Adult education and lifelong learning by 2012: Definitions and actions

88 countries responded to the global consultation on the development of adult education (AE) within the framework of the agreements made in the last CONFINTEA3 in Belem.


In this paper we would like to analyze two aspects of this consultation: the first one refers to the definition of adult education supported by institutionalized systems and public services in each country and the second one refers to the existence and recognition of “other” modalities, whether non-formal, community or of social selfmanagement and that complete the map of adult education in each national case.

This paper has required to collect, analyze and contextualize the abovementioned definitions, seeking to identify their principles of consistency in relation to rhetorical statements made and educational systems implemented in the countries.

In so far as this analysis has been contextualised according both to virtuous trends and unsuccessful trends in adult education, we can argue that this paper can provide a framework to reflect on adult education actions under the paradigm of “lifelong learning”.4

Adult education is defined as an education modality and a comprehensive training pathway throughout people’s life.

AE has been established in the countries as a particular modality in the education systems, designed to provide compensatory services or regularization services of basic and secondary formal studies. In general, this formal modality articulates with technical and vocational training needs, reinforcing a historical core in AE which is to contribute to the integration of people into the labor market and into vocational qualification.

Additionally, it is seen that this definition of AE tends to expand its meaning and “coverage” incorporating the concept of lifelong learning both as a right of people to be educated and as an answer to the demands of the knowledge society and of globalized communications.

Therefore, AE systems are proposed as strategic means to set policies where AE develops not only as a distinct modality in response to remedial or “second chance” educational needs after dropping out or “failure” in the school system, but as a network system that offers, from various agencies (government, universities, centers linked to local governments, and NGOs), accredited training pathways that enable continuing
education at different stages of social and labor life. These pathways are defined according to specific requirements of national and regional economies and cultural demands of civil society. This option requires public authorities to coordinate and accredit the agencies that provide education, teaching and management staff, curricular frameworks and allocation of resources.

Adult Education policies are torn between the demands of citizens, the incentives for training and the requirements of the business world.
It is not clear that the requirements of the knowledge society generate all the desirable, active and massive participation in AE. Occupational projects and social uncertainties caused by the dynamics of globalization are putting into question the meaning of “being educated”. Public provision and expectations of AE emerging public (youth, women, social adults, unemployed, graduates without job prospects requiring retraining) do not
always coincide. Therefore, the definitions and statements that support policies and investment in AE establish new incentives for educational participation based on the requirement of continue studying or joining training programs as a condition to obtain social subsidies to finance private entities where governments outsource the education service, relying on the private sector’s ability to develop a successful marketing for the provision of education opportunities.

The business sector, in turn, chooses to develop its own educational agencies linked to the direct needs of its businesses or to disseminate its own concepts of world.

Faced with this dilemma, governments, on the one hand, examine the option of “modernization” of education provision making it more flexible and closer to local public or using technological means to make the requirement of “being educated” “milder”; on the other hand, they explore collaboration with civil society organizations to implement programs of civic education, environmental education and grassroots community development in order to meet demands from civil society that encourage education self-management processes and develop skills of citizen participation and advocacy in public policies.

Education times and spaces in Adult Education
The challenge of making AE attractive and achieving higher rates of social inclusion and citizen recognition of its participants is forcing countries to redefine their concepts of time and space for the development of education among adults.

We know that bringing closer or making the education provision converge with the life experiences of students is a major institutional and educational challenge. The school tradition tends to homogenize the profiles of the “public” and does not have tools to identify learning needs and the “moods” of individuals and communities at grassroot level regarding the commitment to education itself. There is evidence not only of a certain crisis of the “horizon” of education, but also of the ways in which training pathways are defined.

In poor countries, AE tends to become a refuge and a factor of humanization and social inclusion, supporting programs to eradicate poverty, for community health and solidarity economy.

In the so-called developed countries, according to the GDP criterion, it is less clear how AE can contribute more effectively to the processes of “social inclusion” characteristic of “advanced” societies, where structural unemployment, the discomfort with the financial systems and the distancing of people from traditional forms of democratic politics create a type of crisis that some call post-material.

The importance that citizens give to subjective well-being, quality of life and good-living is causing AE to define a new set of human needs to identify a strategy for capacity building that can respond to the new social awareness of its public.

Community-based AE seems to be in better conditions to process these challenges, both, due to its location and due to the participatory and experiential methodologies used. However, except in some countries with a long history and institutional recognition of the practice of “popular education”, the setting of integrated policies of community-based education with other modalities of AE is still difficult. Especially in countries where community adult education is implemented by NGOs, local organizations, social  movements and churches that are ideologically confronted with the government in office.

An urgent challenge of AE is to adapt its provision to the times and places where ordinary citizens live. The new communication technologies, social networks, self-managed communities of learning and grassroot social programs should be synergistically integrated into AE media network with its provision in particular premises and with standardized time schemes. This will imply a renewal of the forms of teaching, the development of tutorial schemes and plans for improving the training of adult educators.

Who determines skills and empowerment levels in Adult Education?
At global level, AE national systems move progressively towards the recognition of knowledge and experiences characteristic of adults in different areas of social and working life.
In this way AE is shaped as a strategy of empowerment and skills training according to national or regional frameworks or standards of needs and requirements especially related to productive, industrial, communication and integration or citizen coexistence dynamics.

This approach has a very positive dimension to the extent that AE is coordinated with local or regional development policies. However, this coordination and the programs  implemented are not always the result of tri-sector agreements (governments, businesses and civil society), but the expression of centralized policy definitions that, for this very reason, do not always connect to the projects of local stakeholders.

