Fat Man on a Keyboard said… (Adult Ed)

I missed “Adult Education – Another Rant” by Peter Ryley, who blogs under the name of “Fat Man on a Keyboard”, when he published it in October. He was responding to Peter Wilby’s Guardian article about Alan Tuckett.

Here is an extract from Peter Ryley’s blog, which you can find here.

The picture of adult education that, “It’s just flower arranging, tap dancing, Pilates, lonely old folk going to dusty classrooms to learn about the Tudors”, was never the whole truth. There may have been a time in the post-war boom when so-called ‘leisure classes’ were the most visible part of our provision, but it is atypical of our history. Political radicalism, social egalitarianism and adult education marched together as part of a movement for emancipation; the Mechanics Institutes, working class autodidacts and self-improvement associations, the university extension movement, the WEA, trade union education, the residential colleges, Birkbeck and so on, were all constructed in the belief that what we now tend to call lifelong learning was central to the creation of a better society and to the development of individuals and communities. It was a cause.

And we lost this sense of mission, together with its language, and with them went the provision, as Wilby makes clear in an understated way. Fighting back with utilitarian justifications was always going to seem to be special pleading. We need to recover that vision of human possibility, though I fear it is too late.

I had a glimpse of just how much adult education is a deep human need today when my window cleaner tried to recruit me for his pub quiz team. He was intrigued by the number of books he saw in the house and thought I might help them win things. He described how he reads anything and everything, sitting in bed every night with a factual book, learning. He loves learning things, anything. Adult education’s problem is that this is seen as having no utility, a private pleasure maybe, but never a public good. I see it as something more, as a human right. And we’re losing it.

The WEA and others share his vision of human possibility and education for public good and we know it’s never too late to highlight the cause. It’s too important to give up on and there is kernel of determined support for it.

In the WEA we have reaffirmed our traditional commitment to adult education for collective and social benefit as well as for individual advancement. Our longstanding vision and mission are back at the heart of our planning and we are not alone in seeing education for social purpose as a vital part of a civilised society.  Mechanics’ Institutes might have gone but we are still working alongside residential colleges such as Northern College and Ruskin, as well as trade union educators, Birkbeck and other universities. 

We are still active in (non-party) political education, community engagement and self-improvement – as well as, yes, running courses about the Tudors as Peter Ryley mentioned. There is a demand for community based part-time, high quality, tutor-led Humanities courses.

The Winter edition of WEA News shows how the Specialist Designated Institutions – Hillcroft College, City Lit, Fircroft College, the Mary Ward Centre, Northern College, Ruskin College, Morley College, the Working Men’s College and the WEA – are still going strong and continuing to raise the profile of adult education while we working with our students and their communities. You can read it here.

Adult and Community Learning is an important, but often overlooked, part of the education landscape so any further rants in support of lifelong, life-wide are very welcome!

Knowledge democracy, cognitive justice and social justice

A recent SCUTREA event lasted for just over a couple of hours but provided a little time and space for adult educators and researchers to refresh their thinking and practice. It was a rich experience with learning from different disciplines, experiences and cultures and very relevant to the WEA’s Community Engagement theme. Scotland and Canada featured prominently and the buzz of post-referendum politics was evident in the Edinburgh meeting, with an emphasis on the cultural role of community education in democracy.

Scutrea

Jim Crowther, Budd Hall and Darlene Clover involved us in explorations of community, pedagogy, politics and research, linking academia with practice and communities with political agency. It was fertile ground, explored by too few people in mainstream educational debate.

They used the technique of métissage, which was new to me, to braid interwoven narratives read from researchers’ findings. Three different voices, with changing pitch, pace and language styles kept my attention in a way that an individual reading aloud would not have done.

An audio recording of the métissage is available here, courtesy of the Ragged Project.

These observations and triggers for further critical thought give a taste of the rich pickings from presentations and discussion.

