“New professionalism” and my journey to becoming an adult educator

Jose Roberto Guevara
RMIT University

Abstract – The many dimensions of professionalisation that we currently see in adult education­ are illustrated through a lens of personal ex­periences and reflections in this article. It is this ability for reflection and reflexivity that defines a good adult educator, perhaps even more than a formal qualification. The importance of context is also thoroughly examined. And just when you think you’ve got it, another challenge pops up.

My assumption of the professionalisation of adult educators was about coming up with a specific list of knowledge, skills and values that one is expected to have in order to be recognised by one’s peers. This for me stems from my pre-conception about professional qualifications, like occupations of being a teacher, nurse, doctor, social worker or pilot, where there are pre-determined capacities that are agreed upon ­by a central professional association. Don’t get me wrong, I myself would want to consult a professional medical practitioner and be flown by a professional pilot. Indeed, there is value in professionalisation.

Egetenmeyer et al. (2019: 7), who have also contributed to this issue of Adult Education and Development, describe professionalisation within the context of Europe as the “control of knowledge and workplace conditions through professionals” or “a central ethical value of the profession and an academic knowledge basis or the role of professions in society.” However, they have recognised that recently there has also been a shift to the notion of the “new professionalism”, whereby these qualities are no longer solely determined by the organisational or work contexts, but are equally shaped by the social context, recognising that this context is multi-layered and multi-dimensional (Egetenmeyer et al. 2019).

My “new professionalism” journey

So where does my pre-conception come from? I reflect and recognise that I am shaped by my own experience and development as an adult educator in the context of environmental and popular education, within the social movement in the Philippines in the 1980s and 1990s. During this period, we advocated for and practiced education that challenged the dominant and repressive education that was prevalent during the Martial Law period (Garcia 1999, Yoo 2008). Therefore, the idea of professionalisation or standardisation that was recognised by the government of the day was virtually tantamount to acceptance of, and conforming to, the very status quo that we were challenging.

While I did teach within the formal education system, as a secondary school Biology teacher and a university Ecology instructor for a total of five years, all the while I continued to be involved in alternative educational activities, particularly in youth and community theatre with the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA). On reflection, the social movement in the Philippines, my formal studies in Biology/Ecology, and my engagement with community theatre, were the seeds that planted the idea of an alternative approach to learning that eventually took root and grew in my work as a community environmental educator in the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines, which was supported by DVV International for many years (Guevara 2002).

It was much later, during a study visit to Germany hosted by DVV International for adult educators from the Asia-Pacific region, that I was exposed to an established system of adult education with professionally-qualified educators. The closest manifestation of an established system with educators that I could relate to in the Philippines was a national network of community and popular educators, who were all involved in some way with the social movement for change, even after the People Power “revolution” that toppled the Marcos Regime in 1986. This was further acknowledged by colleagues from our network of educators being involved in regional and international adult education networks such as the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) and the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE).

It was within these regional and international networks that I began to recognise the diversity of adult education contexts. I saw that some countries had a more formalised and established system known as adult education, while in other countries, like the Philippines, the closest semblance of the system is a spectrum. At one end it is a system that complements the formal education system, usually for adults who have missed out on the opportunity to attend school. At the other end it is a counter-educational system that challenges the dominant system of education.

Recognising the “new professionalism”

So while I have attended and conducted numerous training workshops and study visits on adult and community education, I do not have a formal qualification in adult and community education. I begin by sharing my own “professionalisation” story to help set the scene as to how I came across the field of adult education, how I have come to recognise the existence of such a profession, and how I have come to call myself an adult and community educator, working within the field of education for sustainable development. My journey has led me back to the formal education system, teaching within a postgraduate programme in international development at RMIT University, where I continue to challenge the boundaries of educating future professionals in the field of international development.

“Life is our curriculum, and the world is our classroom.”

I would like to invite you to reflect and share with colleagues your own “professionalisation” journey. For many of us who have not had the opportunity of obtaining a formal qualification, it is this ability for reflexivity or self-critical reflection that I have come to recognise as the bedrock of what Egetenmeyer et al. (2019) called the “new professionalism”, which aligns with Chambers’ (2017: 150) own description of the “new and revolutionary professionalism” within the field of international development.

But more importantly, I share my story to also identify and examine the tensions that I have recognised with regard to the early notions of “professionalisation” as a set of pre-determined capacities for adult educators. Three tensions will be discussed that revolve around my argument that the in­fluence of context is central to my “professionalisation” story. The first tension is that adult education has always been contextual; the second is that contexts are complex and inter-related; and the third, that context is not just diverse but also dynamic. Finally, I attempt to weave these tensions into the current context of adult education within the era of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and identify implications for this notion of the “new professionalism”.

