Published: 3-01-2012, 13:47

Popular Adult Education


Folkbildning – Swedish, meaning popular adult education.

Folkeop(p)lysning – Norwegian and Danish, meaning popular adult education.

Op(p)lysning – Norwegian and Danish, meaning enlightenment.


Popular adult education is one of those slippery concepts within the field of education that is used to denote different educational aims, ideas, approaches, activities, and programs around the world. It is used more or less synonymously with other concepts; in addition, we also have to bear in mind that it is an English translation of specific national concepts with distinctive characteristics and differences of meanings. As such, popular adult education and its national linguistic synonyms are forms of educational phenomena that are socially constructed in a process of accommodation and transformation, cultural and hegemonic strife, and social movement learning in specific historical contexts. The concept is founded and shaped by the influence of individual educators and movements that have linked popular education to different aims, target groups, educational practices, and curriculum. Taking a worldwide perspective, the term popular adult education covers different trends and philosophies and is applied to so many different practices that it is hard to tell exactly what it means (Kane, 2001: 229–230; 2005: 135). The concept cannot be framed in a single and universal definition but, rather, has to be understood as an open-ended process that is continuously adapted to the concrete situations of local needs to expand people’s participation into their learning and living (Han, 1995). The article starts with the different meanings and historical traditions, more deeply explores some Nordic, Latin American, and North American practices and initiatives, presents the current trends, and finally concludes with some common dimensions characterizing the popular adult education approach.

Different Meanings and Historical Traditions

In the European context, the word popular originates from the words people or folk, and popular adult education is associated with a long tradition of people’s struggle for enlightenment, access to culture and knowledge, and the development of democracy. The popular concept is historically linked to the role of popular and radical movements as educative forces, for instance, the labor movement, which did not separate education from politics, but regarded education as a guide to social and political action for a better world. Knowledge was power and instrumental in the political struggle, and this struggle itself was educative. In many countries, it has been used more or less synonymously with education of the working class and loosely associated with the interests, aspirations, and struggles of ordinary people for democracy and social change (Martin, 2007). In this broad meaning, popular adult education has been the forerunner for, and almost used synonymously with, adult education ( Jarvis, 1999).

In some countries, the popular education concept is also linked to the science-popularizing movement, which can be described as a charitable form of public service by university professors and industrialists in the Enlightenment tradition (Steele, 2007a, 2007b). It led to amultitude of associations for the popularization of science, as exemplified in the British and American mechanics institutes and in the Nordic countries’ working men’s institutes (from the 1880s) and their Norwegian successors’ folk academies. Ideologically, this popular education signified political subversion, ameans of class harmonization, or democratic emancipation. In the Nordic countries, these efforts of disseminating knowledge and information to the public (e.g., related to health, social questions, and policy matters) became state funded.

A specific form of the science-popularizing movement was the university extension movement spreading from England at the end of the nineteenth century to many European countries and, later, even to South America ( Jarvis, 1992; Wallin, 2000), and resulted in so-called popular or folk universities devoted to the aim of bringing both university culture to the people and developing people’s own culture. Van Gent (1992) has suggested the term sociocultural education for similar professionally focused training initiatives such as the people’s colleges in Hungary, folk high schools in Germany and the Netherlands, folk houses and cultural centers in the Netherlands, and the German centers for Volksbildung. A primary aim for some of them was to provide training for people involved in popular education; however, many of these efforts failed to reach the people ( Jarvis, 1992).

Although some of the above-mentioned forms were the result of personal initiatives to educate people, the concept of popular adult education is primarily linked to the social mobilization and the educational activities within social movements. Indeed, it is the social movements themselves who have coined the termand adapted it to their practices. In the literature, we even find popular adult education referred to as a separate social movement that is held together by regional or international associations and networks. It has been a world for a nonformal, out-of-school education organized by a variety of groups that have used the popular concept to defend education as a right for all people, to be designed for the people and by the people, and essentially associated to a formof pedagogical praxis that is controlled by participants. In Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe, the terms popular or folk education may be used instead of, or in conjunction with, community education (Tight, 1996: 65). Hamilton and Cunningham (1989: 440) regard “community development and popular education . . . as compatible.” They do, however, find that subtle but important distinctions can be made, indicating that these two approaches are contradictory. Community development seeks reformation, while popular education seeks transformation. Indeed, a powerful idea, especially in Latin America, has been to make the concept identical to empower oppressed people to take part in the struggle for social and political change. Accordingly, it also shares many similarities with other terms expressing the aims of education such as resistance, liberating, and emancipatory education.

