PARSNIPs, trigger warnings and coddling

Should we steer clear of PARSNIPs in adult education or learn how to deal with them? David Petrie, blogging as TEFLGeek explains that the acronym stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms and Pork.

parsnips

Petrie’s focus is on teaching English as a foreign language outside the UK but dealing with PARSNIPs is a hot potato in adult education more generally as students – and teachers – in any group are likely to have varied backgrounds, experiences, opinions, prejudices and sensitivities.

Avoiding controversial subjects is one approach. It’s potentially less risky but it would inhibit meaningful study of literature, arts and humanities, especially for mature students in adult and community learning settings . Political education, health education and other important themes would become ‘no go’ areas if PARSNIPs were off the menu. The curriculum would lose richness and relevance.

Trigger Warnings

Kate Nonesuch, a Canadian teacher working in Adult Literacy, is posting a series of blogs on the theme of using ‘trigger warnings’ in her practice, alerting students to subject matter which they might find disturbing or difficult to discuss with others because of their personal characteristics or circumstances. These posts are based on her extensive practical experience and describe how she works with her students to devise effective teaching and learning strategies to deal with potentially difficult issues.

Coddling

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explore trigger warnings and “micro-aggressions” from a different perspective in a widely circulated article from the September issue of the Atlantic. Under the headline, “Coddling of the American Mind“, the subtitle says that:

In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.

Lukianoff and Haidt argue that:

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

Writing in the Guardian, Jill Filopovic, a journalist based in New York City, adds to the debate on trigger warnings, using this description of college:

College isn’t exactly the real world either, but it’s a space for kinda-sorta adults to wade neck-deep into art, literature, philosophy, and the sciences, to explore new ideas, to expand their knowledge of the cultural canon, to interrogate power and to learn how to make an argument and to read a text. It is, hopefully, a space where the student is challenged and sometimes frustrated and sometimes deeply upset, a place where the student’s world expands and pushes them to reach the outer edges – not a place that contracts to meet the student exactly where they are.

“Kinda-sorta adults”?

Adult and Community Learning

Meeting students where they are and acknowledging their starting points is a specialism of adult and community learning with a social purpose. Embedding challenge and critical thinking isn’t an alternative to this but is part of a reflective teacher’s professional craft.

A trigger warning in adult education advises someone of a possible problem. It is not a stop sign or a veto, but invites further thought about managing their learning. Good adult education is not always comfortable but it certainly shouldn’t be traumatic. Used sparingly with common sense and sensitivity, trigger warnings can foster critical thinking and wider understanding, opening up discussion rather than reinforcing taboos.

PARSNIPs, especially the ‘isms’, are complex subjects and working in adult education involves intricate professional judgments and skill to maintain stimulating but safe learning environments for students and teachers.

We need to think about what we teach, how we teach, who we teach and what we can all learn from each other about free speech, empathy and responsibilities towards each other. It isn’t always straightforward or easy.

Too big a cause to be marginalised

Writing in today’s Observer, Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford says thatGrowing student debt is entrenching unfairness for a whole generation“.

The article comes in the week that A-Level results will be published in England and reports that a third of English 18-year-olds now apply to university. Hutton observes that 12,000 more students from poorer homes are enrolling at university than five years ago but that this hardly compensates for the collapse in part-time student numbers, which fell by 152,000 over the same period. What does this mean for adult learners and their chances of combining study with their other commitments as a manageable way of taking part in higher education?

The article raises important issues and adds weight to the arguments at the heart of the Part-Time Matters campaign, which was launched two years ago. There is an even wider context.

Hutton highlights issues affecting older students in his observation that:

Part-time foundation degrees, certificates and diplomas of higher education are people’s second chance, especially for the over-25s, who represent four-fifths of the drop. The number of mature students doing full-time degrees is also falling. Together this represents one of the biggest setbacks to social mobility in modern times.

While he considers part-time adult learners in higher education, Hutton focuses his consideration of A Level students on the main cohort of 18-year-olds. Some older adults also study for A Levels and their part-time learning options are being restricted in the coming year as government reforms to A levels are implemented. Significant changes in the 2-part qualification have led to colleges advising that it will not be possible to take AS and A2 examinations in the 2015–16 academic year as the first new style A2 examinations will not happen until June 2017.

