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How to Teach Adults: Plan Your Class, Teach Your Students, Change the World

reviewed by Welton Kwong - January 16, 2015

coverTitle: How to Teach Adults: Plan Your Class, Teach Your Students, Change the World
Author(s): Dan Spalding
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 1118841360, Pages: 256, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

If you teach adults and have never attended “teacher school,” Dan Spalding’s How to Teach Adults: Plan Your Class, Teach Your Students, Change the World might be the book for you. This easy-to-read primer for adult educators, meant as a “concentrated reference you’ll come back to again and again” (p. viii), offers tips and strategies for a wide range of topics from lesson planning to classroom management to grading and assessments. It brings to light—or serves as a reminder—that skillful teaching requires a whole lot of thought and craft.

Spalding claims “adult students are more fun [because] adults make better conversation, bring more life experience, and ultimately have more to give to each other and to you” (p. xi). Yet, he acknowledges that key resources written for K-12 educators are also valuable for teaching adults; in fact, he noticeably draws upon Teach Like a Champion (Lemov, 2010) and The Skillful Teacher: Building Your Teaching Skills (Saphier & Grower, 2008). In so doing, he raises the question of what makes an adult learner in the first place. Is it age? Is it physical and psychological maturity, and what is maturity? Is it the setting where the formal learning takes place? Clearly, these questions are complex; the answers must take into consideration the learning context—culturally, socially, materially—as well as the developmental state of the individual. Although the title is How to Teach Adults, it is more useful to consider it a book about teaching and learning that spans along a continuum, rather than treat it as solely relevant to adult teaching.

Many of the tips and strategies make good sense and should be a part of every instructor’s repertoire, regardless of who or what is taught. For example, modeling (pp. 134–135) is a fundamental way the instructor can make clear expectations of a task, demonstrate how to carry out a process, and help students anticipate mistakes. All too often, adult instructors do little more than provide students a page of written instructions for an assignment and expect them to complete the final product by the due date. Also useful are strategies for creating a more equitable classroom, such as tips to help struggling students (p. 105) and to cold call students (pp. 110–111) as a way to make everyone’s voice heard.

As the title implies, Spalding wrote the book for teachers; however, he reminds the reader from time to time that the focus should be on the learner. It makes sense, then, that he offers a light dose of adult learning and development theory, drawing on principles by thinkers such as Knowles, Perry, and Daloz. It is important to remember that learning is not only an individual endeavor, but a social one as well; that is, learning takes place when the learner actively participates in social situations and interacts with other people (Fenwick, 2000). Knowledge, then, is constructed not only in one’s head, but also in the world around him. Spalding writes little about the teacher’s role in creating a learning environment in which students participate in a community of learners, where they can take ownership of their learning, negotiate meaning collectively, co-construct new understandings, and ultimately utilize each other as resources. Likewise, it is essential to treat teachers themselves as learners—to acknowledge their potential for continuous improvement. Thus, teachers at any level ought to consider themselves as members of a community of practice (Wenger, 1998), in which they work and learn with colleagues. All too often, teaching becomes a solo endeavor, and Spalding missed an opportunity to undercut this belief.

While the book succeeds, for the most part, as a “concentrated reference” (p. viii), it can leave the reader dissatisfied with its mile-wide, inch-deep approach. Surely, Spalding understands that teaching is tough, complex work; however, he does little more than glance over important, intricate topics that deserve an in-depth discussion. As a result, the author undermines—perhaps inadvertently—the complexity of teaching and learning. For example, determining worthwhile, high-leverage objectives that drive learning requires deep thinking and years of practice. This is hard stuff. Yet, Spalding condenses his discussion on planning course objectives to roughly two pages (pp. 40–41). Spalding leaves the reader to wonder how to determine which objectives are worth pursuing in the first place. He adds a box to inform the reader that SMART goals (Bogue, 2005) can be used to describe good objectives, but the reader is left to question what makes SMART goals “smart.” For instance, what does it mean to create a timely goal—a demanding yet sensible objective for students in a particular context? A richer, deeper dive would have solidified the reader’s understanding and pushed his thinking.

It is worth pointing out that the description on formative assessments was particularly dissatisfying—even somewhat odd. The author writes, “Formative assessments are surveys which let students evaluate the class format: lectures, activities, assignments, and so on” (p. 81); however, formative assessment is better defined as “getting the best possible evidence about what students have learned and then using information to decide what to do next” (William, 2011). The key is for the teacher to observe students as they work and learn and to analyze student work to determine whether they have gotten it. Ultimately, formative assessments help the teacher determine whether to re-teach and re-engage the learner vis-à-vis the learning objective.

Lastly, Spalding refers to Kolb’s theory of learning from experience (p. 19) and highlights the importance of reflection. Indeed, reflection-on-experience is a sine qua non of adult learning. As such, it would have been useful for Spalding to expand this idea to help teachers add to their strategies to create a learning milieu in which their students also are groomed to value and engage in reflective practices. Indeed, Spalding rightly points out that teaching adults is more than teaching content. It is also about helping students learn to learn, including appropriating strategies and fostering mindsets that will serve them well long after they leave the classroom.

While Spalding’s book leaves the reader wanting more, it is still a valuable resource for adult educators, both novices and teachers who would like to remind themselves that they are less the sage on the stage but more the guide on the side. After reading this book, this writer wishes he could go back in time to recommend it to a few of his own professors.


Bogue, R. (2005, April 25). Use S.M.A.R.T. goals to launch management by objectives plan. TechRepublic. Retrieved from http://www.techrepublic.com/article/use-smart-goals-to-launch-management-by-objectives-plan/

Fenwick, T. J. (2000). Expanding conceptions of experiential learning: A review of the five contemporary perspectives on cognition. Adult Education Quarterly, 50(4), 243–272.

Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Saphier, J., & Gower, R. (2008) The skillful teacher: Building your teaching skills. Action, MA: Research for Better Teaching.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

William, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 16, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17822, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:52:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Welton Kwong
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    WELTON KWONG began his career in education as a high school teacher and currently works in the San Francisco Bay Area as an administrator who oversees the English Language Learner program in his school district. Because he recognizes that student success depends on quality teaching, he spends much time thinking about the facilitation of adult learning, growth and development. He graduated from the Summer Principals Academy (SPA), Teachers College, Columbia University in 2008. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in the Adult Education Intensive Guided Study (AEGIS) program, also at Teachers College. He expects to complete in 2015 his dissertation entitled Learning to step up among colleagues: An examination of how teacher leaders learn from experience and in communities of practice.
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