Interviews, Jyri Manninen
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«One of my fears is that adults stop learning deeper issues»

Today’s societies are confronted with enormous problems. Jyri Manninen, Finnish researcher and adult educator, is convinced that these problems can only be solved if people, organisations and whole societies learn to reflect on their behaviour and understand complex interrelationships. Change-oriented adult education aims to encourage people to get involved in this kind of learning process.

Change has become a very popular term nowadays. How do you understand change in the context of adult education?

Jyri Manninen: Change is a very demanding process for individuals, societies and organisations. Compared to traditional learning approaches, change-oriented learning activities go deeper. While traditional education focuses mainly on skills and work-related competencies, change-oriented adult education takes into account the whole complexity of problems, and aims to achieve a deeper understanding. Many problems in society are so complex that they need cooperation and genuine dialogue between people in order to develop a common, clear and true understanding of the situation. Here, change-oriented adult learning methods can help.

What is change-oriented adult education?

Generally speaking, change-oriented adult education can be defined as a course or program, or project, which aims to solve complex problems in individual lives, organisations, communities, societies or globally. For each level there are different methods available. Jack Mezirow, for instance, developed an approach called transformative learning, which is aimed at individual change. Yriö Engeström, among others, developed methods for change-oriented learning in organisations. There is no universal method for all these levels. 

Can you give an example?

At the individual level, for example, a difficult life situation may require personal reflection and changes in the way somebody thinks and behaves. In this case, transformative learning could be a solution. If an organisation is faced with major problems, it may not be enough to focus on symptoms, but can be much more effective to focus on the reasons why those problems have arisen in the first place. In organisational learning theories this kind of learning is often called double-loop learning or expansive learning.

The point is: If you have to cope with complex problems, new skills, as for instance technical competencies, are not sufficient on their own. You need a deeper understanding of the situation, the broader context and the processes or mechanisms which shape these problems.

What does this mean in practice, for instance in the context of the digital transformation of societies?

This means that it is not enough to teach people how to use social media and share news on Facebook and the like. A deeper change in this case would include an increased understanding of the way Facebook works. A kind of media literacy that enables people to tell the difference between fake news and real news, for example.

Of course we also need a lot of basic digital skill training for adults, especially for older adults who haven’t had a chance to learn these skills when they were young or still in working life. So, we do need “not-change-oriented” adult education, but it is not enough.

Another example: You can teach unemployed people how to write a better CV because it’s needed in the job search. But they also have to learn to understand how the labour market works, how employers seek new employees. If job seekers only rely on public advertising they might end up competing with hundreds of applicants in the same position. So, they have to learn that the CV is just a technical tool and you have to know how to use it. You might have to go directly to the employers, you need to talk to your friends, you have to create networks and so on in order to become employed in the current society. That means: Learning to write a good CV doesn’t help anyone in job seeking. It’s only a starting point. You have to go deeper and understand how the system works. That’s what change-oriented adult education tries to achieve.

Let’s assume you have understood how the system works, how do you come to the point where things actually change? I assume job-seeking is not automatically change-oriented, even if you understand the system.

That’s right, job-seeking might not change the labour market, but if you understand the system you become able to change your own situation, which might very well have an impact on your social context. In practice, the step from deep, change-oriented learning to actual change often requires different types of learning. It requires group discussions, dialogue and in many cases also one-to-one guidance. Change-oriented adult education uses a wide range of methods.

What about self-directed learning? In the context of digitalization, this concept seems to have become quite popular. How does it relate to change-oriented adult education?

Yes, I know many people think that self-directed learning is becoming more important. But this is a very old-fashioned understanding of adult education. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a so-called humanistic movement. Its credo was that people are self-directed, especially adults, and you don’t have to or even cannot teach them. You have to let them learn on their own. But that’s not true. Adults, in many respects,  are poor learners.

As adult educators, we have to take an active role. This role is not to tell adults what to do and what to think, but we have to discuss and in cooperation with the learners make them understand different perspectives. Nowadays we try to promote group activities so that people learn together and discuss. In this kind of setting, adults can develop so-called agency and learn in a self-directed way because they have a group to support them. This concept is very different from the old-fashioned idea that adults can just sit in a corner with their laptop and learn everything on their own.

If adult educators shall help learners understand interconnections and complex systems, they need to understand this complexity themselves. Do they have the respective competencies?

«Change-oriented adult education is about facilitating discussions, group processes and the development of thinking.»

If you want to use change-oriented methods in adult education, you need to develop these competencies. For many adult educators, it means that they have to change their whole adult education philosophy. The common understanding is that teachers or trainers tell people how things are, provide information and instruct people in a traditional way. But if you want to promote change, you have to let go of this idea. Change-oriented adult education is about facilitating discussions, group processes and the development of thinking. This requires a range of methods which inspire adults to think and reflect on their own experiences and get into a deeper dialogue with others. Adult educators need to develop skills for this kind of facilitation.

