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EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


Ariadne's thread or how adults should learn – interview with Professor Stanisław Dylak

by Malgorzata Dybala
Language: EN
Document available also in: PL

First published in Polish by Rafał Kunaszyk

This interview is a continuation of my previous conversation with Professor Stanisław Dylak, which took place during the 5th Adult Education Forum (V Forum Edukacji Dorosłych). You can watch the conversation on EPALE by joining a special group. More information at:


Rafał Kunaszyk: Professor, what do adults expect from education?

Professor Stanisław Dylak: I am not going to discuss any research results on this subject, although I am well familiar with the matter. Sometimes we think of pupils at a public school as wanting, above all, to be left alone. Students, on the other hand, principally want to obtain certification which confirms completion of a course, because they know that it will enable them to acquire a job or receive a favourable reception from an employer.

RK:  Are adults more aware of their educational needs? What is their stance when it comes to participating in the many forms of educational support that may not have a major impact on the development of their competencies? I am not talking here about collecting certificates, but about a more conscious shaping of one's own educational development.

SD: It is my belief that, for the most part, adults are not thinking about competency development. They are simply thinking about what they can learn and what skills and abilities they can present to a potential employer. There is also a group of adult learners who think that they are substantively prepared to undertake certain jobs, while also being aware of what they do not know and cannot do. However, there is/can be a problem in whether they are ready to engage in conscious learning - that is, the process of consciously acquiring specific competencies. In general, I am sceptical towards the idea that adult learners are consciously seeking educational support aimed at the development of specific competencies, described according to the guidelines and rules of - let us say - vocational education. There is an economic psychology involved in calculating whether such educational undertaking is worthwhile or not, and I am not thinking here of the financial aspect of it, but the possibility of utilising it in the future. The younger the learner the more interest there is to learn specific things. The older the learner, the greater the likelihood of the occurrence of them adopting a sophisticated procedure for choosing what that given adult will learn. I think that if appropriate empirical research were done in this area, it might turn out that adult learners also, if not primarily, participate in additional educational undertakings for pleasure, for the satisfaction of learning something, of being a step ahead, in other words, for the sake of pure learning itself. In a nutshell, it seems we do not quite know what is driving adults to take formal courses. It used to be clear because it was aimed at getting a particular job. Nowadays things are different. A software company wants a programmer, but one who is willing to continuously learn everything closely or even remotely related to programming - and above all, someone who is willing to learn under their guidance.

RK:  I will refer to two points that relate to our discussion. Firstly, we are certainly generalising a lot in our discussion, referring to the stereotypical ‘average Pole’, which most probably stems from our lack of knowledge regarding peoples' needs. The second aspect concerns combining competencies from different areas. I recently took part in an expert panel for the chemical industry on competency profiles. The chemical sector is undergoing a major transformation, assimilating more and more areas related to competencies previously assigned to the IT sector. In drug research, for example, artificial intelligence is set to play an increasingly important role in optimising processes, while at the same time speeding up and reducing the cost of particular research tasks. Today, employers expect chemists to have the skills and knowledge to work closely with IT specialists, and in the not-too-distant future, recruiters will have an upfront expectation that the right candidate for a job in a laboratory will possess chemistry and IT competencies.  Another challenge is the awareness of the need to constantly update one's knowledge and skills. Back in the day, a shoemaker had to know how to make and repair shoes well, and after many years of practice, he could become a top professional, a master in his field. Nowadays this is almost impossible to achieve. In connection with the rapid development of technology and civilisation, changes around us are occurring very quickly. The American futurologist, IT specialist and scientist Raymond Kurzweil said that the world will never develop as slowly as it is now... Access to the latest knowledge, skilful use of specialised software, and operation of modern devices and machines requires constant improvement of one's competencies and often combining them in a chain means bringing new value to the labour market. Standing still risks the loss of your own professional position at work, and as a result, previous achievements become irrelevant. Today, one of the most sought-after competencies is becoming an effective learner and sailing through the world of new competencies in such a way as to be able to draw the most from it. And now the question arises: are we adults already able to capitalise on this? What do we need to do in order to be most effective in our efforts?

