EAEA Annual Conference 2024: We need a forward-looking vision with roots on the ground

The EAEA Annual Conference took place at the Helsinki Conservatory of Music on 12 June 2024. The conference was co-organised with the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE) and hosted by the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation (Kvs). Altogether, the event attracted 150 participants from 34 countries around the world.

The conference centered on the ways adult learning and education can bring about significant changes in individuals, communities, and society as a whole.

Education is a cornerstone for peaceful societies

The opening speakers of the conference stressed the role of education in creating peaceful and inclusive societies.

Lauri Tuomi, CEO of the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation, used the Finnish concept “sivistys” (bildning/Bildung), which refers to both societal enlightenment and an individual learning process throughout one’s lifespan.

“Sivistys is a transformative force that extends from the individual to the community and society,” said Tuomi.

The foundation has played a key role in the development of lifelong learning opportunities in Finland and is celebrating its 150th anniversary on the day of the conference. To commemorate this, the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture has dedicated the year 2024 as the Year of Sivistys.

Peace is not the absence of war – it’s participatory and inclusive societies.

Tarja Halonen

The former President of Finland, Tarja Halonen is one of the patrons of the theme year. Halonen emphasised that democracy requires stability, which can be created with the help of education:

“Peace is not the absence of war – it’s participatory and inclusive societies. Education is a cornerstone that must include lifelong learning and sustainable development globally.”

Sivistys has been instrumental in creating the Nordic societies. “The whole background of the Nordic welfare society is activating people themselves. The idea of starting in the local community and moving forward in small steps is very important,” said Halonen.

Lauri Tuomi introducing the Year of Sivistys 2024.
President Tarja Halonen opening the conference.

Shift from learning to taking action is already happening

“What do we mean by transformation?” asked ICAE’s President Robbie Guevara. He suggested that it’s engaging in democratic processes where we find important learning moments. Guevara used the recent referendum about the rights of indigenous peoples in Australia as an example of a transformative moment that has a big impact on society. According to Guevara, politicians had proposed that people should vote “no” if they don’t fully understand the referendum.

“If you don’t know, learn and find out! We should teach about engagement in the process of democracy, not just during elections,” said Guevara.

Isabell Kempf, the Director of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, also highlighted the role of adult learning in fostering active citizenship in her keynote.

I see more and more the importance of creating active spaces where people can meet, socialise, and learn together.

Isabell Kempf
Isabell Kempf from the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning
Robbie Guevara from ICAE Global

“It’s a vital role of adult education to show people how to become active citizens. I see more and more the importance of creating active spaces where people can meet, socialise, and learn together. This socialisation aspect of adult education is not to be underestimated,” said Kempf. “There are already good signs, signalling a shift from learning together to taking action for a sustainable future.”

Kempf mentioned several global challenges where adult education can play a role: digitalisation, artificial intelligence, transforming labour market, climate crisis, erosion of democracy, polarisation, and populism.

“The complexity of the world today drives people to simple answers, and our role as adult educators is becoming more important,” stated Kempf. “Adult education has transformative potential but needs finances and good establishments to make it happen.”

Kempf also noted that ensuring accessibility to learning requires partnerships and collaboration both globally and locally.

Laura Kaestele from ECOLISE

You need to build something new to get rid of the old system.

Laura Kaestele

Belonging is key to a community

One of the key messages at the conference was that change can start from your own community and then grow bigger. At a workshop facilitated by Laura Kaestele from the European Network of Community-Led Initiatives (ECOLISE), we delved deeper into how communities can foster social transformation.

Kaestele quoted Peter Block, who has said that belonging is key to community. It carries three meanings: being part of something, co-ownership of something, and longing to be something – finding a deeper purpose in something we do together.

We also learned that a physical place can be an important element of a community. A park became a community centre because a tiny coffee shop was set up there. It’s now populated by people who didn’t use to go there before.

“You need to build something new to get rid of the old system. This is what eco-communities are really good examples of,” said Kaestele. “We are creatures of habit, but communities can help us to change our habits and create new practices,” concluded one of the participants.

The other workshops focused on learners’ voice, global perspectives on adult education, and creative tools for advocacy.

Pinar Aksu facilitating the workshop “Creative tools for advocacy and social change in the context of migration”.
Participants at the workshop on migration
Workshop on Learners’ Voice, facilitated by AONTAS, EAEA and CINOP.

The power of narratives

Learners’ experiences and voices can bring additional strength to advocacy for adult learning and education.

In a workshop on learners’ voice, the participants discussed what adult learning organisations can do to encourage learner-led approaches. Learners and educators from Ireland, the Netherlands, and Austria showcased how learners’ views inform policy at the national level.

“In any new initiative, have learners in the panel in the development stages, not only after, to give a voice in how adult education should go forward,” said Finbarr Savage, an adult learner from Ireland.

Participants at the workshop “Global perspectives on ALE”.
Robbie Guevara at the workshop on global ALE.

How should we justify our impact?

In the final panel discussion, we heard different views on how to prove the transformative impact of adult learning.

The panellists considered it important that we have holistic ways to measure the impact. The conventional ways of measuring don’t necessarily capture the impact at the grassroots level, especially with marginalised groups.

“Empowerment is important, so is critical thinking – but how do we measure them? We need a broader approach, including qualitative methods, case studies, and participant testimonials,” said Katarina Popović, Secretary General of ICAE.

Tuulikki Laes has studied how playing in a rock band has created transformative experiences for older adults. “I believe in the power of narratives that show, for example, how an older woman has been able to change her life and identity by playing in a rock band,” said Laes.

Empowerment is important, so is critical thinking – but how do we measure them?

Katarina Popović
Gina Ebner, Tuulikki Laes, Katarina Popović, Anna Ekström and Alex Stevenson at the panel.

Balancing qualitative and quantitative methods

We need quantitative data about the impact too, not least because our funders demand it.

“In adult education, we are good at words and stories, but are not doing great with numbers,” said Alex Stevenson from the Learning and Work Institute. “We need the right form of evidence for what we want to achieve, which is more adult education.”

Stevenson tells an example of an English language project where impact was measured by the institute using a randomised control trial, and the results were positive.

Former Minister of Education in Sweden, Anna Ekström, reminds that when you evaluate education, it’s important to make the right balance between qualitative and quantitative methods.

“Be careful you don’t make education profitable to make it easier to see the value. Then you may end up educating those who are easy to educate, and leave out the rest,” says Ekström.

Gina Ebner closing the conference.
Tuulikki Laes and Katarina Popović at the panel.

Let’s start small snowballs that move forward and get bigger

The same message was repeated in the various presentations, discussions, and workshops at the conference: The inclusion, skills, and agency produced by lifelong learning create a transformative force that extends from the individual to society.

“We have represented a number of networks at the conference, and it has become clear we need to work together,” said EAEA Secretary General Gina Ebner in her closing words.

“We need to create a vision that is progressive and forward-looking, but has roots with learners and educators on the ground. It requires that we cooperate on all levels, including the national, European, and global levels. Let’s start small snowballs that move forward and get bigger!”


The conference was part of EAEA’s Annual Events which included the EAEA General Assembly and the Grundtvig Award Ceremony on 11th June, and the conference on 12th June.