrete implications for continued education. Does this resonate with anyone else?

MM: When Kathy King and I edited the "Empowering Women through Literacy" book that came out earlier this year, we found that social interaction was critical to women's learning. Here's a snippet from the introduction:

"When we first conceived of this project, we hoped for an emergent volume that could take the first steps towards broadening the visibility and discussion about women’s empowerment through literacy. When we developed the call for proposals, we had no idea what to

expect....From this experience, we have made at least two observations....we discovered how strongly the affective aspects of women’s learning form the centerpiece of these contributors’

experiences. Each one unapologetically and without pause discusses the relationships they build with learners and among colleagues in their teaching/learning situations. In this volume you will not find techniques on the best ways to teach the content of writing or reading or pronunciation or grammar or math. What you will find though, are the ways in which building relationships, creating safer learning spaces and allowing for holistic possibilities to integrate spirit, body and emotion creates critical paths to reaching women’s learning minds and supporting their successes, not only for students but also as professional educators. It is our (not so) quiet hope that this volume creates one step towards reconsidering the policies about and research strategies for students in ABE, especially women."

Experientially and consistently throughout our short 5 years, one of the things WE LEARN has found is that so many people -- especially students and teachers -- who have attended the Annual WE LEARN Gathering (and who have repeatedly returned) or participated in our project or who have joined WE LEARN as members, have thankfully expressed their enthusiasm and passion for the *interactions* and connections they have made -- and how these have emboldened and fed their commitments to learning and teaching.

BLAIRE: Congratulations on the book. It is great that there is more (not so silent) evidence of the importance of relationships and social interactions are in learning. I particularly like the point that this discussion is not just about students and their learning. While I think, and as many others have pointed out, that we all rely on social networks to get us through different parts of our life, you also mention teachers. Often adult education teachers end up working in conditions that promote isolation (for a variety of reasons - time, setting, etc.) highlighting the need for teachers to have their networks in place in order to learn from each other, learn from students, share, gain support, ideas, suggestions, and acknowledgement for the work in which they engage is truly important - especially during a time when monies are tight for educators to travel and meet at conferences. I fully recognize the importance of formal professional development but I have heard (and know for myself) over and over that it is the informal aspect of professional development - such as hearing from others in the profession, sharing stories, laughing over problems, problem posing to your colleagues - that ends up being healing, helpful, and simply having a group of people that can recognize one's experience. This is by the way one of the marvelous aspects of this discussion list!

I look forward to reading the book.

DG: I thank MM for mentioning the WELEARN conferences and am always impressed with the attendance and participation of learners at these conferences. Although, we have been talking about literacy programs, I think that conferences are an untapped area where we can provide social support for our learners.

BLAIRE: In this discussion we have touched on quite a few ways in which adult education classes create an impact on students beyond academics. We have all posted about the emotional support, friendships, and skills (social and academic) that have taken place due to having a safe space to learn and a social outlet. I am wondering if any of you could tell the list about ways in which these things have had a material effect on participants.

In my classes and in my interviews with students and practitioners the emphasis has been on friendships. Several practitioners discussed ride sharing (very important in rural parts) and a couple of students told me that they exchanged babysitting. However, most of the practitioners I interviewed stated that for the most part relationships stayed within the boundaries of the adult education program (i.e., students didn't necessarily get together outside of school). In my last round of interviews, one women talked about how another student supported her in gaining the confidence to take her GED (which she did pass). Do we consider this a material outcome?

Has anyone else experienced material outcomes (e.g., exchanging of goods, increased income) from the psychosocial aspects of being in a classroom setting? And, if so, what aspects of the program made these exchanges or outcomes possible?

HG: When I was at the Center for Immigrant Education and Training at LaGuardia Community College, we noticed that a lot of our students were supporting themselves through unofficial small businesses, such as the selling of crafts or food items. So we decided to partner with the community college and create a "small business" fair, ultimately called the arts & crafts fair, where students could sign up for a table and share or promote their wares to the college community as a whole in the main building atrium. We did run into some conflicts of interest with the college--some obvious, such as no food for safety reasons--other less so, for example, when it was felt that some students with a daycare business posed a conflict with the college's childcare center--but one outcome was that one of our students was chosen to participate as a student of the nyDESIGNS Design Business Center: Now rather than trying to find temporary work as a waitress (with back problems), this single mom is on her way toward supporting her two children through her crafts and graphic design (her field of study in her home country).

In retrospect, it was nice to be able to support students because we had the physical space for them to interact with a larger community, but in some ways, the line between the students' business and our work was blurred. One way we worked to strengthen this project the second time around was to work with student entrepreneurs to help them get free business cards on the Internet and to provide some basic coaching in customer service language, for example. So first we created the opportunity for them to use English on campus and then we coached them on the English they needed outside the class every day.

3. Persistence

AN: The work of the New England Learner Persistence Project echoes your findings of the importance of social support and community for adult students. Many of the 18 programs conducting local research on

persistence did set out to build social supports/community (through peer mentorships, more welcoming and interactive orientations, etc.), but even those that investigated other strategies (such as increasing instructional options) concluded that the sense of connection, belonging, and community that resulted was an important “driver” of improved persistence.

I think the notion of persistence may be the bridge between practitioners’ interest in creating supportive learning environments that make people want to stick around and government’s accountability measures which can’t be met unless they do. While our project did not focus on women, in particular, many of the program reports identified bonds between women as key to their feeling secure and motivated to continue their learning. Below are just two excerpts from the biweekly narratives that programs submitted (both form the Higher Education Resource Center ESL Program, Boston, MA):

  • “It was wonderful to hear many students talking about how their English classroom plays a really important role in their social life and social/emotional adjustment to the United States. Many talked about how isolating life in the United States can be and explained they would come to HERC even if they weren’t learning English for the social aspect of the program and connections they’ve made with other students. I hadn’t realized how important this was for our students before.”
  • “This session we presented our first ‘Perseverance Award’ to a student who has consistently persevered through classes in spite of challenging circumstances and in spite of the fact that these classes are some of her first ‘classroom’ experiences. The students and teachers gave her a standing ovation and spoke of how inspired they have been by her example. This is the kind of community support and environment we want to continue to encourage at a programmatic and structural level.”

