La Verneda: Contributions from democratic adult education to lifelong learning

Education providers are concerned with type of participation of adult learners, essentially migrants. This article describes factors of success of education in La Verneda and reflects on centrality of learning for lifelong learning.

24.09.2013

School of adults “La Verneda” in Barcelona

Photo: Ramon Flecha

Introduction

Andres is an immigrant from Ecuador who arrived to Barcelona looking for a better future for him and his family. Together with his brother, he worked for many years in the construction section and the enlargement of real state. They were surviving. In that period of time, Andres learnt about the adult school of La Verneda, and he signed up to learn Catalan. His objective was to learn better the language spoken in Barcelona to be able to have better job opportunities. Several years later the real estate bubble exploded, and Spain became immersed in the global crisis of the financial markets. Construction was the first professional sector to suffer the crisis. Andres lost his job. Together with his brother he started a family business to take care of little house repairs. But Andres knew that this was not the future. The adult school appears again as an opportunity to continue with his studies that he left in Ecuador, and achieving a qualified professional degree of training. 

This image is common in many centers of lifelong learning around Europe. Many people migrate to other countries with the need to find life opportunities. When a Catalan person migrates to Munich to find a job in a factory, he or she finds the need to learn German and acquire a specific training in order to have more opportunities in the host country. Adult learners attend the centers for lifelong learning and adult education centers to meet specific personal needs to learn a precise task or skill. This is one of the principal concerns nowadays in Europe on the participation of the adult learners in lifelong learning.

Nevertheless, the case of Andres is special. Andres is now the president of Agora, one of the two associations of adult learners managing the school of adults of La Verneda. Andres started to attend the school to learn the knowledge he thought was necessary for him to find his way in Barcelona. But La Verneda has been also and still is for him a welcoming space, where he can learn the cultural standards and share his, and feel included. It is overall a space in which he can make his voice heard equally to the other people that participate in the school regardless of their origin, or the amount of time they have been attending the school. This is the difference with other schools we find in Europe. In this school there are also people that come and go, once they have achieved their objectives that took them to sign in at the school. But there are also many people that start, then stay and collaborate in diverse ways.

How can such a community be created and what are the keys to participation? These types of personal pathways open the door to interesting questions that will completely change lifelong learning in the following years in Europe.

The instrumental dimension of learning

The immigrants that attend adult schools do it because they want to learn. This is especially true in the cases of individuals that come from other countries to a new country where their norms are foreign and their academic or professional path not recognized. Education of adults in the case of migrants is not a second chance; it is the real opportunity to be included in the host society. The school knowledge is a key element for future learning and life possibilities in the information society. This knowledge and skills needed for today’s society constitute the instrumental dimension of learning (Flecha, 2000). 

The European Commission was concerned about this situation. Therefore, in the program EU 2020 three out of its five targets directly speak to lifelong learning. The targets are increasing employment among 20-64 years olds, reducing dropout rates and increasing third level education, and finally reducing poverty and social exclusion. In 2012 the amount of learners involved in lifelong learning in Europe (EU27) was 9% (Eurostat, 2013). In this case lifelong learning refers to persons aged 25 to 64 who stated that they received education or training in the four weeks preceding the survey. The information collected relates to all education or training whether or not relevant to the respondent’s current or possible future job (Eurostat, 2013). This data (adults in general, not only migrants) still shows the small amount of adults involved in lifelong learning across Europe.

The involvement of adult learners in the educational centers is strongly connected to the experiences learners have in the centers and in particularly whether the demands which in the first place took them to sign up in the center are answered. Therefore, it is essential that the center promotes learning and the students obtain their certificates. If this does not happen, the immigrants stop seeing the lifelong learning centers or adult center as an option for finding life opportunities in the host countries – and stop their attendance. The debate then, has to relocate in analyzing how to ensure that the individuals attending adult education or lifelong learning centers have academic success in their learning.

