Joachim H. Knoll

Diversity by Design

Evolution, Trends and Problems of International and International Comparative Adult Education

UNESCO International Conferences on Adult Education

Because of the residual impact of the ground-breaking International Conferences on Adult Education organized by UNESCO (in Helsingör in 1949, Montreal in 1960, Tokyo in 1972, Paris in 1985 and Hamburg in 1997), what we mean here by international and international comparative adult education has achieved recogni tion that goes beyond the international community. The degree of recognition has varied, as has the way in which it has been applied, but many key decisions have been taken and there has been an increase in awareness of adult education

  • as an integral part of the discipline of education,
  • as an element of educational policy, through the growing trend to see educa tion systems in terms of pillars, and
  • as an addition to the fabric of social institutions in developing and threshold countries.

We do not need to rehearse again the outcomes of the individual conferences since I reviewed these recently in the journal Convergence,1 where I called attention to a number of turning points.

We shall therefore only mention these turning points briefly here, but it also needs to be said that some of the terms used to define concepts in this field have been refined and have changed radically, to reflect the functions of adult education. In doing so, we also need to look at national differences and peculiarities.

In the case of Germany, the historical development of adult education throughout the 19th and 20th centuries may be seen reflected in the terms Nationalerziehung (national education), Volksbildung (people’s education), Erwachsenenbildung (adult education) and Weiterbildung (continuing education), which represent historical stages frequently associated with fundamental changes in perceptions within the profession. Elsewhere, a similar progression can be seen from popular education via adult education to lifelong education and the more comprehensive term adult and continuing education.

Today, the overall term used everywhere is generally “adult learning and educa tion (ALE)”, which stresses the element of learning. This quest for an adequate term to describe both the content of the concept and its form of institutional organization has been addressed by the UNESCO International Conferences, at which the most recent favourite term was “diversity by design”, while the juxtaposition of adult learning and education and the broader notion of lifelong learning, embracing all phases of life, no longer presents any serious terminological difficulties.

The titles ascribed almost as propaganda slogans to the International Confer ences – massed gatherings of adult educators representing both theory and practice – demonstrate similar shifts in the significance of the functions of adult education, but seen on a worldwide scale. While the early conferences focused on the sharp contrast between adult education in developing and “industrialized” countries, the issue that came to be regarded by UNESCO as the most urgent, namely the “eradication of illiteracy”, subsequently took centre stage on each occasion. In the 1980s, UNESCO therefore considered options for practical educational action and education policy,2 supplementing these with the issue of literacy in developed countries.3 In addition, measures and programmes relating to the social structure of Member States were stressed to varying degrees: migration, population policy, social inclusion, inequalities in educational, employment and social opportunities, range of types and access, balance between basic education and vocational education, etc. Adult education thus opened up once more to a wider view, taking greater account from then on of the social and human dimension of education.4

These are the topics that are now on the agenda at both national and international level.

The International Conferences are naturally also concerned with academic research, supplied by university and non-university people and agencies.

Let us state clearly right at the start, that it is only international organizations that can take on tasks such as the OECD longitudinal literacy studies, the statisti cal analyses of Statistics Canada or the UNESCO World Surveys of Education, for which universities have neither the financial resources nor the staff. Moreover, international interest in and awareness of adult education tend to be in decline in

is best and what is worst. It provides a portrait of real findings without turning into a wish-list.

The authors of such comparisons invariably need to ask themselves how their work will actually serve society and policy (it needs an applied orientation), how its cost will relate to its benefit, and whether the material available permits statements of sufficiently wide import to be made.

One further key question might be whether large-scale investigations can still be carried out today, given the academic reservations about the global methodology associated with Bereday, especially if questions pertaining to one system or country are largely to be ignored.

Here I ought to add the self-evident remark that comparison need not be interna tional, but can in fact also be made within one system or one country, as might be the case in a comparison of adult education legislation in the Federal Laender of the German Federal Republic5 or in a comparative analysis of continuing education behaviour in the various regions of a country.

