Published: 26-12-2011, 10:15

Adult Basic Education: A Challenge for Vocational Based Learning

Two recent European Community policy documents on adult education raise the need for a changing role of adult basic and vocational based learning (VBL) in the context of the evolving knowledge society and knowledge economy (EC, 2006, 2007). Further, the Council of Europe has, in 2009, adopted a new strategic framework for cooperation among European Union (EU) member states to reform their education and training systems so as to better prepare people to find jobs and to help businesses find the staff they need to succeed and innovate in the face of global competition. Similar discussions can be found, for example, in the USA, Canada, and Mexico, where one is looking for a closer connection between traditional adult basic education (ABE) and workplace learning. In this article, we analyze the new demands from society on ABE. While the discussion primarily draws on what is taking place in Sweden, the underlying issues and potential developments are of universal interest.

National Developments in ABE

During the 1960s, ABE was primarily an equality issue in developed countries. However, the emergence of a knowledge economy – with its demand of a more qualified workforce – has affected the role of ABE.

Looking at the development of ABE in the USA, it should be noted that it is an umbrella termused to describe a range of educational services for adults – from basic literacy (including English as a foreign language) and numeracy to high school equivalency (general educational development (GED))/adult diploma programs (ADPs). The program is federal – originating from the Economic Opportunity Act (20 August 1964), which created the first ABE program as a state grant. During the 1960s and 1970s, several studies focused on the ability of the program to fulfill its goals (see, e.g., Firoza, 1966 and the classical study by Mezirow et al., 1975). Thereafter, the program dropped into the background. However, with changes taking place in the economy and the demand for a better-qualified workforce, it once again came into the focus of policymakers and the Adult Education Act was repealed and replaced with the Workforce Investment Act, in 1998. In this change, the focus gradually moved from literacy to vocational education and training (VET).

In Australia, where ABE has its roots in the British-extension movement, the program has traditionally been quite broad – encompassing literacy, numeracy, communication skills, basic science, humanities, and social sciences up to the equivalent of year 10 of compulsory schooling. Further, it includes survival skills linked to personal health, social action, problem solving, and conflict resolution. With vocational training and skills formation having become the Australian government’s highest priority, there is now a strong focus on using ABE to upgrade the skills of the existing workforce. This has resulted in an emphasis on narrower vocational training over the traditionally broader ABE. Australian adult educators have strong reservations with regard to the narrow focus on job skills and the vocational/nonvocational distinction underlying recent policies.

In Finland, the 1975 Adult Education Committee argued for an ABE characterized by a close connection between liberal adult education and vocational education. It is worth noting that, at the time, over 60% of the workforce in Finland lacked a vocational education. During the following decades, a number of reforms were undertaken by the Finnish government to implement the Committee’s intentions and preserve the tradition of a close connection between general adult education and vocational education.

Two things stand out from this brief overview. First, it is evident that changing skill requirements have raised demands for ABE to be more closely aligned with VET. Second, different models are being developed where one is characterized by a narrow focus on training, which – as with the Finnish example – tries to combine liberal and vocational traditions. To further explore this tension, I take a closer look at the development of ABE in Sweden with a focus on the link between labor-market demands and the nature of ABE.

The Link Between Education and Work in the Original Swedish Model of Komvux

While the early groundwork for establishing comprehensive schools was being laid, the issue of the older generation – who in their youth did not have the opportunity to continue beyond 6 or 7 years of education – was raised. The school reforms of the 1950s and early 1960s led to a rapid expansion of the Swedish educational system. The result of this expansion was an ever-widening gap between the older generation – who received a minimal education – and the new generation – who benefited from 9 years of compulsory education and increasingly chose to continue on to secondary school. As a consequence, the argument that the people who paid for the increase in primary and secondary education should have their share of the growing educational resources grew stronger. However, it was not only the rights and demands of the older generation but also contemporary human capital ideology that were behind the introduction of a municipal adult education (Komvux), which would offer education equivalent to that offered by primary and schools with the purpose of providing a platform for future studies or working life.