  • Community education played an effective role in the Scottish referendum with a range of activities, hustings and public meetings.
  • Research is critical and cognitive justice is a pre-requisite for social justice.
  • The outcomes of research depend on who originates it, who asks the questions and for whose benefit it is intended.
  • Relationships are at the core of everything that matters.
  • We are all map-makers. Maps have power. They show how we project ourselves onto nature.
  • Good pedagogy motivates local people to act.
  • We need, “Disruptive, persistent educators who are not satisfied with the world the way it is”.
  • “Accumulation of wealth, power and knowledge is through dispossession.” Ancient universities enclosed knowledge within their walls at the same time as land was being taken from people and enclosed. “If you were inside, things were just dandy.”
  • “The concept of knowledge has been stolen.” It does not belong by right to the producers of peer-reviewed journals and paid-for research in the Western world.

There was a lot to pick over in this. The concepts of mapping, power and agency would make an intriguing stimulus for study within adult community learning.

What might we conclude from comparing and contrasting the 1886 map of the British Empire with homeless people’s contemporary map of Newcastle upon Tyne?

Map British Empire 1886

 

Homeless newc

From Lovely JoJo’s ‘People’s Map of the British Isles”

Danny Dorling’s cartogram maps might add another dimension.

Mapping, power and agency was just one fascinating theme out of many that spun out of the event. There was almost too much to think about.

Book recommendations included Learning and Teaching in Community Based Research.

SCUTREA book

This is the summary description:

Community-Based Research, or CBR, is a mix of innovative, participatory approaches that put the community at the heart of the research process. Learning and Teaching Community-Based Research shows that CBR can also operate as an innovative pedagogical practice, engaging community members, research experts, and students.

This collection is an unmatched source of information on the theory and practice of using CBR in a variety of university- and community-based educational settings. Developed at and around the University of Victoria, and with numerous examples of Indigenous-led and Indigenous-focused approaches to CBR, Learning and Teaching Community Based-Research will be of interest to those involved in community outreach, experiential learning, and research in non-university settings, as well as all those interested in the study of teaching and learning.

 

Parliament Week and practical political education


Polout

It’s Parliament Week. What do you think about practical political education?

The polls in the Rochester and Strood by-election are due to close at 10pm tonight but the comment and opinion will go on for days. Russell Brand is urging people not to vote. The Scots are more engaged in democratic processes now than at any other time in living memory.

Do politics leave you cold, bored, annoyed, interested or motivated to get involved? The WEA believes in education for an active and inclusive democracy within society  – and within our own organisation – and encourages people to explore these issues.

Political education doesn’t have a very high profile and yet it can have a big impact on our ability to shape the policies that affect every aspect of our lives. Too many people don’t understand how complex political systems work and think their votes and involvement don’t make a difference. Are they right? How can we make sure that decision makers in Parliament and in local government are more truly representative of the communities they serve?

The WEA supports Parliament Week and is a member of the Democracy Matters alliance.

Our new one-day ‘Politics for Outsiders’ courses in the Eastern Region of England are designed to share ideas and discover the difference that politics can make. They will also give opportunities to think about how to engage others in making more of their democratic power in achieving vital social goals. The day schools are a joint initiative between the WEA and the Question the Powerful project and will be tutored by Dr. Henry Tam who is Director of the Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy at University of Cambridge. (For more information see Henry Tam: Words & Politics: http://hbtam.blogspot.co.uk/ ). There has been a lot of positive feedback about his contribution to the WEA Eastern Region’s AGM on the subject of, “‘What has politics ever done for us?”

You can find out more about ‘Politics for Outsiders’ here.

Any other links to practical political education to celebrate Parliament Week?

Learning from the past and shaping the future

Successful adult educators and students learn from the past, embrace change with enthusiasm and adapt to new ideas and circumstances. At best they innovate and lead development. The current round of Annual General Meetings in the WEA brings these activities to life as we reflect on the 2013-14 academic year and share plans for this year and beyond.

pastpresentfuture-300x225

As an educational organisation with more than 110 years of history, we can look back on a proud tradition and core values that keep bringing us back to our abiding vision, values and purpose.

