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The Adult Education Movement Today: A Shift From the Traditional to the Current in Canada

Emilie S. By Emilie S. Published on February 16, 2016

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Introduction

There is no doubt that adult education movements have laid the foundations for great progress in Canadian society, be it women, workers, ethnic and linguistic minorities, or people who had suffered under colonialism. Although this perspective is accepted across Canada, academics such as Gordon Selman, Mark Selman, and Tom Nesbit maintain opposing views on the existence of adult education movements today. In validating Gordon and Mark Selman`s outlook on the death of adult education movement, this essay describes a retreat from collective action in society coinciding with the decline of the adult education movement and a shift in Canada’s values. While education initiatives exist, the traditional adult education movement has faded and as a result the nature of the movement has evolved.

Defining the adult education movement

“Social movement learning” and “adult learning” are inextricably tied together. Budd Hall and Thomas Turray associate adult education with some of the most critical social movements of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries (Hall and Turray, 2006, p.5). According to them, social movement learning means learning by persons inside or outside any social movement and learning by people due to their actions or even by the existence of social movements (Hall and Turray, 2006, p.6). Nesbit defines social movements as large informal groups of individuals and organizations focused on specific political or social issues (Nesbit, 2011, p. 3). Adult education is seen as all initiatives and activities, including the education of and learning by adults, as well as the wide range of beliefs and strategies centered on the idea that learning opportunities should be accessible to all (Nesbit, 2006, p. 17 found in Nesbit, 2011, p. 3).

According to Selman (2011), the adult education movement ensures that through learning, all people have the ability and motivation to support themselves and participate in public debate and decision making.

Collective action in society

Being part of a big change, the decline of the adult education movement is significant for it has shifted from collaborative to individualized activities. Today, social action is stronger than ever as adult education lives in every angle of society. Some people have even claim we may be living in a “social movement society” (Nesbit, 2011, p.4). For instance, social action is so powerful that the Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education promotes research on multiple themes, such as topics of adult literacy, education for immigrants and refugees, community arts-based programs for street literacy, education for immigrants and refugees, and workplace learning (Nesbit, 2011, p.4). Moreover, Canada is internationally recognized for its number of adult education programs with Canadian adult educators who are developing research centres with the purpose to promote research on social movements (Nesbit, 2011, p.5).

Despite Canada’s national and international recognition for valuable adult education programs, in reality, the programs are not being supported by the federal government. For instance, in the name of improving fiscal management, the Canadian government has defunded funds allocated to the national literacy and essential skills network (Canadian Literacy and Learning Network, 2014). Mainly made up of adult education practioners surviving on low salaries to help vulnerable Canadian citizens, these educators are left without or with very little work, as a result of being denied opportunity for growth for themselves and those they help (Canadian Literacy and Learning Network, 2014). Focusing on what seems to be “closing the skills gap” by training workers for high-demand jobs, the federal government will no longer support the advancing skill levels of Canadians (Canadian Literacy and Learning Network, 2014). This is problematic as multiple advanced skills training programs will not function for Canadians with low basic skill levels, therefore, regarding them as eligible candidates for a placement or they may not successfully complete their training programs.

Another example of the government’s lack of support for collective action related to adult education is the removal of Statistics Canada’s issue known as “Education Matters: Insights on Education, Learning and Training in Canada”. If adult educators cannot rely on statistical information related critical educational, how can an adult education movement be taken seriously today in Canada? It is to no surprise the movement is no longer what it used to be. What else has contributed to the decline of the adult education movement?

Canada’s shift in values

During the 1930s to the end of the 1950s, the adult education movement was inspired by beliefs about the nature of citizenship and value of liberal democracy (Selman, 2009). One of the major challenges faced by Canadians was the need for change hence learning was essential in achieving that. What kinds of values have been compromised? Canada has witnessed multiple debates over women’s rights, sovereignty in Quebec and Aboriginal people. Thus, adult education initiatives such as the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women can be deemed as outdated given some women learned to work outside the mainstream organizations and take matters into their own hands. During this time, organizations with more specific interests were struggling to maintain a representation of Canada`s diverse society. Consequently, it is a change in priorities from the idea of progress through voluntary action, cooperation and shared learning to groups achieving their specific goals for themselves.

The evolution of the adult education movement

At the root of the debate between Nesbit and the Selmans lies a deep misunderstanding in the notion of what is considered the adult education movement. Let this debate serve as an example for adult education practioners to illustrate a healthy conversation to address the direction of the adult education movement. On one hand, the Canadian adult education movement will only fructify with an open dialogue and shared ideas, which will only occur with the encouragement of the federal government. On the other, relying on the government may not bring us very far. Therefore, we may consider new methods to participate in today’s evolved adult education movement. Social movement learning means directly engaging citizens into the issue and providing them a space to take action. Just like social movements take place outside the traditional classroom, adult education movements reflect this phenomenon of moving beyond traditional spheres of learning. Be it anywhere from picketing to using forms of social media to share ideas, it is clear that social media has inevitably shaped the way adult students, educators, employees and professionals learn, work and teaching. Just as social movements, social media has shaped the way learning happens. Not only does technology help shape adult learning, but it has also allowed for collaborative environments where adults can share their ideas through informal settings.

Conclusion

It is clear that investing time and money into adult education is pivotal to Canada`s future. The “death” of the adult education movement matters for it has shifted from collaborative to individualized activities. Therefore, while adult education initiatives exist, the traditional adult education movement has faded and as a result the nature of the movement has evolved into the way adult students, lifelong learners and educators interact together. It is our duty as adult educators to recognize the shift in the movement and to begin by redefining meaningful and collective practices.

References

Canadian Literacy and Learning Network, Retrieved from: http://www.literacy.ca/news/general/federal-government-quietly-collapses-literacy-essential-skills-network/.

Centre For Literacy, Retrieved from http://www.centreforliteracy.qc.ca/news/defunding-adult-literacy-organizations-means-hard-times-sector.

Hall, B. & Turay, T. (2006). State of the field report: Social movement Learning. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia.

Nesbit, Tom (2011). Canadian Adult Education: Still a Movement. Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, 37(1) pp. 1-13.

Selman, G. & Selman, M. (2009). The Life and Death of the Canadian Adult Education Movement. Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, 35(2), pp. 13-28.

Selman, Mark (2011). Canadian Adult Education: Still a Movement? Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, 37(2), pp. 10-7.

Statistics Canada, Education Matters: Insights on Education, Learning and Training in Canada, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-004-x/81-004-x2012001-eng.htm.

As a community development researcher, Emilie is fascinated by creative educational initiatives with social development purposes.

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