Teaching adults with learning difficulties : a Rogerian approach
This thesis uses an evaluation of a course based on a Rogerian approach to education to
challenge the efficacy of the normative/behaviourist approach, which has been used to
train adults labelled as having learning difficulties. Unlike behaviourist approaches,
Rogers' work seeks to empower students to become self-directed learners and claims to
teach them how to become their own behaviour change agents.
The research questions focused fIrstly on whether it was possible to use genumess,
acceptance and empathic understanding to build the 'climate of trust' that Rogers claimed
facilitates student learning (Rogers, 1983: 18) and secondly on the learning that took
place in such a 'climate.'
Primary data were gathered usmg participant-observation, written records and tape
recordings throughout the two-year action-research programme. The evaluation took
place post hoc.
The evidence demonstrates that the adoption of Rogerian principles to develop the skills
of communication, decision-making and self-evaluation generated a 'climate of trust' in
which student learning and 'trust' became mutually reinforcing.
Evidence from the second year, in the form of case studies, showed how different each
individual student was, how their talents and needs varied and how they developed
increased self-esteem and self-confidence.
However, the Rogerian approach was not implemented without problems. His beliefs
about genuineness, acceptance and empathic understanding do not recognise that the
source of genuineness is the tutor's subjective values, whilst empathy requires an
imaginative leap to grasp the students' subjective meaning. The tutor may well have to
face dilemmas where her personal values are in conflict with her empathic understanding
of her students' perspectives. Conflicts also arose between the needs of individual
students and the needs of the group as a whole.
Furthermore, Rogers' work largely ignores the pedagogic skills required of the tutor. In
advocating breaking down the 'us and them' divide between tutor and taught, he ignores
the problem of establishing a structure of legitimate authority. This was resolved by
establishing a form of democratic decision making as a radical alternative to the
praise/blame culture of the traditional classroom.
Rogers' ideas may be utilised by tutors in ways that help students labelled as having
learning difficulties drop the 'defensive strategies' (Goffinan, 1968:44) and 'facades'
(Rogers, 1983:24) associated with stigma and 'spoiled identity.' The importance of
'critical events' (Woods, 1993:3) as turning points for learning following the building of
trust, is highlighted.
Several incidents highlighted the problems that arise for tutors who lack background
knowledge of students' involvement with other professionals. This has led to unresolved
issues and hence to a recommendation for more research into the potential for greater
The Rogerian approach is not a formula. It engenders a climate of mutual respect where
trust can grow. It is recommended to tutors working with adults labelled as having
learning difficulties as it empowers them to direct their own learning and to become their
own behaviour change agents.