We have reached a moment of potential transformation in adult education. We need to seize it, argues Paul Stanistreet
The next year will be formative for the field of adult learning and education (ALE).
Preparations are underway for the seventh International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII), in all likelihood in summer 2022. Meanwhile, the fifth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE) is being finalized, to be published in late spring next year. Add to this UNESCO’s Futures of Education commission, which will report at the end of this year, and the fast-approaching midway point in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and it is clear that this is a moment of potential change in education, and in adult education in particular, which I believe we need to grasp. The enormous challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the changing work environment, demographic shifts and, most critically, the climate crisis, mean that more of the same is no longer an option we can responsibly pursue.
It is early days in the drafting of GRALE 5 but there are intriguing and important themes emerging that point to a new direction for adult education and lifelong learning. The report has taken active citizenship education as its thematic focus, a response, in part, to GRALE 4 that found that citizenship education was neglected in comparison to adult education for vocational purposes and basic skills education. But the choice also reflected UIL’s perception, driven in part by an understanding of the above challenges, that citizenship education, and in particular the emerging notion of global citizenship, was critical to all our futures, and to the future of the planet.
Global citizenship education (GCED) represents UNESCO’s response to the challenge of ensuring peace and planetary sustainability, and a fairer, more equal world. The idea is to empower learners of all ages to understand that these are global and not only local issues and to become active promoters and civically minded advocates of more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable societies.
GCED builds on UNESCO’s historic commitment to peace and human rights education, and its humanistic understanding of the value of education. But it does so in a way that challenges us to think beyond the human and to see human futures as inextricably linked to the future of the natural world in which we live and of which we are a part. Honouring both UNESCO’s humanistic traditions and the need to move beyond them in some respects is one of the conceptual challenges facing the Futures of Education Commission as it shapes its final report.
One strand of the commission’s still-emerging thinking has involved reframing the four pillars of learning set out in UNESCO’s 1996 Delors Report – learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be – in terms of what Noah Sobe terms ‘commoning actions and strengthening the common good’. Of course, it remains to be seen what the commission puts in its final report, but the idea of reorientating learning towards the common good and joint endeavour speaks both to the social purpose origins of the adult education movement in civic learning and collective action and to the challenges of the present, most notably the biggest challenge of all (overshadowing even the pandemic, which has absorbed all our attention for the past 18 months): climate change.
This thread of ideas, in one form or another, also runs through the early draft of GRALE 5, which points to the need to adjust the focus of adult education provision towards common action and common, global goods. Adult education is not, and should not be, all about private benefits or economic development. It is, most crucially, about building the capacity for common action and giving people, to paraphrase cultural theorist Raymond Williams, ‘resource of hope’ rather than reasons to despair. As the Futures of Education Commission recognizes, this is the educational challenge of the next decades, and it is the challenge in particular of adult education.
This perspective, as the Futures of Education commission also notes, is an immensely discomforting and provocative one. It requires us to rethink old models of endless economic growth, to challenge entrenched patterns of inequality, reproduced and, in many cases, exacerbated through the pandemic, and to view education not as a means of control or cultural reproduction but as a vehicle of progressive change. It means refining our conception of ‘development’ and rethinking our humanism in a way that transcends the human. We have got used to thinking nothing can change. The world is maddeningly unequal and unfair. Resisting the forces that arrest progress is exhausting. Despair is the default for many millions of people. Hopelessness, to quote David Graeber, has become boring.
But, of course, change is possible. Things do change, even things that seem unchangeable, but only through determined collective action and a willingness to think big. It is still possible to meet the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and to reverse much of the damage we have done to the environment. But it will only happen through the kind of education that transforms our perspective on what is possible, that joins our efforts and gives us hope of something better.
One of the key messages of GRALE 5 will be that we need to rebalance adult education participation towards education for active citizenship, and towards global citizenship, in particular. I see considerable hope in this, especially given the pivotal moment represented by CONFINTEA VII. The world can change, if we seize the opportunity. Perhaps the main lesson of the pandemic is this: a better, fairer, more sustainable future is possible, but only if we work together and, truly, leave no one behind.
Paul Stanistreet is Head of Knowledge Management and Communications at UIL