The man who invented the ‘adult learner’ and ‘seriously useless learning’

A Guardian article about the influential adult educator Alan Tuckett has resurfaced on social media this week. It’s almost 2 years old but very relevant as adult learners begin a new academic year of part-time courses.

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Alan Tuckett is a prominent campaigner for adult education including what he calls, “seriously useless learning” – by which he means learning that offers no immediate obvious route into employment but has demonstrably positive benefits. The Guardian article gives some examples of how effective part-time adult education  can be.

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A news item published today by the University of Oxford adds to the evidence that adult education has many benefits. In partnership with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education in England and Scotland, a team from Oxford’s department of experimental psychology studied attendees at seven separate day-time adult education classes. Their findings are published in a series of papers which can be found by following links from the University’s website here.

Dr Eiluned Pearce who led the research said: ‘The students reported benefits including increased self-confidence, a greater feeling of control over their lives and more willingness to take on new challenges. Some said the classes made them more motivated to be more active, despite the classes not specifically involving physical activity.

Many students will be embarking on learning journeys this month. Some will have specific plans to make their journey a commute to work or a better job. They know what they want to learn, where they want to go and how long they will take to get there. Others will be starting learning expeditions, explorations, adventures or even jaunts. Who knows where their courses will take them? What difference will it make to families to have adults who are intellectually curious, creative and excited about finding out more about all sorts of subjects? What will the impact be on students’ health, well-being, confidence, competence and sense of belonging?

Alan Tuckett and others make a strong case but voices like his are needed more than ever as the numbers of adult learners decline and yet more opportunities for adult learning are lost with the sad news that the University of Leicester plans to close Vaughan Center for Lifelong Learning. We need to work hard to reverse this trend.

Adult education – from queues to a “best-kept secret”

I was struck by the contrasts between two tweets in my timeline this morning.

The first showed a photograph of a long line of people queuing for adult education classes in Worcester in 1981. September queues were also an annual feature of adult and community learning in Leeds in the 1980s.

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The second tweet provided a link to the Irish Times describing adult education as a “best-kept secret”.

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What has happened over 35 years that has changed the profile of part-time adult learning from highly desirable and public to only semi-visible? Why has supply and overt demand fallen?

Measuring the number of adult learners can be challenging but all the reliable indicators and reports show a fall in participation. After years of decline, Government figures for 2014/15  show a fall of 7.2% in adult learners taking part in Government-funded community learning courses in just one year.

Online enrolment might have made would-be students less visible than they would have been in the 1980s but the number of adult learners has declined in real terms as those queues have become a nostalgic memory of times gone by.

Certainly changes in technology, online resources, society and the use of leisure time have had an impact on face-to-face collective learning as have savage reductions in public funding and a narrowing curriculum.

Some specialist organisations including City Lit, Fircroft College, Hillcroft College, the Mary Ward Centre, Morley College, Northern College, Ruskin College, the Working Men’s College and the Workers’ Educational Association have continued to offer distinctive adult learning with a broad curriculum but there have been big changes in many local authorities in England.

The 1991 transfer of community learning from local authorities – where it was part of the fabric of public services – to FE colleges was significant as colleges’ funding has been squeezed in subsequent years. University departments of adult and continuing education have also seen big changes and closures. The current campaign to save Vaughan College in Leicester is indicative of developments in recent years.

Public funding for adult education has been slashed by successive governments and there has been an overwhelming focus on courses with direct and immediate links to employability.

We celebrate the Festival of Learning today.

Inspirational award winners will be honoured so it’s timely to reflect on a not-too-distant past when people were eager to learn what they wanted to learn instead of being coaxed into learning what someone else thinks they need.

Has sucking some of the joy out of adult learning contributed to reduced numbers and made it unfashionable? There is masses of evidence to show adult learning’s impact, usually collected to support the case for preserving what’s left of the diminishing supply, but there’s a big job to do in terms of stimulating demand and reinstating a positive image for potential students and the general public.

