Bjarne Wahlgren has had a good morning – before cycling to his office at Aarhus University, he has stopped for a swim in the sea and enjoyed the fact that it is not raining in Denmark today.
The 75-year-old professor at the Danish School of Education has an impressive and varied career behind him.
When asked about how he first got started in academia, Wahlgren laughs as if he can’t quite believe how quickly the time has gone: Wahlgren’s first research job was at the University of Roskilde in 1973, when he was involved in the vocational training of adults.
“We talk about lifelong learning, but I guess in my case it is also lifelong research,” he says.
Walhgren’s initial interest in academia was born from the training he was doing with workers – he wanted to know more about the practice and the theory and policies framing the education conversation at the time, so he started reading and then writing about the subject.
“I have always been very interested in the relationship between what is going on in the real world – you may call it practice – and what is going on in universities and research.”
I don’t want to work with something I don’t find meaning in.
Since Wahlgren’s first study, which discussed engaging low-skilled workers in adult education, his research interests have developed in a way that says a lot about his natural curiosity ‒ from social and psychological learning environments to preventing dropouts in adult education. For the past 20 years, his main research topic has been recognising prior learning.
“You could say my interests have shifted from getting adults into the education system to understanding how to keep them there and motivated, and then learning how their existing skills could be used in a more fruitful way.”
Two career lines was a choice
Although his research interests have progressed over the years, bridging research and practice has remained a driving force in Wahlgren’s work. He says it was a natural choice for him to have “two career lines” – one in education practice and one in academia.
“I don’t want to work with something I don’t find meaning in. Combining research with very practical matters in adult education is what makes the work meaningful for me.”
Simply put, doing practical work inspires and enriches his research, Wahlgren says. It is one thing to have a theoretical model or research data on something, and another to see how “things are in real life”.
- Professor in adult education at Aarhus University.
- Has written books about philosophy of science, about evaluation of education, about adult learning and teaching, and about transfer and professional competence.
As an example, Wahlgren mentions the time he was training daycare teachers to provide better nutrition for the children.
“One of the women broke down and asked if she had been a bad teacher as she had not known this before. It gave me a much deeper understanding of where resistance to learning might come from – learning something new can also be painful.”
The problem, however, is that there is a big gap between the demands of universities and the demands of daily situations in practical adult education work, Wahlgren argues.
For example, in addition to writing academic papers, Wahlgren has always found it important to work on “translating” his work into easy-to-understand, pedagogical articles and study books – material that teachers and practitioners can access and use in their work.
“This is very important in transferring knowledge, but I don’t think universities appreciate it enough. They place so much more focus on producing scientific articles,” he says.
One reason for this, Wahlgren believes, is that the university system is built for measuring the quality of academic articles. Assessing more popular work does not quite fit the system.
Understanding learning transfer requires more research
The bigger issue, Wahlgren says, is around understanding how theory is actually transferred into practice and vice versa. He believes more research around the question of knowledge and learning transfer is urgently needed.
According to Wahlgren, there has been resistance to this type of research in Denmark. It might be due to the assumption that knowledge transfer somehow happens automatically, he believes.
Competence does not mean you are clever or skilled. By definition, it means the ability and willingness to use what you have learned.
“But for me, this is one of the most interesting and important questions in education: how can you relate something you learned in one situation to another situation?”
In his own work, Wahlgren is examining several areas that affect how we can transfer something we have learned into practice: motivation, need and context all play a role in the process. Need can be used to describe whether the person in fact has use for the skills they are learning.
“By context, I mean whether they have the opportunity to use what they have learned. For example, do their managers and colleagues support putting new skills into practice? We need to learn more about this.”
Wanting to emphasise the importance of knowledge transfer, Wahlgren shares one more example: competence is a word that gets thrown around in many conversations these days. In many cases, however, its actual meaning might remain somewhat ambiguous, Wahlgren argues.
“Competence does not mean you are clever or skilled. By definition, it means the ability and willingness to use what you have learned.”