In Latin America, this is being very evident in areas where the mining industry is heavily stressing the educational and labor provision in an instrumental sense which is not shared by communities that identify themselves with projects that give priority to the protection of the environment and the development of industries that value commons and heritage over commercial dynamics.

Promising coordination in Adult Education: the association of public agencies and civil society organizations
Government reports and evidence shown by international studies affirm that being adult education an area that can be defined as “public property” (due to its dignifying character that enhances the ability of people to participate in civil and social life under conditions of equality and recognition) it is essential that processes of political and institutional definition of AE be conducted according to procedures that enable the coordination of public initiatives with the participation and cooperation of non-governmental education organizations (non profit) having relevant experiences, a location in the territories and in close relationship with the communities.

There are experiences of successful partnership in defining goals, strategies, institutional provision and funding priorities. It is necessary to socialize this information: partnerships, as AE working strategy, are the ones that allow that AE becomes a true cultural movement associated with the general dynamics of a city or region. Social pedagogy and popular education acquire a guiding pattern in some of these experiences, many of them inspired by approaches like “Educating Cities” (UNESCO).

Definitions and actions
Dozens of studies over the past decade have systematized national definitions of AE. There are stories in every continent that provide diversity to these definitions.
The asymmetry of the institutionalization components of AE in the North and South of the planet (either by the type of educational development, economic status, strength of public systems, governance, political system and social capital of each country) is the reason why it is more appropriate to speak of actions rather than definitions.

Definitions belong to the level of statements, common belief and “good reasons” that governments have to develop AE in their countries.

However, the documentary material we reviewed, supplemented with global information that we have found, enable us to identify actions in a more precise way, and thus also identify challenges, dilemmas and critical issues for the development of AE in our world in transition5.

We will refer below to some of these actions: in some cases in optimistic terms, in others we will underline the structural difficulties that prevent our progress in an AE that is inclusive, participatory, socially responsible, critical and empowering for people and their communities.6

How will we identify “progress” in Adult Education?
Definitions stated by governments show that AE is a complex area or system due to the diversity of agencies, participants, types of provision, expectations and needs of public, age, gender and social participants, their urban or rural location, procedures of access to education services, institutional modalities governing the system, the higher or lesser degree of collaboration between government, business and civil society, different
refinement of training pathways and decision-making procedures in setting priorities and funding.

Given all these variables we could attempt a typology of AE systems in the world, something we are not able to do from the specific information we are working on. But in all likelihood, if we could do so, we would reach the same conclusions of the studies performed in the last decade by UNESCO or OECD.

In our opinion, a type of test oriented to assess the “progress” of AE should start studying three dimensions:

The institutional and professional capacities installed in the countries, their current possibilities to lead the “progress” or the strategies that need to be developed to enhance the value chain of agencies and professionals synergistically acting according to a national master plan.

The procedures for accountability of governments in relation to AE, implementing performance systematization and information systems according to agreed targets, which would allow the development of debates about the quality of curricular frameworks and the relevance of the public provision in view of lifelong learning.

The learning models and their ability to work with diverse AE actors in vulnerable social contexts (in the North and the South) and within a training perspective of life-in-common, according to the language of popular adult education.

Adult Education sustainability
Sustainability is a gap in government definitions of AE. The evaluations of successful experiences of educational development identify a) leadership and, b) the paradigm shift in the ways of teaching, as the main factors of programs’ sustainability.
Both aspects should be analyzed from AE: How AE leaderships are developed in the countries, which capacities do international networks and agencies that promote lifelong learning have to influence policy making, how is it possible to carry out an effective international mentoring work and build proactive counterparts in the countries, are some of the questions necessary to define AE progress mapping at global level.

The other factor is the paradigmatic shift in the approach and practice of teaching with (and among) adults.
The tendency to schooling AE is in force in many countries because they find it feasible to organize the provision with the resources they have. But it will not be possible to broaden the participation of the public in AE if new ways of teaching that recognize the real needs and expectations of young people and adults are not developed, adapting the provision to temporal and space dynamics characteristic of a more mobile society and subject to deep malaises that prevent it from believing again in the “emancipatory” character of education
(let’s think of the unemployed youth, the victims of delocalization processes in industry, the so-called “unviable” in the “knowledge economies” and those who live human dramas as a consequence of helplessness, forced migration and the disappearance of traditional relational networks, gender violence).

The idea is to “move forward articulating” and making explicit the expected goals (the governments responses to the consultation on the set of items tend to make their goals invisible with their respective formal descriptors, indicators and verifiers), developing collective and collaborative capabilities and making visible the “idea of future” that constitutes the horizon of AE.

Beyond the slogan of lifelong learning, this “idea of future” of AE is still an area in dispute where various political views about education converge, in a society where uncertainties are on the rise. This is the domain where global organizations (including ICAE) must: a) discuss, provide visibility and disseminate “early wins” and “good practices”, b) try to holographically align AE actors through networking and advocacy nodes, c) emphasize the character of public ownership of AE as a human right to lifelong learning and, d) know how to educate in new contexts of poverty and vulnerability caused by collateral damage of globalization “from the community” as suggested by the pedagogical culture of popular education.


3 Africa: 25 reports; Asia and the Pacific: 13 reports; Europe and North America: 34 reports; Latin America and the Caribbean: 16 reports.
4 In the annexes attached you will find the responses of each country taken from the national progress reports done post CONFINTEA, that we have analyzed in this paper.
5 See the contributions to the virtual seminar organized by ICAE in preparation for Rio +20 and the outcome document of systematization of the same seminar, which has been positively received in education and civil society networks at global level.
6 Special emphasis will be made on the lines set out in the Strategic Plan of ICAE.

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