We should also be concerned about the two-thirds of 18-year-olds who are not applying for university. Savage cuts in FE and adult learning budgets are limiting their options, especially as they grow older, cutting off many people’s routes into post-school education.

Hutton concludes that,

“This is too big a cause to be marginalised as that of the “left”. It is everyone’s – and time mainstream politicians spoke up.”

Lifelong learning should not be an issue of “left”, “right” or “centre”. There are politicians across the spectrum who support adult education, whether in further, higher or community settings. We need them and others with influence to speak up now – loudly and urgently.

Politics and making adult education a priority

(A Twitter exchange with Prof. John Field prompted this blog. You can read his latest tweets here.)

Some politicians are drawing attention to the severe threats facing FE and adult education, with criticism of cuts from across UK parties and in all four UK nations. The politicians speaking up most loudly against the savage cuts tend to be in opposition  – but the balance of power between parties varies geographically in the individual countries that make up the UK.

We need to get beyond negative point scoring

We need to get beyond negative point scoring and campaign for positive action

Tories are criticising the impact of Labour party policy on FE in Wales and condemning the SNP’s record in Scotland. Meanwhile, Labour politicians in Wales are slating Tories in Westminster for their handling of FE and adult education budgets. No nation is showing a shining example of good practice in adult learning policy as they wrestle with managing public spending and investment but at least there’s some understanding of the serious implications and of the need to prioritise.

It’s worth knowing that there are Westminster MPs, Welsh AMs, MSPs and Northern Irish MLAs who are taking a stand for adult learning – and then building positively on that knowledge to create more momentum for current campaigning.

An article on the Wales Online website under the headline, Tories warn of ‘fatal damage’ to Wales’ further education sector as number of students enrolling falls, reports that the Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns (Conservative) has warned that the downward trend must be stopped “before it’s too late”. She is reported as saying:

 “Such a significant fall in further education enrolment raises extremely serious questions, particularly within deprived areas.

Labour claim they’re committed to closing the attainment gap – yet these figures confirm they’re failing spectacularly.

It’s in deprived areas where the most significant support is required to encourage further education, advance skills and boost jobs growth.”

A spokesman for the Welsh Education Minister Huw Lewis (Labour Co-operative) hit back, highlighting the worsening financial situation facing colleges across the border. He said:

“Wales won’t be taking any lessons from the Tories on further education, given the mess the UK Government are creating in English colleges.”

Criticising FE cuts in Scotland last month on the Scottish Conservative website, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said:

“We knew the Scottish Government had cut tens of thousands of part-time college places and replaced them with only a smattering of full-time ones.

But now we know where that axe has fallen geographically.

Thousands of people, from Glasgow to Aberdeenshire, the Lothians to Lanarkshire, have been denied the opportunity to study in a way that is flexible to them.

The SNP has slammed the door of opportunity in the face of thousands – people trying to change career, single parents and mothers simply trying to get the skills they need to get back into the workplace.

It’s no wonder businesses are increasingly worried about the skills gap.

The Scottish Government’s approach to colleges is failing students and failing business – the First Minister needs to explain what she is going to do to turn this around.”

Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph has reported redundancies that slash the FE workforce in Northern Ireland by just over 12%. The chairman of the Assembly’s Department of Employment and Learning’s scrutiny committee has said the redundancies were “another casualty” of the continuing impasse between the DUP and Sinn Fein over welfare reform.

Robin Swann of the Ulster Unionist Party said that:

“money would be better spent investing in further education to equip young people to enter the workforce “rather than divesting it of the staff that are there to support and develop their students”.

Whatever the party politics and underlying point scoring, FE and adult education must be kept in the spotlight as a priority for political debate and, more importantly, positive action.

It’s interesting to know that the following Westminster MPs expressed active support for FE and adult education during Adult Learners’ Week and as part of the #Love FE campaign.

