From vulnerability to resilience –
a resource-based model of community learning

From left to right:

Anna Pluskota
Nicolaus Copernicus University, Poland

Monika Staszewicz
University of Computer Sciences and Economics Olsztyn, Poland


The importance of Adult Education in the community development process is indisputable. However, in times of crisis, community development is severely limited. One way to deal with this involves the development of resilience in community learning. The authors claim that strengthening communities through empowerment supports resilience. Only adaptive and flexible communities can succeed and be resilient in an ever-changing world.

In times of crisis everything that used to seem safe, balanced and predictable, suddenly becomes uncertain, chaotic, ambiguous, multidimensional or simply gone. These uncertain, unstable and dynamic conditions impede development, including social development.

This situation is especially severe for communities. Those who cannot cope with the ramifications of the widespread economic crisis suf fer from deprivation, pover ty, marginalisation, social exclusion and learned helplessness. They give up or fall apart.

It is a grim picture indeed. Given this, are there any possibilities of development in a time of instability and uncertainty? There might be one. The most promising solution seems to be supporting resilience through community learning.

What might a resilient community look like? To what extent can the very idea of community learning support or build up a resilient locality, community? These are extremely difficult and complex questions to which you will not find a definitive answer here. What you will find are some thoughts on how and why resilience might be fostered in a community.

Our point of view is that the effectiveness of social interventions is a result of the base (model) upon which they are constructed.

To empower or to reduce deficits?

The failure of numerous social programmes is due to what they are based on, for instance, the deficit model. The deficit model strives to make up for shor tages, to relieve pain, to compensate for deficits and to repair what is destroyed. This is the model on which inclusion policy (especially conducted by means of Lifelong Learning) is of ten based. One of the basic assumptions of this model is hard determinism.

The functioning of people in groups and societies is seen in terms of a disease model. Individuals, groups and communities are treated as “victims” of their own biological and socio-demographic characteristics.

The deficit model and hard determinism excludes responsibility, the ability to make decisions and free will. This model has resulted in ignoring or denying possibilities and potentials that could be accomplished through supporting strengths (in a human, community, institution, etc.) (Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi 2000; Seligman 2005).

The effectiveness of social interventions based solely on the deficits model is arguable. These types of interventions do not guarantee a development of building new qualities or resources (Pluskota 2013).

It is time to look at an alternative.

The strengths model is presented as an attempt to overcome the limitations of the deficits model. The strengths model, or so-called positive model, aims not merely at helping the individual to return to normality (normality being understood as an absence of disturbances), but above all it strives towards optimal functioning and development (Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi 2000; Seligman 2005).

In the strengths model, people in groups, societies and institutions are not understood as being restricted or predetermined. They possess a potential of growth in the form of strengths (Pluskota 2013).

The model builds up the resources of individuals, groups, communities, etc., reducing the need for “traditional”, social interventions.

Model limitations

The deficits and strengths models are both limited – they are too one-sided. The deficits model ignores the strengths; the strengths model ignores the deficits. Both models suggest professional experts as leaders who know the answers and provide them for their clients. Despite many obvious dif ferences, this similarity in role relationships is striking. Both are forcing us to think in terms of wellness versus illness, competence versus deficits, and strength versus weaknesses.

Perhaps we are better of f looking at a third model. The empowerment model is a resource-based model
where the main focus is on strengths and not on deficits. At first glance the strengths model may seem identical to the empowerment model (both are resource models). Both models are aimed at strengthening the competence and restoring the strength of the individual, of groups, communities and institutions. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that the models are the same.

In our opinion the empowerment and strengths models are quite different.


The empowerment model presupposes the existence of deficits and barriers as important factors when restoring strength, competence, self-determination and enablement.

A third way?

It is possible that the empowerment model of fers a way to overcome the limitations of both models (deficits and strengths). The empowerment model can combine two types of interventions. The model focuses on identifying capabilities instead of cataloguing risk factors and exploring environmental influences of social problems instead of blaming victims. It suggests a belief in the power of people to be both the masters of their own fate and involved in the life of their several communities. 

