“We Are The Voice To Speak Up”: Cultivating Adult Learner Voice Through Leadership

This paper investigates the role of leadership training in developing voice in adult learners and presents implications for staff and programs to enhance practice by building relationships, fostering community and
collaboration, and encouraging voice through activities.

Turonne Hunt
Amy Rasor
Margaret Becker Patterson
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech)
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech)
Research Allies for Lifelong Learning
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This paper investigates the role of leadership training in developing voice in adult learners. Twenty-one (21) adult education programs were randomly selected for evaluation: 13 programs received an 8-hour leadership training and 12 subsequently completed a leadership project; the remaining eight served as control programs. Qualitative methods were used to analyze observational notes and videos for each program on two separate occasions, both pre- and post-leadership training. Four overarching themes were identified as essential in cultivating adult learner voice and leadership: community and collaboration, laughter and comfort, self-motivation and perseverance, and opportunity. Our findings on how adult learners in leadership roles, in contrast with learners in control settings, interacted with instructional and administrative staff and peers offer insights into and examples of learner development of voice. Finally, we present implications for staff and programs to enhance practice. Our recommendations include building relationships, fostering community and collaboration, and encouraging voice through activities.

Benefits and Uses

The article provides important insights into the growth that adult learners can experience through leadership training and participation in a related outreach project focused on program-related awareness building, communication, or fundraising. It highlights the value of engaging and supporting adult learners in leadership and emphasizes the importance of creating spaces in an adult basic education program to cultivate learners' voices. The article outlines four themes that became evident through qualitative review of the data: Community and Collaboration, Laughter and Comfort, Self-motivation and Perseverance, and Opportunity. It defines each of these and provides examples of how each contributed to the overall development of learner voice [as defined by Stein (1997): "ability to express ideas and opinions with the confidence they will be heard and taken into account”]. In addition to the explanatory article text on each of these, Table 1 at the end or the article provides a helpful summary linking each theme with manifestations of voice and aspects of leadership.

The implications section is especially relevant since it highlights the value of building relationships between teacher and learners as well as among learners and makes important observations about ways in which adult learners can be encouraged to develop learner voice. The report emphasizes creating a community of learners and engaging them in collaborative projects and personally relevant multimodal activities including using visual support and/or manipulatives as well as authentic materials during instruction. The authors argue that involving learners in the design of curriculum is a powerful way to honor their voices.

Overall this article is an important addition to the all-too-limited body of direct research on adult learners' experiences in adult education programs and perceptions of their learning trajectories. Teachers and program administrators will benefit from considering the insights it provides on effective ways of building learner voice by interactions with adult learners that can build their self-efficacy and self-confidence in expressing themselves and taking on collaborative leadership roles. Adult educators could use the resource, along with the other resources that it cites, as part of a workshop or study circle on establishing and maintaining a supportive classroom/program environment. The resource could also be used to guide development of class- or program-wide projects like those carried out by the study subjects in awareness building, communication, and fundraising.

What the experts say

This article summarizes the initial outcomes of a qualitative research study that compared adult learners who participated in leadership training and a related leadership project with learners who did not participate in such training and projects. The study looked specifically at the development of "learner voice" (that is, "ability to express ideas and opinions with the confidence they will be heard and taken into account” (Stein, 1997) as a manifestation of learners' self-efficacy, self-confidence, and ability to work collaboratively.

There is some weakness in the research design; for example, it is not evident how the researchers established comparability between the participating programs and the control programs, and the links between the content and method of the leadership training and the implementation of the follow-on projects are not explained clearly. It may be that this apparent weakness is due to length restrictions or other editorial factors rather than issues with the study design itself, however.

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