  • Alan Campbell (Lab) Tynemouth.
  • Jeremy Corbyn (Lab) Islington North
  • Pat Glass (Lab) North West Durham
  • Stephen Hepburn (Lab) Jarrow
  • Caroline Lucas (Green) Brighton Pavilion
  • Andy McDonald (Lab) Middlesbrough
  • John McDonnell (Lab) Hayes and Harlington
  • Cat McKinnell (Lab) Newcastle upon Tyne North
  • Fiona McTaggart (Lab) Slough
  • Chi Onwurah (Lab) Newcastle Central
  • Cat Smith (Lab) Lancaster and Fleetwood
  • Catherine West (Lab) Hornsey and Wood Green
  • Ian Wright (Lab) Hartlepool
  • Daniel Zeichner (Lab) Cambridge

David Lammy (Lab) has also written positively here about the value of evening classes.

Which other politicians should be included as supporters?

FE and adult education cuts and cuttings

This blog features a small selection of headlines and links to articles about cuts in Further and Adult Education over the last 2 years.

The current round of cuts is on top of massive earlier budget reductions and will affect many people including the most vulnerable in society, marginalising them further and removing chances for self-improvement. It will also affect skilled, professional adult educators whose jobs will be at risk.

The #loveFE Save Adult Education campaign seems to be the main focus of campaigning. It has wide support from across the FE and Adult Education sectors.

#loveFE

There is also a “Don’t cut ESOL funding” petition on the 38 Degrees website here.

The headlines below are clickable links and show the scale of the crisis facing adult learning.

The skills we need now in Further and Adult Education include campaigning skills to encourage more people to join us in standing up for precious services.

Cuts2

Cuts 4Cuts !

Cuts 8

Cuts 3

Cuts 9

Cuts 6

Cuts 5

Cuts 7

Cuts 10

Do we need journals in adult education?

As adult educators, we should be mindful of our own professional development and continued intellectual growth. We expect this of our adult students, who have busy lives and are prioritising their learning alongside other demands on their time. Relevant reading helps us to keep abreast of developments in teaching and learning theories and practice, resources, techniques, curriculum, policy and the wider context for our work. Journals have had a key role as a resource for people involved in various aspects of adult education for many years.

Stanistreet

Screen grab from Paul Stanistreet’s blog

Paul Stanistreet’s blog here about the end of the Adults Learning publication gives an informed view of that journal’s history and the context in which it was published. He also refers to Highway, the WEA’s influential magazine which was published from 1908 to 1959, reaching a circulation of 20,000 in 1939. Highway was described as, “a necessary component of most university libraries” and “a forum for both educational and wider political debate“. Highway’s contributors included Virginia Woolf and George Orwell as well as prominent politicians, journalists and adult educators.  Bound volumes of Highway are available in the WEA central archive, which is managed by London Metropolitan University and attached to the TUC Collection. You can find details of the archive here.

The Adults Learning journal is described on NIACE’s website here as, “essential reading for adult education practitioners and policy makers, offering an informed mix of news, analysis, expert commentary and feature writing, dedicated to adult learning. Available in print and digitally, each issue is filled with in-depth and topical articles written by leading practitioners and experts in the field.” Back issues as far back as 2011 are now available to download for free.

Highway

I share Paul Stanistreet’s regret at the impending demise of Adults’ Learning but the extract above from “George Orwell the Essayist: Literature, Politics and the Periodical Culture” by Peter Marks illustrates some of the financial challenges that face journals’ publishers.

Is there a need for a specialist UK adult education journal in the age of blogs?

There are some excellent blogs by adult educators and about adult education. There are links to some examples here (written when I worked for the WEA). Some blogs’ content can be similar to journal articles but blogs feel more ephemeral and unsystematic. They are more spontaneous and interactive, offering a democratic pick and mix of views, usually with no third party editorial influence or reviewing.

They are easy to access but also easy to miss.

Journals bring more order, reliable access and editorial rigour. The assumption of a collective enterprise and an editing process adds weight to their content, giving them more status than individual blogs.

The reported cessation of Adults Learning will leave a gap for many of its readers, especially among those of us who remain committed to the view of transformational adult education that Paul Stanistreet identifies as ‘this great movement of ours”.

There are some remaining educational journals, such as Forum which focuses on 13-19 Comprehensive education, but has some general relevance to adult educators. The Journal of Philosophy of Education is a regular publication produced by The Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain but its focus is not specifically on adult learning.

