Online extra:
From integrating ‘others’ to training oneself*

Clara Kuhlen
University of Würzburg




 “Bildung für alle (BfA) – Education for all” started as a small initiative in Southern Germany in 2014. The article highlights how adult education can influence the awareness of diversity. Using BfA as an example, a possible shift towards broadening one’s own understanding of integration is proposed.

Following the rules

The demand for integration has been growing in Europe, especially since 2015, when refugees and migrants from areas afflicted by crises and wars were forced to flee in growing numbers towards more stable countries such as Germany. But what is officially meant in that context by saying that ‘immigrants’ should integrate into German society? According to the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF 2017), integration is a long-term process the aim of which is to include everyone in German society and its labour market who lives in Germany on a permanent and legal basis, as well as providing equal access to all areas of society. In response, the German Government has reinforced the idea that language is key to what is considered ‘successful’ integration. But German is not a language that is spoken in many parts of the world. According to the definition by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, immigrants of all ages are required to learn German in order to integrate (BAMF 2017). Only then might integration be considered successful according to the Federal Office’s somewhat narrow definition. How are these assertions acted out in practice?

In 2014, a young carpenter from Gambia found a job in a furniture workshop close to Freiburg, in the South of Germany. The contact had been established through a network of friends and heavily-involved members of a non-profit organisation for international summer camps known as FöFe. The organisation aims to foster mutual exchange and understanding between young people from Europe (e.g. Germany and Greece) and beyond. With the help of personal contacts, Gerd Schneider, at that time the Vice-Chairmann of FöFe, and also the owner of the workshop, wanted to enable refugees like his friend to actively engage in society in just the same way as most people did. Gerd Schneider and many FöFe members expected refugees’ employment status to enable them to gain better access to a somewhat closed society by pursuing their professional careers and consequently joining the mainstream of the population, that is the group of working and/or employed people. Looking at integration in this very broad sense, it is initially understood here as involving foreigners in the system of the labour market, and hence as a way of joining the majority society.

Also in carpentry, further German language skills were required in order to officially start the carpenter apprenticeship programme. Even though German classes were offered by the government in that region, many people still had to wait for a spot to open up, as did the Gambian carpenter. Those without prospects of permanent, legal residence status were often not offered a language class free of charge. FöFe reacted by offering German language classes for free. Since the members work voluntarily in international summer camps, and many of them are school teachers or educators by profession, it was easy to find teachers willing to work on a voluntary, unpaid basis. By the end of 2014, the ideas had taken on concrete form, and the founders called the new initiative “Bildung für alle (BfA) – Education for All”, in line with their policy that everyone should be able to participate in society and education for free. The German course started with one class of ten people and about six teachers in the beginning of 2015.

A success story

Only two years after being established, BfA gained the legal status of an independent, non-political, non-religious organisation at the beginning of 2017. The development has been unexpectedly rapid, the financial support it has received is impressive, and the number of interested students and teachers has been growing ever since. Along with the support of several foundations, BfA received the so-called StartSocial scholarship, which is under the patronage of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Besides the eight classes with around 140 students and more than 50 teachers, each class being offered three times per week, there are now waiting lists of 60 students and as many as 12 more teachers who are interested in participating in the project.

BfA has obviously faced some major changes in recent years. As an independent organisation, they are following their own aims: Language classes ranging from the level of illiteracy to B1 level  are offered free of charge to refugees as well as to other immigrants aged from 25 and upwards. The long-term aim is to facilitate language classes up to a level that enables the students to find an apprenticeship or a job, or to enable them to attend vocational training courses in order to meet the requirements for finding a job (BfA 2017).

So what now?

Despite the considerable success that the project has experienced, I would like to outline some of the challenges that BfA has had to face so far. Those “lessons learned” will not only lend an insight into the development of that growing organisation, but might also help to re-think the understanding of responsibilities when talking about integration processes. The role of adult education within the project has changed over time: The project is no longer only concerned with teaching a language for vocational support, since the project members themselves have asserted their own claim for further learning. The following brief inputs will embed the example within the context of adult education in Germany.

Reversing roles

When taking a closer look at adult education staff in Germany, the field appears to be highly heterogeneous, and is often accessed through a variety of paths. Besides specially-trained adult educators, people from diverse professional backgrounds, including school teachers, find themselves in charge of adult education and learning. Most have attended formal academic training in their fields, and a few have also experienced non-formal training settings. But the proportion of volunteers in adult education is quite high, and this is especially so in independent non-profit organisations. Despite good qualifications in general, adult education staff in Germany are still confronted with a diversity of professional backgrounds (DIE 2015). In recent debates, professionalisation endeavours have taken a closer look at individual staff professionalisation. This includes a more individual process of developing a professional identity, built on educational knowledge, both academic and non-academic (Nittel & Seltrecht 2008).

The development of a diversity of staff within the field of adult education in Germany is obvious for BfA as well. As was mentioned above, Gerd Schneider is a carpenter and Leonie Bozenhardt is a student of social work. The organisation has only had a staff member who is trained to teach German as a foreign language since April 2017. Except for the coordinators, all the teachers in the project are volunteers. The project has been growing rapidly, both in terms of the number of students and of teachers. Some are even on a waiting list, willing to work voluntarily for BfA. Most of them are school teachers or educators, but hardly anyone is explicitly working in the field of adult education. A need for further training courses for the volunteers arose due to the variety of their professional backgrounds. The topics were frequently brought up within the group of volunteers because they found themselves surprised by complex situations in the classrooms. Teaching adults a foreign language in order to enable them to find a job turned out to be quite different than giving German lessons to German children in school settings. Workshops on didactics, methods, grammar, etc., for teaching German as a foreign language needed to be offered. It is the teachers themselves who have asked BfA for more training. The coordinators now offer further training courses regularly, but still on a voluntary basis. They sometimes also take part in the training courses, and the feedback is very positive. The coordinators are also cooperating with a teacher training institute: During class visits, the volunteers have the option to be observed by a professional teacher trainer. They subsequently receive feedback on their teaching and can discuss alternatives in order to further develop their own skills and the progress of the class. The fact that the volunteers on the staff come from a great diversity of backgrounds is regarded as an advantage here in order to further develop the language classes. When it emerged that it was not only the students who needed to learn the language, but also the teachers who needed to learn how to teach it, supporting adult learning processes became crucial for the project.

