Adult educators – an ageing profession?

Is there a problem brewing as many of our most skilled and experienced adult educators are growing older and a significant cohort is nearing retirement? Is our profession becoming a grey area? If so, we need to act now to make sure we have continuity by developing younger colleagues to pick up the baton. We need to make sure that much-needed enthusiasm, passion, understanding and know-how is not lost from this important area of teaching, learning, educational outreach and management.

(This blog is based on observation within the wider sector and awareness of the age profile in meetings and events. It is not focusing specifically on the WEA although we have to be aware of succession planning for our future sustainability.)

Adult and community educators have worked with determination and professionalism in a too-often overlooked field of education for decades. They act as teachers, advocates, advisers, mentors and managers who know the difference that second chance learning can make to adults. They develop mature students’ potential. They link them into multi-agency support networks to complement learning activities and can steer them sensitively towards further learning and development opportunities.

These professional experts are often unnoticed in education debates yet they play a crucial role in many communities, especially where there is poverty and social breakdown. They are a comparatively small, specialist and effective group of change makers. They negotiate and develop courses and nurture relationships. They eke out funding. They teach people who are often the most reticent and reluctant learners and who need the benefit of specially honed approaches to teaching, learning and assessment.

Some WEA tutors meet the General Secretary and Trustee members of the Education Strategy Committee

Some WEA tutors meet the General Secretary and Trustee members of the Education Strategy Committee

It seems that people need their distinctive brand of customised professional support more than ever. Recent statistics on adult English, maths and digital skills show the scale of some problems facing the UK and reinforce the need for education that extends beyond school years and throughout life. English, as a first or second language, and maths skills have become critical issues for our economy and society.  Recent years have been hard for many people, but austerity has affected people who can’t speak, read or write functional English especially hard and this has had a knock-on effect on the public purse in various ways.

English and maths are only part of a bigger picture. Adult educators’ unique roles contribute to several policy areas, including school-based education, health, work and pensions, communities and local government, criminal justice and culture, media and sports. They enhance employability, health and wellbeing, community engagement and involvement in culture. They improve life chances for countless adults and their families. They enrich people’s lives, adding fulfillment, social benefits and enjoyment.

We need to build greater awareness and raise the status of adult education and community learning in policy debates and developments in initial teacher training and continuing professional development.

What do you think should be done to develop and secure continuity of professionalism in community learning?

How can we raise the profile of teacher educators who are preparing people to work in adult learning?

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Sonia Nieto

Sonia Nieto is an inspiring educational thinker. Much of her writing is relevant to adult education although her experience is as a teacher-educator and classroom teacher in the American public (state) school system.

I really liked this section from page 76 of her book, What Keeps Teachers Going? (Sonia Nieto. New York: Teachers’ College Press, 2003). She describes the characteristics that we value in our WEA tutors.

(If you’re new to this, pedagogy means the art or science of being a teacher.)

Quoted text from Sonia Nieto (with the author’s kind permission)

“Good teachers think deeply and often about the craft of teaching and the process of learning. They are not simply technicians who know how to write good lesson plans and use collaborative groups effectively, although this is also part of what they do. Above all, excellent teachers are engaged every day in intellectual work, the kind of serious undertaking that demands considerable attention and thought. They devote substantial time and energy to their teaching and, over time, they develop extensive expertise and confidence in the work they do. Henry Giroux has defined teachers as intellectuals in this way: “in order to function as intellectuals, teachers must create the ideology and structured conditions necessary for them to write, research , and work with each other in producing curricula and sharing power…. As intellectuals, they will combine reflection and action in the interest of empowering students with the skills and knowledge needed to address injustices and to be critical actors committed to developing a world free of oppression and exploitation.”

All good teachers, whether they consciously carry out research or not, are researchers in the broadest sense of the word. This is because good teachers are also learners, and they recognise that they need to keep learning throughout their careers if they are to improve. They probe their subject matter, constantly searching for material that will excite and motivate their students; they explore pedagogy to create a learning environment that is both rigorous and supportive; they talk with their colleagues about difficult situations. Above all, they value the intellectual work that is at the core of teaching.”