The effectiveness and successful outcome of support measures seem more likely if these actions are based on existing resources in the form of strengths.

The quality of social programmes is critical in determining people’s destiny. Therefore, we are convinced that it is necessar y to abandon the models based on dif ficulties, and instead use models based on opportunities – to leave the road of obstacles and re-orient toward the system of possibilities.

Learning the potential

Empowerment, as an idea and a process, assumes that any individual and/or community is endowed with some
potential. Fur thermore, the empowerment model focuses on strong points in a community. By identif ying and using these strong points, people in the community can obtain experience and skills that enable them to take control over their lives.

Without empowerment, communities cannot become autonomous change-makers. They will not be able to solve their problems using their own structures, i.e. mediatory structures of their own "design". The empowerment model believes that the best method to acquire new abilities is through learning. People should be of fered conditions to learn skills and gain knowledge that will motivate them to take efforts to improve their lives.

It is crucial that communities have the possibility to recognize their own value and resources, as well as to recognize and define their own problems. Social context and social environment determine whether the potential of communities will be discovered, defined and utilized. Therefore the learning process must be active and take place in the context of the real life of learners and not through unnatural, artificial trainings programmed and controlled by so-called experts.

This is the central principle of the empowerment model and the most important recommendation for education. It is also the greatest challenge Adult Education has to face.






Training for Polish Community Learning Moderators.




The community as a space of resources

To understand the communit y as a space of resources we can refer to Thomas Sergiovanni. He has listed five qualities indispensable for any communit y to be defined as a "learning" communit y. These qualities include: the communit y of relations, space, thinking, memor y and practice.


The learning community is a community of close formal and informal social relations and connections. The nature of these relations encourages cooperation. Close relations create a safe environment where knowledge and experiences can be shared. One result is a peculiar bond that develops among members of the learning community. It is similar to that which ties the family or close friends together. Learning takes place within a community, through shared practices and experiences. Not only do the members of a community learn how to fulfil themselves as individuals, but if necessar y they also find out how to control selfish impulses for the good of their community. Moreover, being aware of their impor tance for the sur vival and further development of their communit y, they learn how to build up positive relations, social structures and social networks.


Another characteristic of the learning community is the community of space. This shared space (physical or virtual) is chosen and created because it enables its members to learn and share individual experiences.

The most dynamic and changeable communities today are not physical. These are incessantly restructured and
redefined by their members.


The community of mind refers to the ideas, beliefs, and systems of values shared by members of a given community. This is what encourages members to actively participate in actions undertaken by the community. In this case, learning takes place through participation in socio-cultural space.


The community of memor y is constituted by tradition, rites, patterns of behaviour, and beliefs shared within a given community. It is handed down from generation to generation. The community of memory builds and forms individual and social identity. This type of community is especially important in times of crisis. Shared beliefs boost social cohesion and the individual’s identification with a group. They form an identity backbone that helps individuals learn how to use their resources and cultural potential to cope with difficulties and threats.


The community of practice consists of shared activities. It is through common actions and interactions with others that knowledge is constructed. Here, practical experience of individuals becomes the shared wealth of their community and influences educational processes taking place within it. The community of practice is also crucial for forming a community and the development of individual learning competences.

As noted by John Dewey to "learn from experience" is to be ready to discover relations between things, between the past and the future, between individual actions and their various ramifications. In the process of learning, the individual acquires cognitive and practical competences which enable him/her to find a “fragile equilibrium between the necessity of modernisation and the status quo, and to locate social practices within the process of intergenerational transformation” (Malewski 2010: 98).

Treasure chests of the community

The above-mentioned characteristics of the learning community can be perceived as its resources, which empower and strengthen the whole community. Learning communities based on social capital consisting of the available resources rather than on deficiencies and their compensations may provide the opportunity for development.

We are cer tain that community learning is something more than learning from experience. While theorists try to come up with a precise definition of community resilience, little is said on the practical aspects. We know what community resilience is, but we do not know what factors determine it. How to obtain this ability, where to seek it?

We think that learning from experience is not the only condition for acquiring community resilience. So, what is the role of Adult Education? We argue here that one role of Adult Education practitioners is to facilitate learning.






