Learning and civic engagement

by Jana Trumann

People currently get increasingly involved in civil society initiatives and projects such as citizens' initiatives for traffic planning and urban development, urban gardening projects for sustainable consumption and welcome initiatives for refugees. They discuss different views of the world and search for collaborative ways of contributing their influence. In the context of this engagement, they jointly compile, generate and discuss specific knowledge (e.g. on air pollution, traffic planning, nuclear power, food production, fair economic management, asylum law). Their engagement thereby becomes a conscious and planned arena of learning. However, the external perception of the thus generated knowledge can differ greatly. The manifold opportunities for learning are frequently not taken into account in education planning and everyday formal education and the knowledge gained in such processes is viewed with a critical eye. For instance, some say this harbours the danger of learning 'incorrect things'. In the context of the citizen science movement, Finke therefore calls for a "rehabilitation of normal everyday knowledge". [1]

Diversity of learning in citizens' initiatives

This is why it is important to assess such learning activities and look at them in their individuality. A specific empirical study, which analysed learning activities in citizens' initiatives against this background, showed that generalised scepticism regarding the knowledge gained in civic engagement (too simplified, not enough aspects taken into account, etc.) is unfounded. [2] For example, topics such as urban traffic planning are being discussed from a wide range of different perspectives: fine dust, noise, impact on health, different road users, effects of municipal planning on a federal state, federal and EU level, etc. In doing so, members of initiatives draw from a wide range of specific technical knowledge and resources from the field of institutionalised education (e.g. by way of professional literature, attendance of workshops, conferences and lectures). One principal difference between the knowledge generation of experts and that of non-professionals is the different "sphere of generating and applying the knowledge". [3] The knowledge generated in citizens' initiatives and other municipal initiatives is strongly related to the respective context of everyday life and the problematic issues encountered there. The members of citizens' initiatives generate their learning topics, venues and methods in a very autonomous and confident manner. Their learning activities are not guided by any previously defined output, but take place in an initially open and unbiased process. By organising park festivals and bicycle tours, they very consciously choose non-committal, low-threshold and less 'formal' arrangements. Compared to established teaching and learning settings, the practical aquisition of knowledge in citizens' initiatives aims at "a broad access to knowledge and the active involvement of many people in its generation". [4]

How do such civil society activities bear on institutionalised adult education?

In a first step, it is important to appreciate and recognise civic engagement in all its individual facets and to avoid any instant classification of the knowledge generated in such a context in terms of 'incorrect' and 'correct'. A currently observed trend is that in many educational institutions co-operative learning is supposed to be practised in a very controlled manner, for example, in a school context by way of rules (e.g. the observance of time limits and given topics). An argument to the contrary is that "if one triggers processes where all details are supposed to follow an exact plan and results are predetermined, collaboration cannot function". [5] Against this background, education professionals ought to question their own actions with regards to presuppositions and determinations: Do I include in my events knowledge that was generated in the context of everyday life or not? Do I instantly assess this knowledge to be correct or incorrect? How much participation by learners am I prepared to concede regarding the planning and organisation of events? And so forth. Once one takes the open character, the diversity of viewpoints and the absence of constraints seriously as constituting key elements of self-initiated learning, then it makes sense to perceive the co-operation of adult education and civil society initiatives and projects as an open offering, which can be used in varying degrees of intensity depending on interest, situation and subject matter. In this case, however, learning topics and methods cannot be wholesale determined or controlled in advance.

Sounding out co-operation and plugging into existing practice

Co-operation between initiatives and educational providers is not always a novelty. Citizens' initiatives often use the venues of education providers for their work. One can therefore plug into this practice. One example: By organising lectures, excursions and workshops, initiatives often also act as 'education providers' themselves. This suggests more subject-related co-operation opportunities in addition to the utilisation of infrastructures, for example, the inclusion of events in the programme and related advertising, the organisation of joint events, the initiating of joint topics (e.g. sustainable economic management), etc. The possibilities are endless. It makes sense to take into account the various projects and initiatives on site, to enter into an open dialogue with them and to explore the scope for joint activities. I am interested whether and how you work together with citizens' initiatives. What are your experiences?

Dr Jana Trumann earned her PhD at the Adult Education Department of the University of Hamburg with her thesis "Lernen in Initiativen. Ein widerstreitendes Moment politischer Partizipation und Bildung" (Learning in Initiatives. A conflicting moment of political participation and education). Since 2010, she has been working as a research associate at the University of Duisburg-Essen at the Faculty of Education in the field of Adult Education/Political Education. Her key research topics are: adult education, subject-scientific learning research, political participation and education, education policy. (Source of personal description:

[1] Finke, Peter (2014): Citizen Science. Das unterschätzte Wissen der Laien. Munich, p. 62.

[2] Trumann, Jana (2013): Lernen in Bewegung(en). Politische Partizipation und Bildung in Bürgerinitiativen. Bielefeld.

[3] Finke loc. cit.

[4] Finke loc. cit., p. 7f.

[5] Terkessidis, Mark (2015): Kollaboration. Berlin, p. 314.

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