Let me propose two problems.
Problem number one: Global megatrends such as the sustainability crisis, nonlinear work careers and ubiquitous digital technology redefine what it means to be a citizen in the contemporary world. How could adult educators best equip citizens with these kinds of new skills?
Problem number two: Jane, 35, is clearly ahead of the rest of the group in music theory. She is getting bored when the teacher has to go through the same things in each music class to keep the others along. How could the adult educator keep Jane motivated and keep her from quitting the course?
Both one and two are relevant problems for adult educators but hardly on a common scale. The day to day reality of many adult educators, in formal and non-formal education, is concerned with the micro level, the specific subject taught, its pedagogy and didactics. Citizenship education or “Politische Bildung” aside, the macro level of problem one is so abstract it seems to speak past the reality of grassroots adult education. Or does it?
Neil Hopkins is Senior Lecturer in education at the University of Bedfordshire, UK, with philosophy of education and educational leadership as some of his research foci. He has a practitioner background, having taught adults for over a decade. For him, the micro reality of the classroom need not be separate from the macro level of citizenship learning.
In your view, thinking on a European and even global level, what are the most important citizenship skills citizens need to learn to cope in current and future society?
Neil Hopkins: I’m not sure I would use the word ‘skills’ in relation to citizenship – as a concept, citizenship – as I define and understand it – is a set of legal rights that citizens and others will attach attitudes, beliefs and values towards. That said, things like ‘toleration for other points of view’, ‘the ability to argue and defend your side of an argument’ and ‘the requirement to remain informed of events and issues that affect your life´ could be examples of attitudes and abilities it is important for contemporary citizens to have.
How might non-formal or formal adult education best equip people with some of these abilities?
NH: I don’t think it is the role of non-formal adult education to equip students with citizenship ‘skills’. Where informal adult education has a role in relation to citizenship is fostering a sense of collaboration and perhaps challenging the traditional hierarchy between teacher and student to create a sense of equals. From a pedagogical point-of-view, the work of Carl Rogers and Paulo Freire might be pertinent in such settings.
In your estimate how important is the informal learning of citizenship-related abilities in adult education?
NH: The work of many theorists in adult education emphasise the importance of previous life experiences that could and should be facilitated within the classroom. If citizenship has any relevance to informal adult education, it is probably as part of the ‘hidden curriculum’ where behaviours, values and attitudes are not explicitly taught but inform the learning that takes place.
For citizenship to be meaningful, it needs to be discussed and examined as part of everyday life. This can happen in workplaces, the family home, or simply as part of conversation in the local neighbourhood. Some of these settings will have formal mechanisms for aspects of citizenship, for example union meetings and public consultations, but we act as citizens in a variety of informal environments as well.
Thinking about the hypothetical music educator of “Jane´s” class, the only realistic way that he or she can plan for citizenship is by generating and facilitating an environment where genuine discussion and debate can take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
If music is the course, then the attributes of citizenship that the teacher will want to facilitate are a respect of different attitudes and opinions regarding the music under discussion and an ability to articulate views in a thoughtful and respectful way without losing the passion that lies behind such views. In informal adult settings, the role of the teacher or facilitator is likely to be fluid in the sense that it will not necessarily belong to a given person throughout. There will be, ideally, a greater sense of equality between the participants than in more formal settings.
The educator’s viewpoint
How are the macro-level concerns on citizenship actually reflected in the micro-reality of the adult learning class?
Juho Kangas, 41, is a Finnish composer and teacher of music theory. He teaches adult groups at the Finnish Adult Education Centre of the City of Helsinki, offering nonformal adult education. Kangas sees himself, first and foremost, as a specialist in music, tasked to guide his learners in that specialism. In the realm of citizenship skills, he views himself as much a learner as an educator.
What are your most important goals regarding the learning results of your students?
Juho Kangas: Sparking students’ enthusiasm is crucial. When the atmosphere is good and the studying is enjoyable, the learning is also more effective. Although not everyone mentions music theory and enthusiasm in the same sentence! At best, being excited about the subject encourages the learner to try out and apply theoretical insight at home with their instruments.
What else, apart from music, do your students learn in your classes?
JK: I can’t say: this is really hard to estimate and depends on the individual learners. One possible learning result unrelated to music could be perseverance – of course for those who are not perseverant by nature. The transformation of theoretical insight into practical skills is a slow process and takes a lot of systematic practice. Some of my learners have however derived a lot of satisfaction from getting the hang of a concept or skill that at first seemed difficult. They have said how important this experience is in a time when everything is supposed to happen easily and instantly.
All the taught material is freely available online. Nevertheless my learners have chosen to attend a course. Perhaps they feel that learning and interacting in a group, in a live session somehow furthers their learning -perhaps not only of music.
Do you feel it is your duty as an adult educator to teach other skills than the content of the course?
JK: My specialism is music and I feel that I have neither a duty nor the competence to teach anything else. Of course I would be pleased if other learning took place in my class. My only duty is not to be an obstacle to any development taking place in the class -if only I knew what those individual development processes of each student are!
Researcher Neil Hopkins says that the attributes of citizenship that the teacher will want to facilitate are a respect of different attitudes and opinions and an ability to articulate views in a thoughtful and respectful way. How does this statement sound, in the context of your own teaching?
JK: I think Hopkins is right. A respectful atmosphere where we listen to each other is central to all learning, I suppose. The educator, through his or her role, has of course more responsibility in creating such an atmosphere. Otherwise I think the educator is just as much a learner as the rest of the group when it comes to citizenship. At least I don’t think I have anything more to give in terms of citizenship learning than the students. On the contrary: I learn from them each day.