Adult learning should be accessible, tempting and sought after in a civilised society. The organisations mentioned above form a nucleus of well-regarded community learning and successful students are the best advocates. We should collect and amplify messages from them to spread the word about the joy and fulfilment of learning.

It would be very fitting if today’s Festival of Learning becomes a springboard for this.

 

 

 

10 reasons to Save Adult Education

Please sign and share the link to the petition to Save Adult Education. Evidence shows successive and massive funding cuts over recent years and a decline in numbers of adult learners in part-time education.

Why does this matter?

There are countless reasons, but here are some:

  1. Education equips us for life, but the world keeps changing after our compulsory school leaving ages. Adults need to adapt to social and technological changes if they are to keep up with developments. What is the cost of leaving people behind?
  2. Being able to read and write English fluently and to use numbers accurately are basic skills, not only for jobs but for understanding how public services work, being a savvy consumer, reading health information, taking an active part in society and for leading a dignified life. What is the cost of low levels of adult literacy and numeracy?
  3. All government services are now designed to be ‘digital by default’. How does this work for people who can’t use technology effectively? What is the cost of digital exclusion?
  4. Young people leaving school now without specific grades in GCSE English and Maths have to reach those standards. How will they be supported if full-time education didn’t meet their needs and adult learning is being starved of resources? What is the cost of limiting adults’ educational opportunities when need is evident?
  5. Many school leavers with low attainment levels will become parents of children who follow the same pattern. Educating the parents through family learning partnerships is shown to break the cycle and improve attainment levels for both generations. What is the cost of continuing cycles of educational inequality?
  6. Education is not just for work. It promotes health and wellbeing, reducing isolation for older people and keeping their minds active, while harnessing the benefits of their experience and knowledge.What is the cost of not enriching older people’s lives through learning?
  7. Low levels of participation in voting means that democracy is not representative. Learning about how political systems work is important if we are to engage people in civic life. What is the cost of disenfranchised citizens?
  8. All aspects of life depend upon adaptability and active minds. Learning to learn is a skill in itself. What is the cost of failure to adapt?
  9. Education is a means to address inequality in many forms.What is the cost of inequality?
  10. Learning is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Art, literature, history and culture should be available to everyone and not only those who can afford them. What is life without interests and pleasure?

Every question about cost can be replaced with another, more positive, about opportunities and possibilities.

Spending on adult education is an investment. There is evidence that it can lead to saving money in various government departments by reducing reliance on public services.

How you can help

1. Write to your local MP – the sooner the better

2. Spread the word on social media

  • Use #saveadulteducation on twitter and tell the world about the impact adult education has had on your life, family and community
  • Join our Facebook Campaign at https://www.facebook.com/saveadulted

3. Sign our campaign petition at https://you.38degrees.org.uk/p/sae

Go to the WEA’s website for more information about the Save Adult Education campaign.

#signupnow for adult learning

What more can we to encourage adults to sign up for courses this autumn? What will encourage people to enrol at times when fewer people are taking up part-time learning? Could we coax some potential students with a #signupnow hashtag on social media, reviving a campaign from the past and sharing some seductive reasons for taking part in adult learning?

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A 2013 Government Report: Benefits of Adult Education by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills found that after their courses:

  • 75% of learners felt they had a more defined career plan
  • 66% stated their quality of life had improved as a result
  • 72% percent of learners had made new friends or taken part in voluntary work
  • 80% had gained increased self-esteem, with many feeling enthusiastic about learning and their future.

These are strong and worthy arguments but are they catchy and engaging enough to persuade tentative students or the general public? Adult Learners’ Week showcases student’s compelling stories. It would be good to harness some of that positivity at this stage of the year and to spread the love for FE and adult learning.

Why should people #signupnow?

What would hook you in?

Who can influence people to take part?

There is a useful list of uk courses for adults here. Can we spread the message?

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.

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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.

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.

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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.