Perhaps we will have to be less parochial and look beyond the UK? Lifelong Learning in Europe, LLinE, offers a European perspective and other current journals include the International Journal of Lifelong Education.

Alternatively, is there scope for an online platform capable of taking on the role of “offering an informed mix of news, analysis, expert commentary and feature writing, dedicated to adult learning”? This would require dedicated time and resources, journalistic skill and reviewing processes to establish and maintain credibility. Could EPALE, the Education and Training Foundation, the WEA or a University Department of Lifelong Learning host such an initiative?

Paul Stanistreet ends his blog by saying,

“I’d love hear what people think about this and what their thoughts are as to what might replace Adults Learning, what the sector needs and what would be valuable as a way of developing thinking and advocacy within and about adult education. Please feel free to comment on this post. I’d love to hear what you think.”

I hope that people will respond to his blog here and pick up on the discussion that he has started.

Will a whole class will have to stay behind?

Social class still determines most people’s life experiences in the UK.

Inequality in wealth, health, social networks and the contrasts between privilege and poverty are marked, as shown in an OECD report of February 2015: Income inequality data update and policies impacting income distribution. The Equality Trust has also published a recent report, The Scale of Economic Inequality in the UK, which shows that:

  • The poorest 20% of society have only 8% of the total income, whereas the top 20% have 41%.
  • The richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth. The poorest 50% own just 9.5%.

class

Definitions of social class might have changed over the years, but it is evident that educational experience and achievement is closely linked with people’s likely prosperity and well-being. The Teach First charity’s website explains:

In the UK, the link between low socio-economic background and poor educational attainment is greater than in almost any other developed country.

Educational inequality starts early, before a child even starts school. Figures show a one year gap in ‘school readiness’ between 3-year-olds, and a 15 month gap in vocabulary development between 5-year-olds, in the richest and poorest families.

And the gap doesn’t stop there. It continues and widens throughout school and has an impact throughout a child’s life. At GCSE level, nearly 50% of children claiming free school meals school meals achieve no passes above a D grade.

All of this has a knock-on effect on future earnings – the more you learn, the more you earn. In fact, over the course of a lifetime, a graduate from a Russell Group university will earn on average £371,000 more than someone who left school with fewer than 5 good GCSEs.

Lifelong learning is for everyone, but some have more catching up to do than others and more obstacles in their way. Adult education, including access to part-time learning, has been a proven way to deal with some of this inequality, giving people chances to improve their prospects, whatever their background or previous educational achievement. Family learning can lead parents to more rewarding lives and also break into the cycle of educational disadvantage for their children during their early years of learning,

The benefits of adult learning are well-evidenced but the further and adult education sectors are under seige as consecutive rounds of cuts devastate colleges.

Austerity is blamed.

We had austerity after the second world war, but the response was different. Working-class MPs such as Aneurin Bevan, Manny Shinwell and Bessie Braddock were colourful figures in the post-war Labour government. They championed the rights of working class people and applied their direct experience of life. The welfare state and the NHS were formed during this time of severe economic challenge and the 1944 Education Act introduced free secondary education for all. Several politicians and policy advisors of that era were involved in adult education movements such as the WEA.

So why don’t more of today’s politicians see FE and adult education as priorities? As politics have become more exclusive, is there a widening gulf of understanding between politicians and many of their constituents whose lives and educational experiences are very different from their own? Of course, adult learning has some political support across all political parties. It’s interesting that politicians such as Vince Cable and David Lammy, who have expressed unsolicited support for adult education, cite personal experience of their families benefiting from adult learning.

Working class MPs

A Sutton Trust report, Parliamentary Privilege, from February 2015 assessed the educational background of Parliamentary candidates.

  • Almost a third of new candidates who were set to stand in May’s General Election with a reasonable chance of winning were privately educated.
  • 49% of Conservative candidates and 19% of Labour candidates were privately educated, compared to 7% of the population.
  • 55% of candidates went to Russell Group universities, with 19% attending Oxbridge.

Who is representing people who rely on – or want the chance of fulfillment offered by – further and adult education?