However, the danger of comparing the minutiae within one system, the limited import of which does not permit valid conclusions to be drawn and which can degenerate into bean-counting, should not be overlooked.

Two further remarks of a somewhat general nature should also be made about international comparison.

First, there is the question of the language in which the comparison is to be re corded in written form. In the case of UNESCO, the matter is relatively simple since there is generally no provision for publication in any language other than the canon of official languages (English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese); the language issue is more difficult in the context of the EU, where the languages of all Member States are official languages but the “vehicular languages” are in practice restricted to English and French.

Despite efforts to reverse the trend,6 German has largely lost its position as a lan guage of scientific research, and even as a language of education policy, although the humanities continue to fight for an exception and to claim that German should be given a certain preference on account of its traditional place and its factual contribution. It cannot be ignored, however, that the standardization of courses as part of the Bologna Process may tend to encourage further the conventional use of English.

International Adult Education

The second remark relates to bibliographical references. On the one hand, comparison must naturally acknowledge and wherever possible be based on the literature of the two of more countries in the original language(s). Translations are generally a poor second-best, especially if, as in the case of adult education, there is no universally agreed terminology. It is well-known that the attempts to agree equivalent terms in the fields of adult education have not proved satisfactory,7 particularly in countries with a wide diversity of institutions, policies and political outlook in adult education. Moreover, we are familiar with the unfortunate spread of charmed circles of quotations. These restricted cartels, which are at the very least open to the accusation that originality is often little more than as yet undiscovered plagiarism, or more straightforwardly, that there is no point in constantly reinventing the wheel, is a growing trend among international organizations, which generally give the impression of being self-referential. The OECD usually only quotes from OECD materials, and UNESCO only from UNESCO, while the academic literature heaped around them remains largely unknown and unmentioned; the documents of the EU Commission and the Council of Europe are no exception. However, given the positive impact of these international and supranational organizations on in ternational adult education research and continuing education policy, this state of affairs should not be condemned too severely.

International Adult Education in and through International and Supranational Organizations

Early on, international adult education grew out of the work of international and supranational organizations, and links were created between adult education and relevant research institutions.

The relationships with UNESCO (founded in 1945), the OECD (1948), the EC/EU (1975/1992) and the Council of Europe (1949) arose out of the ways in which adult education itself and the international organizations saw themselves as having an international role in fostering adult education in those areas that could not be handled by national agencies alone. Greater priority was therefore given to internationalism in adult education.

The organizations mentioned above each examined the area of adult education lying within its remit and, despite many overlaps and parallel activities, developed its own specific view of its role and function. A few key words will suffice here to indicate these specifics: UNESCO stands among other things for literacy in develop ing and industrialized countries, for large-scale programmes on lifelong learning, and for variety in education systems; the OECD for analyses and strategies in the middle ground of educational economics and educational reform, for longitudinal studies of literacy, and for key sectors of vocational training; the Council of Europe for issues of popular awareness through adult education and for the creation and maintenance of linguistic and cultural identity in Member countries (1992 Charter for Minority Languages); and the EU for lifelong learning and the creation of a European area of education (since 2000, beginning with the Memorandum on Lifelong Learning), for the development of national and European Quality Frame works (NQF, EQF), and for an Action Plan (2006-2008) aimed at the educational goals of:

  • Employability
  • Social inclusion
  • Active citizenship
  • Personal fulfilment

In a paper in the respected journal “Comparative Education” 8 we read the follow ing assessment: “The EU’s Lifelong Learning policy has emerged as an overarching educational reform policy intended to address a wide range of issues, including education, employment and competitiveness”, alongside the more dismissive refer ence to the Commission as “an entrepreneurial technocratic group”.

The specific activities concentrated on by international organizations, as set out above, amount really to no more than a list of areas also addressed to varying degrees by adult education in Germany, and not only by the Volkshochschulen (community adult education centres). This incidentally confirms my earlier thesis that adult education practice looked back after the war to the Weimar Republic and opened up to internationalism more fully than other areas of academe.

