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Integrating contingency leadership with collaborative processes to meet the dynamically diverse needs of adult learners

Facing classrooms of students with a broadening range of experience, ability and motivation, how can adult educators meet the dynamic needs of individual learners?

A functionally diverse student population has joined the self-directed management-track learners who once dominated adult-oriented universities. Facing classrooms of students with a broadening range of experience, ability and motivation, how can adult educators meet the dynamic needs of individual learners? Integrating contingency leadership models with collaborative learning processes may provide a partial answer that can help adult educators to build dynamic strategies for supporting student performance, satisfaction, and persistence.

Commonly taught in management courses, Hersey and Blanchard’s (1988) Situational Leadership model helps business professionals understand how to adjust leadership style to match the willingness and ability of followers, with the objective of developing followers to be more willing and able to perform with less control from leadership. Grow (1991) integrates Knowle’s (1980, 1968) theory of andragogy, or adult learning, with situational leadership models to offer a Self-Directed Learning Model that provides adult educators with strategies for matching teaching styles with the competencies of individual learners. At each stage of development, an objective of the adult educator is to facilitate the learner toward self-directed learning.

A key lesson from both models for adult educators is that each individual and situation is dynamically different; practicing situational leadership can allow classroom leaders to always do the right thing, not be limited by always doing the same thing. The more experienced, capable and motivated the learner, the more the educator can apply andragogical teaching methods, like facilitation and consultation. Likewise, the lower the learner’s competencies, the more the educator may consider applying controlling pedagogical teaching methods, like lecture and tests.

However, adapting teaching style to accommodate the needs of individual learners goes beyond finding the right balance on Knowles' (1980) continuum between andragogy and pedagogy for the individual learner; it involves developing a "multigogical" style through which the educator actively engages in learning with the students to identify the proper strategies for developing individual learners toward self direction, while also meeting the dynamic developmental needs of the class (Duncan & Genin, 2008). Groups rarely exhibit functional homogeneity among members; student groups are typically composed of individuals with varying degrees of skills, abilities, and motivations. Fortunately, learning team models offer a strategy for implementing contingency approaches that meet individual student needs, while aligning classroom activities to the needs of all students. For example, the Phoenix collaborative learning model develops individuals to take responsibility for their own learning, then enhance their learning by committing to develop a team of students, who in turn dedicate themselves to developing each individual team member. The team then contributes to developing the class, which in turn contributes to developing the members of each team (University of Phoenix, 2004).

By integrating contingency approaches with a collaborative learning model, adult educators can build high-performance learning environments through which they can apply "multigogical" teaching methods that allow all students to engage in individual and collaborative learning to accelerate academic development toward self-direction. The learning team model also allows opportunities for learners to build a social network of students with similar skills, allowing faculty an opportunity to deliver simultaneously personalized teaching methods to smaller groups within the classroom.

In conclusion, to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body, adult educators must develop "multigogical" teaching methods that maximize developmental opportunities for each student while creating a vibrant learning environment that aligns classroom activities toward self-directed learning. Adult educators can support student success by continuously assessing student abilities and needs, adapting contingency leadership practices to adjust strategies with student competencies, and integrating collaborative learning processes that dynamically develop individuals and groups.


References Cited

Duncan, B., & Genin, V. (2008). Exploring faculty connections to student persistence. (N. G. Khayrulina, Ed.) Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation News from Higher Education Institutions, 3 (18), 80-83.

Grow, G. O. (1996). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly, 41 (3), 125-149. Extracted from extended version on 7/12/2007 at

Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. (1988). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Knowles, M. S. (1968). Andragogy, not pedagogy. Adult Leadership, 16 (10), 350-352, 380.

Knowles, M. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy, 2nd edition. New York: Association Press.

University of Phoenix (2004). Learning team handbook. University of Phoenix. Extracted on 7/24/2007 from