Thank you for pursuing research that puts learning in a social context!

ESTHER: The Persistence Project findings certainly resonate with what I've heard from practitioners in PA. People enroll in these programs for a mix of academic and personal reasons, but if they feel like they belong to a community, or are at least able to connect with a few people, it gives them a reason to keep coming back. I think this is true at all levels of education, including undergraduate and graduate education. This is one reason (in addition to economic issues) that first generation college students and students of color tend to drop out of college at higher rates than others. So yes, building community can be a means to the end of enhancing persistence.

How have programs tried to foster community among learners (e.g., mentoring, social events, leadership councils)?

TE: In 2001, I managed the Literacy Program for Adults with ADD/ADHD/SLD, with multiple co-morbid medical conditions, including psychological/psychiatric, who were on Welfare, with the primary goal to transition them from the Welfare system to work.

Vast majority of our students were women. At the exit of our program (in average- 8 weeks), we asked them to review the personal outcomes of the program at that point (it was just the first phase, with the 6 months retained employment to follow). We found the significant discrepancy between what we expected to hear and what we heard: Our graduates reflected mostly on the fact that attending the program (which provided measurable multisensory, several hours daily, training in essentially, employability skills - increased reading/writing, organizational, temporal, goal-setting skills, dress code, body language, etc.) helped to increase their SELF-ESTEEM, and, as a result, the ability to function in the community. " I am not afraid anymore; I can talk about my problems," wrote quite a few of them. Academic results (up to six years of gain with 8 weeks) were, in majority of the cases, secondary.

An increased self-esteem improved their ability to reach for the support system they needed for the program to become not just a jumping board, but a long successful road.

4. Significant Others & Family

ESTHER: Having conducted 2 interviews so far for the study on family literacy participants’ social support networks, I’m struck by the fact that neither woman counted on her boyfriend for social support. In response to a question asking with whom the ppt. discusses important matters, Ann (pseudonym) named her boyfriend. But when asked how close she feels to him, she responded, “somewhat close” (as opposed to “very” or “not at all”). When asked about this, she explained that they were having problems in their relationship.

The second ppt., Candy, did not list her boyfriend for any of the questions used to identify the members of her social support network (e.g., with whom do you discuss important matters, with whom do you socialize, is there anyone else you feel close to that you haven’t already named). She later confided in the interviewer (a doctoral student at PSU), that she and her boyfriend are having a lot of problems. He also has a 45 minute commute, so she rarely gets to see him.

I think we often assume that romantic relationships are a source of support, but it’s clear this is not necessarily the case. This is why researchers who study these issues emphasize that having a lot of relationships with friends, family, neighbors, etc. does not necessarily provide a person with the social support they need or reduce their feelings of loneliness—especially if the partner works and the woman stays at home with young children. Such relationships can also cause stress and anxiety and even compound feelings of isolation.

Do the women in your programs tend to describe their partner, boyfriend, or husband as a source of emotional and material support or does the relationship contribute to their stress and worry? To what extent are such issues discussed in your programs?

BG: You've raised a very serious, important issue, Esther. A learner's partner—married or not—can often be not only an impediment to success but a danger to the learner. I'm sure that others who have worked closely with immigrant families have seen the stress raised in families when the wife in a family that has always had fairly traditional gender roles becomes the main breadwinner. Success in a literacy program means change in relationships, and this does not always make the learner's friends and family happy.

I worked with a set of programs across Massachusetts—more years ago than I care to admit—that provided education and training simultaneously, culminating in job placement. We found—and learned to anticipate—that spouses often sabotaged the progress of learners. Early on in each new program year we brought in counselors to address this with learners, trained staff, and made representatives from shelters for battered women available. The community created by the women within the program was fabulous. They helped each other navigate their changing relationships with those who were accustomed to them being limited by lack of high school degrees and jobs. Their romantic relationships...not necessarily supportive.

TE: Would you agree that there might be several significant reasons why 30's or 40's are so significant in "now it's my time"?

  • Demographically, I think it would be safe to say that women who get married to American citizens, come here at least in their 20th.
  • Cultural shock/adjustment are very confusing and usually take a long time, especially if the spouse finally feels empowered by feeling almost the G-d, without whom the other spouse cannot (given language, finances, skills, citizenship, medical insurance, real support system problems) survive and is not at all ready to give this feeling up. The inner family circle becomes a sort of glass through which everything around is judged.

This includes judicial issues, which are very complicated, and, therefore, are the biggest impediments.

Locally, not too many personnel are experts in the International Law.

12 years ago, I had to take upon myself to explain to local authorities, who were very insistent in trying to help me and my children upon arrival, that if I accepted food stamps or any other federal assistance, I would be in trouble: As a lot of other ones, leaving the country in 90's, I had to sign the paperwork that I: 1) would NOT (for at least 3 years) apply for any federal aid and 2) seek jobs in medical arena.

Several years later, the question about immunization of the child, who was sick at the moment, arose. In my country, no immunization would be ever attempted until it's at least 10 days since the last temp. spike. My local family did not want to listen to ANY of my explanations. I am glad that with my medical background and English, I could reach understanding with hospital administration. It cost me at least a month of silent treatment from the family, though.

  • With maturity, life experiences, and growing self-esteem, which is approximately 30s-40s, comes an understanding - "I can do it. I owe it to myself and my children."