Further thoughts? 

  • How can we tell the difference between a teacher who is an intellectual and one who is a ‘technician’?
  • Does this approach apply to other jobs and roles (especially in the WEA?)
  • Why might the difference matter to students and to society?
  • Has a tutor inspired you with an intellectual approach?

There’s more information about Sonia Nieto at


Thanks for various emails responding to this thread, including one from Phill O’Brien from the WEA’s North West Region who sent this link to teaching and learning resources:

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – John Dewey

The American philosopher John Dewey (1859 – 1952) was one of the leading educational thinkers of the twentieth century. He’s another educator who had a deep and lasting impact on adult education. It’s difficult to do justice to his wide-ranging ideas in a short blog so this just gives a flavour of some of his work. Other people might want to expand on it or add their perspectives?

John Dewey

Education for democracy and society

Dewey championed the idea that education is for the collective benefit of society as a whole as well as for individual students. He believed that education should enable people to take an active part in a vibrant democracy and that teaching methods and curriculum design should support this, although he thought that learning processes were more relevant than curriculum content.

The influence of experience on learning

Dewey introduced a theory that linked experience with learning, based on ideas that he described as ‘continuity’ and ‘interaction’.

He promoted the idea that we learn something, positive or negative, from every experience in our lives and then store the memories, constantly accumulating more and more learning. He described this as continuity.

Dewey suggested that the specific nature of people’s past experiences and prior learning shapes their responses to any new situations, creating personalised interpretations of any current experiences. He referred to this as interaction.

He deduced that people might experience any current shared situation in very different ways depending on their previous personal experiences and individual learning. Anyone who has ever discussed their opinions about a novel and wondered if other people had read the same book will have experienced this in practice. The range of reactions to situations can become much more exaggerated in groups of adult students who have had varying life (and educational) experiences.

It’s important for educators to understand these theories. We can’t change students’ past experiences but we can try to understand them. We can use our insights to improve the learning environments so that our students’ new experiences are as positive as possible for each of them. We can encourage students to be open to different viewpoints. This has a direct bearing on the way we might think about issues of equality and diversity in our curriculum, teaching, learning and assessment – and in life in general.

There’s more information on Dewey and further links at

Responses to the ‘Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame’ idea

There are some very interesting and thoughtful responses my last blog and Andria Birch added a thought-provoking video of a talk by Donald Clark at It’s well worth watching it for an insight into the impact of new media on teaching and learning. Using Benjamin Blooms’ approach, it might be useful to consider how significant Clark’s analysis is for the prospects of more traditional models of teaching and learning?

I linked the last blog with the ‘Adult Educators in Action’ group on the LinkedIn website, where additional recommendations for the Hall of Fame include Myles Horton, Malcolm Knowles, David Boud and others. Here’s the link.

Any thoughts on how Dewey’s approaches might influence teaching, learning and assessment in today’s adult education – or other thoughts or suggestions prompted by the ‘Hall of Fame’ ideas, including the increasing use of technology in learning?


Alison Iredale has written a guest blog following on from this one at

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Benjamin Bloom

It’s very heartening that some non-educational specialists in the WEA are interested in knowing more about the thinking behind the best quality of teaching and learning.

Various thinkers have made lasting contributions to the theories of adult learning that tutors and teachers apply in their day-to-day practice. Some of their ideas are not known very widely outside the world of education but they can help us to develop our own thinking and learning in all sorts of settings.

Who should be in an ‘Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame’?

Benjamin Bloom (1913 – 1999) is a strong candidate. He was the American educational psychologist who classified educational objectives in a model known as Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom believed that education should be more than just the dull transfer of ‘facts’ to unquestioning students. He encouraged active and engaging teaching and learning that promoted higher levels of thinking.

Benjamin Bloom

Bloom developed a clear and logical model showing different levels of learning. Various versions have appeared since 1956 but his basic ideas have stood the test of time with slight revision.