We want to make sure that our educational movement is as relevant to future generations as it has been in the past.

Our recent AGMs and get-togethers have been upbeat with a sense that we are refreshing our democracy and looking to the future with even more resolve to improve people’s lives through adult education that challenges and inspires.

WEA NE Banner

The WEA North Eastern Region’s banner

The WEA North East Region’s Annual General Meeting, 15 November 2014

The banner on display at the North East Region’s AGM captures some of the WEA’s spirit. It’s made from traditional silks and patterns but includes 21st century images from the Region. Campaigning for adult education – the right to learn – is at its centre.

Moira Riseborough, Ian Roberts, Russell Porteous and Michael Crilly, who are voluntary Regional Officers and a Trustee, steered us through the usual AGM formalities. Students, tutors, volunteers, members of governance and management and friends from partner organisations all took an active part in the meeting, focusing on the present and very recent past, with some stories of notable practice in teaching, learning and volunteering.

Greg Coyne, the Regional Director, brought the Annual Report to life by using the example of a gardening course taught by Amelia Luffrun. Amelia had encouraged students to stretch their learning beyond practical gardening skills to think about wider environmental issues and sustainability. The students had gone on to enrich their experience by sharing some of their new-found skills with men attending the Day Centre at St Clare’s Hospice in South Shields. The students taught the Centre users how to make bird-feeders from recycled materials.

“Giving something back”, is a theme that we often hear from students who become involved in voluntary activities as a result of their learning.

Greg Coyne's final comments on the gardening course in South Shields

Greg Coyne’s final comments on the gardening course in South Shields

The Right Reverend Martin Wharton, the former Bishop of Newcastle, spoke from the heart at the meeting. He described his own experiences as an adult learner, acknowledging a debt to the WEA that surprised those of us who didn’t know his background. He spoke about how he had left school with few qualifications, but  took up part-time study with the WEA as a mature student. He built on this learning and went on to gain a degree at Durham University before training for the ministry at Oxford. His story is one of countless examples from the WEA’s history, but progression to become a Bishop is a one-off student outcome – as far as we know!

We celebrated Kath Connolly and Grant Crichton’s achievements as worthy winners of WEA Awards before a session on the WEA Manifesto and some lively group discussions looking to the future and sharing ideas to develop and support our:

  • tutors;
  • branches;
  • sustainability.

Nigel Todd, a WEA Ambassador and Regional Committee member, shared this cartoon. It was a good stimulus for discussion in the group who concentrated on sustainability.

climatesummit

The groups came up with specific ideas for action, so we ended the meeting with a focus on the future after we had celebrated the past.

P.S. We love a bit of rousing singing in the WEA.

NESocChoir

The North East Socialist Choir

WEA Awards 2014

The WEA celebrated achievements by students, volunteers, tutors and other staff from all over England and Scotland with an uplifting awards ceremony in Birmingham on 12 November.

ConfinactionYou can read more on the WEA’s website here and read a round up of tweets from the event here.

Congratulations to all award winners.

Adult education, singing, health and wellbeing

Howard Croft, WEA Projects Development Manager, has shared this link to a 6-minute film highlighting key outcomes and impact from a successful ‘Singing for Wellbeing’ project in the West Midlands region.

This research project explored the impact of adult education singing classes on people’s health and wellbeing.

 

This was a 12-month research project led by the WEA and run in partnership with University of Oxford. It was supported by the Rayne Foundation and Skills Funding Agency (SFA).