This argument is strengthened if we consider the specifically international ac tivities of the German Adult Education Association. The “Institute for International Cooperation” (IIZ/DVV, DVV International), which is regarded by the public in a similar light to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) in the United Kingdom, offers a tool for development education, thus also supporting the further argument that adult education in Germany uses the lessons learnt at home to create or reconstruct adult education systems in other countries and continents, providing development assistance in the form of publicly funded educational aid, with the approval and approbation of Government. The journal “Adult Education and Development” (since 1973), in which this paper will appear, manages among other things to do the neat trick of combining theory and practice within an inter national framework, thus providing a wide readership with divergent interests with a platform for topical discussion.

At this point it appears important to make the simple observation that internation alism must always be a two-way process, so that partners exchange views and the roles of giver and receiver are not rigidly fixed once and for all. Individual opinions, and cultural, religious and traditional peculiarities, need to be respected.

Comparison and Current Publications

At this point we need to ask about the purpose and intention of internationalism and international comparison: What can be achieved in terms of practical measures and actual programmes, in addition to greater awareness and mutual support? A modest answer must be given.

If we recall the initial “philosophy” of UNESCO, we find a vision of interna tionalism as meaning one society, with one culture and even one set of ethical obligations. In other words, a return to the eternal longing for a life blessed by fraternity and peace.

This early vision has given way to ever greater sobriety. In the report of the Delors Commission and the Maastricht Treaty, for example, the notion of total harmoniza tion was replaced by that of cultural individuality and subsidiarity, in which respect is shown for a diverse range of education and culture. The time is past when educa- tion was, like other fields, to be subjected to the ideal of an all-European diktat on standardization, as was the case in the 1970s.

Rather than offering the simplistic criticisms and truisms adduced in much international comparison, or indeed borrowing the educational ideologies of other countries, as used to be the fashion, perhaps we should remember the modest approach of Roby Kidd:

“The most common goals for comparative studies in adult education are:

  • To become better informed about the educational systems of other countries
  • To become better informed about the ways in which people in other cultures have carried out certain social functions by means of education
  • To become better informed about the historical roots of certain activities and thus to develop criteria for assessing contemporary developments and testing possible outcomes
  • To better understand the educational forms and systems operating in one’s own country
  • To satisfy an interest in how other human beings live and learn
  • To better understand oneself
  • To reveal how one’s own cultural biases and personal attributes affect one’s judgment about possible ways of carrying on learning transactions.”

This modesty was also reflected in the beginnings of comparative adult education research at the Nordborg Conference on Comparative Adult Education in 1971, which was guided by the principles of comparative general education and at first adopted the global methodology of G.Z.F. Bereday.

Since then, there has been a growth in our understanding of methods and func tions, empirical analysis, and reflection on the role of the tertium comparationis in comparative studies.

Juxtaposition has its own important place in research, alongside comparison, of which there are only a few successful examples, since one of the necessary quality criteria of comparative research is a tertium comparationis (“the third [element] of comparison”), the general definition of which is:

“If two objects are placed in a relationship one with the other, the t.c. is the characteristic or dimension which the two objects have in common and which makes it possible to compare them.”

I should like to give just two examples to illustrate the key methodological function of the tertium comparationis and the consequences for the validity of the comparison. The reliability of the OECD studies on “Literacy, Economy and Society” (1995 to 2005ff) rests on the prescribed and widely accepted “five levels of literacy”, which are used as a tertium comparationis and to which data can be allocated (Level 1: “indicates persons with very poor skills, where the individual may, for example, be unable to determine the correct amount of medicine to give to a child from information printed on the package….)” On this basis, the OECD is able to establish fairly accurately the extent and above all the degree of illiteracy and literacy throughout the world.

