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.


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.


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.

Blogging as public pedagogy

This blog – the whole site – is one of two featured in a newly published article by Dr. Carol Azumah Dennis. The other is Kate Nonesuch‘s blog, Working in Adult Literacy‘. The study is in the International Journal of Lifelong Education.

This screenshot describes the journal, which is an excellent resource for reflective adult educators.


The abstract below gives a flavour of the study. The full text is available by subscription only.

Carol Azumah Dennis

Blogging and social media provide (comparatively) free opportunities for open dialogue and shared learning about education. Blogging can lead to new ideas and perspectives as other people comment, add links, share, collaborate and challenge.

The ‘Reader’ feature of WordPress blogs opens up a wealth of reading and these virtual public spaces offer rich pickings for reflective practice.

The haphazard and spontaneous nature of web communication means that unexpected responses can follow once a blog or a comment is written. The interaction between different online platforms is unpredictable and discussion can move from one channel to another with surprising agility.

The ‘Publicize’ feature on WordPress can publish links from a blog automatically to Twitter and LinkedIn and copy it to other blogging sites. Email followers receive links. This means that responses and discussion are spread over a variety of online platforms and not just directly on WordPress. Various online curation tools also pick up blog links and publish summaries in collated digests. The whole discussion is uncontrolled, democratic and becomes ‘co-owned’.

The boundaries between online and offline communication become blurred. One form complements the other. Conference content is shared via social media and responses fed back. This is sometimes displayed in real-time on large screens as a crowd-sourced commentary, which, in turn, informs blogs.

I’ve also been told about voluntary WEA Branch members who print out copies of blog updates from this site and circulate them in paper formats. (Is this flipped blogging?)

Connections with several other bloggers – too many to name – have introduced me to a wider community of interest and practice that complements debate and development in my work with the WEA. These bloggers include Kate Nonesuch and Carol Azumah Dennis. I have never met either of them and my only contact with them is through social media.

You can find an ‘Ultimate List of UK Education Blogs‘ at the excellent multi-authored Echo Chamber blog. The authors have devoted a lot of time to putting the list together and are pleased to hear about other blogs that could be added as the list evolves.

Policy, pedagogy and purpose are central to many of these online and offline discussions. The journal article suggests that Kate’s blog and mine show a shared commitment to creating alternative educational futures. That alternative should include changing the perception that education is only for children and young people and only preparation to meet employers’ needs.

The blogs on the ‘Ultimate List’ present a range of views on these and other educational issues. They are free to read and shared generously. ‘Public pedagogy’ is a good term for them.

Doesn’t all this activity eat up too much time? It could do for people with educators’ curiosity and a natural inclination towards involvement. The web might be uncontrolled but we are in charge of how we use our time. We can’t read or respond to everything but dipping in and out of resources, using tools such as Twitter lists of bloggers, helps to have the benefits of ‘CPD with a cup of tea’ without being a slave to it or being too distracted from other priorities.

10 blogs about adult education

There are many excellent blogs about education. Most of those that I’ve come across focus on teaching, learning and leadership in schools and there’s a lot to learn from them, but it’s good to find some that focus specifically on adult education, including part-time adult and community learning.

You can find a list of sample blogs from WEA colleagues in the right hand side bar of this blog if you scroll down the page on full screen versions or at the end of the text on smartphone formats. Some of the blogs are more active than others and they represent different aspects of our work – from tutor and branch blogs to payroll support. Many are informal but ‘weaadulted‘ is Ruth Spellman’s official blog as our CEO.

Here are links to 10 other interesting blogs that are relevant to adult education. They’re listed in alphabetical order of their authors and are all UK-focused unless stated otherwise.

  1. The Learning Professor – John Field is an academic interested in lifelong learning.
  2. Education Post 2015 ICAE – The International Council for Adult Education.
  3. Stuffaliknows – Alison Iredale is a teacher educator working at Oldham College as Centre Manager for the PGCE / CertEd (Lifelong Learning).
  4. JISC Regional Support Centres – (formerly Joint Information Systems Committee) Supports the use of digital technologies in UK education and research.
  5. teachnorthern – Lou Mycroft is a teacher educator, working at The Northern College, Barnsley. This blog links to a ‘Community of Praxis’ and ‘Teachdifferent’.
  6. More, Different, Better – A multi-authored blog from NIACE, the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education.
  7. Working in Adult Literacy – Kate Nonesuch has worked in adult literacy and numeracy for more than twenty-five years, most of that time at Vancouver Island University. (Canadian).
  8. Sam Shepherd’s Blog – Sam is an ESOL tutor and teacher trainer.
  9. The Learning Age – Paul Stanistreet is a journalist who edits Adults Learning, a quarterly magazine for people working in adult education.
  10. Union Learning Voices – The unionlearn blog.

I’ll write a future post listing more blogs about education that are relevant to adult educators but not written directly from, or for, the sector.

Apologies if I’ve missed your personal blog or your favourite adult education blog. Please let me know. I’d appreciate your comments, suggestions and additions.


The following blogs have also been recommended via comments on Twitter:

Carol Goody – Carol is an Adult Literacies & ESOL Worker in Community Learning and Development with a local authority in Scotland.

Improvisation Blog by Mark Johnson, suggested by Alison Iredale. by Dr Carol Azumah Dennis, a researcher, writer & teacher.

I’ll add more if people send me links.