He defined the lowest level of learning as simply the absorption of facts – including learning ‘by heart’ or ‘by rote’ without necessarily understanding the ‘knowledge’ being taken in. The higher levels of learning are increasingly complex with much more active student participation and originality. The most exciting, lively and stimulating learning is at the higher levels.

Simplified version of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning

The poet Robert Frost described himself as, ‘not a teacher, but an awakener’. Bloom’s Taxonomy gives us a practical checklist to aim for the same claim. We can use it as a prompt for planning, assessing and evaluating the effectiveness of our teaching and learning.

The classification can be used beyond formal learning environments. Do we believe everything we read in the papers – or online or even in traditional books? Bloom’s Taxonomy provides a good reminder to think about and to question information. Google and other search engines provide some answers to the questions that we might ask, but should we always accept the answers that we are given or should we be thinking at higher levels?

Who else should be in an Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame? Any suggestions – or volunteers willing to write a short guest blog on someone who influences teaching and learning in adult education?

You can leave a comment on the blog or send me an email at if you’re willing to write a guest blog.

Policy change to allow unqualified teachers in academies

The Department for Education announced on Friday that it was removing requirements for teachers working in academies to have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). Danny Boyle provided an Olympic distraction from this news.

A spokesman for the Department for Education told the BBC (who had little time to broadcast or analyse it):

This policy will free up academies to employ professionals – like scientists, engineers, musicians, university professors, and experienced teachers and heads from overseas and the independent sector – who may be extremely well-qualified and are excellent teachers, but do not have QTS status.”

A teacher’s role is likely to include preparing young people for academic and /or vocational qualifications yet this move exempts them from having to take part in work-related professional preparation and assessment themselves. We might infer from the announcement that teaching doesn’t require specific expertise, knowledge or understanding or that subject specialists don’t value the relevant teaching qualifications sufficiently to want to bother with them. Neither is a very motivating message.

The announcement suggests that two broad groups might now teach in academies without QTS – experienced teachers who are unqualified in this country and subject specialists without previous teaching experience.

There might be some advantages in accrediting the prior experience of well-qualified teachers from other countries and fast-tracking them to QTS status – especially if they are from Finland, whose education system is a world leader in raising standards for pupils from all backgrounds.

What about the scientists, engineers and musicians? The new policy assumes that they will be good teachers by default and that teaching does not require specific professional preparation in educational theory and practice. The notion of dual professionalism, with expertise in a subject specialism combined with a teaching qualification, is familiar in Further Education and has been the subject of intense debate, latterly in the Lingfield Review (

Comparisons between teachers and other professionals such as surgeons, doctors and lawyers have featured in some of the social media responses to Friday’s announcement, prompting a range of reactions. Whatever other career or profession anyone follows (if they are lucky enough to have options in the current economic climate) their competence will depend upon their previous education and their teachers’ effectiveness, influenced greatly by their social class and family circumstances – or lack of them for children and young people in the care system. It is vital for the country’s future that all publicly funded education is of the highest possible standard and that teachers’ professionalism is encouraged and held in high esteem.

If ever there was a time to dilute professional standards for teachers, this is certainly not it. The education system is addressing criticism about levels of literacy, numeracy and work-readiness for school leavers. More than ever, we need to build on the best of our education system. Relaxing standards and requirements for teachers’ employment seems a perverse response under the current circumstances.

Teachers deal with major challenges on a daily basis and need to be well-equipped and supported to do so. Those who meet high standards deserve more recognition and respect.

It is worth noting that the minimum qualification for primary and secondary teachers in the world-renowned Finnish model is a masters degree in education, covering developmental psychology, classroom management and subject didactics. Teaching is respected and well-paid as a profession there and high standards for teacher education feed through into high standards of general education with excellent results.

An e-petition has been set up at  asking, “That the government makes it a legal requirement that any person supervising, covering and teaching classes in England must hold QTS.”

I’ve signed it and hope that many others will too.