In my mind’s eye, my baby sister is six years old: rosy cheeks, curly brown hair, gentle brown eyes, and a naughty smile. Why is that always the case? In reality, she is a 25-year-old doctor completing her internship and has delivered more babies than I have ever held. And yet, to me, she is a baby.
I am aware of this, so I am always careful when we spend time together to remember that she is actually an adult. Despite this, I had a difficult time holding my tongue a couple of years ago when she drove me to see her flat in Parktown. The highways in Jo’burg are filled with mad people who seem to drive around with as much direction as ants that have been disturbed by an anteater. As she sped faster and faster, dodging taxis and beamers, I held on tighter and tighter. Eventually I couldn’t hold back a desperate plea for her to slow down! She responded with a tense lecture about how I don’t know what it’s like to drive in the big city and this is how people have to drive.
Reflecting on this, I had to agree. At the time, I was living on a farm in the rural Eastern Cape. My journeys from Grahamstown to the beach had involved me getting stuck behind a unicyclist, a family of ducks, and the highlight which was ramping a dead cow. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen ducks but they really do move in row behind each other, and this flock had been using the road to go from one farm to the next. I patiently waited for momma, and her seven ducklings, to waddle in single file from neighbour to neighbour. So I can safely say that my rural life of driving slowly to avoid ducks, goats, donkeys, cows, zebras, etc. did not really mean I knew how to drive in the city. I still don’t know much about city driving, to be honest.
In any case, in the midst of her lecture about big grownup city driving, flashing blue lights called us to the side of the road and she was handed a hefty speedy fine. I didn’t say I told you so, but I thought it really loudly.
What does this have to do with education? Aside from the fact that I helped teach my sister to drive, and now she is arguably a more experienced driver, each person brings different life experience to the learning activity. My sister has a lot of experience driving in big cities and busy highways. I have a lot of experience navigating bumpy, pot-holed roads, and dodging wild and domestic animals. Each of us has a rich resource of experience which influences how we make decisions and why we think the way we do about driving. The same is true when we are involved with educating adults. We need to bear in mind the history of each learner and how that may influence their learning. It may not seem logical to us, but to them it makes perfect sense.
Educating adults is a different ballgame from other teaching contexts. I would argue that adults may have less patience since they are inevitably balancing work, partners, children, health activities, hobbies, and studying. It is important to recognise not only their past experiences but their current experience too. Adults are rushing everywhere on the highway of learning, sometimes in the driver seat and sometimes in the passenger seat. Adults needs to be met with that understanding firmly in place. It is a good idea to remember that experience is everything when it comes to adult education.