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“Humans, not just students” – In-service training boosts Danish educators’ skills

Authors: Bjarne Wahlgren Published:

An educator's social skills are a prerequisite for effective teaching, argue Danish researchers.


Professional qualifications for adult educators have been subject for discussion and a research question for more than thirty years. The content and the form of adult educator training programs have been debated vigorously.

In this article we illustrate the advantages of competence development as in-service training. Thus, our focus is to describe how competence development of adult educators can be accomplished as an integrated part of the daily practice in (adult education) schools.

In the Danish example presented, we show how in-service training can be carried out with great impact on the teachers’ self-understanding, the educational culture of the school and even on dropout rates. To better understand the conditions for this kind of training, we start with a brief overview of the qualifications needed to teach in different adult education sectors in Denmark.

No formal adult pedagogical competence required

Despite a long tradition of adult education and continuing training in Denmark, and a huge number of students each year, there is no formal requirement of adult pedagogical qualifications for the educator.

The traditional career for an adult educator begins with an employment based on the persons’ qualifications related to the taught subject. Apart from colleges and universities, most adult education institutions do not require their teachers to have formal qualifications in adult pedagogy.

The professional adult educator is expected to obtain the teaching skills and pedagogical theoretical insights through continuing education and training alongside their professional work as an adult teacher. This training may be formal, as part of the public educational system or it may be non-formal.

Due to the differences between the five Danish adult education sectors (see box below) different competences are required of adult educators (van Dellen, 2015). To fulfill these varying requirements, a differentiated and specialised training system is in place.

The formal education programmes range from basic skills to university level training, including a master’s degree in adult education. More common, however, is non-formal training which includes, for example, workplace-related courses and pedagogical development activities related to teaching situations.

Non-formal training most effective

The reason for the priority of non-formal training is that research results, evaluations and practical experiences have shown that the effect of many external formal training programs and courses is modest. Often the formal training programs are not sufficiently related to the teachers’ practice, and therefore there is a lack of transfer from the training programmes to the actual educational situations (Wahlgren, 2015).

Based on these findings, the training programme for adult educators that we present in this article is based on a principle of integrating theoretical knowledge with practice experiences.

Case: Integrating training and action

Our case illustrates a particular training programme, run at five Adult education schools. The case shows the effect of the programme on teacher’s competence and behavior, and on the teaching process.

The so far unnamed programme’s aim was to introduce a new pedagogical perspective to the teachers and to implement this perspective at the schools. The perspective intended to expand the traditional role of the teacher, primarily focusing on communicating a subject to students, so as to also focus on the social relations in the classroom. Furthermore the purpose was to train the teachers to act according to this new role.

In other words, the programme’s aim was to help teachers create and support positive relationships between the teacher and the student and between students. This includes the ability to obtain knowledge of the students’ proficiency and social and psychological preconditions and act according to that inside the classroom.

The programme included two courses, taught in-house at the colleges:

1) Knowledge of different student typologies: The teachers were trained to analyse the students’ preconditions for participating in the study programme and to plan and conduct their teaching accordingly. Also, they were trained to be aware of the students’ different social backgrounds, to focus on how well the students were integrated in the social life at the college, and to be mindful of their wellbeing.

2) Conflict management: The teachers were trained to handle conflicts in the classroom more efficiently and to develop and maintain a positive learning environment.

Each course lasted two days followed by five coaching sessions with the teachers during their everyday practice. The total training programme was completed over a period of 10 months. Approximately 20 percent of teachers from each college were directly involved in the programme.

The remaining teachers learned the new methods from their colleagues: the trained teachers shared the knowledge and skills they had achieved with the rest of the teacher group. At the schools, working groups were established to discuss how to implement the new competences and the focus and aim of the project. The teachers’ involvement in these working groups differed from college to college.

Headmasters also trained

In order to ensure that the training was embedded in the social structures of the schools, a three-day training programme was conducted for the head teachers at the five colleges.

This programme included four courses focusing on a) intention in the organisation/coaching, b) appreciative leadership, c) creating energy in organisations, and d) development of a code of excellence for pedagogical management.