For a long time, we as adult educators have always recognised how context has shaped our educational practice – life is our curriculum, and the world is our classroom. Egeten­meyer et al. (2019: 20) support this in a way when they argue for a multi-level model of professionalisation of adult and continuing education that “highlights the integration, interaction and interrelation of adult and continuing education providers” across societal, institutional and personal levels. While some value continues to attach to identifying specific individual competences of adult and continuing educators, this multi-level model helps further highlight the reciprocal nature of these interactions. 

Context shapes practice

I have always argued that the most effective and relevant adult education practice is one that results from a deep engagement in and understanding of the local context – knowing the participants, their life experiences and having identified a need that can be addressed by a learning intervention. While we as adult educators are often asked to design, conduct and evaluate a training workshop with a pre-determined learning objective, it is not unusual for us to realise that the background information provided to us does not capture the complete situation. Hence, from my experience, most workshops would begin with an activity that would provide an opportunity to clarify expectations and agree on learning objectives, based on the jointly-identified needs. We have often called this the expectations check activity. 

While it is expected that one will still be prepared, the most effective training design draws from and builds on context – recognising that adult participants have a richness of life experiences, knowledge and skills that they contribute. Therefore, if there is one key capacity of a professional adult educator, it is this ability to re-design and facilitate learning that responds to one’s understanding of the local context. 

However, what I myself have often failed to recognise is an awareness of my own context and how it influences how I understand and therefore respond to the local context. In my own writings, I have shared key experiences where my own assumptions about what valid knowledge is (Guevara 2002) and what is an appropriate way of teaching and learning (Guevara 2012) have come into question. 

Context is relational

While we may attempt to gain a better understanding of context, we can often see context from a perspective, either influenced by the specific objective of the workshop and/or the profile of the participants. It is important to remind ourselves of how context is very much complex and interconnected. So, one cannot simply identify a specific concept or skill that needs to be learned without situating this within the larger purpose for learning. 

For example, many of us have been engaged in some form of economic livelihood training as a poverty alleviation intervention. One of the most common ones that I have come across has been with regard to handicraft production, like basket weaving, often in the context of creating locally-made souvenirs for tourists. However, one soon realises that introducing local handicrafts that rely on the use of local resources needs to be accompanied with an appreciation of how these local resources are limited. Therefore, a rush to collect raw materials, like leaves, for basket weaving, may in fact result in short-term livelihood gains, but can, if not well-managed, cause long-term damage to the environment. While as an adult educator we can include a discussion of the need to sustain the source of raw materials, it is eventually necessary to develop a more holistic approach to local livelihoods that will require the involvement of different key players in the local community, recognising the need for the different skills involved, from the planting and harvesting of the raw materials, the design and production of the product, to the marketing of the baskets. One might argue, is that still the responsibility of the adult educator? If the overall objective was to ensure a sustainable livelihood, then we need not only to provide the knowledge and the skills, but also to recognise that we need to work with others if our adult education work is to become effective and sustainable. I would argue that this is central to the “new professionalism”.

“And just when you thought you had got it – the perfect training design – ready to write it up into a manual and scale it up, you discover that the only constant is that context changes.”

It is therefore not sufficient for us as adult educators to understand and engage with context in designing learning programmes, but it is as important, if not more important, to also facilitate an appreciation of the interconnected reality of context for learners in order to enable them to effectively ­optimise this new knowledge or skill. Therefore, another key capacity of a professional adult educator, as Paulo Freire (1985) said, is that it isn’t enough to “read the word”, we want our learners to be able to “read the world”.

Furthermore, I would argue that it is not only about understanding the interconnected nature of context, but it is just as much about how, as adult educators, we have a responsibility to facilitate the interconnections between the different key players. I was involved as one of the facilitators in the design and implementation of the Curriculum globALE in Laos (see Gartenschlaeger et al., in this issue). As the article will ­illustrate, it was only through our attempts to ensure that our participants were going to continue to be supported after the 18-month-long training was completed that we were able to identify and nurture partnerships between different key players at local and regional levels and across different sectors of government, academia and civil society.

Therefore, we don’t just “read the word”, or “read the world”, we help to shape the world. 

Context is dynamic

And just when you thought you had got it – the perfect training design – ready to write it up into a manual and scale it up, you discover that the only constant is that context changes. In fact, it must change if we are to be truly effective in our adult education practice – because while we argued that context shapes practice, I will also argue that effective practice changes context. It is this dynamic reality that we need to not just recognise, but in fact embrace. As Freire (1985: 18) himself argued, “We can go further, however, and say that reading the word is not only preceded by reading the world, but also by a certain form of writing it or rewriting it. In other words, of transforming it by means of conscious practical action.”