A problem for the demarcation of a popular education territory is that initiatives and practicesmight well fallwithin common definitions, but are not always considered as such. This is apparent in political liberation movements in Eastern Europe, for instance, Charter 77 in the former Czechoslovakia, which demonstrated a high activity of seminars, lectures, study groups, and free theater groups (Rubenson, 1995). The fall of communism and the drive for democratization in the former Eastern block coincided with a rise of civil society activities that have a close resemblance to popular education elsewhere. Some countries such as Slovenia have implemented new forms of study circle activities based on Nordic examples (Gougoulakis and Bogataj, 2007).

Regional Differences

The article cannot pay due attention to all forms of popular initiatives, and practices in all parts of the world, but gives some examples of regional differences. One main form has originated from the ideas of the Enlightenment and Romanticism and has a strong basis in the Nordic countries. A second trend has emerged from the popular revolt against severe oppression in former colony countries or dictatorships. This form has its strongest basis in Latin America, which is the prime example here, but is spread to all parts of the world where people have been restricted the freedom to learn. A third example is popular education initiatives, which are less integrated in social movements and popular forces, but are more a result of personal initiatives and efforts of creating new mass organizations and institutions.

Nordic Popular Adult Education

The Nordic popular adult education is often referred to as a historical tradition that has emerged from the twin influence of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. The Norwegian and Danish concept folkeop(p)lysning is, in fact, a composition of enlightenment (opplysning), meaning education from above, and the word folk, which is a romantic invention. Sweden has adopted the German concept of Bildung and has constructed the word folkbildning, which indicates that enlightenment might also come from within (Korsgaard, 1997). A third, and increasingly stronger, influence through the nineteenth century, was the rise of social and democratic movements, which further developed the idea of folk as a political subject and transformed the meaning of popular education to be not only education to the people from above, but also education of the people and the creation of knowledge from below. Since the end of the nineteenth century, popular education in the Nordic countries has been identified as social movement learning within the civil society.

A characteristic of the Nordic situation is the organization of special study associations for popular adult education within movements. It can thus be understood as a popular movement itself and a specific organized activity within movements. In the institutional meaning, especially in Sweden, popular adult education embraces the study associations and the folk high schools. In charge of these, the meaning of popular adult education multiplied into a diversity of meanings which reflected the different ideologies, aims, and activities of the movements. Some made education a part of a distinctive countercultural struggle; however, this element has faded away in the course of time. Another characteristic is the ideal of education as a collective self-education based on the belief that enlightenment and culture can emerge from below, the common people, and that knowledge can be created and disseminated through dialog within groups of equal persons. A third element is the emphasis on the aim of personal development. A unique character of Nordic popular adult education is also considered to lie in the pedagogy and methodology that is put into practice in study circles (Rubenson, 1995). These are built on the principle of independence of external requirements and are characterized by self-directed learning. In principle, all studies should not be examined and should provide a zone of freedom in which participants can choose subjects according to their real interests and needs (Andersson and Tøsse, 2006).Moreover, the study circles build on the common work of the participants and their experiences, and the active strive for knowledge, and work toward a collective goal.

Popular adult education in the Nordic countries includes a wide range of topics on every degree of difficulty, but is mainly understood as nonformal and out-of school education, spare-time and hobby-related activities, and, by tradition, often nonvocational. The study circles provide an arena for deliberation and learning in an informal way. As the level of participation is high, especially in Sweden, peaking at 2.8 million participants in the 1990s – that is, a third of the total population – popular adult education may be considered as a specific public sphere that has contributed to establishing and enforcing basic elements in the Nordic model of democracy. The concept has also been used normatively as an instrument in the construction of a Nordic dimension in relation to adult education (Ehlers, 2006). Participation is therefore largely state funded on the ground that the study associations, in addition to being agents of popular movement, contribute to diversity, support culture, and create informed, active, and committed citizens (Rubenson, 1995; Larsson, 2001). The popular adult education field has, especially in Norway, been acknowledged as a part of the educational system and encouraged to focus on the needs and aspirations of people who traditionally do not participate in adult education or are not interested in formal qualifications, for instance, the elderly (Rubenson, 2006). In the recent years, however, the state subsidies have been decreasing; however, popular adult education in the Nordic countries is, as distinct from most other countries, still a state-funded as well as a self-governing area. As stated by Swedish researchers, popular adult education in Sweden is “part of the corporate state lying at the crossroad between civil society and the state . . . at the intersection between the system world and the life world” (Gustavsson et al., 1997).

