13.04.2021

If we don’t learn, we will have no democracy

Learners as leaders -workshop showcased that adult learning is not only a tool for personal growth, but it can be used to develop our communities and societies for the better.

Community education, learner empowerment and democracy education were key topics in the workshop “Learners as Leaders: Developing Democracy through Change-Oriented Community Education in Ireland”. The workshop was part of 2021 Learners’ Festival in Ireland and organised as a joint effort of AONTAS and the FuturelabAE-project.

Enabling learners to become agents of change

How to create change through adult learning and create an inclusive society? AONTAS has tackled these questions in Learners as Leaders -programme. It’s a flexible participatory programme that uses methods that seek to create individual and social change. The programme has empowered learners with learning disabilities on their own education paths and developed their competences in advocacy work.

The society needs to move on at this stage. They have had plenty of time to deal with the fact that we are all different.

“AONTAS wants to create an education system where everyone’s voice is heard”, said Dearbháil Lawless, Head of Advocacy at AONTAS.

Lawless showed a video which showcases the artwork learners have created on the topic of democracy. The learners are also planning a campaign to fight for the rights of people with different abilities and for flexible adult learning programmes. They participants of the programme presented valuable insights on how learners must be partners in education and how to work towards an inclusive education system.

“It’s important to be included & involved in everything that concerns you. Dream big, do what you want, have patience, it will all come together, nothing is easy at first but give it time”, said Amy Begley, one of the learners from Ability Cork. Begley also called for the responsibility of the society.

“You are not the problem. The society is the problem. The society needs to move on at this stage. They have had plenty of time to deal with the fact that we are all different.”

aontas learners as leaders advocacy campaign aims
Learners as leaders advocacy campaign aims
Dearbhail Lawless
Dearbháil Lawless from AONTAS

Why we need justice-oriented citizenship

Classrooms and learning spaces are a place where we should practice democracy and learn how to express your voice, said AONTAS CEO Niamh O’Reilly in her opening at the start of the workshop. Professor Ted Fleming from Columbia University continued this idea by reflecting how adult education can further democracy. He illustrated how using Facebook compares to three types of citizenship in his thought-provoking presentation on democracy education:

On personal responsibility level, citizens are voting and obeying the laws (use Facebook to keep contact). On the participatory level citizens exercise leadership in existing community structures (use Facebook to organise involvement in the community). On the highest, justice-oriented level citizens are able to critically assess social, political and economic structures and work to change unjust structures (understand how Facebook functions and how it can cripple our society).

The Facebook example served well to demonstrate, why the justice-oriented citizenship is crucial for the future of our democracy. According to Fleming, citizens should exercise critical imagination built on indignation and awareness, and critically analyse the consequences of current policies and power systems. For instance, Covid-19 should not only been seen as a health issue, but as a social disease.

Democracy makes people better. Not only are we better off as citizens, we are better off as a society.

Professor Ted Fleming
democracy charter slide
A charter for Democracy that Learns, slide from Ted Fleming’s presentation

Also, organisations need to learn to make contribution to democracy. Fleming presented a Charter for Democracy that Learns, where civil society organisations and adult education have an important role to play. “Teach how to take action against injustice and actively support social change” and “Teach how to hold on to imagination so that we can picture how it is for others” are examples of the guidelines in the charter.

“Democracy makes people better. Not only are we better off as citizens, we are better off as a society”, concluded Fleming. “We need to learn what’s involved in being a critical member of society and become aware of how systems operate to serve the interests of the few. This is a learning project. If we don’t learn, we will have no democracy”, said Fleming.

Community education as a propeller for change

The FuturelabAE project develops knowledge and resources for a more change-oriented and innovative adult learning provision, particularly in the fields of digitalisation and democracy. It is based on the idea that adult education can be used to develop communities, organisations, and the whole society into better, more just and equal.

“Change-oriented adult education is usually trying to solve some perceived problems,” said Professor Jyri Manninen from University of Eastern Finland in his presentation at the workshop. “Using change-oriented methods requires new kind of thinking from adult educators, adult education providers and policy makers.”

The Cycle Up programme from Roscommon Women’s Network is an example on how community education can drive change and create a sense of purpose and belonging among the learners. An act of doing can lead to deeper conversations and understanding of societal problems.

Using change-oriented methods requires new kind of thinking from adult educators, adult education providers and policy makers.

Members of Castlerea Upcycling group, picture from Nora Fahy’s presentation
Roscommon women, picture from Nora Fahy’s presentation

Manager Nora Fahy presented on the creation and success of the programme. A group of women wanted to do something about textile waste and find ways to repurpose textiles. Gradually this led to an environmental protection initiative where participants design and up-cycle textiles to raise awareness of fast fashion and protecting the environment. Cycle Up won the AONTAS Star Award 2021 in the Sustainable Development through Education category.

“By using community education as a propeller, we have seen how women and communities have changed”, said Fahy.

One takeaway from the FuturelabAE project has been the need for training opportunities and peer-to-peer exchanges on change-oriented education to increase the capacity of adult education professionals. Also new funding mechanisms would be needed for change-oriented education provision.

Text: Sari Pohjola, EAEA


FuturelabAE Erasmus+ project (2018–2021) develops knowledge and resources for a more change-oriented and innovative learning provision. The project has organised two online courses, two workshops and an online event on the topic. The online courses “Design for change” and “Together for change” are available as self-study on the project website.

The project will also publish recommendations for policy makers and guidelines for adult education staff on how to adopt a change-oriented approach in supporting people with low digital and civic competences. Final conference of the project will be organised 23 June 2021.

Futurelab - change oriented adult education, logo in turquoise and wine red

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