Adult learning and education, power relations and community engagement

Adult learning and education, power relations, decent work, gender equality and community engagement

By Malini Ghose (India), Paul Belanger (Quebec, Canada), Cecilia Fernandez (Uruguay), Shirley Walters (South Africa), Maja Maksimovic (Serbia)

Background context:

Multiple and intersecting challenges

Over the past decades adult educators and activists across the globe have been variously successful at addressing fundamental issues of oppression and liberation. In our search for social justice in the early twenty-first century, however, we inherit a number of challenges our parents and grandparents faced. But there are also new challenges as we attempt to make sense of a world indelibly marked by the failure of postcolonial (and advanced) capitalist and communist nation-states to provide for the social, economic, spiritual and psychic needs of the majority of the world’s population.

In 2015, globalisation has come to represent the interests of corporations and the ‘free market’ rather than self-determination for all people.  Militarisation and war, environmental degradation, heterosexist state practices, religious fundamentalisms, sustained migrations of people across the borders of nations and geopolitical regions, environmental crises, violence of all forms, and the exploitation of women, marginalised men and children’s labour, pose profound challenges for adult educators and social justice activists at this time.

ALE and the world of work

The global economic crisis has exacerbated poverty, restructured labour relations and the world of work more broadly, with disastrous impacts on the poor, women and other disadvantaged groups. Growth in the era of globalisation has been primarily in the form of jobless growth or growth in low-paid jobs under appalling working conditions. The informal sector has expanded, yet most workplace education and skill development initiatives focus on the formal sector, denying learning opportunities to women and other marginalised groups. Further as formal education expands, young people exiting the system are unable to find appropriate jobs, leading to alienation. In this complex context, adult educators have struggled to promote a vision where the right to work is a fundamental right, which includes a transformation of the current provision of education and training opportunities in a variety of ways: to include a diversity of workplace contexts, workers’ voices in determining content, competencies to deal with a rapidly changing environment, validation of prior learning, to suggest a few.

ALE and power relations

Adult popular education is an emancipatory project, and has been at the forefront of critiquing unequal and intersecting power relations emerging from a range of social and material realities like class, gender, race, ethnicity, caste, sexuality, disability, language, and knowledge systems to name a few. More importantly perhaps, transformative adult education initiatives have been crucial in not just providing a critique, but in building powerful alternatives that enable individuals and communities to interrogate, negotiate and realign power relations. Adult learning and education efforts have been concerned not just with the outcomes of learning but with learning processes. Thus at the heart of adult learning, are efforts to develop pedagogies that challenge power relations within diverse learning space – for example, literacy centres, workplaces, community forums, universities.

However, given rapidly changing contexts, some of which have been outline above, there are fresh questions to be asked. In what ways are the conceptual frames and practices of adult learning and education engaging with power relations emerging from new and continuing forms of discrimination and inequalities? What meanings are assigned to concepts like empowerment, once a powerful transformative conceptual tool, but now used and measured by institutions as diverse as women’s groups, governments, international agencies and corporates? Is there a value in reclaiming such concepts? How is the adult learning community responding to current policy discourses that privilege economistic values of productivity, efficacy, efficiency and ignore ‘ways of knowing’ that are not part of rational educational discourse, that focus on cognition and skills development rather than empowerment or rights? We can’t ignore vocational education, which is essential for exercising the right to decent work, but then what kind of vocational education programmes are most appropriate? Do we have examples of adult literacy and education initiatives that have transformed power relations which we can share with one another? Finally, can we be reflexive of our own praxis? Adult education is not immune to unequal power relations and, in the current neoliberal world, can also be working to reproduce and maintains inequalities? We have to re-ask the question what kind of learning and education will empower, and what would strengthen existing discrimination? What priorities should the global adult education community be setting for the coming five years, to engage with the present economic and social complexities?  In an increasingly polarised world how do we continue to ensure that the voices and mandates of learners are heard and included in agenda setting?  Theme Four seeks to explore some of these pressing and complex issues.


Theme 4 will focus on the pragmatic and visionary work from different regional perspectives of adult educators and activists, who strive to create possibilities of another more egalitarian world, as we uncover, make visible and challenge prevailing relations of power within complex and difficult material constraints of place, time, and resources.

We invite you to submit proposals for workshops, papers, participatory activities, roundtable discussions, to share your practices, theorising, and imaginings in one of the following sub-themes where you are attempting to undertake transformative educational and organisational work:

  • Gender equality and empowerment
  • Strategies for securing decent work, this can include paid or unpaid work in the formal and informal sectors
  • Challenging and realigning power relations to end all forms of discrimination and exploitation in communities, families, workplaces, institutions
  • Popular and community education

Each session will be 90 minutes.

We strongly urge you submit workshop proposals that are creative and provocative to encourage critical engagements which help us think ‘out of the box’. We would suggest that workshops could:

  • Include presentations, including policy issues and grassroots EXPERIENCES, where there is sufficient time for debate and discussion
  • Be participatory and use interactive methods
  • Have a balance of regional representation and enable sharing of experiences
  • Allow for learner, practitioner and youth voices.
  • Make suggestions for a future course of action for ICAE and the adult education community more broadly

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