BB: I am enrolled in a university class and doing some informal interviews with parents regarding their experiences enrolling their children in the public schools, their communication with the school administration and teachers, their child’s experiences etc. I have known the women for quite some time and it is duly noted that in each of the interviews that I have held so far, the women always talk about their relationships with their husbands….one whose husband doesn’t let her practice her first religion and the other who did not support her in her efforts to learn English (he is now proud of her). What I am finding is that women from all walks of life and the world seem to share this feeling of “now it’s my time” once they reach their late 30’s and early 40’s even if they do not have “significant other” support….now I do not know if this is only for women who have lived in the U.S. but something sure seems to stir inside them that tells them “to seek more” and they will do it with or without support…

TE: One of the goals of the program was involvement of spouses and children, through the open door policy, discussion (with the agreement with the student) of what is taught in the program, why, and how it would help the whole family, in a long run. This factor removed the fear of "unknown", where the family relationships were concerned, helped to remove all the barriers in communication within the family, providing for the foundation of the support system. You would agree that, in most of the cases, no outside sources would really bring long-term outcomes if the support is essentially absent inside the family.

BLAIRE: One of TE's organization's goals is to include the family. This is interesting. Sometimes students stop coming to class once they begin to acquire different skills, different friends, different world views, etc. As they extend beyond their family or their community students can become uncomfortable with leaving the world they know behind, feeling as though they are losing their main support (interesting contradiction, right?) or they leave classes due to pressure from their family and friends (they are changing) - Jurmo and Fingeret have a great book on this issue. Therefore, including the family (and friends) in the educational idea is a great way to allow everyone to be involved in the journey of expanding networks, self-confidence, gaining of voice.

TE: You are absolutely right, Blaire… In the program, which I cited below, we, staff and students, lived through one of the traumatic situations in life of our student. While in the program, N. was gradually growing the feeling of self-worth, which was previously severely suppressed by her spouse. Improving reading/writing skills, both in expressive and receptive domains, development of critical thinking skills transitioned her from the independent to functional to abstract levels of thinking. Affective results? Body language, dress code (parts of the instructional process!!!), self-esteem of a self-sufficient female.

It was the middle of the session when she decided to leave her husband. She and her daughter moved to a shelter, yet, she was still attending the program. One gorgeous fall morning, three days later, she received a call from her former neighbor who informed her that her daughter called daddy, which resulted in him shooting in the yard, and he was on the way to find his wife. What has happened next still amazes me: We informed our students and staff that we had an emergency and they were free for that day, to find out, they had already known about the antecedent of all the events and decided (females and males) to stay on site to support our student, no matter how upsetting and possibly dangerous for everyone her daughter's decision was. After a short break to make a call to police, we kept working.

The husband was stopped on the way to the program premises later that day. His words to police were, " I just wanted to see what is it there that is so much better than me." We, the coordinator of the program and I, had a long conversation with him, upon his request and his wife's agreement two weeks after the episode.

With the time, N. graduated from the program and found fruitful employment. She returned to her husband on HER terms. Since then, SHE has been running the family.

BLAIRE: Did any of the students resent or not want family members involved? Sometimes this journey is very personal and inclusion of others may inhibit this process. Did you have any experience with this?

TE: You are totally right. It all depends WHO is initiating the process. Our students were given this opportunity since the day one (Open House to introduce the program and its goals, to answer all the questions, family members invited) till the last day. Sometimes, the understanding of the value of the family involvement was coming on later stages in the program.

As far as the major focus of the program was on transferrable skills (organizational, temporal, instructions, scaffolding..), our students had to wet their feet in all of them first, before they could face the family scrutiny at times.

Just an example. The coordinator of the program received a call one day. Her sobbing 11-year-old severely dyslexic daughter was on the phone. Her dad was totally upset with her not following his instructions. He had asked her to wash the dishes, and when she did so, he scolded her for not rinsing, stacking them away. The coordinator quietly explained to her husband the roots of the problem (for who knows which time; he had dyslexia too) and explained the ways the instructions should be given. Our students overheard the conversation, and one of them, who had never wanted her husband to be there previously, requested his consultation with us.

5. Teaching for Psychosocial Outcomes

BLAIRE: Definitely social skills are important both for the students in the classroom and in the world at large. Activities such as these can also be seen as community building, essential for engaging students and, as on the other strand in this discussion brought up, persistence. These role playing activities can serve this kind of function as the topic of role play can be extremely broad (personal and public topics can be used). As an earlier post brought up, students often relate to one another through having fun, taking risks, and learning more about each human being in the class; these all help to build rapport.

KMG: What was the ratio of literacy instruction to networking? Should there be a separate class or specific time allotted to these interactions? Did the networking detract from the emphasis on instruction?

Personally, I got a lot out of my college experiences because of networking in accepting environments. But my program was obviously also heavily academic. I also took separate "interpersonal communications" classes which I enjoyed. But it doesn't work the same way in ESOL/ABE.

TE: Literacy instruction within the networking may be the answer. Through my teaching years, I managed different pilot programs. Among them was the one using the Lozanov's "suggestopedic" method. ( )

The main beauty of the program was "living somebody's life". It was not just role-playing, it was creating new image under the cover of accepted anonymity. Students knew each others' names and, sometimes, lives; however, creating the role under the prescribed by the teacher's name and setting was the field where they could share their experiences, emotions without feeling stupid, embarrassed. Their names, native cities were based on the spelling rules of English Language, f.e Anthony Atheps, the anthropologist from Athens. They HAD to use their a.k.a even during the tea break, where they were allowed to step out of the foreign language. It allowed them to build interpersonal bridges without being apprehensive.

Each session was 3 hours, twice a week, group of 15. First, it was teacher's introduction (playing out) of the polylogue, followed by the extremely creative, meaningful segment by segment workout. The last section was the most difficult - they had to listen to only the foreign text with the barocco music in the background. Imaging yourself, after a LONG working day, 2.5 hour extremely intensive foreign language workout in real-life situations, in the dark room with the barocco music in the background and with the picture of your favorite place of rest in your mind :-)

After the first two weeks, we could see the visible changes in personalities: body language, dress, hair, eye contact...

No sections were specifically devoted to any formal training in the above issues, but the tea time was the teacher's time to filter in the "ideas" - Discussion of differences of fashion show in Dubai, Paris, London, and Brazil, for example, was a good ground for undercover teaching of the ton of social or work-related skills.