The prior research on adult learning has provided evidence showing that adults’ learning processes are different to children. Adults have many prior experiences (personal, professional and academic) that mediate in the entire learning process. For that reason dialogue and creating spaces of dialogue in which these experiences can be recovered, shared and exchanged are central (Flecha, 2000). Vygotsky and others have demonstrated that learning is a social process. The work developed together by the main authors and adult learners of La Verneda, using communicative methodology have demonstrated on many occasions that in this social process interactions are important (Gomez, Puigvert, Flecha, 2010). The interactions are the ones that promote (or do not promote) learning. Mead (1934) discovered in his study of the identity of people that interaction is what makes us build our own image. It depends on this image whether we are or are not capable of learning. When in an adult education math class someone asserts that he or she is not good at math and that he or she is not able to learn math, the only way out is to transform this self-concept through interactions (Díez-Palomar, 2009).

In the years to come, in Europe, lifelong learning and adult education that seeks to be successful has to find the way to promote egalitarian interactions between learners and those working in the educational center. Only if adult learners feel that their voices are taken into account, that their dreams are included, and that their expectations are shared by the entire school, only then will they become much more involved in lifelong learning. This happens when the quality of education is ensured, but above all when successful educational actions are implemented.

Creating an educational community around lifelong learning and adult education is feasible. What are those practices and evidences of actions that promote success in adult education and lifelong learning? In the following section we will discuss some cases.

Successful educational actions in lifelong learning

Students’ diverse backgrounds bring about an ideal environment for successful stories on lifelong learning. Successful stories have been studied in the Includ-ed project (CREA, 2006-2011), which has identified successful practices within diverse social areas that are transferable to other contexts and contribute to overcoming inequalities and improving the most underprivileged contexts. Successful educational actions are educational practices that promote results of attainment independently of the context in which those are implemented. In order to create a better society as Townsend (2008) states there is “the need to address the holistic nature of adult learning for people from culturally diverse backgrounds in order to contribute to the development of sustaining social capital for individuals, families and communities”(p.71).

In today’s context of continuous change, global communications and financial crisis, the elements for successful lifelong learning programs with mobility or migrant students are, among others, democratic management, interactive groups, multicultural groups, affirmative action commission, voluntary work.

Democratic management

In adult schools or lifelong learning programs in which they follow the social model of adult education, specific principles enhance their practices and results. An example of it is the Adult school of La Verneda in which heterogeneity has been one of the key and defining elements of educational success. The mixture of diverse backgrounds has allowed the achievement of higher levels of learning and becoming one of the pillars for the highest quality in education. The person who learns faster helps someone who has more difficulties; at the end, everyone helps each other.

Currently, the adult school of La Verneda is managed by two learners’ associations: Agora, in which the president is from Ecuador, and HEURA, a women’s association in which the president is from Morocco. The diversity of backgrounds helps everyone not to feel foreign. Nowadays the school has a total of 2400 students, with more than 60 nationalities represented and with more than 150 volunteers. The learners by means of the different commissions participate democratically in deciding on the courses, schedules and school decisions. This results in excellent learning outcomes for everyone. From the first day attending the center, everyone is invited to participate in the decision spaces of the school.

In this school, it is crucial that learners participate in management and decision-making. In this context the principle of equality of differences from the dialogic learning (Flecha, 2000) prevails. When in a meeting there are learners that do not understand the language, another student or volunteer sits next to that person and does the translation so that everyone can participate equally in all the meetings.

Interactive groups

Interactive groups are a type of class organization that up to now best promotes excellent academic results as well as social coexistence. In these groups individuals with different cultures, from different backgrounds and educational levels work together in small groups helping each other and encouraging each other to do better. The opportunity to interact with diverse individuals, who have a range of life experiences, also provides the learners with broader perspectives on their society and the world around them (Tellado & Sava, 2010). Through the contact with different students, a much broader understanding of activities, theories, and practices is developed than if learners only interacted with their teachers.