As well as individual students’ comments, the film includes the following statistics:

  • 87% of research participants reported improved mental health as a result of taking part in WEA singing courses.
  • 90% reported increased feelings of social inclusion or belonging.
  • 68% reported a desire to attend more adult education classes.
  • 92% reported increased levels of confidence.
  • 60% reported improved physical health.

singing logos

 

Health and Wellbeing is one of the WEA’s four educational themes. The others are: Employability, Community Engagement and Culture.

Adult literacy, numeracy and health care

Around 5 million adults in the UK lack functional literacy. According to the charity National Numeracy, almost 17 million people in the UK don’t have the numeracy skills necessary to reach the lowest grade at GCSE. Poor reading, writing and number skills are often discussed in the context of employability but recent research in the USA by Sharon K Long, Adele Shartzer and Mary Politi shows the impact of low levels of self-reported literacy and numeracy on obtaining and using private health insurance coverage. Their work, reported here, highlights how important these skills are in navigating health services and official systems, especially in a world that is increasingly reliant on independent online access by service users.

It also shows some of the risks that might arise from increasing privatisation of health services in the UK.

Health lit & num

The researchers found that navigating changes in the health care system is challenging for many people, especially for adults with limited literacy and numeracy. This should not come as a surprise, but there is a lot of action needed to bridge communication gaps between the public and health care providers.

Poverty is a strong contributor to health inequality but levels of  income and functional skills are linked.

The use of words and numbers can create barriers. Medical jargon can be unfamiliar and intimidating. Phlebotomy, oncology, obstetrics and other hospital department names are not obvious to the uninitiated. Leaflets in medication packs can be written in difficult language and many aspects of health and wellbeing, including dosage instructions for tablets, depend on literacy and numeracy.

Adding the US scenario of decision-making about health insurance is a further level of complexity, especially for people trying to balance difficult financial choices, but it is a level of expertise needed increasingly in many other everyday situations.

There is a strong need to invest in adult education that doesn’t stigmatise people who need to improve their functional skills and service providers also have a responsibility to make information as accessible and understandable as possible.

Joint working between health care providers, public service providers and adult educators might be part of a solution?

Lessons will be learnt…..democracy and political education

Last week included the International Day of Democracy and the dramatic climax of Scotland’s independence referendum. Education for citizenship, democracy and social justice has never been more relevant as politicians, commentators and the public rake over recent events and the implications for the future of Scotland, England and the United Kingdom.

Three strong messages have emerged during the Scottish referendum campaign.

  • People are interested in politics when debate is brought alive, involves them and when they can see that their vote can make a real difference.
  • Westminster politicians are seen as remote and disconnected from the public. This is not just a Scottish phenomenon.
  • People don’t trust politicians to keep their promises.

Analysis of the UK Parliament’s make up gives a clue about why Members of Parliament might seem distant from the electorate, as this diagram from “Elitist Britain” shows.

“Lessons will be learnt”, has to become more than just a mantra trotted out when politicians are short of an excuse or explanation. There is a role for adult education to:

  • encourage informed debate of political issues outside the narrow confines of political parties;
  • make sure that voters are not just informed, but are involved and active in exploring how democratic – and non-democratic – political systems work so that they can hold politicians to account;
  • support the development of a new and more inclusive generation of politicians who are more representative of the electorate that they serve.

ConcernWe might find some answers in a return to the principle of representative democracy, with people from communities developing the skills and expertise to stand for election by their local peers. Practical political education can support people to learn about critical thinking, communications, analysis, debating and public speaking skills so that they can become confidently active in democratic decision-making.

The WEA is one of thirty member organisations who have joined together in the “Democracy Matters” alliance to promote practical political education.  This graphic explains our shared aim.

DM

The Scottish electorate has shown that there is an appetite for public debate and exchanges of views about economics, health, education, welfare, equality, employment, energy production, nuclear weapons and the issues that matter to people. They want to influence decisions that affect them and realise that our current political system is neither representative nor fully democratic. Surely a politician elected by  – and from – his or her community to be their advocate will be less remote than a career politician dropped into a safe seat to keep their chosen party in power.

