Lidwien Vos de Wael: Learning by doing and observing with an open mind
As a community worker and trainer, I’ve been involved in informal education for many years. In the Netherlands, Chile and Nicaragua, I was involved – as a coordinator, manager or partner – in projects related to rural education, functional illiteracy, citizenship, the Adults’ Learning Festival, and other areas. I have my own organic vineyard, which I love, and since 2020 I’ve been blogging for EPALE about sustainability in relation to adult education.
I should confess that I was kind of an underachiever at school, and my years at primary and secondary school are a bit of a blur now – although I do remember some of the mischief I would get into. In my last year of primary school, when the time had come to choose a secondary school, my parents were told that I’d be lucky to get a MAVO (junior general secondary education) diploma. As it turned out, I did attend a MAVO school, but I later transferred to a HAVO programme (senior general secondary education) and went on to study social science at college and earned a postgraduate degree.
If I had to say which of my educational experiences have been most valuable to me, I suppose it would be some of the extracurricular, informal learning activities I’ve been involved in – all very hands-on.
I was a member of the Scouting movement, where I learned all about teamwork, to persevere, to solve problems, and I also picked up some lashing skills along the way (if you know what ‘lashing’ means). I also learned to deal with setbacks and to bounce back after disappointments. At secondary school, I was assigned to organize a creative midweek break in Lunteren (a town in Gelderland province) for my class, which was just the most educational experience ever. When I was doing my degree in social science, I really got into the works of Marx and Engels, but it was a work placement at an afternoon homework support group in East Amsterdam that really opened my eyes. It was then that I realized what I wanted to learn, and why. To name one example: how do you support a 15-year-old boy whose family has emigrated to the Netherlands from Suriname and suddenly finds himself in the first year of a Dutch secondary school?
‘Learning by doing’ is really my guiding principle.
Over the years, I’ve been involved in supporting resident groups in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam and have trained community teachers in Nicaragua as part of a literacy campaign. While at the same time learning Spanish on the spot so I’d be able to communicate with people.
There’s one experience I would like to single out: from 1987 to 1995, I was involved in a project for which I researched the survival strategies of women living in working-class neighbourhoods in Chile, and how their experiences might be valuable to poor residents of similar neighbourhoods in Rotterdam. By way of preparation, I was sent on an ‘exposure mission’ to the Oud West (Old West) section of Rotterdam to learn more about this community simply by observing. And observing was all I did for two months, without interpreting or coming up with proposals for change. I’d look at the people walking around the streets, what groceries they got at the supermarket, what their homes and gardens looked like, and what was their body language. I spoke to key members of the community, the bin man, the hostess at the community centre, and so on. I’d observe what was going on without needing to record my findings, analyze or take action. I learned so much that way, first in Rotterdam and later in those poor neighbourhoods in Chile: about poverty, strength, spirituality, dealing with various forms of violence, and love. I also discovered the power of education.
Back then, community teachers would get murdered in Nicaragua, merely for empowering people through education. Authoritarian regimes are particularly inclined to restrict access to education because it’s perceived as a threat, but even in a democratic society like the Netherlands, people need education – it’s fundamental to their self-development and empowerment. I got to witness how Angela and Ahmed gained the confidence to start making meaningful changes to their lives. It’s people like them who motivate me to keep working in adult education.
- There’s Maria in Nicaragua, writing down the first words that really meant something to her, the tip of her tongue sticking out in concentration, while she was surrounded by containers to catch the rain coming in through the tiled roof.
- Or Andrés in Chile, who described how he’d wear himself out working for the local landowner, and then enrolled in language classes, found his voice, and was proud to write down his story.
- And then there’s Bas in Amsterdam, who taught other members of his writing group how to survive on the streets, and Mabel, who’s on the autism spectrum but discovered through Anders Actieftraining (employment project for people with disabilities) that she had what it takes to work as a volunteer at the Hortus Botanical Gardens in Utrecht.
They’re the ones who keep me inspired. I may no longer literally be getting my hands dirty, but these people have shown me how meaningful adult education can be. In order to be able to support people like them as well as I can, I too need to keep learning and evolving, of course, because the future will bring new challenges, and that calls for a new strategy and a new set of tools.