But it is not only the staff in adult education in Germany who are characterised by their diversity. Some time ago, the field became sensitised to the individual needs of learners with the shift from target group orientation towards participant orientation. Learners thus differ in terms of their personal needs and demands. The latter also depend on the given context and the learning environments. Former assumptions of standardisation for a pre-defined target group of adults have changed towards focusing on individual participants’ specific needs (Robak 2013; von Hippel & Tippelt 2011). Given those individual needs, it is no longer sufficient to solely see adult learners as one big group, e.g. ‘refugees’. Even if the latter might belong to a pre-constructed group, adult education should acknowledge the diversity of learners as individuals.

The individual needs of the adult learners in BfA turned out to be different than what the voluntary teachers were used to encountering in their main jobs in schools, youth community centres, outdoor education training courses, etc. It is longer sufficient to think of one target group such as “refugees and immigrants who are adults aged 25 and older” (BfA 2017). Instead, the individual contexts of some participants also have to be taken into account. Not only the volunteers, but also the coordinators of BfA started to realise that minor struggles were taking place with situations that seemed complex and new to them. When fewer attendees showed up to the evening classes, or if they appeared somewhat tired, many teachers did not know how to react to the situation until it became clear to them that this was taking place during specific holidays such as Ramadan. The board of the organisation decided to invite external experts to provide greater input on topics such as “Islam and Muslim customs”. Events were held in order to inform teachers about topics of which they might not have been aware. In this particular case, religious traditions and beliefs that differed between some teachers and participants have helped to address “diversity” in the context of adult education within BfA. Thus, the project was no longer only working with refugees and immigrants in order to foster their integration, but also focussed on training its own members towards a better understanding of cultural diversity.

Lessons learned

What we see in the BfA project is a reversal of the role that adult education was initially intended to play. Whilst voluntary teachers and project coordinators tried at first to enable integration, as defined by officialdom, they found that they themselves needed to learn more. In order to enable ‘Others’ to integrate into German society, they had to start by raising their own awareness about diversity. That has been done by understanding how and why their students acted in a certain way, such as at Ramadan, or by understanding that teaching adults does not mean that there is one big target group only. Or by learning about methods and didactics that were especially chosen to cater to the needs of teaching German as a foreign language to non-native speakers.

The coordinators and teachers have been able to facilitate more open learning environments, which might build integration – if this is indeed the goal – on a foundation of mutual understanding. Even though integration is officially considered to be a process that is mainly undertaken by immigrants, the “majority society”, in this case Germany, plays a crucial role in that process. Rather, the members of the majority society have to assume their active role, and they need to broaden their own understanding by developing a sensitivity for diversity. In doing so, a narrow definition of integration can be changed towards a more inclusive society. When looking at the BfA project, integration appears to be less one-sided than one would gather from the official statements alone. Projects like this could help us remember that there is always a ‘self’ when we are defining a ‘diverse other’, and that learning does not stop when one starts to teach.

I would like to thank the coordinators Leonie Bozenhardt and Gerd Schneider for their time and the insights that they provided me into the project. Their support enabled me to spend time observing the project, visiting on the day of the language tests for the pre-course assessment, participating in joint cooking/dinner evenings, discussing with teachers and participants and finally interviewing them.


* / This article has been written exclusively for the digital version of the Adult Education and Development journal.

i / The levels are measured according to the “Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – CEFR”, ranging from beginner’s level A1 to almost native speaker level C2.


BAMF (2017): Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge: Glossar: Integration.

BfA (2017): Bildung für alle Freiburg e.V. Über uns., author’s translation.

DIE: (17.11.2015): Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung: Personnel Structure in Continuing Education.

Nittel, D. & Seltrecht, A. (2008): Der Pfad der „individuellen Professionalisierung”: ein Beitrag zur kritisch-konstruktiven erziehungswissenschaftlichen Berufsgruppenforschung. Fritz Schütze zum 65. Geburtstag. In: BIOS – Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung, Oral History und Lebensverlaufsanalysen, 124-145.

Robak, S. (2013): Diversität in der Erwachsenenbildung(sforschung) im Spiegel theoretischer und empirischer Reflexionen – eine Standortdiskussion. In: Hauenschild, K.;  Robak, S.; & Sievers, I. (eds.) (2013): Diversity Education. Zugänge – Perspektiven – Beispiele, 183-203. Frankfurt am Main: Brandes & Aspel.

Von Hippel, A., & Tippelt, R. (2011): Adressaten-, Teilnehmer- und Zielgruppenforschung. In: von Hippel, A. &Tippelt, R. (2011): Handbuch Erwachsenenbildung/Weiterbildung (5th ed), 801-811. Wiesbaden: VS.

Project websites

Bildung für alle – Education for all:

FöFe: http://fö

About the author

Clara Kuhlen is a research fellow and PhD candidate at the Professorship for Adult/Continuing Education in Würzburg, Germany. She coordinates visits by international guest lecturers and students and teaches undergraduate students in education. For the last ten years, she has been actively involved in youth work in a non-profit organisation.