You have been in the field of adult education and research for quite a long time. When and why did you get interested in change-oriented adult education?

Change-oriented adult education has been my research interest for maybe 30 years, since my master studies and graduation in 1988. I have been in this field mainly at universities but also in teaching practices. For me, this is one of the alternative ways to organise adult education. We have very traditional ways, for example, to develop skills in work organisations –  which is perfectly fine, it is something we have to do because organisations cannot work unless their employees are skilled and able to do the work they have been hired for.

But with regard to other situations and bigger issues, this kind of competence-oriented, traditional adult and continuing education does not help. In these cases, we need change-oriented adult education. Think of problems like poverty, inequality and climate change or, at the individual level, personal crises and biographical transitions. These kinds of challenges require learning strategies that rely on dialogue, reflective thinking and a deeper understanding of the mechanisms and contexts in which you are involved.

How did the field of change-oriented adult education develop in these 30 years?

It is not actually possible to talk about a development in this sense because we had very good examples of change-oriented adult education throughout the history of mankind. Think of Socrates: He used to ask questions and help people understand what they knew and understand things they thought they didn’t know. This old Socratic method is a kind of change-oriented approach. In the 1920s Eduard Lindeman used adult education to help people living in the slums. He tried to help them understand their own situation and develop meaning in their lives. In more recent times, at the beginning of the 1980s, some prominent adult educators and theorists started to develop change-oriented theories. So, there have always been theorists who promoted change-oriented adult education. And, on the other hand, people who have been dealing with less change-oriented adult education. Like the behaviourist Skinner who studied how to treat and train people like monkeys or dogs or rats.

So change-oriented adult education is quite an old approach. Do you think it is becoming more important now?

«I think that change-oriented adult education is nowadays needed more than ever.»

Yes, I think so, in many ways. We have such big problems in society and at the global level, climate change, poverty, fake news, hate speech and so on, which really require new methods and deeper learning. I do not think that these problems can be solved unless people, and especially adults, learn to behave and think and act differently. But this seems to be extremely difficult.  So yes, absolutely, I think that change-oriented adult education is nowadays needed more than ever.

In the FutureLab project, we have collected a lot of materials and examples of change-oriented adult education (see report). What’s your impression of those projects?

These examples are not representative because they have been sent to us instead of being collected in a systematic, scientific way. So, it is a bit of a random choice, but there are many interesting change-oriented courses and projects, also from Switzerland. The Swiss examples are obviously based in the Swiss democratic system, which is well known throughout the world. It is interesting to see these activities in so many different countries, but it is difficult to actually find so-called radical change-oriented courses in this collection. A reason might be that the people who run these radical courses are not usually connected to the traditional adult education organisations who collected these examples. Many of them operate outside the system or at the margins of the ordinary educational system.

Is it necessary for change-oriented adult education to operate outside the system?

I think it’s easier for organisations and individuals or civic movements who work outside the system to organise learning activities in a more rapid and innovative way. If you work within a university or a school you are tied by the rules and laws and the funding system which keeps your organisation alive. The Minister of Education might not be willing to finance these kinds of courses for adults because in his opinion it is not exactly your task. Or if the provider’s finances relate to the number of students, they might not be willing to take the risk and try something different, change-oriented. That’s why it is easier to work outside the grid.

Ok, but then the possibilities and impact of change-oriented adult education are quite limited.

Yes. But there are at least some national and also international organisations who provide funding for these types of change-oriented activities. We have hope. But yes, there are limited opportunities.

What would you hope for the future if adult education is to tackle global issues such as climate change? Is it mainly a question of funding?

I would hope that international organisations like Unesco and OECD understand that they have to provide funding for this kind of adult education, not only for work-related education and training. They have to understand that if current societies cannot face up to the challenges of climate change and hate speech, poverty, fake news, migration, illiteracy and so on, the whole world will be destroyed in 15, 20 maybe 50 years. They should start investing in activities which help adults to understand and reflect upon their behaviour in the world. Otherwise, the current system will collapse. We are in a very complicated situation. Nations and international organisations definitely need to pay more attention to these kinds of activities.

One of my fears is that adults stop learning deeper issues and content themselves with acquiring work-related practical skills. Or stop participating in adult education altogether. Nowadays only a minority of adults participate in all countries, and the participation rates are not rising.

As you said, change-oriented adult education has been working mainly outside the educational system. Could it still be a perspective for the future of adult learning?

I think so, yes. Change-oriented activities are directly linked to the future. And the future is not something that happens to us. The future is something we can shape. The more people we can engage in deeper learning and in making choices about the future, the better a future we will have. It is up to us to decide how we want to develop our lives or nations, societies and the world.

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