I’m writing today from this dual perspective that I find myself in – as both instructor and student. The experience of being an adult student working in post-secondary education has, for the first 10 months of the program, been a balancing act.
Please bear with me for the analogy:
Erich Brenn performed as one of the guests on the variety television program, the Ed Sullivan Show. He would come onto a stage pre-set with cloth-draped tables, flatware, tableware, trays of glasses and such, and proceed to do his vaudeville act of spinning bowls on sticks and plates on the tables. Sometimes he would do other, smaller stunts while the plates and bowls were spinning.
(I don’t know why the video won’t embed. You can find the one I’m referring to here.)
He performed on the show a total of 8 times over the years.
The clip above from his 1969 performance strikes me as a good analogy to what life has been like for myself and my students since the outset of the school year. Things for Erich (and for us) started gradually, with keeping one or two bowls in the air. Over time more plates and bowls are started spinning, until there are the maximum number of plates and bowls spinning – with him running frenetically from one to the next to keep each one that is flagging from falling and breaking. By the end of three minutes in this performance he is able to, with care and control, stop each of the plates from spinning and take his final bow.
I see Erich’s plates and bowls as the things in our lives that we are juggling – this degree program, our families, our own jobs (in my case with students who each have their own set of plates to spin), and now, in the context of COVID-19, added changes to our lives.
I like this particular video of him because his first stunt (involving drinking glasses and spoons) doesn’t really work, and he continues on. I see this as resilience and clear priority. He is there to spin plates – the glasses and spoons were a side thing. It’s okay that they didn’t work out because they weren’t his main priority. His smile and wave to the audience tells us that sometimes things don’t work out, and that’s okay. He still has, at that point, capacity to spin more plates.
At the 2 minute mark he drops a plate – but doesn’t have so many spinning that he can’t recover and get to his final goal of keeping all the plates and bowls spinning, which he does, with a flourish and a grin. This is where the analogy with the plate spinner breaks down. I would suggest that, for both myself as a student and for the students of the program I teach in, we are not coming to the end of our act. Rather, we are finding ourselves with more and more plates added to spin.
We know that successful adult learners are more self-directed, that they do best when the learning tasks have relevance in their lives, that they have strong self-monitoring skills, and can manage their time and commitment to their learning (Garrison, 1997). I see in my own students their ability to manage their time and commitment to learning being eroded by the new challenges – the plates that need spinning, if you will – that have come with the COVID-19 crisis and restrictions, the local environmental (flooding) challenges, and current (particularly US) events.
The program that I teach in ascribes to a transformative learning model – we endeavor to support the students to challenge their own assumptions about their communities and open their minds up to change (Mezirow, 2003). Maslow (1987) in his well-known hierarchy of needs, outlines what humankind requires in order to survive, thrive, and flourish. His hierarchy, illustrated as a pyramid, includes as its base psychological needs (breathing, food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep) and as its pinnacle self-actualization (morality, creativity, spontaneity, acceptance, experience purpose, meaning and inner potential). For those unfamiliar with the model, the gist is: without the lower layers being well fulfilled, one can not progress up the pyramid to self-actualization. I would suggest that right now, most of our students (and indeed ourselves) are not operating at the part of the pyramid that we’ve become accustomed. With the advent of COVID-19, many of us are knocked back to places in which we worry about our health, employment, food, shelter, etc. The transformative type of learning that our program asks of our students is simply not possible at this time as our students foundational needs are not being met – they don’t, through no fault of their own, have the capacity to challenge their worldview while they are busy putting food on the table and concerned about the health of themselves and their loved ones.
I recognize that this is a pretty darn privileged place to look from, as well. There are many communities that do not regularly have their base needs met. Here in Canada, our First Nations Communities still do not all have safe drinking water, fundamental to ensuring the security of base needs. Systemic racism challenges and erodes the base levels of Maslow’s pyramid, along with the social instability that we are witnessing in our community and our world right now.
As an instructor, there are a few things I can do to help my students navigate this piece of their education:
- Recognize the intersectionality of our student population, and grow in my awareness that there are many pieces of student lives that are informing their behaviour and coping skills and strategies at this time.
- Recognize that student ability is not necessarily reflected in their output, and accept different types of demonstrations of learning.
- Work with them to create timelines that they can work within, at times advocating for and with them to the College institution, with awareness that institutional timelines are not necessarily built around human need.
- Communicate with students regularly to ensure that they are not floundering, and connect them with counseling services, food security services, or other agencies that can help to shore up that base part of their pyramid.
These last few months have seen us all spinning more plates, seen us questioning the assumptions that we’ve had of our societies and communities, and trying to find and use effective coping strategies. Here’s to the continued good, hard work of keeping our own plates and the plates of others spinning until they can be put down with care.
(Post Script: I realized after hitting ‘publish’ that this doesn’t even touch on the challenges that have come with moving a face-to-face, practice-based program into an online space, both for instructors and for students. In our rural community, many students do not have access to predictable internet service, updated and/or functioning computers that can handle video-conferencing, etc. The move to online-only teaching has thrown into stark relief the socioeconomic strata of our area and brought to light many challenges inherent in trying to establish student equity. These contexts are the plates that students don’t always show us that they’re spinning – but they’re trying to keep in the air nonetheless.)
Garrison, D. R. 1997. “Self-Directed Learning: Toward a Comprehensive Model.” Adult Education Quarterly 48(1):18–33.
Maslow, Abraham, and K. J. Lewis. “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” Salenger Incorporated 14 (1987): 987.
Mezirow, Jack. 2003. “Transformative Learning as Discourse.” Journal of Transformative Education 1(1):58–63.