Latin America

Outside the Nordic countries, popular adult education has almost exclusively been associated with the work and pedagogy of Freire, and has been described as “one of the most original and refreshing contributions that Latin America has made to universal pedagogical thinking” (Mera, 2005). Indeed, popular education is almost conceived as a Latin American invention and mainly associated with the endeavors of social transformation inThird World countries. In the Latin American context, the term popular education, as Kane (2001: 247) observes, has been more sharply defined and the commitment to side with the oppressed is more openly spelled out. Building on Freire’s work, popular education has been advocated as a political, social, and educational process with the overall aim of counteracting the dominant worldview and creating an antihegemonic culture (Kane, 2001: 8–13). Its foundation is the convictions that grassroots people can collectively achieve critical consciousness and, from this awareness, act to challenge unjust uses of power that affects their social realities.

A pedagogical principle that Freire outlined in order to actuate the process of consciousness raising or conscientization was acquiring knowledge by way of problematizing the natural, cultural, and historical reality in which one is immersed. Another basic element is his thinking about language as inherently linked to culture which may thus convey a certain culturally transmitted worldview. Accordingly, language can both question and strengthen culture (Finger, 2005). The popular education approach is therefore making sense of the world to the ordinary people by uncovering and decoding languages (words) and meanings (themes) of their own.This must come through dialog, which in the Freireian sense is a process of generating and sharing the true word and actively naming and transforming the reality of the world (Han, 1995). This fundamental view of the teaching and learning transaction as a dialog is shared by Grundtvig and many other popular education theorists. However, far stronger than most others, Freire maintained that reflection through dialog means action, and emphasized that all education is political. A major aim of popular adult education is therefore to help participants put knowledge into practice. Under dictatorship in Latin America, popular education became a way of doing political work and naturally linked to the radical left-oriented policy and participatory research in cooperation with local groups. A basic principle politically as well as pedagogically is that it must be education with the people, not on their behalf, based on people’s experiences, and aiming toward empowering the ordinary people to become subjects of change.

In Latin America and ThirdWorld countries, educators inspired by the pedagogy of the oppressed often had to work among illiterate people; therefore, popular adult education is often identified with literacy and elementary education. Moreover, education with illiterate people also means drawing on popular culture and starting from the concrete, using drama, song, dance, art, and storytelling. Popular culture is here to be distinguished from elitist culture institutions and from the mass culture. One concrete example is Augosto Boal’s experiments with the People’s Theatre in Peru in the 1970s (Boal, 1979). Similar efforts of using theater, dance, etc., in making the subaltern classes articulators of social and political change and waking up peoples’ culture of silence, have also been, more or less successfully, executed in developing countries in Africa and Asia. The popular theater has best served the popular education approach when it has managed to not only make people aware of, but also activate participants (transforming Spectators into Spect-Actors!) in, the critical analysis of what is presented and mobilize them for taking action in their own development. At worst, it has been based on a developmentalist approach whereby popular theater forms are used to communicate government policies or to impose outsiders’ views of what people need (Mlama, 1991; Lange, 1995; Bates, 1996).

Basically, popular education is defined by initiatives from below and on the grassroots level, and, in Latin America, has traditionally acted against the (oppressive) state. This was not always true in Europe, and, even in Latin America, could be a public- and state-initiated project. One example is the popular education inNicaragua. After the revolution in 1979, the Sandinistas immediately started a literacy crusade that they followed up with a popular basic education campaign in which they copied Freireian methodology and principles. Both can be characterized as a massive training of the common people and presupposed an intensive training of teacher as well. Radio and newspapers were also put to use. However, it was a state-driven and-funded project, and some of the popular educators such as Fernando Cardinal occupied posts in the ministries of education in the 1980s (Flores- Moreno, 2005). The Nicaraguan example as well as similar educational initiatives of revolutionary movements in Latin America and elsewhere do, however, question whether education that is totally absorbed by the state or a movement in order to implement a specific policy or ideology can be termed popular. It might rather be characterized as a pedagogicalization of politics (Han, 1995).

North American examples

Popular adult education is primarily a specific form of social movement learning; however, initiatives and activities can often be traced back to individual educators. In North America, the Highlander movement is a prominent example of personal initiative and influence. It all started in 1932 when Myles Horton together with Don West founded the Highlander Folk High School in one of the poorest areas in Tennessee. Highlander did not provide mass education, but worked with leaders from several organizations or communities. Horton’s assumption was that the leaders would take what they learned at Highlander andwork with other actual or potential leaders and, thus, let the influence of Highlander multiply over larger numbers of people (Peters and Bell, 2001). His early contribution to popular education was then to combine the aims of social movement building and leadership training. The creation of citizenship schools in the 1950s became, however, a mass activity. By 1970, these schools had helped 100 000 African Americans to read and write (Peters and Bell, 2001). The teachers followed the same principles and ideas as Freire and, in this way, made the citizenship education similar to popular education elsewhere. With the reorganization of Highlander to the Highlander Research and Education Center, its mission became to be an important alliance of the civil rights movement; thus, it retained its popular educational approach.

