excerpt based on
Emerging and Historical Trends in Adult Education and Training
(keynote delivered at the BC Teachers’ Federation Adult Educators’ Conference
by Douglas Fleming
Adult education is filled with its own unique set of concepts and
terminology. However, the definitions and concepts that frame our
work as adult educators is highly contested ground. Even though we
all tend to downplay the importance of terminology, I believe it
is important to note how terms and concepts frame our work and go
a long way toward defining it. Moreover, as I try to show below,
the current struggles over how we conceptualize our work afford us
a unique opportunity.
In this short piece, I draw primarily from Malcolm Tight’s
very useful Key Concepts in Adult Education and Training.
In this text, Tight examines and focuses on the debates pertaining
to two of the major concepts in adult education: lifelong learning and communities
of practice. Please note that although I am using Tight's
book as a way of organizing this piece, the opinions I express
are my own.
In his discussion, Tight examines the impact of globalization,
and deals with the interrelated concepts of lifelong education,
the learning organization and
the learning society. Tight’s discussion of lifelong
learning examines the contested nature of adult education through
explicating how the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) uses the term. Lifelong
learning has become almost something of a truism today. We
live in an age when schooling never stops.
Now, as adult educators with career stakes in the professional claims
of adult education (don't forget that until fairly recently most
adult education in Canada was taught by amateurs), we might be tempted
to describe institutionalized lifelong learning as
a good thing. The mind continues to grow and explore into adulthood
(maybe even more so). If we look at this concept uncritically, we
might say that we are merely describing a natural process.
However, it's important to note that lifelong learning was
a term first coined by the OECD in 1996. In a nutshell, the OECD
has put a lot of energy into defining adult education internationally
using parameters that try to establish goals for international economic
development. Through its educational secretariat, the OECD has developed
extensive criteria that are used by funding organizations like the
World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. International loans
are often now tied, amongst other things, to promises by Third World
governments to retool its provision of adult education. These goals
usually identify work skills, abilities and competencies that these
governments are to foster for explicit economic purposes. These skills
are not framed in the way that Freire suggested. These skills are
instrumentally linked to the economic needs of the elites within
the nation-states in question and, more particularly, those of international
capital. Needless to say, there's little talk of empowering the oppressed
(beyond a few lucky or co-opted individuals) and lots of explicit
support for market economies.
Now, Roger Boshier (2001) contends that lifelong learning has
co-opted lifelong education, a term coined by Faure (1972)
and developed extensively out of discussions in the late 1960s that
took place under the sponsorship of UNESCO. These discussions featured
prominent progressive adult educational theorists such as Illich,
Friere, Reimer, Goodman and Holt. Lifelong education is
something that builds a learning society in which education
is provided through many venues. This means that an individual has
a right to broad choices in education so that one can enter and exit
educational systems without penalty. Education would also take place
in business, industrial and agricultural settings. More importantly, lifelong
education has the purpose of developing emancipatory learning
communities and societies.
UNESCO is an organization in which great ideological struggles takes
place. Tight seems to be more critical of UNESCO than Boshier and
problematizes the organization’s role to a greater extent.
If you check out the UNESCO website, it does seem like the organization
has slowly begun to put vocational training at the top of its agenda
since the heady days when it sponsored the progressive 1996 Delors
Commission on Education. On the other hand, the next big UNESCO project,
the UN Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014), has
sets of principles that are critical of capitalism and goals that
include alleviating poverty and enhancing gender and human
Zahra Bhanji provides a very good analysis of how and why the World
Bank and the OECD have been promoting adult education for purposes
of development (as they define development, of course). She notes
that since 1992, the World Bank has become very interested in eliminating
world illiteracy, especially in Africa. She believes that the pious
statements made by the Bank in this regard are an attempt to deflect
criticism from its other policies, most famously protested against
during meetings of the G7 leaders. Forty per cent of all international
aid programs that target education are now funnelled through the
World Bank and use OECD criteria. Bhanji notes that official estimates
of illiteracy have dramatically dropped in recent years. Some sources
suggest that illiteracy has dropped from 40 per cent of the world's
population to 25 per cent in the past decade and credit the World
Bank's role in this achievement. While this is almost universally
acclaimed as being a good thing (although Ivan Illich might have
disagreed), one should question what kind of content is being taught
by these World Bank initiatives. As I've mentioned, the OECD criteria
are unreservedly procapitalist. Bhanji also points out that the money
funnelled through the World Bank for these projects is not new money,
but represents a reallocation of existing money that might have been
otherwise allocated by other agencies with different criteria.
In any case, for both Tight and Boshier lifelong learning
has usurped the progressive agenda of lifelong education and
is in the process of turning adult pedagogy into what Tight calls
a treadmill of endless and unremittingly narrow skill training that
serves the interests of market economics.
Linda Shohet is very good at mapping out how the OECD agenda has
influenced the Canadian literacy movement. She notes, for example,
how literacy being transferred to Human Resources Development Canada
has helped push the literacy movement into becoming much more concerned
with employability skills.
In light of all the above, what does the future hold? Tight makes
a number of predictions for the conceptual development of the field.
• that adult education and training will continue to be politicized;
• that there will be a continual recycling and renaming of
• that the liberal/vocational divide within
the field will continue;
• that theoretical work will intensify around the concepts
of the learning organization, the learning society and lifelong
• that there will be continued development and popularization
of notions surrounding further, higher, adult and continuing
• that there will be a growth of work-related concepts related
to human and social capital;
• that there will be a development of concepts that will enhance
how andragogy is understood;
• that there will be a refinement of the concepts of success,
failure, competence and outcomes.
Tight’s list highlights the dynamic and contested nature of
our field. On the one hand, this contestation is often confusing.
On the other hand, it shows that we are at a time in history when
we have the opportunity of seizing the intellectual (and political)
agendas for the benefit of our learners in a way that resists the market-driven
approaches promoted by the OECD. This opportunity has an enhanced
meaning in Canada, where the boundaries and connections between ESL
and literacy have been poorly established because of our history
as an immigrant-receiving nation.
In my opinion, our theoretical work in this respect is best based
on the practical experiences of teachers (and other educational workers).
Given the fact that the field is highly dynamic, I think it best
to now go back to those people who have to negotiate these conceptualizations
on a daily basis.
Bhanji, Zahra (2004). Adult Basic Education and Globalization: Why
Has the World Bank Renewed its Interest in Adult Basic Education?
Paper presented at the Canadian Association for the Study of Education,
Winnipeg, May 29, 2004.
Boshier, Roger (2001). Running to Win: The Contest Between Lifelong
Learning and Lifelong Education in Canada. New Zealand Journal
of Adult Learning 28(2),
Faure, E. (Chair) (1972). Learning to be. Paris: UNESCO.
Shohet, Linda (2001). Adult Learning and Literacy in Canada. In
J. Comings, B. Garner and C. Smith (eds.), Annual Review of Adult
Learning and Literacy 2, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 189-241.
Tight, Malcolm (2002). Key Concepts in Adult Education and Training (2nd
ed.). London: Routledge Falmer.
DOUGLAS FLEMINGis Assistant Professor in the Faculty
of Education at the University of Ottawa. He has taught adult ESL
and literacy in a wide variety of contexts and capacities in Ontario,
Louisiana and British Columbia since 1984. His research focuses on
how citizenship is conceptualized and represented within adult ESL
and literacy policy development, program design and curricula.