SD:  So far, we have had a situation where competencies have very often been confused with knowledge, skills, and attitudes, which are treated separately. But, a competency is a product (function?) of these three areas. Joanna Bochniarz has introduced the concept of transversal competencies into the terminology. In my opinion, this is what employers expect. The market expects that people will display broader, but internally varied competencies. At the moment there is a lot of different kinds of programming that are at the algorithmic level. Sometimes students are told that if they learn coding, they will find employment quickly. And this is not always in line with reality. These types of skills, especially at the lower level, will soon be replaced by an algorithm. It will be cheaper to develop an algorithm than to train a programmer.

Higher-order programming is what is required now. While in basic programming the final object is encapsulated together with its functionalities - like cleaning, sweeping etc., self-learning machines are also emerging. According to what I read in a book prepared for publication by Professor Sysła, a robot is made and programmed to some extent, but it must subsequently learn the rest and adapt to each given situation. I saw a video presenting a robot which is initially stumbling, eventually falling, and ultimately cannot manage to open a door. It falls over, but as a result it masters a particular skill. And this example of open programming presents us with cross-sectional, transversal competency. Because here there must be an open vision and concept of human behaviour or even human functioning in a changing environment. More and more we see in programming a multi-faceted, wide-ranging proficiency, related to combining different areas of activity. Incorporating inspiration for solution ideas is important here. It is not just Big Data analysis anymore. Professor John Koza gives the example of two robots that ‘invented’ solutions to a scientific problem. The issue here is about programming an algorithm to work in a context that is little known or even unknown.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

RK: Robots are entering deeper and deeper into the field of human labour activity. So, to what extent will they take over work that at present is within the domain of humans? We can observe two trends on the labour market. On the one hand, people with transversal competencies combining various fields of knowledge, and on the other, specialists in narrow areas. An adult must make a choice whether to develop his or her skills and knowledge according to the first model or rather to deepen them, becoming a better professional and expert in a given problem area. He or she must also be aware that this will be their investment in the future, which will either improve their position on the labour market or, unfortunately, will only be a misguided waste of time and money. And here a second question arises, how to ensure that it is a good investment?

SD: To answer the first question, the problem is already visible at school level. Young people should be taught not so much information technology as the design and management of artificial intelligence - the very one that already surrounds us. Yesterday, for example, I struggled with the Microsoft Teams' instructions. For me it was not very clear at all. I got lost after a few steps, and there were eleven of them in total. I tried to get support by asking for clarification in three sentences. Unfortunately, I got an answer in 33 sentences. And I would like to get an answer in the user's language. The key - in my view - would be to give the learner what they need and only that. Maybe we should start with a survey on understanding the language of instructions?

The answer to the second question is not a proposal to increase the number of school subjects or courses, but combining various thematic areas, for example, artificial intelligence, should be combined with reasoning and critical thinking. For the purposes of this question, I define critical thinking as the analysis of links between various objects and the derivation of alternative conclusions. The analysis and definition of such connections could lead us to entrepreneurship and inventiveness. All of a sudden it may turn out that we accidentally find a connection between object A and X1 that nobody has discovered before. And that is what school education should also focus on.

RK:  Professor, in our discussion you often return to the level of school education as the basis for learning. Does this mean that adults who finish school or university will be deprived of this opportunity? Or perhaps the issues that has come up in our discussion should be the basis of adult education, such as problem-solving skills?

SD: We dwell so much on the issue of problem solving. And it actually leads us to critical thinking. For it is important to remember to identify the problems, or rather to analyse the underlying problem situation. The key issue here is the situation from which the problem arises. And here we should remember the needs of an average person. S/he does not think about important socio-economic problems. S/he thinks about the fact that s/he would like to drive an electric car or have a mobile phone which has 180 functionalities. And this is the image of perception of reality, which is often very concrete. And this is what we should be referring to.

RK: Israeli historian Youva Noah Harari argues that computers are becoming better and better in more and more fields, taking over more and more tasks from humans. Therefore, as a result, we will face a big economic and political question: what will we need humans for? We are facing a scenario with a world full of useless people. In this context, the question arises as to the importance of education, which can act as a barrier preventing such a scenario from taking place.

SD: I am probably a bit of a naive educator, an advocate of education. In essence, the big question is what matters most in our lives? It is rather obvious that it is our work. Without work you can hardly define your identity, your quality of life - for yourself and within society. I am convinced that one of the basic needs, as important as food, is to be significant. Not just some unimportant cog, pushed and shoved, who has not achieved much in terms of personal significance in some social group, for example. I can distinguish myself from others through what I know and what I can do. Adult education can be attractive and highly effective, but when it is not lived it becomes superficial.