When looking at the target group of the new municipal ABE, it is important to note that the 1967 adult education reform had its roots in an elitist concept of equality. The basic idea informing this strategy was that everyone should have an equal right to an education irrespective of social background, gender, or place of residence, and the mandate for ABE was to offer it to those who aspired to it and were able to benefit from such an education. Traditional evening-class students served as models for the target group of the newly introduced municipal adult education. These students belonged to the so-called pool of talent – they had a high level of aspiration, were motivated to study, and were often successful in their self-tuition. This was a very different target group than what has been traditionally associated with ABE. Looking at the link to labor markets, it is evident that what was being offered was an adapted form of what was regularly offered in comprehensive and secondary education and that no adjustments were made to make the program specifically vocation oriented. The economic benefit was seen coming from having more people with a solid basic education that would allow them to pursue postsecondary studies. The only direct reference to employment was that Komvux courses were mainly available as part-time studies so as to avoid production losses.

Komvux Economic Crises and Changing Demands on Competence Development

During the economic crises of the early 1990s, the debate on Komvux shifted from a focus on education discourse to its role in a labor-market strategy. The response was to introduce the Adult Education Initiative (Sweden Government Bill 1995/97: 222). It was not introduced as an educational bill, but rather as a cornerstone in a bill titled ‘Special strategies introduced in order to half unemployment by year 2000.’ The adult education initiative (AEI) was a massive 5-year program for adult education in which all municipalities participated. The project comprised some 110 000 new educational places per year for adults, mainly in municipal adult education. Over the 5 years, it aimed to reach 550 000 adults – roughly 15% of the labor force. The AEI signaled a fundamental broadening of the Swedish tradition of active labor-market policy. Instead of expanding traditional labor-market training programs, the AEI attempted to raise the general level of education in unemployed adults. Another goal of the AEI was that it would act as a vehicle for reforming the adult-education sector both in terms of content andworking methods. Over the 5-year period, adult education was reformed and developed so as to better meet the challenges that the individual, working life, and society would face in the new millennium.

Two things stand out in the AEI strategy: the first is the use of general education as a labor-market strategy; and the second is that the content and teaching methods of ABE in Sweden more directly began to be considered in the context of labor-market needs. Further, it is worth noting that, in view of the apparent danger of having a growing cadre of unemployed facing increasing obstacles in getting back into the labor market, the AEI contained several measures aimed at helping to reach adults who traditionally do not participate in adult education and training. A special education grant was introduced at the same time as the AEI, which was primarily intended for unemployed persons who had not completed a 3-year upper secondary program. Further, in order to reach persons with little or no experience of adult education and help them to start studying, more targeted recruitment and information activities were put in place. In a broader international perspective, the AEI that was replicated in other Nordic countries is of interest, as it illustrates an ABE strategy that combines an economic agenda with strong equality ambitions.

The new demand for continuing VET also set off a broad debate in Sweden – as in other countries – on how to develop new models of ABE that would be appropriate in the emergent knowledge economy.

New Forms of VBL in Formal Adult Education

Many providers of VET in EU countries are using a system in which theoretical and practical activities are mixed. A criticism has been that they are too often organized from a school perspective, focusing on how students’ workplace activities match theoretical courses provided by the school. The transition from knowledge produced at school to the work situation has been recognized as a major problem. However, as discussed in several recent studies, this is a misconception. In this context, it is of interest to look a bit closer at the empirical findings from the so-called People Project funded by the European Social Fund, where unemployed adults participated in VETcourses at the adult secondary school level. An alternative pedagogy was developed based on the idea that the foundation of a vocation is rooted in vocational culture, vocational praxis, and vocational knowledge. Traditional school-based VET does not recognize dimensions that are linked to each other like a Chinese box, see Figure 1.

The Chinese Box of VET
The Chinese Box of VET. Figure 1

The study reveals that when organizing VBL, it is preferable to consider this picture. This conclusion is based on the fact that the People Project was very successful in two respects – first, because the unemployed participants managed to find jobs, and, second, because the training provided a foundation for lifelong learning (Ho¨ghielm, 2005).

The root of the problem of traditional vocational education within the school system is the existence of two different cultures, each with its own logic. Within school culture, subjects should be organized in a sequencing way – from the simple to the complex – and based on this logic, skills are supposed to be generated from basic to more specific. Working life has a different logic, with a number of occupations at the same workplace constituting a community of practice.

The relation between the two different logics emanated from school culture and working-life culture
The relation between the two different logics emanated from school culture and working-life culture. Figure 2

Figure 2 shows how the two different logics emanate from the two cultures and cause problems for the participant. In this context, the vocational adult teacher can be regarded as a broker, developing new connections across communities of practice, facilitating coordination and opening possibilities for new meanings. Vocational adulteducational students are in a unique position to act as mediators, bringing insights from work experience to school and vice versa. The vocational adult teacher has an important role in encouraging the development of this process.