Academic gains? My first group was instructors of College of Physical Education. They all needed English language for either work or writing and publishing their research abroad in the future. None of them studied English before. Age range—from 27 to 56. In three months, they could read, write, and speak basic English above the survival level. They work and are published around the globe. 15 years later, they still address me as Mary Poppins.

BLAIRE: Thanks for sharing those stories about how education extends beyond the borders of "school knowledge." Your examples also indicate how one never quite knows where things end up. I would like to emphasize again what you said about WHO is initiating the process; I couldn't agree more. - It is important that changes and growth can not be forced, and need to be led by the student. Building relationships and confiding in others should be a choice. Some students don't necessarily want to share their life, or feel it is too dangerous to explore beyond the boundaries (which your first example underscores) and they should have the respect to do so. It is part of working with adults - they need to feel in control of their lives (frequently our students do not feel as if they have a say in their lives, particularly if they live in poverty, are subject to social structures (e.g., racism) or governing bodies (e.g., social services), or live in the US because it is too difficult in their home country (e.g., war). Feeling as if you have control in your life brings a higher level of life satisfaction and happiness (Belle, Edin & Kefalas, Makosky). Furthermore, if you have a network, people spend less time on trying to access services and solve problems (Belle) and helps you to buffer the overall effects of life events and depression (Lensel). The beauty of having a network at school (teachers and other students) is that it generally means that it is a network to which you do not owe something (often in the close ties networks -neighbors, close friends, and family- favors need to be repaid in a similar context (Belle, Hall & Wellman). Your student was probably extremely grateful for all the assistance and support she received from you and even better she did not need to re-pay you or the program.

BLAIRE: The networking, advice giving, etc. all occurred incidentally—so it was never taught, never a focus of the class; it was a product of the human interaction. I am wondering if people actually structure networking into classes (breaks could be considered in this way); if you do, please share. I used to ask people to share something that had happened since the class had last met. It is not the same thing, but it can open up an avenue around which learners can get to know one another better. I think as teachers, particularly when we feel under pressure to make content progress with out students, allowing time for networking feels as though we are not on task or will not reach the target. However, if we documented the psychosocial outcomes of adult education classes formally along with literacy gains, employment, and children's progress in school, we might find how the two interact and impact learning. Documenting the importance helps people outside the field see the relevance of things that are not typically considered "education." We could see it in the same way as "soft skills" - it took a while for everyone to realize that soft skills are often as important as the hard skills (several people mentioned the need to teach these in order to be successful out side the classroom in earlier posts).

As you noted, this happens at all levels. I recently had someone comment after a workshop I had done, that she really wished I had given more time to participants to share their experiences, as it seemed that is what everyone had really wanted. But what about my agenda....? Does my agenda matter, if I can't get participants to engage with the topic? Or in more pertinent terms, what will lead to more success, staying enrolled in classes because one feels as they have a comfortable place to go to; helping a woman transition from an abusive living situation while staying in classes; providing a safe place for someone to go to on a regular basis? It's complicated and not clean - but definitely documented by so many people in the field (Stromquist, Khandekar, Rodriguez Brown & Meehan, Horsman, Luttrell, Prins, Scarsborough, Rowland) and if we further look at research it isn't all about having the degree, you have to know people in order to put that degree and knowledge to work (see Lareau, Blau & Kahn, Stanton-Salazar, Smith-Doerr & Powell).

The location where I did research is a great example, as I mentioned, women were no longer turning up to class on a regular basis after the group classes had been disbanded and individualized computer-based instruction was put into place (loss of funding no longer allowed them the funds to hire a teacher - not by choice of the site director & the women were not seeking education elsewhere) - what did women learn from each other: how to seek college funding for their children, how to systematically study for different parts of the GED, how to get their children enrolled in Head Start, where to find free medical care for diabetes, arguments to convince their husbands to allow them to continue education. Teachers are crucial in creating space and supporting these interactions and helping students expand on the knowledge that is shared. Literacy activities can be built around relevant materials or can be used to open topics up for discussion. Other leadership activities (Foley, Fingeret, Toso, et al.) or curriculum planning with students (Auerbach, Purcell-Gates, et al) can also create learning space for students to try on different roles, learn from each other In one program when they brought in speakers (getting jobs, abuse, transitioning children to school) students would readily share their experiences. Good facilitators often allow for this type of conversation.

I would like to also add, that if you are addressing sensitive issues you may want to be prepared for different reactions from students or where the conversation might go. For example, some students see taking class time to share or listening to student’s stories as a waste of time. Also, many of us don't have any counseling experience or background which makes it tricky to address certain topics - you may want to be sure that you have follow-up resources available. A really good article that addresses both of these topics is "But is it Education?": The Challenge of Creating Effective Learning for Survivors of Trauma by Jenny Horsman.

The citation is: Horsman, J. (2004). "But is it education?": The challenge of creating effective learning for survivors of trauma. Women's Studies Quarterly, 30 (1 & 2), pp 130-146.

BM: My previous work in higher education has focused on supporting ethnic/racially diverse students to navigate successfully through university and enter Science Technology Engineering Math majors, health and education. The focus was on study skills, engagement, some networking. I wasn't surprised when several students told me about being placed in a psychiatric ward at 12 because parents were dealers, or being sexually abused or just being too scared to go down the halls of an apartment building.

With basic counseling skills and a MPH in community health ed and a Ph.D. in medical anthropology, I ended up carrying a caseload just because of the lack of counselors comfortable with ethnic/culturally diverse students.

So is it education? I think so. As a long time health and mental health professional, I and many of my colleagues believe that the failure of our initiatives to promote health and wellbeing is because we're working in "silos" and there is little recognition about the common socio-economic-political context in which we all live and work.

The "silos" have to do with turf and resources. And possibly the way academics work. In graduate school, I remember the oddity of being forced to talk about the differences between disciplines and the differences between peoples and communities instead of both the differences and the similarities. Perhaps they feared that if we really thought too much about the similarities, we'd lose our distinctiveness and our jobs?

