Learning in disguise
Barry Norris explains how Adult Learners' Week uses indirect ways to encourage adults back into learning
Only one in three of adults who say they have done no learning since leaving school think they might take it up in the future. When pressed, they sometimes tell researchers that learning can help you keep your job or get a better one, that it helps your children, or that learners have more interesting lives, but they still say 'it's not for the likes of me'. For 17 years, Adult Learners' Week has been addressing this challenge and successfully persuading adults that it is worth fitting learning into their crowded lives.
Adult Learners' Week events work best when they are like Trojan horses - dressing up learning in a variety of disguises. Learning is an everyday activity for all of us but we enjoy it and take it in more when we don't consciously recognise it as learning, when we are concentrating on something else, or when it is involuntary, almost like breathing.
One example is a project that took place two years ago in Dartmoor prison, where prisoners, in order to record themselves reading bedtime stories to their children, learnt a wide range of media literacy skills. This project, 'Storybook Dad', introduced many prisoners to learning they might otherwise not have been interested in. A similar project is currently being used to help soldiers serving overseas keep in touch with their families.
Another example: on Cultural Diversity Day 2007 a 'Culturefeast' took place in Stockport town centre. Stages showcasing music and dance and an international market were connected by learning activities and taster sessions. In an evaluation, more than 75% of respondents said that the event added to their knowledge and understanding of culture. But the event worked because of its focus on the stage acts and the unusual food in the market. This year, it will be 'Cultural Diversity Weekend' and will take place on 17th - 18th May.
Current trends such as the interest in family history initiated by television programmes like the BBC's Who do you think you are? have been popular 'disguises' too. Libraries in particular have been using this theme as a way into adult learning because most people have a natural interest in their identity and their family history. Before people have had a chance to think twice about it, they are learning - involuntarily.
When building your own 'Trojan horse', it is important to remember the crucial role that partnerships can play.The more help and support you have, the bigger and better your Trojan horse will be. And the most successful way of building it is through partnerships that benefit all those involved.
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), which coordinates Adult Learners' Week, recently organised a series of regional roadshows to talk to practitioners face to face and to offer advice and guidance on partnerships and how to organise events.
At each roadshow, practitioners were asked: What percentage of people started or enrolled in a course as a result of contacting learndirect during Adult Learners' Week? Most practitioners guessed a figure that was much lower than the correct answer, which is 57%. Most respondents were also surprised to find out that as many as 74% of people who had participated in some form of activity during Adult Learners' Week had stated that the Week made them think seriously about starting some form of learning.
So, if learners know about the benefits of learning but do not think it is for them, 'learning in disguise' tactics are clearly a great way of getting them, and in fact all of us, to think 'Maybe learning is for me'.
Barry Norris is Assistant Publicity Coordinator at NIACE
For more information on Adult Learners' Week, visit www.alw.org.uk