Reflecting on the Futures of ALE – Because the future cannot wait

Christoph Jost and Uwe Gartenschlaeger reflect on the action of the International Council for Adult Education to reposition ALE and to imagine the future of the sector.

The world is changing fast and dramatically. The previous year provided manifold evidence that we live in times of transition with complex new challenges: The pandemic, the development of the digital world, climate change, violent conflicts and social friction around the globe created a dynamic and volatile environment with more and more people struggling to find adequate ways to master one’s personal life and participate constructively in the changes taking place in their societies. New skills and competences are required to ensure individuals and societies will be able to master the challenges ahead. It has become obvious that politicians and providers of education must urgently rethink the content of our education services, because education holds the key to equipping people with the abilities needed, and to creating the potential for transformative action. This includes, especially, the content and the way adult learning and education (ALE) is delivered: speedy action is needed to master the challenges. This is because adults – who are not only a role model for youth and children – will play a decisive role in these processes of change.

Against this background, the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE) started a course of action to reposition ALE, inviting a broad range of academics, advocates and practitioners to participate in a process to imagine the future of the sector. The result is a fundamental paper “Adult Learning and Education (ALE) – Because the Future cannot wait” , which not only contributes to UNECO’s initiative to reimagine what they call “The Futures of Education”, but shapes the discussion around ALE for the coming years.

The UNESCO Futures of Education initiative mobilises the “ways of being and knowing in order to leverage humanity’s collective intelligence. It relies on a broad, open consultative process that involves youth, educators, civil society, governments, business and other stakeholders. The work will be guided by a high level International Commission of thought leaders from diverse fields and different regions of the world. In November 2021 the commission will publish a report designed to share a forward looking vision of what education and learning might yet become and offer a policy agenda.” 
Read more about the initiative here.

The role of ALE within the paradigm of lifelong learning

In its contribution, ICAE welcomes the UN member states’ agreement regarding the need for lifelong learning (LLL), but remark that not enough attention is given to ALE within the paradigm of LLL, having in mind that:

  • Adulthood is the longest period in anyone’s life and, in most societies, adults are the largest age bracket. Adults need to cope with rapid and sometimes dramatic changes and are the group that has to make crucial decisions that affect our environment today and in the future;
  • The urgency of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, numerous crises and conflicts around the globe, threats to the planet and to humanity, and the fact that millions of people are still lagging behind, makes ALE one of the top priorities and the precondition to progress in other fields.

Anchored in a clear understanding of education for all as a basic human right, ICAE outlines the role of ALE in a period of change. As an essential part of LLL, ALE equips people to navigate through changes ahead and enables them to shape the future. Differentiating from the discussion of the previous decades, where ALE was valued solely in respect to ensuring and improving the employability of individuals and providing them possibilities to receive basic education and literacy, ICAE claims that in addition to these remaining tasks, ALE should support adults in order to secure the sustainability of our planet, as well as the creation of just, peaceful and inclusive democratic societies. Hence, the development and broad-based acceptance of a wider, more holistic understanding of ALE is essential.

All this is based on an understanding that learning should be delivered in a joyful and meaningful way, respecting adults as partners in the learning process. Partnership in teaching and learning is clearly identified as the only way ALE can successfully deliver change-oriented skills and competencies.

Necessary preconditions for a sustainable ALE delivery

ICAE mentions several preconditions which should be in place to enable ALE to provide its full potential:

  • Governments have to create favourable legal frameworks and offer substantial financial resources for ALE. Unfortunately, this needs to be improved in many countries. Despite the wide acceptance of lifelong learning as the basic concept for the education sector, ALE very often remains without or with only little support.
  • In comparison to other subsectors of education, ALE delivery depends to a wide extent on the engagement of civil society and community-based organisations. Government structures, if they exist at all, are more often focused on specific narrow aspects (e.g. vocational training, literacy). Especially the desperately needed innovative forms of ALE that address sustainability and active citizenship issues are nearly exclusively delivered by non-state actors. ICAE is concerned about an increasing tendency of shrinking spaces and a severe lack of funding for these organisations. This is even more the case in places where civil society organisations are engaged as “critical friends” trying to hold governments accountable for their commitments.
  • Finally, the provision of high quality ALE requires the existence of a well-developed system of pre- and in-service trainings for adult educators, including options to study ALE in higher education. ICAE claims that this should be accompanied by government-supported facilities that allow for the development of modern curricula, offering research and providing consultation to the sector, enabling education providers to stay innovative and in touch with the developments in society.

With this contribution, ICAE has taken the lead in the necessary process to rethink ALE. The issues raised here have the potential to shape our discussions not only in the context of the UNESCO initiative, but on our way to the next CONFINTEA (International Conferences on Adult Education) as well. It will take place in 2022 and should further the process of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda.

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