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I don’t want to learn

Even the strongest supporters of adult learning sometimes feel reluctant to learn. How can we make workplace learning and adult learning in general attractive again for learners? Gina Ebner shares her reflections.

Unwilling to learn.


Even the strongest supporters of adult learning sometimes feel reluctant to learn. How can we make workplace learning and adult learning in general attractive again for learners? Gina Ebner shares her reflections.


Originally, I wanted to write a reflection on the European Vocational Skills Week (EVSW) in Helsinki. Then I had a very strange experience during one of the events, and I thought I would share this with you.

A bit of background: I’ve been working in adult education for about 25 years now, and learning is part of my life. Most of it is non- and informal, which is great. I have a button from the Lifelong Learning Platform that says ‘I’m still learning’.

Back to the event during the EVSW: the discussion was about skills for the future (with a heavy emphasis on digitalisation, automation and artificial intelligence). At one point we were asked to indicate with our smartphones if we thought we had all the necessary skills for the future. I replied, as many others, that I had part/some of the skills. And then someone on the panel said, undoubtedly with the best of intentions, that we (and all those that indicated that they didn’t have the skills for the future) will have to do a lot of learning in order to be ready for the labour market of the future.

This is where my strange experience started. I had a direct and almost physical reaction to this sentence, namely I couldn’t breathe for a moment and my first thought was, ‘But I don’t want to learn’ and then ‘My future on the labour market is limited’ (I’m 55) and finally, ‘Who has the time’. I was somewhat horrified. This was the first time in my life that I didn’t want to learn (there were also instances when I didn’t want to go to school, but this is something completely different). My first analysis was that I had started to totter towards the tomb. That I was getting towards the age where people say that they don’t need to learn anymore – the people that we are trying to convince that learning is useful and fun.

In fact, this isn’t really true. I have just started a course on nature photography, which will last two years. I’m also considering another course about bats (I love bats). I have a long list of things that I would like to do (i.e. informal learning) and learn once I have the time: read Robert Musil, learn Russian, do some volunteer work (maybe with bats?), learn to speak Dutch and maybe start singing for the first time after my family told me, quite convincingly, that I couldn’t hold a tune for the life of me when I was six years old.

So why was my reaction so strong and immediate? After some more reflection, I came to the conclusion that it was the ‘must’ in the sentence. We must catch up. We must upskill and re-skill. We must have all the necessary skills. And I reacted with a loud (internal): ‘No, I don’t’. Like so many other people, I’m busy. Working, travelling, running errands, having to do irritating things like negotiating with insurance companies; trying to exercise; cooking healthy food; taking very reluctant cats to the vet. The list is endless, as soon as you’ve solved one thing, the next one pops up. This already leaves little time for the things that you love to do, such as meeting friends, going to the theatre or the cinema, etc. Where do I fit in the learning that I MUST do?

For me, learning was suddenly on the level of irritating things I have to do – Iinsurance, mortgage companies, tax declarations, working out. And there I was, suddenly understanding very clearly how so many people feel about learning. Lives are busy, don’t give us another task that we MUST do. And it’s even worse if you don’t see any benefits. Will I get a promotion? Will I be able to change to a better job? There are plenty of people who won’t get (immediate) benefits. No wonder they respond with a resounding NO.

Now I’ve rambled on about my experience, so here are my more rational reflections:

Let’s change the narrative on continuing vocational education and training, and adult education. Let’s stop telling people that they have to learn/train/upskill/reskill. At the workplace, let’s talk about the great opportunity that planned learning will bring and not that ‘we have to do a training’. In fact, let’s have more workplace learning during working hours to ease the pressure on the employees.

Let’s change our arguments to how much joy learning can bring; how many benefits there are, even if they are not financial; that it’s not a task, but an interesting and rewarding activity.

Let’s enjoy and promote all kinds of learning.

Learning can make you happy.

Gina Ebner is the Secretary-General of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) and also EPALE's Thematic Coordinator for Learner Support.

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First of all, thank you very much for sharing your experience. The provision of authentic examples contribute to better understanding a situation which in this case is why adults do not want to learn. Adding to what has already been discussed, adults face a very demanding daily life which leaves no room for extra pressure. For that reason, their learning should be directly linked to their real life in order to feel the need to focus and acquire the competences and knowledge that will help them in growing on a personal and professional level.

