Sabrina Boscolo Lips

Would you expect women and men who have barely been to school to be reading Joyce, Cervantes and Dostoyevsky? To be setting up their own associations? To be organizing literary conferences? How can such things go together? Sabrina Boscolo Lips reports on an unusual and surprising movement. The author, who has long been an expert in adult education and festivals of learning (, is currently working in the field of addiction.  

Tertulias: A Shot of Optimism in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning

I first learned of the Tertulias through the EU project “Widening and Strengthening the European Dimension of the Lifelong Learning Week Movement” 1 (which I attended on behalf of the IIZ/DVV). Thus it was that we project participants, colleagues from Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and Germany, took part in the “Tertulias Literarias Dialógicas” (also called the Congress of Participants) in Madrid which was held as part of the first Spanish Lifelong Learning Week.

After meeting Tertulia participants personally and experiencing a Tertulia with a few of them, I was touched by the unbelievable energy and positive charisma of these people – yes, really “infected”, so that I then tracked them down in Barcelona and visited their “birthplace”. I confess that I was simply inspired by this movement and have had a difficult time restraining myself in the following description.

What are the Tertulias?

Strictly speaking they are called in English “Dialogic Literary Circles” (see below). The Spanish word “Tertulia” originally described groups of neighbours who, especially before the television era, sat outside to chat in the evening, talking about everything under the sun.

For about 20 years in Spain, a special type of literary circle has been using this title. In the Tertulias, people meet regularly in adult education centres, family education centres, libraries, civic centres and so on, and read the classics of world literature together, by authors such as Cervantes, Lorca and Joyce. In most cases they have no academic qualifications, many have not even finished compulsory education and some have only just completed a literacy course.

The Tertulias originated in La Verneda School2 in Barcelona in the early 1980s. The school was founded in 1978, when a neighbourhood group of blue-collar workers occupied an empty building of the Franco administration for this purpose. Today the centre has approximately 1600 learners, 125 voluntary workers and teachers, and 14 staff members.

The Spanish Tertulias are now networked through CONFAPEA,3 a kind of parent organization of participating groups and organizations. CONFAPEA organizes regular meetings, takes part in EU projects and fosters international contacts. FACEPA,4 a founding member of CONFAPEA, is internationally known for the coordination of a Socrates project which led to the drafting of the Participants’ Charter and its presentation at the 1997 CONFINTEA in Hamburg.

How do they Work?

Usually, classical literature is discussed in the Tertulias. The members decide jointly what book they wish to read and discuss. The essential question is: “What meaning does this message or story have for my life or for me personally?” The question of the author’s intended message is not pursued, unless someone wants to research it. Participants discuss passages of the text, raise queries, try to understand other viewpoints, practise arguing, but do not search for the definitive truth of the text. One or two moderators ensure that participants take turns at speaking, that the somewhat quieter members are given priority and that the principles of dialogue (see below) are respected. Anyone can be a moderator.

What Have the Tertulias  Achieved?

The following achievements have been reported in print (see References) and by word of mouth. When people realize that they are quite capable of understanding text and discussing it, when they interchange with those of like mind and support one another, they begin to want more, belatedly gaining qualifications, or resolving to learn a foreign language or an occupation. They learn that their views matter. They become active in civic centres, work as volunteers, found environmental groups, or organize cultural outings and new learning weeks in their own neighbourhoods. By addressing topics that they had never previously discussed (e.g. women’s rights, alcohol abuse, xenophobia) they bring a new zest to their own family lives. For these reasons, interest has been shown in the Tertulias for some time not only by the Institute for Social Research (CREA)5 of the University of Barcelona, but also by adult educators and researchers around the globe.6

What Does “Dialogic” Mean?

Ramón Flecha,7 a lecturer at the Institute for Social Research (CREA) of the University of Barcelona, clarifies the principles of “dialogic learning” in his book “Sharing Words”, using actual examples of Tertulia practice. He cites Paulo Freire and Jürgen Habermas in particular. These principles can only be mentioned briefly here:

1. Impartiality of Dialogue
All contributions are heard and discussed equally. There is no need to reach a consensus. There is no one right answer, regardless of the speaker’s cultural or social background.

2. Cultural Intelligence
Each person possesses the ability to take part in an impartial dialogue. In the course of life, everyone learns a variety of things which can be useful in a range of contexts.

3. Change
Dialogic learning changes relationships among people and with their surroundings/environment.

4. Instrumental Dimension
The process of reading and exchanging ideas improves participants’ ability to learn and cultivate new knowledge, which, in turn, simplifies new learning.

5. Creation of Meaning
Meaning originates in dialogue, in relationships among Tertulia participants.

6. Solidarity
Tertulia practice is based on the conviction that solidarity among all people is desirable and necessary. Tertulias are open to all, with no economic or academic barriers.

7. Similarity and Difference
All people are similar and at the same time different.

Tertulias: An Experience that Transcends Borders

No matter where we are from, when it comes to human matters we are all very much alike. When we had the Circle with people from other countries in the end we agreed on many things, we were surprised.” (Quotation from a participant)8

1001 Tertulias worldwide” was the slogan introduced at the first congress of “Tertulias Literarias Dialógicas” in 2000 as a vision and a goal. While the number 1001 is thus far a dream, the Tertulias have already spread across Europe, Australia, the United States and Brazil.

Tertulias seem to be exportable. The social changes in Spain and the challenges for which the Tertulias appear to be useful are similar in many places: increasing individualism, the atomizing of society along with a spreading feeling of powerlessness, the growing remoteness of the participatory opportunities which the democratic political system actually offers, the difficulties faced by large sections of the population in exercising any influence, the isolation of the elderly, the juxtaposition of cultures, poverty, illiteracy, and the need for lifelong learning. Even young democracies can profit from Tertulias.

Tertulias are perhaps the butterfly whose beating wings will cause a whirlwind. “To start a Dialogic Literary Circle it is not necessary to have any kind of literary knowledge, nor do you need a large group, the only thing you need is illusory hope.” 9


1 Widening and Strengthening the European Dimension of the Lifelong Learning Week Movement (LLW5) – EU Project 100924 – CP – 1 – SI – GRUNDTVIG – GI; Internet:
2 La Verneda School, Barcelona;
3 CONFAPEA – Confederación de federaciones y asociaciones de participantes en educación y cultura democrática de personas adultas (= Confederation of federations and associations of adult participants in education and democratic culture)
4 FACEPA – Federació d’Associacions Culturals i Educatives per a Persones Adultes (= Federation of Cultural and Adult Education Associations)
5 University of Barcelona, Institute for Social Research – CREA
6 Sánchez Aroca, Montse, La Verneda-Sant Martí: A school where people dare to dream. In: Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 69, Nr. 3, Fall 1999, p. 320 and Suda, Liz, Diary of an Australian adult educator’s study tour to track down Tertulias in Europe; ~flemrw/Spanish_home.html
7 Flecha, Ramon, Sharing Words: Theory and Practice of dialogic learning. Lanham: Rowmann & Lietfield, 2000 (Original: Compartiendo Palabras: El aprendizaje de las personas adultas a través del diálogo. Barcelona: Paidós, 1997).
8 EU project report: European Multicultural Dialogue: Participating in the cultural diversity in Europe through the classics of universal literature, FACEPA, p. 14

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