It’s a long time since people have been engaged so fervently in political debate and the turnout in the Scottish referendum gives an opportunity to revitalise our democracy. Can we afford to waste it?

New chapters for adult literacy

Being able to read fluently is much more than a ‘functional’ skill, essential as it is for employability, health, democracy and everyday life.

As avid readers ourselves, Ruth Spellman and I really enjoyed getting together with Cathy Rentzenbrink ‎and Jo Dawson of Quick Reads this week. We met to explore how WEA students could benefit from their short books. Big name authors have written them and they are designed to be easy to read. We ended up wanting to read some of them ourselves – because they are appealing and not because we think they might be ‘good for us’.

Hopefully the days when adults learnt to read or improve their understanding of written English using ‘Janet and John’-type children’s books are long gone and there are many imaginative adult literacy programmes and resources. As Sam Shepherd reminds us in his blog here, ESOL students might have studied to a high academic level in their first language. Adults should have learning resources that respect their maturity and don’t patronise them.

QR

Cathy and Jo promote Quick Reads with a gusto that comes from an obvious love of their work. It’s a mission for them. Cathy captured the mood of our discussion when she said, “We don’t want to suck the joy out of reading.”

For Cathy and Jo – and the WEA – books are part of a rich mix of experience that shapes people’s lives. A lack of accessible books – and art, music, drama and humanities education – can make ‘culture’ exclusive but it is an important part of education and one of the WEA’s four educational themes. (The others are employability, health and wellbeing and community engagement.) Books trigger all sorts of feelings and can help us to experience life in other places, times and cultures. They let us see the world from other people’s points of view and enrich our experience.

Spreading a message about the delight of getting engrossed in a good book is a positive way of encouraging some reticent readers to improve their literacy skills. Popularising reading for entertainment as a regular part of life is a good way of hooking people to become book lovers. Television’s Richard and Judy have introduced many people to contemporary fiction through their Book Club and it’s interesting to see that BBC Radio 2 has a book club too.

The Quick Read books and the Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge can be used to enhance ESOL or adult literacy courses to improve reading skills. They can also be used as the basis of book clubs that can include people who are building up their confidence in reading. Group discussion of a book gives readers a chance to practise self-expression and to exchange views. They can learn the important messages that readers interpret books in different ways and that it’s OK not to like a book, even if it’s written by a well-known author.

Adults developing their expertise and self-assurance though reading books that grip them can apply their improving skills in work, community and family settings. They can also learn about other people’s lives and thoughts to broaden their own understanding.

Book

 

Do you use Quick Reads or the Six Book Challenge in adult education? Have you read any or taken part in the challenge? It would be good to hear your views.

Catching up on adult education news

Getting back into adult education networks after the summer? These links might help in catching up on some useful reading to get back in the groove again.

WEAConf13-58

  • Brian Creese’s contribution to the Institute of Education’s blog, “Adult education: a fundamental good”, is an excellent read. Read it here.
  • Writing on the DEMOS blog, Neil Stevenson argues that ESOL policy needs a re-think. Read it here. The Independent has a commentary on the DEMOS report here.
  • Adult Learners’ Week award winner, Amy King, is becoming an active social media advocate for adult education, tweeting as @GlamChem. You can watch and be inspired by a short film about her here.
  • GCSEs, Class and Inequality are the themes of Paul Stanistreet’s blog here.
  • Research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills finds that, “Family learning is good for improving adult language and maths skills, but also has a wider impact.” Read BIS research paper 108 here.
  • A recent book by Frank Coffield, Cristina Costa, Walter Müller and John Webber introduces the term Bulimia Academia. You can find out more about the book, “Beyond Bulimic Learning – Improving teaching in further education” here.
  • Finally, in case you missed the WEA Manifesto or want to read it again, you can find the link here.

Any thoughts on issues covered in these links or suggestions of other news we might have missed?