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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Professionalisation in adult learning: do we need a call to action?

by Mary-Clare O'CONNOR
Language: EN
Document available also in: PL IT DE FR ES




The quality of teaching and therefore of teachers is one of the most important factors shaping the quality of adult learning but it may also be one of the most intractable. In the last few years several reports have crystallised the issues at European level:

  • status and career prospects in the sector are “unattractive and may not retain quality staff" -  Final Report of the Thematic Working Group on Quality in Adult Learning organized under the ET 2020 Open Method of Coordination, 2013
  • in most countries, whilst teachers in adult learning need to have the same qualifications as people who teach in primary and secondary schools, they do not need to have any special training related to adults – Eurydice, 2011, Adults in Formal Education: Policies and Practice in Europe
  • distinguishing between different types of adult learning in teacher education is artificial and needs an integrated approach – Research voor Beleid, 2008, Adult Learning Professions in Europe.

It is unclear to what extent progress has been made in these areas since they were highlighted.  However, looking around Europe, it is clear that having a long-established adult learning sector is no guarantee that they have yet been tackled.

In this context, do we need a plan of action to help us start to tackle the challenges? If we do, what should be in it?

To start the debate, it seems to me there are 3 particularly critical areas needing attention.

  1. What do we do about initial teacher education? Should we make adult education a compulsory element? In the current situation of constrained public finances, it seems unlikely that completely new programmes in adult teacher education will be widely created. But building adult learning into the existing routes into the teaching profession would be viable. We could of course choose the route of optional electives. But electives do not guarantee an outcome.
  2. What we do about the parts of the adult learning sector where there are many teachers who are highly skilled but who have never taken qualifications in teaching? Here, the sector could put in place opportunities to validate prior learning. At present it is unclear how common such validation processes are. Alongside this, continuing professional development should be made available to fill the gaps in people's competences that such validation processes would identify.
  3.  How do we cope with the enormous diversity of adult learning? It appears that vocational training and higher education are well covered in terms of teacher education compared to, for example, basic skills and migrant adult learning. Perhaps we should therefore pick up the recommendation of the Thematic Working Group that the latter should become priorities.

Of course there are many other things that need to happen as well, such as linking qualifications to pay and promotion. But focusing on these 3 priorities may help to get things moving. Do you agree? Let me know by commenting below.


­­­ Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 20 years.  For the last 10 years he has specialised in policy development studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently a freelance consultant, an Associate with the UK Higher Education Academy, an ECVET Expert for the UK, and a Member of the UK Education & Employers Taskforce Research Group.

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  • sonia thompson's picture
    1. What do we do about initial teacher education?

    Having electives in teacher training courses won't address the entire needs of the sector but it will encourage many to recognise adult education as an area important enough to have its own underlying philosophy and approaches. Some individuals who might have been lost to teaching altogether (because they struggle to work with children) may choose to go down this route and become effective adult educators. It is better to start something than to do nothing at all.

    2. What we do about the parts of the adult learning sector where there are many teachers who are highly skilled but who have never taken qualifications in teaching?

    Many AE institutions have systems of Continuing Professional Development, which include observation of practice and that link to annual appraisals - these could be used as a basis for a workable system.  If we do go down this route it should only be available for a short period of time - say 5 years to get existing staff quickly through the system and then everyone new should be required to undertake traditional training. This way we encourage everyone to acknowledge adult education in the same way as other professions.

    I am not sure however, whether the will to make a simple and affordable framework exists. Recognising prior experiential learning sounds great in theory but I doubt we would get very far in practice. Years ago, something similar was put forward in Universities and Colleges and they subsequently created a range of different complicated frameworks –it was difficult to administer and unsurprisingly the cost of applying it was prohibitive.

    1. How do we cope with the enormous diversity of adult learning?

    I spent 25 years in higher education and I as one of a handful of staff with a Certificate in Education. I don't believe that much has changed. I do however feel that much more should be done in the areas you identify - especially for marginalised communities. e.g. Migrants and Refugees are likely to bring great diversity and innovation to our countries especially in business and deserve a sound basis of education to start that process. I think we should be offering many different short courses that can be acquired from any recognised agency and which can be added together to create certificates and diplomas – so that they are flexible enough for the people who need them and can immediately be applied in the workplace.


