Emeritus Professor Linden West delves into the stories of marginalised people to understand obstacles to adult learning, and to encourage dialogue and democratic participation.
The vibrant tradition of workers’ education in his birth town Stoke-on-Trent, the “most working-class city in England”, inspired Linden West on the path of adult education and research.
It may also have been his background in these working-class communities, and as the first person in his family to get a university education, which piqued his interest in marginalised communities, which he has continued to study throughout his professional life.
Early on in his career, running second-chance programmes among working-class women in Oxford, West became interested in why some people seem to be more willing and able to participate in adult education than others. Was it to do with schooling, was there something in society that made people feel they were not good enough, even deserving of education, he asked.
“We need a socio-cultural understanding of the problems and the resistance to the possibilities of adult education, but I think we also need to look deeper into the psychology of learners,” he says.
If you have never experienced encouragement by significant others, West continues, such as parents and partners, it is easy to internalise feelings of not being worthy.
“It may be very difficult to believe that you can benefit from adult education if you have very little belief in yourself.”
Transitions and transformations
Linden West became interested in learners’ stories and went on to study and develop narrative auto/biographical methods for adult education and career counselling.
“Learning is about complex experiences and transitions that are far more mixed than is often described in textbooks,” he says.
Dr Linden West
Linden West is Professor of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University, England.
He has written widely on adult learner motivation, career and life choices, racism and fundamentalism. He has developed psychosocial perspectives on learning, learners, educational processes, resistance, transitions and transformation.
“It can be sheer joy, but it can also be suffering and difficulties. At the same time as you are finding a voice and confidence in a supportive group of fellow learners, you might also become unhappier in your private life when, for example, you start questioning your role in your marriage.”
However, helping learners in this process does not need to be difficult. Sometimes all that is needed is a little moment: a smile or touching a learner’s shoulder and saying “well done”. These “loving gestures”, as West calls them, can go a long way to making learners feel recognised and seen, which we all need.
“A transition where we begin to feel that we can be valued by others can be of enormous importance in terms of becoming a successful adult learner in your heart, your mind and maybe in your soul.”
All too often, however, we are not heard or recognised. Maybe the tutor is not attuned and does not notice. But an educator is a learner, too, and developing one’s skills in becoming more inclusive and attuned to learners’ needs not only helps learners but gives educators more satisfaction in their work.
Transformation is always provisional
Despite many accolades for his contribution to the theory and practice of transformative learning, Linden West has grown sceptical about the term, feeling it has become overused – a rhetoric sometimes steeped in consumerism.
“Buy this course and it will transform you. Transformation is always provisional, it is never complete,” he reminds us.
Feeling that we can be valued by others can be of enormous importance in becoming a successful adult learner.
West can still present several encouraging examples of learners who have overcome their fears of participation in adult education, which could be described as transformative.
The woman with severe depression, who was afraid even to go out of her home, took a dressmaking course and became a community activist. Or the refugee, downtrodden by bureaucracy, who went on to become an advocate for fellow refugees. Of course, these paths were never as straightforward as that, nor without difficulties.
Not just buyers and sellers of education
Linden West finds it deeply disturbing that education is becoming a commodity to be bought, and students are seen as consumers. He feels that we are losing something quite profound when we are turned into buyers and sellers of education.
Selected bibliography from Linden West:
- West L (2016) Distress in the city: racism, fundamentalism and a democratic education, London: Trentham.
- Formenti L and West L (2018) Transforming perspectives in lifelong learning and adult education: a dialogue. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
- West L, Bainbridge A and Formenti L (2021). Discourse, dialogue and diversity in biographical research. Brill/Sense.
Six years ago, West returned to Stoke-on-Trent, and found a troubled place in which the vibrant workers’ education tradition he had known in his formative years seemed largely gone. Instead, there was troubling evidence of the rise of racism and radical Islamism.
Still, despite all the difficulties and lack of funding in adult education, he has hope as he has also found exciting projects in the most unlikely places that still reflect the important values that adult education traditionally has represented.
In an ideal world, he would like to see adult education as a space for finding joy and understanding, for telling and listening to stories, for doing something you thought you could not do.
So, what excites Linden himself at the moment?
Recently, he has been involved in a challenging project in which participants try to build dialogue between Israeli Jews and Palestinians living in the state of Israel. The idea is to bring them together in the same room and listen to each other’s stories.
For this you need to have hope.