Multicultural groups

The multicultural groups are meetings of diverse individuals participating in the center holding dialogical discussion groups. The aim is to create spaces of discussion in which both immigrants and people from the host community discuss common themes or topics using a dialogical approach. It is by means of this type of dialogic communication that all contributions are taken into account and appreciated. This experience facilitates the overcoming of prejudices held erroneously by many. Through this experience of exchanging lived experiences and discussion on common topics, individuals learn and find out about other people’s traditions, backgrounds, and experiences. They discover that their differences do not have to separate them but that those can unite them when facing common inequalities.

Affirmative action commission

The affirmative action commission is a group of learners, teachers and external individuals volunteering at the center from the university with diverse backgrounds caring for the opportunities of everyone who may have more difficulties to access education. For example, this commission will take care that everyone requesting adult basic education has the opportunity and convenient schedule to attend a course. Another example would be giving priority or saving a certain quota of learning spots for those minorities or migrant groups, which have been traditionally largely marginalized, such as the Roma people.

Voluntary work

Voluntary work is developed by everyone in the community, from lifelong neighbors to university students, and learners of different educational levels. Many individuals from different countries are collaborating as volunteers in the school. For example, a Moroccan girl volunteers in literacy, and a Chinese young man teaches Spanish, a man from Senegal volunteers in computing and a man from Iran in English. This voluntary work goes beyond the context in which transformative coexisting experiences take place.

This coexistence and living together helps not to stigmatize anyone, since everyone at the school is giving and receiving, but to appreciate diversity and the enriching experiences. These successful educational actions described above promote more learning and better educational results while dissolving prejudices.

Conclusion

Andres currently has found new life opportunities in Barcelona. He has found a place in the host country. He, an Ecuadorian immigrant, is now the president of Agora, one of the two associations that democratically manage the only Spanish adult school, whose work has been recognized by the most important journal of education in the world, Harvard Educational Review (Sánchez, 1999).

The history of Andres is an example of the impact of successful educational actions. This is the future of lifelong learning and in general of all the social and educational sciences. In the upcoming years every educational action will be assessed based on the impact on individual lives they create. The interventions in the field of education (as the ones in other social spaces) will have to have an impact on the life of individuals.

Applying successful educational actions in lifelong learning and adult education implies transforming the current standpoints in this field. But it goes beyond the scientific discussion; the most important is that it also implies transforming the lives of real people, like Andres, who fight for having real life opportunities. The current debates on lifelong learning will set the stage for the future years to have more stories like that of Andres. We need to learn about more successful educational actions that make this possible. This is where our fieldwork will be in the years to come.

References

CREA. (2006-2011). INCLUD-ED Project. Strategies for inclusion and social cohesion in Europe from education. 6th Framework Programme. Citizens and Governance in a Knowledge-based Society. CIT4-CT-2006-028603. Directorate-General for Research, European Commission.

Díez-Palomar, J. (2009). La enseñanza de las matemáticas a personas adultas desde un enfoque didáctico basado en el aprendizaje dialógico. Enseñanza de las Ciencias, 27(3), 369–380.

Eurostat (2013). Data on education and training. Retrieved on August 5, 2013 from: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/portal/page/portal/education/introduction

Flecha, R. (2000). Sharing words. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gomez, A.; Puigvert, L.; Flecha, R. (2010) Critical Communicative Methodology: Informing Real Social Transformation Through Research. Qualitative Inquiry. March 2011 vol. 17no. 3 235-245.

Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sánchez , M. (1999). A school where people dare to dream. Harvard Educational Review, 69(3), pp. 320-335.

Tellado, I.; Sava, S. (2010). The Role of Non-Expert Adult Guidance in the Dialogic Construction of Knowledge. Revista de Psicodidáctica, 2010, 15(2), 163-176.

Townsend, R. (2008). Adult education, social inclusion and cultural diversity in regional communities. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 48 (1), 71-92.

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