Change-oriented adult education – How do we go from reacting to changes to shaping the future?

Adult educators should not just adjust to the rapid changes in our society, but engage also in shaping of the society, when needed. To do this, we need change-oriented adult education. FuturelabAE-project aims to inspire adult educators to take a more proactive role in solving modern day challenges. It has now published a theoretical report including examples of change-oriented learning.

We live in a rapidly changing word, where new challenges emerge every day. FuturelabAE-project was launched to take on these challenges and develop knowledge and resources for a more change-oriented and innovative learning provision. The project intends to change the role of adult education from a reacting body to an active one. The project promotes the idea that adult education should analyse, debate, and shape future trends and develop educational measures to support individuals and societies to manage the challenges, not only face them.

“Traditionally, adult education is regarded as the repair shop for educational systems. People who have, for example, not gained school leaving qualifications are participants in second chance education programmes,” says Thomas Fritz, Head of lernraum.wien at VHS Wien.

Fritz, who represents one of the project partners, was involved in developing the project idea together with the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA). The project addresses two major challenges of our society: the current state of democracy, where an increasing number of citizens start leaning towards xenophobic and populist thoughts, and rapid digital transformation, which leaves part of the population unable to keep up with the changes.

“These themes were selected because empowerment and participation is no longer possible without knowledge of digitalisation. At the same time digitalisation represents one of many threats to democracy,” says Fritz.

Jyri Manninen, professor of Adult Education at the University of Eastern Finland, argues that majority of adult education courses and education in general do not challenge the status quo, but try to keep the current structures and society alive:

“Most education aims at giving people the skills that help them to survive and to adjust in the current society, community or organisation. This is understandable, because society or leaders in organisations are not likely to finance training that aims to change the status quo radically.”

Radical or peaceful transformation?

Change-orientation is nothing new. There are many examples in history where adult education has been used for radical transformation of the society. According to Manninen, the civic rights movement in USA in the 1960’s was a good example of radical approach:

“Martin Luther King and others were trying to change the unfair racial laws. That is also a good example how radical change-oriented adult education can be dangerous from the point of view of the ruling class and the state.”

However, adult education can also be used to peacefully develop communities, organizations, and the whole society into better, more just and equal. Social movements, non-governmental organizations and non-formal adult education providers are active in this field.

“Change-oriented adult education is usually trying to solve some perceived problems, like social, gender, or racial inequality, poverty, climate change, hate speech or fake news,” says Manninen.

Many organisations are already working with change-oriented learning methods, tools and projects. Manninen, with the support of the project consortium, has analysed more than 50 resources and developed the enriching theoretical background for the project. This first project result is now available to provide inspiration to trainers and policy makers alike.

In the next two years, the project is organising workshops on digitalisation (in Finland, December 2019) and democracy (in Ireland, December 2020), and two online courses on change-oriented learning methods on the two above-mentioned topics. The project will also produce guidelines for adult education staff on how to adopt a change-oriented approach in supporting people with low digital and civic competences.

Values guiding change-orientation matter

One may ask, isn’t all education change-oriented? According to Manninen, this is not the case. During the resource collection, he was surprised how difficult it was to understand the difference between change-oriented and non-change-oriented adult education.

“It is common to suggest that all adult learning leads to change, because a person becomes more knowledgeable and learns new skills. But this does not meet the definition of change-oriented adult education. At individual level, change-oriented learning leads to changes in attitudes, values, ways of behaviour or in ‘meaning perspectives’ as Jack Mezirow’s theory suggests.”

According to Manninen, non-change-oriented adult education is much easier to organize, and it is kind of a default setting in the minds of majority of the adult educators, especially in the minds of policy makers.  Change-oriented adult education has to be consciously planned and developed, because it is more demanding, and requires different teaching and learning methods.

Manninen emphasises that there has to be a democratic discussion about the aims, needs and values of the education, what kind of change is taken as an objective and whose objective it is.

“Nazi Germany was perhaps the biggest and most successful change-oriented civic education project, but it was based on evil aims and dangerous political objectives of one man.”


FuturelabAE-project resource collection and analysis report “Change-oriented adult education in the fields of democracy and digitalisation (pdf)” by Jyri Manninen, Anna Jetsu & Irena Sgier is now out.

The first workshop of the project on adult education and digitalisation is organised in Helsinki 11 Dec 2019. Read more about the workshop and sign up by 2.12.

FuturelabAE-project (2018 – 2021) is supported by the Erasmus+ programme.


Text: Sari Pohjola

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