The Senior Tutorial Mode of Graduate Education

Appreciating the Mature Learner

This description of the Senior Tutorial Model is adopted from The Four Models of Adult Education prepared by Ken Pawlak, a graduate of the Professional School of Psychology, and William Bergquist, President of PSP

Learning in the Senior Tutorial Model begins with the assumption that a mature and accomplished participant in a formal learning program is already wise and knowledgeable. The mature learner comes to an educational program with “a full mug” — one that doesn’t need to be filled. In fact, the mature learner often comes with an “entire pitcher” — a full pitcher that easily overflows the mug (course content, educational outcomes, etc.). The challenge is often one of helping the mature learner “contain” their rich insights and direct them in a purposeful way toward some discrete outcome.

Appreciation and Animation

Appreciation is critical for PSP’s senior tutorial program. Typically, the most important book for a student to read is the book that she herself has authored (literally or figuratively). One of the key ingredients of a senior tutorial program is an articulate appreciation of the knowledge and wisdom that the learner brings to the program. In many cases, a senior tutorial faculty member’s primary role as a “tutor,” “guide,” or “learning coach” is to interview the student for many hours (with transcripts from the interview being compiled into a portfolio or even translated into a journal article or full book).

In a classroom setting, the senior tutorial faculty member will often step back from the traditional information-giving role and serve instead as an enthusiastic “animator” of dialogue among the mature learners in his classroom and as an informed connoisseur who can point out when one or more of his students offers a particularly insightful observation or offers a unique perspective on some issue. The wisdom and experience of the faculty member in such a setting is manifest not in the dissemination of information, but in the identification of his students “hidden” knowledge, skills and aptitudes (thoughtfully illuminating the shadow characteristics of the learner).

The Nature of Hidden Wisdom and Knowledge

For a moment, we wish to pause and focus on this domain of “hidden” knowledge, skills and aptitude. As senior tutorial tutors and instructors seek to appreciate their mature students and to appreciate the context in which these learners are operating, they realize that all learners (including themselves) come to appreciate their own distinctive strengths in two ways: through self-perception and through the perceptions of other people. Our self-perceptions of strengths are based on the processes of reflection upon our own impact on the world in which we live and work, and comparisons we draw with other people who are also having an impact on this world. The perceptions of other people are made known to us through direct or indirect feedback. In some cases we know of our strengths. In other cases we do not. Similarly, in some cases other people know of our distinctive strengths. In other cases they do not.

Given this scheme, there are four possibilities (as the much-used Johari Window has popularized). First, some of our strengths can be known to ourselves and to other people. These are publicly recognized strengths; if well-used, these strengths will have been a big part of our success strategy. A senior tutorial faculty member can celebrate these strengths with her mature learner, and also be alert to over-use.

Second, we might personally be aware of other strengths that we posses; however, other people might not be aware of them. These are our private strengths. We may be aware of them, but they are rarely of much value to us, given that others never see them being used, like the poetry one may be writing in one’s mind. Evoking such private strengths from mature learners by listening attentively to their stories of past successes and to their insights regarding reading material or cases and analyses being offered by other students gives us a chance to encourage them to experiment and apply these strengths in currently challenging situations.

The third possibility is one in which we are not fully aware of a distinctive strength we possess, whereas other people are aware. These are obscure strengths. These strengths are also of little value to us until we have become fully acquainted with them and know how to put them to work. When commendations made by a senior tutorial faculty member feel undeserved and/or intimidating to a mature learner, it is often because the learner doesn’t see his own strengths as clearly as the faculty member (and his colleagues) do. Finally, there are strengths we possess that have never been acknowledged by anyone — including ourselves. These are potential strengths. They represent the farthest edge of our growth and development.

The process of appreciation, in which the senior tutorial tutor or instructor plays a central role, expands the size of the public window by providing an opportunity through feedback to learn more about our observed strengths. It also provides the mature senior tutorial learner with an opportunity to reflect on the nature of his strengths. The private window becomes smaller in an educational culture that is appreciative: students in this setting begin to feel more comfortable in sharing personal insights based on their distinctive strengths and talents. The obscure window also shrinks with appreciation: mature learners have access to clearer information regarding their distinctive strengths when the climate allows these learners to feel comfortable in providing one another with such observations.

Finally, with both the private and obscure windows shrinking in size, the potential strength window grows smaller and feeds into the public one: potential strengths are recognized for the first time both by the mature learner and his colleagues. Senior tutorial learning relates directly to this expansion of the public domain with regard to our acknowledged strengths. This appreciative process provides the senior tutorial faculty member with a framework and the mature learner with resources and processes to reflect on her own strengths and receive feedback from other people regarding the strengths that they most want to leverage for their growth and the accomplishment of educational goals.

In summary, when working with a mature senior tutorial participant, the tutor or instructor is not adding more knowledge — for the pitcher and mug are already full. Rather the tutor or instructor is helping this mature person to more fully articulate and elaborate on existing learning, acquired wisdom and experience, and then linking this learning, wisdom, and experience to other sources. The mature participant in this formal education program is finding her distinctive voice and distinctive competencies — rather than acquiring this voice or these competencies from the tutor or instructor. The educational journey is one which helps the senior tutorial learner expand her horizons, find and acknowledge the original sources of her own ideas and more fully map the territory in which she lives and has acquired wisdom.

Animating Senior Tutorial Learning

How then, is senior tutorial learning elicited and how does the dynamic interplay between faculty member and learner come into play? We propose that it is most likely to be elicited when an old nineteenth century educational model is recovered. This is the model of tutor — who served in a very intimate relationship with the person being tutored. While this intimacy is re-established in the senior tutorial contextual, inter-dependent tutorial, there are some differences between the nineteenth century and twenty-first century tutor — particularly with regard to an elimination of many status differences.

The senior tutorial tutor, guide or learning coach plays eight interrelated roles that are all appreciative when seeking to animate the wisdom that the mature learner already possesses:

  • Companion: helping to establish peer relationships with the mature learner; tutor as companion on the journey to shared wisdom.
  • Interviewer: the most important book for the mature learner to read is the book they have written, based on their own rich life experiences and the insights gained from reflection with the tutor on these experiences.
  • Clarifier: asking strong, clarifying questions of the mature learner, helping them identify their untested assumptions about the amount and the way in which other people interpret what they have to say and write.
  • Articulator: often the mature learner benefits from hearing the tutor “play back” what they have already said using different words, alternative metaphors and organizing models.
  • Knowledgeable Admirer: helping the mature learner recognize what is exceptional and beneficial about what they have said or written; challenging the assumption that the mature learner has “nothing special” to say or write.
  • Linker: helping the mature learner recognize additional people, written material and other resources that can help them even more fully enrich the wisdom and experiences they have acquired over a full lifetime.
  • Promoter: helping the mature learner identify or create strategies that enables them more effectively to get their wisdom out into the world (“diffusion of innovation”).
  • Co-learner: working alongside the mature learner in the venture into new conceptual areas that generate new interest, new energy and new insights in both the tutor and learner.

While senior tutorial learning is built on the foundation of profound appreciation for the wisdom and experience of the individual mature learner, it also extends to the perspective one holds regarding responsibility for and to other people — and an appreciation for the wisdom inherent in all people (regardless of age, ethnicity or so-called intelligence).