From a repair shop to a collaborative workshop – fostering change-oriented education

Adult learning has an important role to play in promoting transformation and renewing democracy in our society. It’s time to recognise the wider benefits and support the holistic approach of adult learning, said the speakers of the FuturelabAE final conference, which was held on June, the 23rd.

Adult education is often considered as a “repair shop”, fixing things that have gone wrong in school education, said Gina Ebner from EAEA in her opening of the FuturelabAE final conference. FuturelabAE project is challenging this concept. The conference presented several ideas how we can move towards change-oriented education.

“There are reasons for hope”

In his keynote speech, Dr Fergal Finnegan spoke about the crisis of democracy and the ways adult learning and education can respond to it. According to Finnegan, the democratic crisis is a symptom of deeper social crisis we are facing in Europe. It has three main causes: 1) inequality of income and wealth, 2) increasing disparity in influence and power, 3) crisis of democratic agency and meaning. These are also the three issues adult education should tackle.

Finnegan challenges adult educators to treat the current crisis as an opportunity to think anew, and to draw on the historical background and rich adult education traditions and practices as a resource of hope.

“There are reasons why we should feel emboldened, feel capable of meeting the challenges and see this as an opportunity to renew certain things. If you look at adult education’s past, ordinary people exercised enough power that society changed towards democracy. This is an enormous resource of hope as we go into the future”, stated Finnegan.

According to Finnegan, FuturelabAE project highlights the fact that there are always interesting things happening under the radar. FuturelabAE has collected a set of change-oriented methods and practices across Europe. They are a reminder that if we reach out into communities, beyond institutions, we find extraordinary capacities. Linking and thinking across them is crucial.

Change must have a direction, so it’s important to decide on the values and orientation that we are taking:

“From my perspective, drawing on adult education research, the core values are equality, freedom and democracy. They are interrelated and point towards democracy as a way of life”, said Finnegan.

Finnegan emphasised that adult education should look outwards, and link with progressive social movements. This is part of how we respond to the crisis and renew democracy.

If you look at adult education’s past, ordinary people exercised enough power that society changed towards democracy. This is an enormous resource of hope as we go into the future

Fergal Finnegan

Providing safe spaces for learning

The FuturelabAE project consortium is preparing guidelines for adult educators on how to use a change-oriented approach. Thomas Fritz from VHS Wien introduced the plan for the guidelines and said that there is a paradigm change happening in education. Learners want to act, and educators need to take that into consideration. Learners must be co-authors of learning.

“As educators we don’t know what learners need to achieve. We need to find it together with learners. Much more important than methodology is attitude towards learners, attitude towards change and transparency”, said Fritz.

In arguing for the need to change our approach, Fritz referred to one of the speakers of FuturelabAE online course, Prof. Licinio Lima, who had said “Adult education has to become more dangerous again”. However, education never was and never will be neutral.

“You always need to take a stance and be on the side of the learner. We need to change the repair shop into a collaborative workshop where everyone works together”, said Fritz.

According to Fritz, we are in a revolution about what learning means.

“Learning is not about acquiring skills, measuring outcomes, it’s about safe spaces, open spaces and possibilities. Change-oriented adult education is where these spaces have to be created.”

You always need to take a stance and be on the side of the learner. We need to change the repair shop into a collaborative workshop where everyone works together.

Thomas Fritz

Recommendations for change-oriented policies

In addition to democracy, FuturelabAE project focuses on the rapid digitalisation of our society and how it impacts learning. For example, a change-oriented approach that fosters critical dialogue and reflection is beneficial in teaching media literacy. Olivier Magnin from la Ligue de l’Enseignement introduced a media literacy training programme for adult educators and spoke about massification of information in our society:

“We have entered a new era, a new ecosystem of information”, said Magnin. “The challenge is to change the culture of how we make sense of information: what we trust and how we understand our role in information processing.”

The FuturelabAE project consortium is preparing recommendations for European and national policy makers on how create preconditions for change-oriented adult education to take place. Francesca Operti from EAEA introduced the recommendations and hosted a panel discussion with Tatjana Babrauskine from the European Economic and Social Committee, Carlo Scatoli from the European Commission and Niamh O’Reilly from AONTAS.

According to the panelists, the policy recommendations are very relevant in the current period and adult learning is high on the EU agenda.

“It’s really a matter of making use of opportunities that are provided, to get recognition for the effort people put in learning”, said Scatoli.

Panelists argued that adult learning is essential in acquiring citizenship skills and taking an active role in the society. Adult education should be recognised for its role in transforming learners and society, also for its role in furthering the main European policies, such as the Skills Agenda.

“We will now enhance adult education policies with realistic expectations but a holistic perspective,” said Babrauskine.

Babrauskine also called for learning guarantee for adults, saying that it should be the next objective for the European Commission.

“Change-oriented adult learning really works”

O’Reilly encourages adult educators to move forward as a European collective in promoting the change-oriented, holistic approach. Now is the time for policy makers to recognise and fund the broader purposes of adult learning:

“As civil society we always advocated for holistic approach to learning. We have enough evidence that change-oriented approaches really work. We have to develop a policy that is truly inclusive. Skills oriented approach is not”, stated O’Reilly.

Gina Ebner from EAEA echoed O’Reilly’s words in her closing speech:

“We are not doing this alone, but as a community. We are going to continue with learners and continue with ambition. We need ambition also in policy. As adult educators, we need to stand up and say: ‘we are doing valuable work’ and move forward.”

Text: Sari Pohjola, EAEA

Watch the recording of the FuturelabAE final conference on Youtube.

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 soon 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. 

The final project event “Change-oriented adult education: from a local perspective to a European dimension” will take place 8 July. The event will be held in Portuguese language. 


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