International Adult Education

A second example might be the comparison of legislation in different countries, based on a list of common cores, from which the need for amendment may be inferred. I have recently given further details in a publication9 using the example of Stability Pact countries in South East Europe.

Lastly, three publications from recent years may be used to illustrate the remaining areas of disagreement in international adult education discourse and comparative research. This selection can of course only be random, and will exclude the field of comparative general education, unless it specifically addresses the unique peculiarities of adult education – into which category the latest report by Christel Adick would fall: “Vergleichende Erziehungswissenschaft” (Comparative Education), Stuttgart 2008.

The three publications have been chosen because they again refer to some of the arguments put forward above.

The most important of these I regard as: Rolf Reischmann and Michael Bron (eds.), “Comparative Adult Education 2008, Experiences and Examples” (Frankfurt 2008), because it shows once more the wide variety of adult education systems throughout the world, both in shape, scope and content, and the great differences in their aims, which depend on economic circumstances and projections of social development. The introductory article by Jost Reischmann seems to me yet more important because it concisely summarizes once more the history of comparative research; this goes back to the middle of the 19th century and to the impressions of teaching abroad contained in “travellers’ tales”, and it looks forward to con temporary and future models of comparison. Through the individual descriptions of countries with their differing ranges of experience, this book also provides a source for further work.

The title by Ari Antikainen (ed.), “Transforming a Learning Society; the Case of Finland” (Berlin 2007), convincingly demonstrates how country descriptions can be seen not just in terms of juxtaposition as a precursor to comparison but also as models of change that extend beyond one country, to the European dimension, for example. This is what national reports ought to look like.

The book by Richard Desjardins, Kjell Rubenson and Marvelle Milana on “Un equal Chances to Participate in Adult Learning: International Perspectives” (Paris 2006), which has been overlooked in Germany, is in my view of fundamental relevance because it not only deals with the subject in a relevant way, but also dispenses with the myth that is still peddled today, that there cannot be any suc cessful comparison as yet because the requisite basic data are not available in standardized form for adult education. This may have been true when John Lowe wrote his deserving book “The Education of Adults. A World Perspective” (Paris 1976), but the later work shows how plentiful the sources of processed raw mate rial are:10 there is a plethora of international sources of information. In particular, we have only to think of the research, documentation and statistics divisions of the international organizations (OECD CERI, UNESCO UIL and IIEP, EU CEDEFOP), of the Internet portals Eurydice and Ploteus, and of the national service agencies such as, in the German case, the relevant ministries, DIE and DVV International.

While looking back to earlier times, it is therefore tempting to turn to the universi ties and complain, “The material is there – where are the comparativists?” Unfor tunately, the hopes of greater internationalization of adult education courses and certification associated with the Bologna Process, and the necessary allocation of resources that would go with that, have not been universally realized. Academic policy-makers still need to attend to this, but it cannot be achieved with a few English-sounding headings and labels.


1 The History of the UNESCO International Conferences on Adult Education, Convergence, Volume XL (3-4) 2007, p. 21 ff.
2 UNESCO, Recommendation on the Development of Adult Education 1976.
3 UNESCO Final Report, Paris 1985.
4 UNESCO, Agenda for the Future, Hamburg 1997.
5 Krug, Nuissl, Praxishandbuch Weiterbildungsrecht, Cologne 2004 .
6 See the recent essay by U. Ammon in response to the hearing of the Bundestag Committee for Foreign
Culture: “Wo Forscher noch Deutsch sprechen”, Die Welt 24. 1. 2009.
7 e.g. UNESCO, Glossary of educational technology terms, Paris 1992, A.Tuijnman, International Encyclo pedia of Adult Education and Training, OECD, Paris 1996.
8 Vol. 44, No. 4, Nov. 2008, p. 445.
9 Erwachsenenbildung – ex abundantia cordis... 2008.
10 “Brief overview on availability of comparative data and evidence.”, p. 25 ff, esp. “Surveys providing harmonized AET data”, 28 ff.


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