  • Andrew McCoshan's picture

    Thank you, Peter and Silke, for your comments regarding the situation in Germany, and for highlighting the news story regarding the new project which looks like an important new development. It would be very interesting to find out in more detail what the differences are, in your experiences, between education for school teachers and education for adult educators. What are the things that really make a difference? Both your responses suggest that there is a need to differentiate teaching methods for adults from teaching methods for school students, but is this something which should be addressed in initial teacher education? (By the way, my use of “initial" was probably confusing as I was referring to the first teacher education that educators undergo rather than teaching for the first stage of education, i.e. schools). It would be very interesting to identify examples where “education" is taught holistically and where student teachers can do modules or follow pathways in “adult education". Given the Eurydice report I mentioned, we would not expect such routes to be widespread.

  • Andrew McCoshan's picture

    Many thanks, Martina, for drawing attention to the vital role that could be played by informal learning in developing the competences of adult educators. Following a period where the value of types of learning other than formal education has been so widely and strongly promoted at European level, applying the principles and practices you outline clearly has great potential. As you say, there is a risk that it is seen as a cheap way of addressing the issue of professionalisation when in fact it is not a simple or straightforward process. However, unlike other sectors, adult education has the advantage of being well-equipped with the knowledge to apply the principles and practices required. An interesting question, in light of this, is why the education sector itself has not always been in the vanguard of developments in informal learning (although naturally this varies from country to country)? Are these the same obstacles we find in any other sector, such as engineering or catering? One obstacle is evidently the availability of high-quality resources, which you mentioned. It would be interesting to know what the experience in other countries and contexts has been.

  • Mrs. Silke Hammerath's picture

    Ich unterrichte Auszubildende und verstärkt in den letzten 3 Jahren Erwachsene. Das Lernthema für beide Zielgruppen ist immer das Verständnis materiell-rechtlicher Regelungen (Gesetze).

    Ich habe die Erfahrung gemacht, dass die Methoden, die zum Erfolg - also zu einem nachhaltigen Verstehen- führen, für beide Zielgruppen unterschiedlich sind.
    Hier sollte schon in einer Lehrererstausbildung differenziert werden und z.B. ein anderer Methodenkoffer an die Hand gegeben werden.
    Als Qualitätssicherung könnte z.B. eine Zertifizierung dienen. Damit könnte sichergestellt werden, dass bestimmte Kenntnisse und Kompetenzen in der Erwachsenenbildung vermittelt wurden.

  • Peter Brandt's picture

    Andrew McCoshan spricht ein immens wichtiges Thema an, für das in Deutschland zuletzt einiges in Bewegung geraten ist. Im Anschluss an vorausgegangene mehrjährige Entwicklungen in der Schweiz und in Österreich haben sich in Deutschland acht Trägerverbände aus relevanten Feldern der Erwachsenen- und Weiterbildung zu einer Strategischen Allianz zusammengeschlossen mit dem Ziel, gemeinsame Grundlagen zu erarbeiten für eine kompetenzbasierte bundesweite und somit trägerübergreifende Zertifizierung für Lehrkräfte. Beim Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung konnte das Deutsche Institut für Erwachsenenbildung (DIE) ein dreijähriges Projekt akquirieren, in dessen Rahmen das Institut zusammen mit den acht Verbänden entsprechende Aufgaben angeht. Dabei ist anders als oben vorgeschlagen nicht vorgesehen, die Ausbildung von Erwachsenenpädagogen in Anlehnung an die Qualifizierung für das schulische Lehramt zu gestalten. Es sollen vielmehr nebenberufliche Wege der Kompetenzdokumentation und -entwicklung vereinheitlicht werden.

    Nähere Infos unter News: /de/kompetenzen-von-lehrenden-der-erwachsenenbildung-sichtbar-machen-die-startet-bmbf-projekt-mit-acht

  • Martina Emke's picture

    Dear Andrew

    Thank you very much for bringing up these important topics relating to the professionalisation of adult educators.

    With regard to points one and two mentioned in your blog it appears to me that fostering informal learning in adult education could serve to solve some of the issues. If we perceive informal learning not as a threat to or a constant obligation for adult educators but as an opportunity for self-directed teacher learning and individual development, this could help engender a more positive attitude towards learning among adult educators and compliment existing formal teacher education and training programmes.

    However, fostering a climate of informal learning is by no means a simple thing, and informal learning is not a self-fulfilling prophecy to save money in the (adult) educational sector. On the contrary, instigating (lifelong) informal learning in adult educators firstly entails recognizing and valuing existing (informally acquired) competencies and qualities in adult educators and, secondly, supporting adult educators in their search for adequate (online) resources for informal learning and equipping them with the means to pursue their learning goals.

    In a third step, informal learning needs to be validated. Validating informal learning could lead to (future) adult educators taking both an intrinsically and extrinsically motivated interest in their own learning, striving to stay up-to-date with the latest developments in their field of work.

    Martina Emke