Training for Polish, Hungarian and Ukrainian Community Learning Moderators.




Moderation as the learning strategy based on the community’s resources

In a community defined like this, the process of learning and its suppor t dif fer fundamentally from education in formal educational institutions. Here, education is no longer understood as the process of super vised gathering, production and reproduction of knowledge. It is a shif t from linear, one-way and directive teaching into learning and obtaining competencies to learn. Arranging the new relations and conditions of learning creates and generates new abilities – the skills oriented to daily practice: creative thinking, emotional involvement, collective decision-making and activity.

Through empowerment of the individual and group, the moderation method enables learning that shapes and builds knowledge, attitudes and opinions of individuals. It develops interests and fulfils passions, it supports transgressive processes and moulds emancipation abilities. Finally this method also enables learning opposite to conventional thinking. It takes into account dif ferent interests, needs, aspirations, experiences and motivations of the learners and the community. It suppor ts self-development, self-expression, self-improvement and self-fulfilment.

Do it again, do it right

A community is a social space with resources. It is vital that a community is able to autonomously make use of its resources. To do so the communit y must learn how to discover and use them. This is a challenge facing modern Adult Education – to facilitate learning on how to use the existing resources, which would help communities to be resilient.

The task of the educator is to facilitate that learning and to create a space where a community can learn about its resources. This will help the community to use them for change and development.

The role of the practitioner and educator needs to be redefined in connection with community learning. It is time to abandon the deficiencies model in favour of a model based on resources. To be useful in the context of community learning and community resilience, Adult Education needs to change from a compensations based model to empowerment education based on resources.

Community learning should focus on the empowerment of communities. Without empowerment, the learning process within communities is severely impeded. Even though empowerment processes are spontaneous, communities often need professional tools that would initiate and guide these processes.



Malewski, M. (2010): Od nauczania do uczenia się. O pradygamtycznej zmianie w andragogice. Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Dolnośląskiej Szkoł y Wyższej.

Pluskota, A. (2013): The application of positive psychology in the practice of education. In: SpringerPlus, 3:147 doi: 10.1186/2193-1801-3-147.
Available at

Seligman, M. E. P. (2005): Positive Psychology, Positive Prevention, and Positive Therapy. In: S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.): Handbook of Positive Psychology, 3–10. New York: Oxford University Press.
Available at 

Seligman, M.E. P. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000): Positive psychology: An introduction. In: American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14.

Sergiovanni, T. (1999): The stor y of community. In: J. Retallick & B. Cocklin & K. Coombe (Eds.): Learning communities in education, 9 –25. New York: Routlege.

Siebert, H. (1999): Pädagogischer Konstruktivismus. Neuwied: Luchterhand.



About the Authors

Anna Pluskota, PhD in sociology, researcher in the Institute of Sociology, Nicolaus Copernicus University. Researcher and coordinator of national and international projects related to social inclusion, rural inequalities, marginalisation, Lifelong Learning and Adult Education. Coordinator of Polish sections in the international project “The impact of Lifelong Learning policies on the inclusion of vulnerable groups”. Author and co-author on scientific publications on Lifelong Learning, social inclusion/exclusion. Interested in community animation, social exclusion and marginalisation, Lifelong Learning, empowerment.

Institute of Sociology, Rural Sociology Department,
Nicolaus Copernicus University
ul. Fosa Staromiejska 1a
87–100 Toruń, Poland

Monika Staszewicz, PhD in pedagogy, researcher at the University of Computer Sciences and Economics in Olsztyn. Researcher, coordinator and organiser of national and international projects, conferences, seminars and workshops related to Adult Education and Lifelong Learning. Coordinator, supervisor and trainer of International Moderation Trainings for Adult Educators and Facilitators. Interested in non-formal sexuality and family Adult Education, modern adult learning cultures and community learning.

Faculty of Sociology and Pedagogy
University of Computer Sciences and Economics Olsztyn
ul. Jagiellońska 59
10 –283 Olsztyn, Poland

Adult Education and Development


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