Therefore, it isn’t enough for the professional adult educator to read and respond to the interrelated and dynamic nature of context; it is also important for us to be aware of how we ourselves can be or are changed by context. Robert Chambers (2017: 163) has identified reflexivity, or “critical ­reflection on how we form and frame our knowledges” as a key capacity of the “new professional”. He argued that “Rapid change demands rapid learning and adaptation and, as noted earlier, being alert, nimble, in touch, and up to date. There is more to this than just learning. Rapid change also implies rapid unlearning and learning.” (Chambers 2017: 163)

Similarly, Egetenmeyer et al. (2019: 20) have affirmed that adult and community education “providers do not only respond to societal developments, they are also active members and shapers of societies”. Therefore, our curriculum is not just based on life, but it can potentially transform lives, and our classrooms can potentially be found in all places where people gather, whether it be to work, play, worship or socialise. What this “new professionalism” model further emphasises is how our very institutions are not just delivering adult and community education, but that we have a role to play in the transformation of our own institutions to ensure that they are, like us as individual adult and community educators, committed to professional practice.

Advocacy and the global development context 

Finally, as adult educators, we find ourselves responding to the current global challenges and aspirations of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to respond to these challenges. While they appear as 17 distinct goals, with one specific education goal, it is important that we establish how our work as adult educators contributes to this transformative agenda. 

We have learned from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that we cannot have a truly global agenda if we only focus on the “developing” world, and so the SDGs are a universal global agenda. We also now realise that we cannot ­effectively achieve global development if we are not able to establish the interconnections between the 17 different SDGs, and therefore we need to facilitate learning that illustrates the interrelated nature of these goals. 

Furthermore, as adult educators, we are not only responding to SDG 4, so that we “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportu­nities for all” (UNESCO 2016), but we need to recognise that none of the SDGs can be achieved without some form of adult education, training or capacity building. If there is one more capacity of the “new professionalism” for adult educators during these times, it is our capacity to advocate for on-
going learning, across contexts and across all stages of life. SDG 4 has provided us with a gift by introducing into the goal the concept of lifelong learning.

Let me invite you to read the experiences of our colleagues from around the world in this issue. Each of them demonstrates how, as adult educators, they have recognised and addressed the diverse, interrelated, dynamic and challenging contexts in which we find ourselves. These experiences have ranged from working with youth educators and volunteer literacy educators, designing and delivering programmes to build specific “professional” adult education capabilities, and engaging with different experiences, knowledge and value systems. Behind these more visible manifestations of our adult education work, there also is the need to continue to critically reflect and challenge dominant neoliberal policies that impinge on the rights of young people and adults to learn across their lives.

While we and our institutions will continue to create curriculum and training programmes to help introduce the concept and practice of adult education within both formal and non-formal education systems, I would conclude that the “new professionalism” expects that our on-going professional development and capacity building is our responsibility, as a demonstration of our commitment to becoming professional adult educators.


Chambers, R. (2017): Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development. Practical Action Publishing. https://doi.org/10.3362/9781780449449

Egetenmeyer, R.; Breitschwerdt, L.; Lechner, R. (2019): From ‘traditional professions’ to ‘new professionalism’: A multi-level perspective
for analysing professionalisation in adult and continuing education.
In: Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 25 (1), 7–24. https://doi.org/10.1177/1477971418814009 

Freire, P. (1985): Reading the World and Reading the Word: An Interview with Paulo Freire. In: Language Arts, 62 (1), 15–21. https://bit.ly/2LdpGcG

Garcia, R. F. (1999): Of maps and leapfrogs: Popular education and other disruptions. Quezon City, The Philippines: PEPE.

Guevara, J. R. (2002): Popular environmental education: Progressive contextualization of local practice in a globalizing world. PhD thesis, Victoria University of Technology. https://bit.ly/2Le4jrH

Guevara, J. R. (2012): Progressive contextualisation: Developing a popular environmental education curriculum in the Philippines. In: Learning and Mobilising for Community Development: A Radical Tradition of Community-Based Education and Training, 177–190. Ashgate Publishing. 

UNESCO (2016): Education 2030: Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Paris: UNESCO. https://bit.ly/2BfAvnY

Yoo, S. S. (2008): Democratization during the transformative times and the role of popular education in the Philippines and Korea. In: Asia ­Pacific Education Review, 9, 355. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03026723 

About the author

Jose Roberto (Robbie) Guevara is an ­Associate Professor in International Development at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. He is an educator with extensive experience in adult, community and popular education with a focus on ­education for sustainable development and global citizenship education. He is the Vice-President (Asia-Pacific) of the Inter­national Council of Adult Education (ICAE) and a Board Member of the Global Campaign for Education (GCE).



Important notice: If you click on this link, you will leave the websites of DVV International. DVV International is not responsible for the content of third party websites that can be accessed through links. DVV International has no influence as to which personal data of yours is accessed and/or processed on those sites. For more information, please review the privacy policy of the external website provider.