Freire (1921–1997) is one of the most significant educational thinkers of the twentieth century. His didactic was that education can be for liberation only if there is equality between teacher and learner. Freire maintained that the student must form the centre of the educational process.
Many adults returning to education after a long absence and perhaps a negative experience of education believe they are returning to school. A place where the teacher or tutor is there to teach a lesson and the students learn. This is Pedagogy, the method of teaching children. Whereas, Andragogy, the method of teaching adults is completely different. The adult students are encouraged to share their life experiences as adults learn from each other. Participation in class discussion is also encouraged, not to sit passively but to be part of the classroom community. The Adult Learners Voice can then be heard. This is the first step; the next is for the learner to be included in decisions about their education whether it be classes, fees, grants or times. A further step is for adult learners to participate and contribute to policy and decision-making at a national and international level.
The ICAE (International Council for Adult Education) held it’s world assembly in Montreal, June 2015. The ICAE is a global network with a specific mandate to advocate for youth and adult learning and education. Unfortunately, there was only one Adult Learner on a discussion panel during this conference. They do not appear to see the importance of learner participation. They work for learners rather than with learners.
However, the voice and visibility of the Adult Learner in Ireland has, with the advocacy of non-government organisations in particular Aontas, improved over the past number of years.
Aontas is Ireland’s national adult learners organization. Their mission is to advocate for the right of adults in Ireland to quality learning. One of Aontas’ key principles is to support and affirm the voice of the adult learners as the core of its advocacy work. Over the years Aontas has developed a Learners Networks, the establishment of the Adult Learners Forum of Ireland, The Adult Learners’ Festival STAR Awards to name but a few. Aontas has also supported learners to articulate their issues through local, national and social media. They believe that for representation of learners to be effective learners have to be supported to become advocates by enabling them to develop the confidence and skills necessary for representational work. There must also be support for the development of structures and strategies at a local level, which can contribute to policy and decision-making at a national level.
While formal representation on decision-making and governance structures is a welcome development in ensuring that adult learners are actively involved in policies that affect their lives, Aontas believes that this representation must be supported through a number of activities to ensure that the representation is meaningful, accountable and reflective of the diversity of learner issues. How learner representatives communicate a diversity of issues and how they feed back their experiences at governance level is vital to making the best use of the representative role.
The Minister for Education consulted with Aontas when making the appointment of the first learner representative to a State Board, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) November 2012. This is a semi state organisation responsible for the quality and validation of educational awards in Ireland. Since then a learner representative has been appointed to each new Educational Training Board (E.T.B.). Strong support for all learner representatives is vital. Freire’s philosophy involving all stakeholders is evident in these appointments. Current Government policy continues to promote “Learner Centred” education; this too was Freire’s approach. Protection for enrolled learners has also been introduced where should an educational institution have financial or other difficulties the learners are protected and with agreement can transfer to another institution to continue their education or be refunded any fees paid.
The Minister for Education and the E.T.B. boards are to be congratulated. The rhetoric of “Learner Centred” and “The Learner is at the core” is, after many years, slowly becoming a reality. The Adult Learner is becoming an equal stakeholder in Adult Education. The Adult Learner’s voice is finally being heard and most importantly listened too.
Written by Una Buckley, Adult Learner turned Adult Learning Advocate