The Importance of Interpersonal Relations in Adult Literacy Programs

By Terry, Marion | Educational Research Quarterly, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Importance of Interpersonal Relations in Adult Literacy Programs


Terry, Marion, Educational Research Quarterly


In 2002-03, a qualitative case study explored the perspectives of 70 stakeholders connected to two community-based adult literacy programs in Manitoba, Canada. Four themes emerged from within-case and cross-case analyses of the data: program design, human relations, community context, and financial support. Instructor-learner and learner-learner relationships were essential to the theme of human relations. Research participants noted the powerful impact that these relationships had on the nature of the classroom climate and on the results of the learning process. This article therefore focuses on adult literacy learners' relationships with their instructors and peers, as a catalyst for making recommendations for practice in literacy programs and other adult education settings.

A 2002-03 qualitative study explored the perspectives of stakeholders connected to two community-based adult literacy programs in Manitoba, Canada. Four themes emerged: program design, human relations, community context, and financial support. Instructor-learner and learner-learner relationships were essential to the theme of human relations. This article therefore focuses on adult literacy learners' relationships with their instructors and peers, as a catalyst for making recommendations for practice in literacy programs and other adult education settings.

All given names, including program communities, are pseudonyms. The following definitions apply, in accordance with their use by program stakeholders: learners are students coordinators/instructors are head practitioners, other staff are paid and volunteer instructors and support staff, parents/significant others are learners' close relatives and friends, program administrators are volunteer board chairpersons, referral agents are civil servants and community agency workers who refer learners to literacy programs, and provincial funding agents are the government employees responsible for provincially funded adult literacy programs.

Review of the Literature

The literature reveres positive interpersonal relationships between students and instructors, especially for the sake of undereducated adult learners who may not be as self-directed and self-motivated as other adult learners (Slusarski, 1994). Pagan (1991) refers to the power of the "personal touch" to motivate literacy students "beyond anything they had previously known" (p. 403). An adult educator's interpersonal skills depend on characteristics such as caring for (Amstutz, 1999) and respecting (Weinstein, 2000) students, accepting their culture (Tisdell,. 1999), listening to them (Dirkx, 1997), and sharing control of the learning situation (Norton, 2001). Thus, although the focus is on the student in adult education (Richmond, 2001), much responsibility remains with the instructor to ensure optimal conditions for learning (Manthey, 2000).

Peer relations are an integral part of every group learning situation. Most adult education writers describe adults as manifesting affiliating behaviors based on feelings of affection (Kerka, 2002) and interpersonal commitment (Helfield, 2001). Others, however, maintain that many adults have interpersonal skill deficits that impact on their classroom experiences (Taylor, 1999). Adult educators therefore have a responsibility to teach students to respect each other's disparate perspectives and to emotionally connect with and support one another in the classroom (Brookfield, 1995). Belenky and Stanton (2000) recommend actively teaching adults how to question, listen, and respond to each other. Caffarella and Barnett (1994) prescribe collaborative inquiry as a means to cultivate affiliative behaviors among adults.

Research Setting

The research programs followed the community-based adult literacy program model endorsed by the Government of Manitoba. Their different histories, however, had resulted in somewhat different foci for program delivery.

The Mayville program began in 1989 as a part-time one-to-one service by a paid instructor to a handful of students with basic literacy needs, but by 2002-03 it was serving 116 students.

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