Training the head teachers was an important part of the programme. Not so much so because the leaders became better leaders, but because the training of the leaders emphasised the importance of the changing teacher role. Thus, the competence development of the teachers became part of the changing educational culture.

Expectation: more wellbeing in class

The competence development for the teachers was based on a number of assumptions.

The training programme and the knowledge sharing activities were planned to provide the total group of teachers with enhanced socio-pedagogical competences, and it was assumed that these enhanced socio-pedagogical competences would lead to more comprehensive socio-pedagogical activities in the teachers’ teaching activities.

It was also assumed that the teachers’ competence development would lead to a changed attitude towards the socio-pedagogical competence; e.g. to a change in behaviour towards the individual student, and to a changed pedagogical behaviour in the classroom. The improvement of these socio-pedagogical activities was expected to reduce student dropout.

Results: “human beings, not just students”

The results described here are based on a systematic evaluation of the total training programme including (a) interviews with college head teachers, teachers and students over a period of two years, (b) logbooks written by head teachers and teachers over a period of two years, (c) electronic questionnaires completed by the teachers before and after the training programme¸ and d) registrations of students’ non-attendance and dropout rates over a five-year period.

One result of the competence development programme was that the teachers learned to engage in conversation with the students not only about subject matters and the learning process but about more personal matters that influence the everyday life of the students.

The teachers did not learn a special method or technique to expand their communication with the student; rather they gave more focus to the wellbeing of each student. Some students said, that the teachers now acknowledged them as human beings rather than just students.

To illustrate the differences between the ‘old role’ and the new and expanded role we quote a teacher talking about her perception of the teacher-role after having completed the training programme:

“I think we have many functions. We don’t just teach. You can hardly be a teacher without working with relations. We’ve just never worked with it systematically. I used to think ‘ah, this takes time from my teaching’. But if we are able to establish this relation to the student, we can almost pour knowledge into them; if we don’t have it, there’s hardly any connection at all. Now I know that working with relationships is part of my job.’

Social relationships in class are a top priority

The concept likewise includes a classroom management perspective and the ability to obtain a positive and stimulating learning environment. The content of the two aspects includes the ability to tackle social conflicts among students (before they escalate) and the ability to create comfort in the classroom and confidence between the teacher and the students. To illustrate some aspects of the importance of these aspects, this is what another teacher had to say:

“There are three things that a teacher must be able to offer: To create relationships, to manage the class, and to be academically well-qualified, but the order is important. The relational work comes before the classroom management, which in turn comes before the academic qualification. [ … ] If students don’t have confidence in you as a person and as a leader, it is almost impossible.’

It is especially noteworthy that it is the relational competence which is perceived as a prerequisite for the other important competences.

The increased focus on relational work made it more legitimate for the teachers to spend time in class on matters which are not specifically subject-oriented. However, fully comprehending this development is an ongoing process for the teachers. One teacher explains:

“Actually, I think the most important thing is that I allow time for it in my class and think to myself: ‘it is not wasted time’. The academic work is of equal importance to the social work. Beforehand, I used to think that the academic part of teaching should be given priority, and then it was a bit annoying when you had spent too much time on the other stuff’.’

Another significant development is the teachers’ awareness of how their relationships with their students can extend beyond the classroom; not least that this is a legitimate part of the teacher role which not only leads to a better social climate in the class, but also to students performing better academically.

It is evident that the teachers’ perceptions of the typical teacher role have undergone a development with greater importance and legitimacy accredited to relational competences and actions that were previously considered as something ‘outside’ or secondary to the primary aspects of the teacher role. This change can be described as a movement from an awareness of relational competence to a knowledge of relational competence, and finally to an integration of this knowledge, resulting in new actions in the teacher role.

Training should include all

While the participating teachers were generally very positive and committed to the project, they pointed to certain barriers that may be worth considering in future projects.

One issue that the teachers experienced as a barrier had to do with the fact that not all teachers in the faculties participated in the training programme; as a result, the work with implementing the project initiatives occurred on a staggered basis. They therefore suggested that in the future all teachers be included in the programme.

