Adult learning in a Danish society shocked by terror?

INFONET. An Interview with Knud Illeris, Danish scientist and Professor in Lifelong Learning.

Liberal Denmark has come into the media’s focus in recent years at least twice, most recently after the terror attack in mid-February. The image of an open, inclusive and exemplary multicultural society is crumbling. What has happened? How do you, as a researcher in Adult Learning, see this latest change?

KI: I think that most people in Denmark experience the change you are mentioning, and as I see it, it is a consequence of a superior change from Denmark being a welfare state in the direction of what has been termed a competition state, i.e. that the final reason for political, organizational and administrative decisions and changes is what is supposed to be of benefit to the national economic competitiveness.

In order to support our nowadays society, how can results from science and research be transferred into social practice and learning – be it formal or informal learning?

KI: The answer to this question cannot be given in general. It very much depends on which results and who has the power or position to use the results for which purpose. The results of science and research are in my opinion not just objective facts, but in most cases can be understood and used differently and thereby serve different interests in society.

Depending on these different interests in society, how can research and practice in Adult Education contribute to the mediating between various societal subgroups and their ideologies?

KI: My research and practice in adult education has clearly shown that adults tend to learn what they want to learn and what is meaningful for them to learn. In their learning they draw on the resources they already have. They only take as much responsibility for their learning as they want to take – if they are allowed to do so. And they are not inclined to engage in learning of which they cannot see the meaning or have any interest. If adults are treated like pupils they will just take in what is in agreement with what they already think or mean. To mediate between various subgroups and ideologies it is necessary to bring them together on their own premises and arrange situations in which they can meet and discuss in constructive ways. This is certainly not impossible, but can only be facilitated if there is enough openness and respect for different attitudes by those who arrange such events.

So, adult education can play a possible role for several societal subgroups. But how can adult education then contribute to civic or political education in order to realize and finally overcome intercultural and interreligious conflicts in modern Western society?

KI: My answer is as above: different people and opinions must be brought together on their own premises. What would be a location, a public space or an appropriate forum for such a discussion? Where would you see such events taking place in order to address as many citizens as possible? Danish experience seems to indicate that it is very important to meet people where they are – in their own environment and social structures.

Based on that, are there innovative approaches in research or practice of Adult learning in Scandinavia and in Denmark in particular?

KI: There has been quite a lot of such research and practices, in which I have been very much involved. But it has more or less vanished from public attention today, because there is only focus and money for what can be expected in the end to promote the economic competitiveness.

Having traditionally strong state funding for Adult Education in Denmark, how did this situation develop or change in recent years? Will current EU-politics focusing on employability have influence on the financial situation in Denmark? What influences may the recent events have on the Danish system of Adult Education?

KI: Of course, EU-politics strongly influences the financial situation in Denmark and we are very nice and obey whatever is dictated from Brussels. Generally, education and also most adult education is free of charge if it is inside the “system”, which is constantly changed in order to be in agreement with what is considered to promote the national competitiveness. This means, as long as you accept this and do as you are supposed to, it is free. But if you do not follow what is expected, if you spend too much time, if you change to new subjects, if you do not pass the exams or other demands in due time, then you will get into problems. We very much try to avoid dropouts. But in practice, the generally tight and very goal-directed testing system and measures seem to create dropouts. I think that Denmark these years is about to lose its traditional position as a country with good, free educational possibilities. The authorities – ultimately The Ministry of Finance – think of education as a place of “production” of competencies, which can be promoted by tight definitions of goals, tests and measuring, big institutions with strong leaders and all sorts of incentives for leaders, teachers and learners if they make good results. That is if the production is “effective”. But they do not understand that “education” is not the same as “learning”, and they do not realize that a good production may result in bad learning.

According to this current situation in Denmark, what is it you want the Danish society – and in particular the educational system – to do in order to overcome this situation? Is it just money that makes the world go around?

KI: In practice, the most important precondition to promote good learning is to meet the motivation of the learners, their needs and interests, and take the starting point here. But the prevailing tendency is to start by what is prescribed in the curriculum and try to force the learners to take it in. No important and useful learning can be created this way!

The interview was originally published at European Infonet Adult Education.


Text: Thomas Jung

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