Thank you for the specific examples. Hopefully they push us to look beyond our own assumptions of what can be done.

BLAIRE: I would also hazard to say that neither do "we" really want to count the socio-economic-political context in which we all live and work in how it impacts adult education. There is some great research out there that attests to the impact that all these things have on learning (for example, the importance of having a support group of first generation college-goers to support us through the transition to a college setting and the identity shifts that occur) but much of it does not get translated into practice or funding (resources). Your students were extremely lucky to have a capable professional to help them negotiate their pathway through college. Esther's last post mentioned that the majority of the participants in the research study had experienced traumatic experiences in their lives; having professionals and other students that demonstrate care and that can also attest to each student not being isolated within their own experience is helpful in a variety of ways. Some of those could be community, healing, support, and self-esteem. It would be interesting to develop a program (or maybe a program already exists - please post if you know of one) that truly incorporates a cross-discipline to training teachers (e.g., methodology, adult learning theory, health and psychological issues, counseling) - too ambitious?? What gets lost in doing this? What is gained in doing so?

6. Measuring Psychosocial Outcomes

BLAIRE: To further underscore the importance of building social capital and community - it should be noted that even the World Bank (I know a completely different beast) measures many of these aspects of community building (questionnaire's for individuals include: whether people feel safe, whether individuals have other people to talk to, whether they have individuals to ask for help, whether they have people to support them, and who those people might be - Note the relationship to psychosocial aspects of life.) indicating that these pieces we build in our classes are skills that transfer to the world outside the classroom, having both economic and civic importance. So why not in adult education?

ESTHER: Yesterday I came across a fascinating study on this very topic. The Australian study sought to measure the "social capital outcomes" of participation in literacy and numeracy classes. Not only did the majority of participants experience benefits such as expanded social networks, but the authors concluded that these social dimensions were instrumental to learning, which is essentially what you stated above.

I've attached the PDF report and copied a section below.

Balatti, J., Black, S., & Falk, I. (2006). Reframing adult literacy and numeracy course outcomes: A social capital perspective. Adelaide, Australia: NCVER.

"This study examined the social capital outcomes experienced by 57 students as a result of their participation in accredited adult literacy and numeracy courses undertaken through the vocational education and training (VET) sector. Social capital outcomes are concerned with changes in students’ connections with people. The study also examined how these outcomes contributed to the socioeconomic wellbeing of students, and considered the implications for educational practice and reporting of outcomes from language, literacy and numeracy courses.

Participation in accredited adult literacy and numeracy courses produced social capital outcomes for 80% of the students interviewed, even though improved literacy and numeracy skills were not necessarily present.

  • Students reported changes in the number and nature of attachments they had to existing and new social networks and spoke of changes in the way they interacted with people in their networks.
  • Students valued social capital outcomes highly because they contributed to their socioeconomic wellbeing.
  • There was evidence that social capital outcomes had a positive impact on students’ social environments, education and learning, employment and quality of working life.

Literacy and numeracy improvement often required the social capital outcomes noted above as a prerequisite or co-requisite. For example, students’ literacy skills improved when their membership of networks provided them with opportunities to learn, or to implement what they had learnt.

Social capital outcomes were realized as a result of specific teaching strategies, such as promoting interaction with peers, and through the new networks and relationships experienced in the course. Reframing adult literacy and numeracy teaching/learning to include the idea of the student as a member of networks would make the social capital-building function of the courses more explicit.

Current reporting frameworks, including the National Reporting System for language, literacy and numeracy, do not specifically account for social capital outcomes. Recognizing the importance of those outcomes, and perhaps reporting them, is likely to result in a more accurate picture of the contribution that adult literacy and numeracy courses make to individuals and communities." (p. 5)

How do these findings resonate, if at all, with your (plural) experiences in adult ed.?

KMG: How would you actually measure progress? Would you apply the high-school IEP model used for those with brain disorders?


There does not appear to be a lot available that measures psychosocial gains in the realm of adult education. People tend to look more at social capital (generally focuses primarily on social networks) and then subsume psychosocial into the category, a little bit, into their assessments (see Esther's post on the Australian study - they assess some of these topics). I do know it is of growing interest (see St. Clair's work and the New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education no. 122). Boshier gets at it a little in his research on motivation. And, there are studies that have examined depression and outcomes related to social networks (such as Belle) and they have different tools that could be made more applicable to a classroom setting. We could also draw from the self-efficacy measures, but my understanding is that they have been written in a way as to not be very effective with the adult learner population. Much of this work is out of the health (mental health, depression), sociology, and economics. I have taken a lot of words to say, I'm not sure what a measurement would look like. I would think that we would have to draw on all of these tools and piece something together (along the lines of questions with a Likert scale) and offer it in a pre- post format. Interviews can offer capture perceived gains and results but that is unfortunately inefficient for programs and often won't provide the needed data to get it onto the policy agenda.

I do not know a great deal about the high school IEP model. Could you tell me more about the model? And, could you see it (or a version of it) being used. If it strictly evaluates learning disabilities population it may not work for a general ABE/GED/ESL population. If anyone else also has input on assessments, etc. I would be delighted to learn about them.

KMG: While I haven't hit high school level with my kids yet, I have seen some information on H.S. social skills training classes that can be somewhat measured. These classes are part of an IEP. The training usually involves elements like writing and performing skits that demand appropriate social responses. Students are then "graded" on these according to certain criteria. For example, if there is a miscommunication between students, those involved in the skit would have to demonstrate better ways to resolve the issue than making assumptions, fighting, etc.

I assume something similar could be done in adult literacy classes. For example, students could discuss times when they didn't get the outcomes they wanted. Maybe a student wanted to get his/her money back at a store but was denied. What could the student have done differently? Is there a procedure that could be written out? Should a conversation about customer service and general store policies take place? All of these components could be part of assessments.

ESTHER: I’ll give an example of measures I’m using in the Spencer Foundation research project. Could these be adapted for adult education? What are the obstacles to doing so? The time it takes to ask these questions could be a drawback.