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Dear Gina!
Thanks so much for this article, I fully can unterstand what you mean. For me it seems to be a kind of pressure and its exhausting adults. What came into my mind, when you told about your experience is: isn´t it a question what we want (and have to) learn? ... More than just a question of whether we have to learn or not? Following this question it becomes important to think about our opportunity and freedom to choose, what we want to learn and which subject we would rather like to leave out. Many topics concerning every day management and "digitalisation" seem to not allow freedom of choice. Or is it possible to shape this external pressure als Community of adult educators?
Best regards and a successfull 2020!
Petra H. Steiner, Austria
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Dear Gina, 
thank you for this article. We face it everyday and should be aware of this kind of "selling" adult learning almost exclusively in the context of labor market. Values, joy, personal fulfillment, social contacts and much more is what we also need to stress about further learning. And we often don´t.
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Many thanks for the very personal insight. I think this kind of self-reflection is very important in education in general and in adult education in particular. This is not about "us" (the teachers) on the one hand and "the others" (the learners) on the other. We are all the "adults" to whom adult education is directed. If we reflect on what causes contradiction in us, we can avoid it for our offers - no MUST in connection with learning, for example. If we reflect on what appeals to us, what arouses our curiosity, what makes us want to learn, then we know better what is interesting for others. Certainly not for everyone, but for some more.
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Most ébredtem rá, hogy legtöbbször engem is a KELL zavart és zavar. Persze előfordul sokszor olyan is, amikor a kell címszó alatt elkezd érdekelni az, amit meg kell tanulnom és meg kell csinálnom a kell-en belül. Ugyanakkor azt gondolom, hogy egy bizonyos kor felett (szerencséseknek ehhez nem kell bizonyos kor) tényleg akkor okoz igazi örömöt a tanulás, ha az belső indíttatásból jön, azzal kezdek el foglalkozni, ami igazán érdekel, de eddig nem tehettem meg, hogy erre időt szakítsak. Akkor biztosan nagyon felszabadító lehet elhagyni a KELL-eket és válik igazi élménnyé a tanulás. A legjobb viszont az lenne, ha már a gyerekkortól megtanulnánk az örömtanulást. 
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Köszönöm a cikket, frissitő élmény volt olvasni. Ahogy a gyerekek is egyre kevésbé szívlelik, hogy megmondják nekik, hogy mit KELL csinálniuk, úgy a felnőtekre ez hatványozottan igaz. A prespektíva váltás, az új csomagolás lehetne egy jó megoldás erre, ahogy Ön ezt írja. Köszönöm!
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W dzisiejszych czasach coraz mniej ludzi chce się uczyć, już dzieci od najmłodszych lat okazują niechęć do nauki. 
Przyczyn może być wiele, jedni gonią za kariera, pieniędzmi, inni zniechęcają się w szkołach, przez forme prowadzonych zajęć, podejścia nauczyciela do ucznia. 
Z kolei też brak checi do nauki wynika z naszego lenistwa, niechęci, również z przykładu znajomych, rodziny, którzy po skończeniu studiów nie potrafia znaleźć pracy w danym zawodzie. 
Nauka jest ważnym elementem każdego z nas, uczy nas życia, pracy, relacji międzyludzkich, warto mimo wszystko uczyć się, i zdobywać nowe doświadczenia.
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Je ne sais pas si je suis d'accord avec l'idée de ne pas vouloir apprendre. Je pense que c'est même impossible. Je pense qu'on aime tous apprendre car on pense. Les connaissances rentrent tous les jours dans notre vie. Pour moi apprendre c'est ma manière d'être avec moi et le monde mais nous sommes bien-sûrs tous différents. L'apprentissage peut-être récréatif, social, culturel ou technique mais je pense que tout apprentissage est important. 
Obliger à apprendre, non? C'est comme obliger à manger.
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Par contre je reconnais cette attitude. Je suis une professionnelle dans l'apprentissage dans le travail et il y plein de gens qui ne veulent pas apprendre. Mais! Parce qu'ils ont un regard très étroit sur le sujet: apprentissage. Ils sont des prisonniers de leurs conception at leur narrative personnelle.
Je suis d'accord qu'on apprend tout le temps, sans le reconnaître même, mais la curiosité ne pas donné à tous... 
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