Important People: Allen Tough

Generally, when I read a book or a paper about management or education, I have to make notes and work to remember what I am reading. But in the case of Alan Tough’s book, “The Adult’s Learning

Projects,” it explained a part of my experience that I had thought, to that point, was simply an observation and a philosophy that I held.

Tough, who recently died from ALS, was a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. His career-long research into adult learning projects has changed the knowledge base for lifelong learning and explains, now that we are web centric, the potential of the digital dimension and the post-traditional world.

In the early years of the Community College of Vermont, we began assessing experiential learning for academic credit. It was controversial, but we believed that if a person already knew something that could count towards a degree, we should not make them learn it again. Still and all, as radical as we thought we were, we were going to be the focus of the students’ learning, offering courses towards the degree. And then Alan Tough’s book turned my life, and point of view, upside down.

Tough proved that the average adult engages in 8-10 learning projects every year, consuming more than 700 hours of new material annually or 12 hours a week. He defined a process for their learning projects which took them from problem identification, to research of resources, to the actual learning, and concluded with a determination that the learning was complete for the problem identified. And, startlingly, he discovered that most people “forgot” what they had learned over time, remembering only when he employed recall exercises. Recalling “tacit” knowledge and making it tangible had a striking impact on his subjects.

After I read the book, I called Alan Tough and the next week I drove to Toronto and visited with him for several hours. Tough’s theory and findings about adult learning projects, deepened over the years by additional research, explained to me what I was seeing in our students, the lifelong learners who were coming to Community College of Vermont.  This validated the assessment of prior experiential learning as a practice and gave me a lens through which to analyze learning programs and systems throughout my career, i.e. Are the learning programs learning-friendly and adult-friendly, or not?
The point here is not that all this learning is at a post-secondary level and should be counted for academic recognition. The point is that we are all natural learners, that we learn continually, that the learning changes us, and that an educational institution which could harness that natural impulse and help people remember what they already knew would be extremely valuable to them.

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