PhQ-9 depression checklist

Over the last 2 weeks, how often have you been bothered by any of the following problems? (not at all, several days, more than half the days, nearly every day)

  • Little interest or pleasure in doing things
  • Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much
  • Feeling tired or having little energy
  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Feeling bad about yourself—or that you are a failure or have let yourself or your family down
  • Trouble concentrating on things, such as reading the newspaper or watching television
  • Moving or speaking so slowly that other people could have noticed? Or the opposite—being so fidgety or restless that you have been moving around a lot more than usual
  • Thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself in some way

Pearlin Mastery Scale

Please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements about yourself (4-point scale, strongly disagree to strongly agree).

  • I have little control over the things that happen to me.
  • There is really no way I can solve some of the problems I have.
  • There is little I can do to change many of the important things in my life.
  • I often feel helpless in dealing with the problems of life.
  • Sometimes I feel that I’m being pushed around in life.
  • What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me.
  • I can do just about anything I really set my mind to do.

Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support

(7-point scale, very strongly disagree to very strongly agree; sub-scales are significant other, family, and friends)

  • There is a special person who is around when I am in need.
  • There is a special person with whom I can share my joys and sorrows.
  • My family really tries to help me.
  • I get the emotional help and support I need from my family.
  • I have a special person who is a real source of comfort to me.
  • My friends really try to help me.
  • I can count on my friends when things go wrong.
  • I can talk about my problems with my family.
  • I have friends with whom I can share my joys and sorrows.
  • There is a special person in my life who cares about my feelings.
  • My family is willing to help me make decisions.
  • I can talk about my problems with my friends.

CT: I'm an ESOL and adult literacy teacher in the UK and interaction is part of the ESOL curriculum, at any rate, as a language skill. There are a number of different exam boards, but they have to cover similar areas. For example, in a speaking and listening exam, all but the lowest level in the exams we use have to take part in a role play as one part of the exam. The lower 2 levels begin with simple interactions such as buying something and moving on to joining a library, a simple interview, or inquiring about the facilities and prices at a gym. The next level includes situations such as returning a defective item or negotiating a change of work shifts, and the final level requires the candidate to make or respond to a complaint (a noisy neighbor, a problem at work) and negotiate a successful resolution.

In the writing exams, the 2 higher levels include writing letters about problems, with the highest level calling for a formal letter of complaint. Literacy also includes these areas, but at the moment there is no writing component to the literacy exams at the higher levels, which is a terrible shame as this is important to potential employers.

Students are rated on areas such as grammar and vocabulary, but also on effective communication.

Similarly, most of our materials include role-playing situations as this is a very effective mode of learning, not only for language, but for social skills and body language, which we all know can differ from one social and cultural setting to another. Assessments can be fairly simple: a check mark or point for areas such as polite greetings and using indirect questions for politeness, for example. I give students cards with half of a situation so a 'store manager' would have something about a refund policy, for example, or the work schedule that needs to be filled and the 'customer' or 'employee' would get a suggestion of their problem or situation. This gets the students working at a higher level than is required for an exam, but is also helpful for coping in real life situations. Women who are used to haggling in markets can be tough negotiators, let me tell you! I can listen in to the pairs, or I can take one of the roles.

It would also be possible to ask students for suggestions of areas they would like to practice, and assessment criteria can be set for the areas that actually need work, which might not be language in the strict sense in some cases. Discussion before and after and self-assessment would all be helpful as well. Generally speaking, we don't give grades, but there might be a total possible aggregate score of 30 points, with 20 the pass mark, for example.

KMG: I think we are talking about similar things here. Teaching HS kids is a lot like teaching adults. In K-12, there are grades, however, whereas in adult ed., there might not be.

Body language is very important, and I am glad you bring that up. We constantly have to remind our kids about body language and how much more that can say sometimes than words we speak. Since body language differs from culture to culture, learning English body language is part of assimilation and communication skills.

CT: I'm glad I answered the right question. I know that grades are required in certain situations, as they are here in school settings, but because communication is such a complex area I wanted to show that recording assessments can be done in a fairly simple way. Just as out adults' pass/fail marking is done by an accumulation of points, so could grades. How often, and how much, the grading is broken down into specific areas, is not for me to say.

I personally favor the approach that starts everyone with zero and builds up, rather than knocking points off a notional 'perfect', but grading strategies are another thing that may not be in a teacher's control. It's good to be able to show students that they are making progress, as well, because adults and kids in difficult circumstances often measure themselves against an unreal ideal and give up. Points for specific target areas is one way even slow progress can be measured and recognized.

My Asian women students often put their hands in front of their mouths when they are nervous or shy, even if they don't normally cover their faces. I have to remind some of them not to do this in an exam, because it can make it more difficult for someone to hear them clearly. (Niqabs, the lower face veil, can make the voice a little less clear as well, and of course the listener doesn't get the additional input of a moving mouth, so some students need to be coached to articulate a little more carefully.)

BLAIRE: It is always interesting to hear what happens elsewhere in the world. I know that I used role play quite a bit in my classes both to develop practice for new settings (especially as my students were also ESL students), and become comfortable with communicative skills in front of an "audience." I would think that students could be asked to write up responses to scenarios, or asked opinions, etc. in order to incorporate a written component. Writing is definitely becoming more important for particular job settings. And, with a focus (at least here in the US) of transitioning adult education students to further schooling, writing skills has implications here as well.

CT: I think I am with those who query whether these benefits can or should be quantified beyond perhaps asking for feedback or student evaluations. Too much quantification can defeat the very benefits we want to promote. The problem often lies with meeting the requirements of funding bodies and inspectorates for quantification and documentation. Perhaps students could be given an opportunity to include 'making friends' or areas such as 'confident to try a vocational class' on feedback or evaluation forms or a class could jointly formulate a list of benefits they have gained beyond the subject they were studying.

I know we all face constraints of time, space and funding for what we want to do, and it's inspiring to know just how inventive and dedicated other teachers are in so many different places.

