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'Nothing beats the classroom' - really?


In this week's article, Jane Berwick, creator of The Adult Learning Hub, speaks about our new world of work, where the field of adult education has been thrust onto a more global stage, as a result of the Covid pandemic. It has challenged our assumptions about traditional notions of learning and where it takes place. For those tasked with the learning of adults, what are the important decisions we now need to make? Read on...

I saw a post online recently, where a trainer said, 'Online courses are good but nothing beats a classroom', with a picture of a training room, with empty chairs and a whiteboard in the background. The comments on the post followed:

'Me as a trainer, love the moment on participants' faces when they say 'Ahh, now I get it.' Online live or online recorded sessions cannot provide that.'

'Nothing is better than a classroom for training...Let's wait, we'll have it soon.'

'You can instantly read from students face it whether you're doing a good job or not.'

'Can't agree more.'


Something made me scratch my head when I read this.

Is it just me, or are there a few hidden assumptions evident here? (insert awkward silence...or perhaps a tumbleweed?)

I'm pretty sure the intent of the person who posted this was meant to cause harm or be subversive in any way. However, it did stop me in my tracks. Something about 'nothing beats the classroom' made me rather uncomfortable and caused me to question, who is the adult learning classroom for? Who are we actually meant to be serving - ourselves or our learners? What hidden or taken for granted assumptions are in operation here? Let's unpack, shall we?

Most of us have grown up attending a traditional bricks and mortar school, with blackboards/whiteboards; a set of chairs; a desk to ourselves; and a teacher usually at the front of the room. This was our early experience of education, where learning was designated to happen.

For many, the physical classroom represented a happy time to come together, to be with our friends, to do activities and projects, to be creative, and to learn. We had teachers who poured their energy into their lessons to bring the learning to life and who made a point of bringing out the best in us. I bet you even have someone who comes to mind as you read this.

On the flip side, however, the classroom environment was also a place where you 'knew your place' - you might have been told to physically sit next to a stronger student (knowing you were the weaker one); you were asked to solve equations on the board in front of your peers, embarrassingly you couldn't or you knew you would struggle. You were either labelled as a 'keener' because you sat at the front, or were 'bad' and assigned to sit at the back of the room as a kind of punishment.

You might have even grown up wearing a uniform to school, or you might have just worn your regular clothes or tried to look cool to make a statement with your peers. You chose to wear your hair a certain way, or made sure to put on those new Nike's your mom just bought you for your birthday. It was clear which students came from the more wealthy families and those who did not. You knew which group you belonged to, and those you didn't, or maybe you didn't fit in to any groups at all.

You might have had teachers who were also authority figures who you trusted, but might have let you down or taken advantage of their perceived power. You also might have been bullied, or experienced the looming threat of being beat up, once the bell rang at the end of the day and everyone jetted from their desks.

The truth is: we all have different experiences of 'the classroom.'

When we reach adulthood, we carry these early experiences of learning with us, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Growing up and being in a classroom for the majority of our formative years, can be sources of incredible strength, confidence and dignity, but they can also be triggers of shame, doubt, anxiety, and feelings of 'I'm not good enough/smart enough.' We also change significantly as we enter adulthood or we have experiences that impact how we see ourselves and the world around us.

If we seek learning as an adult, it might be due to a number of reasons like changing life circumstances, embarking on a new career, completing our high school diploma or perhaps needing to brush up on our math or excel skills. However, the physical classroom could actually be the primary barrier for us, in deciding whether or not to participate in further learning in adulthood. For example:

  • Some learners have anxiety because the idea of stepping into a room with people they've never met can feel overwhelming.

  • Others have needed to make child care arrangements or travel a long way to get to the venue/training room.

  • Some struggle to find the best place to sit because their eyesight might not be as good as when you were a kid

  • Others have a disability (be visible or invisible) because of an accident or health circumstance as an adult, and don't know the arrangements ahead of time to make sure learning is accessible to them or they are worried they might be judged by others.

  • Or perhaps they just feel a bit inadequate because it's been 20 years since they've learned anything new and they have no idea what to expect.

A number of reflections come to mind in light of this: What is 'the classroom' we are so desperately wanting to get back to? Is it the classroom itself or something else? 

For educators or practitioners, do we want to return to a physical space because we feel at our best? What about our learners - are they actually at their best in this environment? Is it really the optimum place for engaging in formal learning for adults, all the time?

I don't ask these questions to criticise being together in a room. I do love that buzz just as much as anyone. And, of course, there are times when adults need to be physically present when practicing vital skills we use in our jobs. We also know that many struggle to navigate learning online for a whole host of reasons and Covid has only reinforced this challenge. Even those in senior level positions who have rather limited digital skills in the corporate sector, have needed to quickly navigate technology like never before. Regardless of position, perceived level of authority, life circumstances or responsibilities, we've all needed to take on new challenges and develop skills this past year.

The field of adult education, being now on a more global stage due to Covid, needs to strike while iron is hot.

We, as adult learning professionals, now have new decisions to make & previously held assumptions to challenge. If we are to stay relevant to our learners in this changing world of work and continue to make an impact in the institutions and businesses we serve, we need to ask ourselves:

  1. What are the underlying assumptions I am operating under here? About my learners; their abilities; their life circumstances; my material and outcomes they are to experience?

  2. Is it absolutely imperative for this group of people, to be present together, in the same room, at the same time, to learn this particular skill or piece of knowledge? If the answer is no, then what options do I have to deliver this online? And how do I need to adjust my approach?

  3. What learning can be done ahead of time, as a self-directed task or reflection exercise? Some of your learners need this time on their own to interact with material. This also saves time & valuable resources, especially in an online environment.

  4. How are you assessing your learners digital skills? Who will need more assistance at first and what resources can you offer to help them adjust? This impacts the outcomes they will experience and the extent to which they engage with your material, and with each other.

  5. Given your particular set of learning outcomes, what other potential barriers present themselves that you can plan for ahead of time? And what strategies will you use to alleviate these? 

Finally, we must ask ourselves...what is it that I actually miss about the classroom? Am I ultimately serving myself or my learners here? Instead of saying, 'There's nothing like the classroom,' I'd like to urge practitioners to instead say, 'Ahh, there is nothing like learning...wherever and whenever it takes place.'

What are your thoughts on 'the classroom'? I'd love to hear from you! Get in touch with me at jane@theadultlearninghub.com.

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