I have just has the pleasure of attending a conference organised by the University of Wurtzberg in collaboration with the Asia-Europe Lifelong Learning hub, entitled Lifelong Learning Policies & Adult Education Professionals: Contextual and Cross-Contextual Comparisons between Europe and Asia.
With keynote presentation from Arne Carlsen, formerly Head of UIL in Hamburg and the originator of ASEM LLL Hub, Songhee Han from Korea, Maria Slowey from Ireland, Steffi Robak from Germany and Lesley Doyle from the UK as well as many excellent presentations from faculty members and postgraduates, there are grounds for optimism for the future of adult education.
As a member of a final panel asked to reflect on the take-home messages from the conference, I proposed the following:
- Following on from Lesley Doyle’s reminder to us at the conference, we must not forget history. Without going too far into history, I can at European level point to EU and national reports, many which have initiated or reflected policy in adult education over the last three decades, that are virtually unknown to a younger audience. In some cases they have been wiped from the internet, the source of preference for information in the modern world. Talking with UNESCO colleagues, we agreed that there is an urgent need to provide easy access to these materials so that we can inform current debates;
- There was much debate about research, particularly that which counters myths about adult learners, for example in relation to cognitive abilities and health, and the need in particular for research that informs policy. That is not to say that evidence necessary will inform policy, but at least if it is there, debate is better informed;
- The question of professionalism of the adult education sector (where it exists) was extensively discussed, though my reflection is that many who are concerned with the teaching of adults are likely not to view themselves as adult educators. This is particularly the case in their work with the 16-30 year age group, the dominant target of much provision, certainly in Europe. Youth workers, community developers, ESOL (English as a Second Other Language) tutors (or the equivalent in other languages) they may be, but not self-defined adult educators. Does this matter? Maybe not as long as those working within various sub-sectors of education recognise and are informed by each others’ work;
- More important though is collaborative working that cuts across traditional boundaries in the context of major global issues. In the UK, this is obvious given the two major strands of challenge-led research: the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF)) and the Industrial Challenges Fund (ICF). The GCRF is a UK response to the Sustainable Development Goals and is a £1.5bn commitment to research in collaboration with partners in the global south to strengthen capacity. Industrial Challenges reflect how we will respond to the demands of future industries such as nanotechnology and to issues that pertain to automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, manufacturing of new medicines, production of clean energy and much more. What both sets of challenges have in common is an underpinning need for lifelong learning. This may in the south be the skills of community developers to translate technologies into local learning and actions which build sustainable villages, towns and cities. Whether it be capturing geothermal energy in Ethiopia or supporting maintenance of biodiversity in Uganda, Botswana and Nigeria (just two examples to be found under CR&DALL projects), the translational work of those experienced lifelong learning is likely to be vital. Similarly, at a UK national level (and the same applies in all countries) if we are to respond the skills needs of the changing nature of industry, and if we are to equip the population at large to cope with the everyday demands of new technologies, there is a learning imperative at all stages of the lifecourse.
I also heard many presentations from Asia and Europe some of which came as a complete surprise to me:
- The influence of John Dewey on Ataturk and the establishment of Village Learning Centres in Turkey;
- A Thai colleague who uses the vehicle of improving the health of each family’s goat in his village as the starting point for wider engagement in learning.
And more generally from our Asian colleagues an emphasis on the role of community learning.
Ultimately I left Wurtzburg feeling optimistic for the future of lifelong learning.