The figure shows the sequential logic of school subjects illustrated as ladders, while working life has a more coherent structure – where acquiring vocational knowledge is characterized as a movement from the periphery toward the center. The concept of VBL relies on the idea of situated learning – a well-known concept since the beginning of the 1990s (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Lave andWenger have managed to phrase, in an attractive way, an old idea that has always been present within VET – going back to medieval times when the apprentice system was established in Europe. They also elucidated how modern educational systems and VET, in particular, have an ongoing discussion on the difference between practice and theory. Thus, the VBL concept has a sociocultural approach going back to the ideas of Vygotsky (1987).

Traditional VET programs have a school perspective – implying students’ workplace experiences can be organized to fit in school activities. VBL has a reversed perspective, that is, programs are organized in such a way that students’ workplace experiences guide when theoretical school subjects are supposed to enter. This different way of organizing VETadult programs will also facilitate the vocational adult participant’s boundary crossing between school and work (Tuomi-Gro¨n and Engestro¨m, 2003). Further on, vocational based adult learning can be a more powerful tool for organizing VET compared to a more traditional, organized, apprentice-based education. Applying the VBL concept implies that adult students must spend half of their time at a workplace, visited by teachers.

Concerning the demand on the European workforce to increase competitiveness and the ongoing demographic change within the EU, research of the kind discussed here suggests a need to develop a new way of organizing VET – which makes it necessary to relinquish the predominant, but obsolete, approach. By using a VBL approach, there will be a quicker and more obvious connection between practice and theory. The concept has similarities to the professional education of nurses and medical doctors practiced at the McMaster University medical school in Canada since 1967. Between 2005 and 2007, a major European Science Foundation (ESF) project in Sweden used the experiences from the municipality of So¨derhamn, and VBL was applied in 29 municipalities. The study also involved 275 companies, 197 teachers, and a large number of principals (Ho¨ghielm, 2005, 2009).

Future Directions of ABE

ABE – as it is being practiced and organized around the world today – is still heavily influenced by how it was originally set up in the 1960s. While there is an impetus in most countries for greater skills-oriented training, these programs have not adapted to the changing realities. First, demographics have changed and educational attainment has risen dramatically in the population. Second, educational attainment plays an increasingly important role for entering the labor market. Third, there is a rising demand for continuing VET. Fourth, there has been – as discussed above – a shift in the very understanding of VET and a movement to think of vocational education in terms of VBL. Consequently, there are growing demands for a major overhaul of ABE as we have known it.

Starting from the latter, one can think of a form of ABE that takes the individual and his/her vocational background as its point of departure. Traditionally, adult education theory has been considered as a basic guideline for educational planners and trainers wanting to pursue a reflective approach to adult learning. Based on recent research on VBL, this seems to be too narrow a perspective if the ambition is to include the learner in the process of reflection. Instead of a general curriculum, there is a need for an individual study plan for each participant. In developing this plan, one has to take into account how the individual has been trained in order to manage both previous and new-found knowledge through a validating process that takes into account both general and personal skills from a VBL perspective. (For an interesting discussion of different models of validation see OECD (2005) report Promoting Adult Learning.) The purpose of this form of ABE is to allow participants to have the opportunity to develop specific skills linked to civil and working life as well as for pursuing their own educational/vocational project. The dialog with others makes the learner test out new assumptions, understandings, and perspectives (see Mezirow, 2000). This form of VBL would avoid the dilemma of the narrowness of the skills-driven training that is being promoted in some countries as well as the general education lacking vocational connections that can be found in other countries. A development in the direction of VBL can take place within a network organization. The location of such an activity would not be built around a traditional adult-education school such as Komvux, but could be a flexible learning center such as Centre for Flexible Learning (CFL) So¨derhamn (Ekelo¨f, 2009). This form of structure has an opportunity to meet the dual and interconnected needs for a de-schooling version and a schooling-up version of ABE. Examples of this form of organization of ABE can be drawn from different regions in Sweden where municipalities have organized themselves into flexible learning centers. The slogan in these contexts is flexibility or flexible learning – where providers organize learning centers or networks and plan and implement teaching with the primary purpose of supporting student communication and learning (Holmberg, 2004). Such a development could suggest a return in ABE to the andragogical ideals that were in the foreground of the initial ABE debate.

See also: Adult Learning and Instruction: Transformative Learning Perspectives; Adult Literacy Education; Organizational Learning; Provision of Prior Learning Assessment; Workplace Learning Frameworks.