MG: When all is said and done, all the research and all the verbiage point to the critical role of affect in learning. The role of affect cannot and must not be underestimated! I am a little concerned that efforts to overly academize affect by attempting to measure it may be counterproductive.

HK: To me, affect is The Big One, and I have written about it in my eBook (chapter seven). I am probably not quite so concerned about measurement of somewhat delineated aspects of affect as Michael, but think that we must attempt to describe this field for the very good reason that we can, in fact, do something about it pedagogically. I have found, with adults, that it is possible to consider affect formally and consider, too, how 'right' affective responses might be and how 'meta-affect' can be learned to overcome, or at least contextualize, negative affect which affects learning or performance of literacy.

KMG: The problem is, MG, that unless you measure an outcome, you won't get funding for your program. So what are we supposed to do?

Clearly there ARE manifestations of appropriate, healthy social behaviors that can be observed. In most cases, these are the only things being assessed in a class. Unfortunately, we usually don't know if students are able to carry these skills from the classroom into the world at large, and if we DO see a problem in the community, we can't carry that back to classroom assessment. All subject matters have this issue, though--how do we know a student is actually using proper grammar outside the classroom? There's not much we can do about this.

TE: I totally agree with you on the part of immeasurable goals leading to no results. We can develop a measurable goal, using an IEP model, just like you suggested before. It may be reflected in any of the below (Social-Emotional, Communication, Employment, or Transition Domains). Corrections use this model for young adults (under IDEA) in their SpEd programs. Various tools are used for measuring the outcomes (depending on the goal), from the structured observation (made by the teacher in his/her classroom or other teacher's one) to Work Rating scale (made by the on-the-job supervisor). It means that to measure out-of-the-classroom outcomes, you have to be ready and able to reach outside.

MG: In response to my concerns about measuring "psychosocial" traits of our learners and associated outcomes (that are always related to what transfers to "real life" after instruction), I'd like to begin with three comments made by Katherine, Blaire, and Hugo:

In my opinion, KMG’s question squarely addresses my concern with measurement by stating her concern about the fundability of programs and, I sense, her heartfelt preoccupation with what we are "supposed to do." Her question is short but "loaded" because it could invite or trigger a full-scale evaluation of policies and education legislation that so many of us are being held accountable to and, more importantly (in my 33 years of related experience), apprehensive about.

TE: I also agree with you that if we look at any goals from just an academic perspective, we do run into counter productivity.

1. We need to consider if any of these goals are our STUDENTS' goals. These is the main difference between K-12 and an adult population. Any goals of our adults should be THEIR goals. We all know that sometimes our students can name a whole spectrum of unreachable (I mean, within a short period of time when they are with us) goals. As teachers, we have the knowledge and experience to curtail these goals into something achievable, f.e. most of my SpEd students, with 2.0 - 6.0 GLE level plan not only to get GED, but become famous rappers, have it as a business. Do I kill their goals? No, but we have a long conversation about what they can achieve meanwhile and develop short achievable goals (Math, for example, because they don't want to not have control of their own business and lose their money to the greedy accountant :-)). In the above case, the goal is not only measurable, but my student's goal, real-life applicable.

2. The goals have to be measurable not only to bring funding, but also for the teacher/educator to have the grounds to talk to the student about his successes (as an educator, you would agree that an immediate positive feedback is ESSENTIAL in our student's progress) and correlate the scaffolding (which was discussed earlier). If we do not have the exact idea in which area our students achieves/underachieves/does not achieve, we are trying to teach in general, which totally contradicts to what we are all trying to achieve - individualized approach.

With any adult program, including the library tutoring, it is possible to develop a measurable STUDENT's goal. The STUDENT should provide an input, and the teacher's role is to reach outside the classroom to provide the measurable outcomes not only for the sake of the students, first of all, but to continue funding. As a Manager of the Literacy Program for Adults with ADD/ADHD/SLD, which funding depended on the fruitful employment of the former students for at least 6 months, I had to be in touch with employers and their work ratings (and you include any number of skills there, connecting employability, sociopsycological, academic, you name it) were providing the information and data I needed.

BLAIRE: An interesting and valid point. Yes, often when we (academia, government, official organizations, etc.) bring things into the limelight (with the best of intentions) they come under greater scrutiny, control, and manipulation.

Would you elaborate on how and why you think that measuring aspects such as affect might be counterproductive?

MG: I have studied testing, test my students often, and very much enjoy and value its potential to inform instructional practices in a way that helps maximize the benefit our students derive from them. That, in an of itself, is not the issue. Rather, once, for example, we are held accountable for "psychosocial outcomes" as a result of our efforts, we might become apprehensive about whether we are developing our students' affect. This apprehension itself might lead to the "Labovian paradox" (wherein the very effort at and act of observation skews the "results").

Developing positive affect and a mandate to do so may, and likely often would, become contra indicatory. This is where my concern about "academizing" affect stems from. On the level of policy and legislation, there is such a drive for accountability that it too often simply backfires.

Finally, as for what our students "transfer" to their "real" and "post-instruction" lives: transference of skills can be immediate, and it can also take years. The very attribution of what our students end up doing in their lives to their experiences in the classroom is tenuous at best. Further, to capture transference or real-life outcomes (something that I love to do and have often proposed to my past employer to implement) usually requires longitudinal tracking of our students over several years. The very ability to track meaningfully requires that information about our students become available to us. The most important source of such information would be from our students themselves, and their willingness to be allowed to be tracked will hinge greatly on the relationships that have been developed between the "tracker" and the student.

