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What’s happening to adult education? Let’s listen to the educators and learners!

Stephen O’Brien is a college lecturer and researcher in the School of Education at University College Cork.  He has recently written a book called Inside Education: exploring the art of good learning (click here for more information).  AONTAS was delighted to have Stephen present at our recent Annual General Meeting where he gave a thought provoking input that focussed on the current dominant discourse of the skills-based agenda and its wider cultural impact on adult education.

Stephen’s input explored how we as educators can meaningfully work and interact with learners in a changing climate of education where there is a growing emphasis on the education-economy relation and its managerial governance. Stephen’s input raised some very interesting (pedagogical and moral/ethical) questions for adult educators and this provided for a most lively discussion among AONTAS members. In this blog we summarise the main points of Stephen’s input.

‘Interested’ Discipline

Stephen put forward the idea that education is an ‘interested’ discipline.  Many groupings (at supra-national, state, business, philanthropic, media, political and ‘academic’ levels) cohere at some point to cast education’s dominant image and status and enunciate new ways to ‘innovate’ teaching and learning. Despite inadequate representation, this general neo-liberal consensus on education presents a particular (technicist) vision for what learning is and what it might mean to be ‘successful’. He noted how the public’s perception of education appears to be somewhat lost as a result of this dominant discourse production.

The Skills Agenda

There is a growing trend towards a consistent grouping of education and employment - Stephen referred to how embedded the skills agenda is within our current education policy, by Irish politicians and even by educators themselves. Stephen noted that the regular use of language such as ‘product’ and ‘service’ in relation to education illustrates that it is now considered equivalent to any other product or service by the State.  How removed we as educators may become from the educational act is of serious concern and presents many dilemmas/tensions e.g. to what extent do we identify as public servants over-and-above our roles in managing a service?

Learning Outcomes

Stephen argued how it is vitally important to investigate and identify what the more authentic purpose of education is and how learning outcomes can – counter to its transparent, equitable claims - play a role in valuing a revised (skills-based) purpose. He spoke about how the use of data, evidence and targets are used to present a ‘new’ value of education. An integral part of facilitating learning is about staying true to the ‘essence’ of education. As educators, outcomes are mapped out for learners before they even meet their students - Stephen points out that this goes against the very ethos of democratic, inclusionary, praxiological visions of adult education.

Healthy Resistance

“We can’t go forward unless we problematize where we are and where it is we’re being caught.”

To counteract this ‘spirit of our age’ which shapes education in line with a neo-liberal agenda, Stephen asked those present to question their actions and ask if they make “education sense and sensibility” i.e. as outlined in his new book, we are all asked ‘how learning appears now to me’ and ‘how might learning look once we take responsibility for its process’.  This goes to the heart of our own work – how do we identify with and recognise education’s image and status for and with our students?  As educators we are tasked to question the language we ourselves use and, in turn and with each other, to begin to re-imagine an ‘other’ vision of ‘learning success’ – one that honours the theoretical traditions and ‘lived’ advances of adult education and incorporates the personal and social, as well as the economic, benefits of learning.

“How do we play with the noise of post-modernity?”

Re-imagining Praxis

Stephen proposed that when looking at the current use of metrics for learning outcomes, educators should consider how we re-use, re-invent or add to neoliberal language and ideas and question the development of other structural and cultural forms. Even if we cannot materially transform current working conditions (at least in the short term), we may begin to transform ourselves in, for example, how we co-operate with other enlightened educators and learners.


Stephen remarked on how important it is to have an advocacy position to engage at a governmental level about key issues affecting community education and applauded AONTAS on their engagement with this work. He noted the importance of advocacy at national and transnational levels in order to help reinstate the ‘political’ purpose of education.

“You cannot depersonalise or be depersonalised from the learning act”

Counter-cultural Political Movement

Stephen’s concluding point examined how we could broaden the concept of learning and education by broadcasting and promoting the personal, affective elements of learning out into the public sphere.  This form of communication needs to be mindful of the postmodern context – that ‘messages’ are not so readily (and/or authentically) heard in an age of image management and diffuse information channels.  Nevertheless, it is important to have those conversations and attract the ‘interest’ of those most central to the education act and craft.  He noted the importance of national forums like the National Learner Forum, for example, which provides a space for such national conversations to take root.

Stephen expands further on these ideas in his well-received book entitled, Inside Education: Exploring the art of good learning (Routledge, 2016).


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