RK: This brings us back to the initial issue of reading real needs. We often propose in education what we think is needed, not what is expected by the recipient.

SD:  I would argue what a real need actually is. Because it depends on how the need is defined and on the environment that we live in. Instead, I would say that education should teach us to look at things critically - from many angles. If we teach someone to see things differently or to understand things in more depth, then that is an educational success.

I would also like to add that education is an open process and is based on entropy, understood as chaos and the scattering of this goodness around, even if it means casting pearls before swine.

In this context, in effect, the attachment to educational operational goals is apparently educationally beneficial, but more so for the teacher than for the learners. When it comes to adult learners, we are dealing with extreme entropy. We never know what ground our words will fall on, whether seeds will ever take root. Such an adult learner (though not only an adult...) may reject everything that was said, and only the digression of the lecturer may be of importance to him or her. Education is also about refreshing one's way of looking at the world.

An important feature of education is to bring out what is already there in the adult learner.

Above all, however, we must take care to arouse the curiosity of the learner - any learner, including adults. Whether because of noticing similar judgements or opinions that definitely contradict those already held, or points of view of other sides of an event, unexpected connections or contradictions – the conveyed message - due to its coarseness, may be more attractive than a smooth, perfectly structured one. For the Greeks, school used to mean time pleasantly spent, a time of joy and peace; is it the same for learners today?

Nowadays, some educators claim that education should not only be fun, but also easy. However, this is probably not true, it simply cannot be. The results of research into the functioning of the brain, and its neurogenesis, indicate the importance of new and difficult situations to enhance neurogenesis, which promotes learning new things. Education therefore can and should be difficult, but also exciting. Such education - which also includes adults - not only involves the use of words, but also inspires practical action, which develops our ability to analyse and solve difficult, seemingly unsolvable situations. This creates room for experimentation. We are often too focused on the delivery of individual pages of a textbook, on the use of words.

Meanwhile, I notice that a serious wave of resistance against the approach of sticking to the syllabus in education is approaching. Just "going over" the material and, in effect, producing no results. More time should be devoted to its analysis. Too often we use presentations, perfectly produced graphics and captions... As a result, the process itself is very shallow.

RK: I like this approach to education but, allow me to take on the role of devil's advocate for a second. Does this mean that in education there is no place for objectives, methods, scenarios?

SD: It depends on how we understand them. There is always room for objectives. We need to have some vision of what we are doing in order to achieve something. The problem, however, is how we perceive these goals. If we assume that we aim to solve a given equation or to draw a figure on the basis of two diagonals, then we will achieve a behavioural objective that will help us solve tests but will not develop our thinking. There is a place for methodology, but it may be absurd, for example, to speak of a methodology at, let's say, a university level. Precise objectives may make sense, but only in specific cases, e.g. for chemistry exercises. However, we must not give up on general goals, such as teaching the Logic of Loops. In education there is room for everything. But everything should be done with a healthy dose of common sense and moderation.


Professor Stanisław Dylak - founder and former head of the Department of Pedeutology at the Faculty of Educational Studies at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznań. His research interests are related to the media, teacher training, visual culture, and teaching programmes. Author of several monographs and over 120 articles. He has led several international projects within the framework of PHARE programmes. He participated as an expert in the project "Strategy of Teaching - Learning Infotechnics". Co-editor of the publication Strategia nauczania-uczenia się infotechniki (S. Dylak, S. Ubermanowicz, FWiOO, Poznań, 2014). Co-author of the textbook, teaching materials and methodological materials for early childhood education entitled Przygoda z klasą (S. Dylak et al., WSiP, Warsaw, 2004). Between 2000 and 2002, he was a ministerial expert in the field of evaluation of curricula and textbooks approved for school use which were included in the ministerial list. He is a member of the Council for Informatisation of Education - an auxiliary body of the Ministry of National Education. Together with his team, he developed Strategia Kształcenia Wyprzedzającego (SKW), a well-known educational strategy which is implemented in Polish schools corresponding with the principles of the flipped classroom approach.  


Rafał Kunaszyk – expert in education, labour market, trainer and management consultant, co-owner of family businesses Eurokreator sc and Eurokreator T&C, board member of Family Business Initiative Association, member of the Founders' Council. He is an education and IQS expert, trainer and advisor in the project “Accessible Entrepreneur - training and consultancy in assistive, compensatory and universal design technologies".



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