BLAIRE: TE's post underscores what we have found, that despite a stated desire to further their education the psychosocial aspects of learning and classroom interaction become equally as important. For me, one of the reasons I find the topic interesting, worthy of discussion, and possibly important to measure is partially due to what TE points out - without the confidence to use the skills learned in a class they may not get put into place outside of the classroom. As KMG pointed out - these skills need to transfer to the world beyond the classroom both for funding and student success; it is not simply about funding but for many of us it is a crucial part of the reality of our programs (MG, I thought your point about over-placing importance, defining, and quantifying those skills can ruin them is very valid, and will continue to think about that as I work through my own interest in measuring psychosocial outcomes). Furthermore, women can also gain a supportive and collective group in which they can jointly leverage power against oppressive social structures in both a large (see Ahearn for example) or a very small sense (see Toso, et al).

The increased movement towards distance education (partially due to what is billed as a better use of funds and ease for those who offer classes in rural or dispersed areas) could undermine these. As we noted in our article, the non-center based family literacy programs did not have the same psychosocial outcomes as the center based programs. I suppose this is another underlying motivation for my measurement preoccupation.

AW: One of my adult teacher friends had a simple gauge—improvement in dress which seemed to be associated with literacy gains and improvement in self-confidence.

Do others have such informal measures?

HK: Adult literacy students are disempowered in the face of literacy. A core sign of affective improvement is the willingness to grasp nettles and make attempts, to find ideas and alternative ideas, and ultimately, to challenge literacy (or other!) authority. Empowerment, in a word.

I gave one student a spelling dictionary for some 'homework' once, for a stunning example. This was, unbeknownst to me, a defective dictionary in which many common words do not appear. One evening he was working on some writing and wanted to spell 'river' (an irregular spelling after all). It isn't in there. He told his wife this. She, naturally enough, said of course it is, you must be looking in the wrong place, but he stuck to his guns and was proven right. Had I some champagne about my person when I heard that, I would have opened it there and then...

BLAIRE: I would not have thought about dress, especially as linked to literacy outcomes. - I hope others will add to the list of informal measures.

I know that some of my students would dress up for class as going to class and meeting with classmates was considered "an event." Something to get up for, prepare for, and anticipate as being something out of the daily routine - women in the study commented on this.

EA: When I read the following, I thought of this discussion. If Sarkozy can say happiness counts, maybe we can too!

Caption for an AP photo of Sarkozy: French President Nicolas Sarkozy gestures as he speaks at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Monday, Sept. 14, 2009. Sarkozy is calling for a "revolution" in the way economic growth is measured so that happiness and well-being can be included in measurements. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, Pool)

BLAIRE: This is actually out of a movement founded in Bhutan. The king (who is moving the monarchy over to a democracy) measures not the GNP but rather the GNH (Gross National Happiness). It is a really interesting concept, which includes the state of nature, education, and people's well being. I was following it a couple of years ago and knew that the movement was spreading worldwide and there is research also being conducted on how to implement it well, how effective it is, etc. Its great that Sarkozy is bringing it to the mainstream (I hope he credits the founders of the movement). There is a website: Time did an article on it as well (looks like 2005) ---

Anyway, if we consider the well being (emotional, economic, living environments) of our students in addition to educational gains - it might be getting at a way to value the psychosocial aspects of education.

ESTHER: In fact, Bhutan uses a measure called “Gross National Happiness” to guide its development (see article excerpt below).

The connection to our discussion is to consider how less tangible factors such as social interaction and support matter in adult learners’ development and well-being.

“GNH, according to the Centre of Bhutan Studies, in the capital Thimphu, is not against change. It propounds development - balancing economic development, preservation of the environment and religious-cultural heritage. The underlying message is that the country should not sacrifice elements important for people's happiness to gain material development. In short, GNH takes into account not just the flow of money but also access to healthcare, free time with family, conservation of natural resources and other non-economic factors.”

“Critics, however, have attacked GNH as romantic naive idealism, with no real connection to the development process. Others have claimed that, apart from the term GNH, the policy contains nothing different from conventional development approaches. And of course, in Bhutan, not everyone is happy.”

KMG: Do you think people are just more content in Bhutan? There is a difference between being content and being happy, I think. If they are content, there could be many reasons for that, many of them contradictory in nature (for example, you can learn to live with oppression and consider yourself content if you are allowed to live and take care of your family even if with the bare minimum).

Are we supposed to "counsel" people in what it means to be happy? This goes back to the discussion on whether or not we have the right to judge whether or not people SHOULD feel oppressed.

7. Closing from Blaire

Hi all,

We would like to take a moment to thank everyone for engaging in the discussion about social interaction and support for women and adult learners. We have covered a range of topics: Some have shared examples of psychosocial outcomes from adult education classes, while others have brought up the need for supportive and safe spaces so that adult education students can form social networks and develop a sense of self. We have also addressed how having a larger network beyond one's partner or family can assist learners to find new or additional resources, gain access to further education, encourage the student to persist in achieving a set goal, and offer support through difficult times. Some participants have given concrete examples of programs that have supported students in the quest for education, a supportive social arena, and a place that is different from their day-to-day life. We have also touched on measuring psychosocial outcomes from adult education, how such gains would be measured, and what is gained and lost by formally measuring and reporting this aspect of learning. We have also discussed violence and happiness in learners' lives.

The array of sub-topics brought up in this list discussion indicates the complexity of, and interest in, psychosocial outcomes by people who work with adult learners. The research literature in fields such as education, sociology, economics, and medicine finds that social networks, social outlets, diverse material and social supports, and education assist people in navigating their world with more ease, less stress, higher life satisfaction, a stronger sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy, and a higher likelihood of achieving their goals. Your experiences and research help translate this literature into practical examples in the field of adult education.

It has been a pleasure to engage in this discussion with all of you. Please feel free to contact us or to continue to post to the list with any questions or comments.



8. Thank you from Daphne

I would like to thank our guest facilitators, Blaire Willson Toso, Esther Prins, and Kai A. Schafft for their wisdom, insight, and participation. They have sparked questions for us, responded to our thoughts, and challenged us to consider the importance of social interaction and support for women learners. I would also like to thank everyone who participated in the discussion-the ones who sent in posts, as well as the ones who participated by actively reading and thinking about the posts. Although our facilitators will no longer be facilitating our discussion, feel free to continue to send posts on this topic.


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