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.

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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.

 

 

 

This Girl Can. ESOL students can.

The WEA’s curriculum is based on the four themes of Employability, Health and Wellbeing, Community Engagement and Culture. The themes are not mutually exclusive and it’s always good to see tutors being creative in how they use their time, imagination and resources to stimulate students and enrich their learning.

Hazel Richardson, a WEA tutor teaching in Bradford, is generous in sharing ideas and updates from her ESOL classes. Her tweets are a good example of reflective practice and show how adult ESOL students benefit from her keen interest and enthusiasm in inspiring and challenging them..

Hazel tweeted last term about students visiting Bagshaw Museum and voting in a local consultation. This week she reported that students watched the “This Girl Can” film as a stimulus for discussion and learning.

Hazel

The film is part of a topical campaign and raises a lot of issues for discussion. You can find out more about it here.

The campaign has been developed by Sport England and is attracting well-deserved attention. It’s a challenging choice to prompt critical thinking and debate as ESOL students improve their English language skills. The Independent reported on the campaign fairly positively here but a piece in the Guardian’s “Comment is free” section asserted that, “The This Girl Can campaign is all about sex, not sport”. You can read this opinion here.

What do you think of the “This Girl Can” campaign and how might it be embedded in teaching, learning and assessment across the curriculum?

Past blogs have included examples of literacy and numeracy sessions in supermarkets, with students putting their learning into practice in situations that are directly relevant to their daily lives, and of enriching ESOL lessons with the Six Book Challenge or Quick Reads.

Any other examples of resources or ideas to ginger up teaching and learning in ESOL or across educational themes to keep learning inspiring, challenging, relevant and effective?

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.

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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

 

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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


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.