It’s easy to have a pop at politicians and probably unproductive. Being an MP is an unattractive job for many people, with constant, often very personal, public criticism. It must be very disheartening to be a conviction politician in a social media age. We need better channels for constructive dialogue with them, or to use existing channels such as MPs’ surgeries more effectively. Our job is to convince them of the current strategy’s risks and that there is an alternative to cuts. Their job is to understand their constituents’ lives and to work on their behalf to improve them.

The irony of cutting FE courses is that it is likely to halt any fragile progress towards a more classless and equal society. The worst case scenario is that a whole class, already thwarted by their earlier educational and life experiences, will have to stay behind, even though other, more ambitious, approaches have been successful in a previous time of austerity.

A new culture of night schools?

Writing in the Guardian on 19 June, David Lammy MP proposed that,” A new culture of night schools would transform our workforce”. He said, “We must resurrect the evening classes that once allowed people the chance to progress in jobs, so British firms don’t have to look elsewhere for skilled workers.” You can read the full text of the article here.

His description of how his mother benefited from night classes resonates as another Adult Learners’ Week comes to an end. As ever, the annual celebrations have shone a light on adult learning’s immense value but, despite this, Lammy is frank in his assessment that, “Successive governments, including the one I was a part of, have seriously neglected adult education”.

Some evening classes still exist but the current, savage, funding cuts to adult education go way beyond passive neglect.

25-ep-evening-class-03-W1200

So why have night schools and evening classes declined since the 1980s and early 1990s?

  • Room hire rates for publicly owned buildings have increased significantly since schools, adult education provision and other related services have become decoupled from local authorities.
  • Some potential students and staff feel unsafe travelling after dark, especially if they rely on public transport, which is patchy in many areas outside main working hours.
  • Caring responsibilities, especially a lack of affordable childcare, can stop evening attendance as families are more often geographically dispersed without relatives on hand to help out.
  • Anecdotes at the time even suggested that changing the scheduling of popular TV soaps such as Coronation Street, Eastenders and Emmerdale had an impact on attendance in evening classes. There was a time when Corrie devotees got their fix on Mondays and Wednesdays only. Could  the way we increasingly watch television programmes at times and in formats of our choosing lead to further change and possibility?

Perhaps there is also something more subtle going on.

In showing adult learning’s worth over recent years, have we become too worthy? Is the demand for evening classes declining in part because we aren’t doing enough to stimulate demand from the public? Should we be presenting adult education as – dare I say it? – something more aspirational as well as overtly offering second chances (or delayed first chances)?

There is a risk that potential students see a stigma in joining courses when we present them as a means to correct or improve deficient skills rather than as sources of interest, enjoyment and enlightenment. Not so long ago, self-improvement was something for everyone and night classes were so attractive at the end of the twentieth century that newspaper and magazine agony aunts used to recommend them as places for single people to meet suitable partners with the right attitudes for a happy life.

This is not a suggestion that adult learning advertises alongside dating websites or becomes something frivolous, but that we could do more to raise a positive profile of lifelong learning that builds on people’s existing strengths, interests and ambitions rather than their perceived failures or shortcomings. Indeed, as a head of busy adult education evening centres in the 1980s, I was instructed not to use the term ‘night school’ as the idea of ‘more school’ might put off people whose earlier educational experiences had been poor.

It seems we are faced with a combination of a funding problem and an image problem and must stand up for the benefits of adult learning. Adult Learners’ Week this year has attracted some mainstream media attention such as an article in the Daily Telegraph: Adult Learner’s Week: we must fight for older learners by Kirstie Donnelly and a feature by Paul Kerensa on Chris Evans’ BBC Radio 2 show on 17 June. You can hear a clip here for a limited period. We need much more of this wider publicity for the sector, from people beyond the world of adult education professionals.

David Lammy has made a valuable contribution and links the provision of night classes with debates on immigration, employers’ roles in skills development, taking the discussion beyond the usual frameworks of political consideration of the issues. He is right to do so.

Lammy says, “A new culture of adult education and a new generation of night schools would transform our labour force and our economy. I still have my mother’s City & Guilds certificate. It represents what can be achieved when people have the freedom to learn and fulfill their potential.”

We need to get our message out to the general public and to policy makers that adult education is a good thing for students, their communities and shared prosperity.