Another issue identified across the participating colleges was the need for a stronger managerial focus on the systematic gathering of experience and on the effects of the various initiatives. The teachers would have preferred that the management had been more specific in communicating their expectations of the individual teacher as a result of participating, as well as expectations regarding the overall effects of the project.

The overall effect of the training programme was positive. A systematic evaluation of the training programme in its entirety documents that the teachers adapted their behaviour and attitudes during the process. The evaluation also documented a significant fall in the dropout rates at the participating colleges (Wahlgren & Mariager-Anderson, 2015).

The results from the project have been disseminated to other colleges nationwide at several conferences held throughout 2015. Other colleges have adopted the training programme in order to develop better learning environments and reduce dropout rates in adult education. After this project, it is evident at colleges of adult education, that there is an increased focus on the importance of the teachers’ social competences. Thus, the concept ‘relational competence’ has been generally accepted and is used as a central issue in adult education.


Key insight from the Danish case
* In-service training of teachers closely connected to the daily practice could have a significant effect on the teachers’ attitudes and teaching practice.
* The teacher training programme was a mix of short courses and coaching over a period of 10 months. A change in teachers’ attitudes and behavior takes time.
* The training programme worked in two steps: firstly by training the forerunners, secondly by letting these forerunners train the remaining part of the teacher group.
* The teacher training programme must be embedded in the institution and take the culture at the institution into account for it to be successful.


The Danish adult educational system
Denmark has a long tradition of adult education. Historically, adult education has been part of the Danish culture going back to the second half of the nineteenth century. Today, the government ensures substantial resources in financing adult education.
A large proportion of the population participates in adult education. An OECD survey shows that 45% of the adult population in Denmark participates in formal and non-formal education within one year. The average for OECD was 40% (OECD, 2010).
There are five adult education sectors in Denmark:
* Non-formal Adult Education. Study associations (‘evening classes’) and ‘folk enlightenment institutions’ (such as ‘folk high schools’ and ‘day folk high schools’) offering non-formal liberal education.
* The General Adult Education Programme at Adult Education Centers providing formal general competences at primary and secondary level. This programme supports adults who have left school early and now want to re-enter the educational system.
* Adult Vocational Training Programme. Labor market education programmes providing formal vocational training aimed to upskill the workforce.
* In-service training in different forms. Primarily arranged by organizations and private enterprises to provide non-formal training to the employed workforce.
* Higher education institutions and universities offering professional education in different forms at the highest level.
The five sectors have different purposes, structures and content, although some corporation between schools in the different sectors can be found. They are subject to different laws and have different financial terms.
Read more of the Danish adult education system here.

Further reading and references

Jarvis, P., & Chadwick, A. (Eds.). (1991). Training Adult Educators in Western Europe. London: Routledge.

Nuissl, E., & Lattke, S. (Eds.). (2008). Qualifying adult learning professionals in Europe. Bielefeld: W. Bertelsmann Verlag.

OECD (2010). Education at a glance. Retrieved from

van Dellen, T. (2015). The Competencies of the European Adult and Continuing Educator from the Perspective of Different Work Domain. In E. Nuissl, P. A. Reddy, S. Lattke, & D. U. Devi (Eds.), Facets of Professionalization Among Adult Education Teachers – Eurasian Perspectives (pp. 106-127). New Delhi: Sarup Book Publishers.

Wahlgren, B. (2015). Developing Professional Competence – Experiences from Denmark. In E. Nuissl, P. A. Reddy, S. Lattke, & D. U. Devi (Eds.), Facets of Professionalization among Adult Education Teachers – Eurasian Perspectives (pp. 170-181). New Delhi: Sarup Book Publishers.

Wahlgren, B., & Mariager-Anderson, K. (2015). Teacher Professionalisation and Dropout Rates in Adult Education. In E. Nuissl, P. A. Reddy, S. Lattke, & D. U. Devi (Eds.), Facets of Professionalization Among Adult Education Teachers – Eurasian Perspectives (pp. 230-244). New Delhi: Sarup Book Publishers.

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Bjarne Wahlgren Bjarne Wahlgren is Professor of Adult Education at Aarhus University, Denmark, and Director of the National Centre for Competence Development. Email: Show all articles by Bjarne Wahlgren
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