Another North America example of personal initiative is the Antigonish movement in Nova Scotia led by priest, philosopher, educator, and social reformer Moses Coady (1882–1959). His program was to organize shore fishermen so that they might be able to assist in formulating policies for the industry, promote scientific and technical education, and utilize the methods of producer and consumer cooperation. His work was founded on a strong belief in education as the solution of the economic problems of the region. Moses declared that education must begin with economics and proposed cooperation as an alternative third way between capitalism and state socialism. One of his original contributions to popular adult education was the organizing of mass meetings, which inspired people to join together into small groups called study clubs or discussion circles. As with many Nordic study circles, these groups were part of the self-help movement and did not involve any teacher (Crane, 2001). Development after the war, however, was not in favor of the cooperative ideas based on self-reliance, and, as an example of popular adult education, withered away.

Current Trends

Following Kane (2001), we may identify three currents of thought. One is concentrating on democracy, citizenship, new spaces, and social actors. This trend is intertwined with mainstream pedagogy and makes popular adult education part of the social capital formation that is initiated by social movements and may be seen as occupying and expanding the public space within civil society. This is evidently the case in Northern Europe, which has witnessed a process of convergence between the popular and the general education. In addition, in Latin America, we may see a pronounced permeability and interchange between the discursive configurations of popular and adult education. There is a feeling among some educators that the historical relevance of popular education has been lost and there is a growing willingness to make links with public and traditional schooling. As a consequence, the political aspect is de-emphasized and more importance is given to the quality of education, access, participation, citizenship training, and new social issues (Kane, 2005; Ruiz, 2006). A second trend is focusing on class and structural change while remaining sensitive to issues of identity and difference. This trend tries to maintain its political vision and commitment. An example is the Popular Education Forum for Scotland, which calls attention to the need for reinvigorating the questions of equality and justice and linking popular education to the political efforts of stimulating a democratic renewal (Martin, 2007). A third trend is less concerned with theory and ideology and more with throwing itself into the struggle and grassroots work. This trend is linked to new social movements that have transformed the popular education discourse from class and structure to ethnicity, race, gender, ecology, and environment. It has adopted a community, practical, and participatory democracy approach of which the participatory budget of Porto Alegre in Brazil serves as a prime example and inspiration (Myers, 2007). New forms of popular education now seem to take place on a global scale with the help of the Internet as is demonstrated by the work of new social movements, the World Social Forum, and Attac which use the World Wide Web in organizing meetings and activities, spreading information, and educating the people. The Internet not only opens up access to expert knowledge for everyone, but also gives the popular forces new possibilities to take part in the oppositional social movement debates of a global call for action against poverty and injustice (Preece, 2006).

In recent years, popular adult education has developed areas of specialism, that is, for specific groups or for specific matters. From the early 1980s, feminists from different countries have gathered under the umbrella term of feminist popular education and formed an international network. A central aim of this is to support the struggles of women in oppressed communities, rather than women in general, and the work is therefore closely related to other nonformal, community, or radical educational practices. The feminists have also linked social justice issues more broadly to the whole person, that is, to embodied learning, which refers to practices that engage the body, mind, spirit, and emotion (Walters and Manicom, 1996; Stromquist, 2004).

Common Dimensions

Despite the regional differences and the different currents of thought, there are at least three dimensions, which, taken together, can give a core meaning of the term. These dimensions are all bounded to a normative philosophy, but the strength of the concept is just that it is based on some few, simple yet powerful ideas: of political commitment in favor of the oppressed, of enabling ordinary people to become subjects of change, of recognizing many types of knowledge, and a methodology that allows these different knowledge to be shared (Kane, 2001: 230).

First, popular adult education has a political– ideological dimension that is linked to a social commitment. The critical approach seems to be at the heart of the popular education approach, and, in dictatorships and oppressive countries, popular education has a specific role of unmasking and challenging unequal relations of power in order to change them. Change is defined as progressive in the interests of a fairer and more egalitarian society, and, in this way, it works in the interest of democracy. However, education and politics are not two sides of the same coin as Myles Horton reminded us. He drew a line between the two, which corresponded to the distinction between education and organizing. If popular education is subordinated to the command of a political goal and ideology, it will turn into propaganda and indoctrination and take the form of political instrumentalism and pseudoschooling (Han, 1995).

Second, popular adult education has a pedagogical– participatory dimension since it tries to recruit and organize people for collective learning and action while, at the same time, maintaining education as a voluntary activity and free from external demands. This requires an educational methodology that radically calls into question the authoritarian teacher-centered practice and transmission of knowledge characteristic of traditional pedagogy (Han, 1995). The popular pedagogy is based on active participation of the learners, dialogical teaching, and sharing of experiences between the learners in such a way that all participants acquire knowledge and take part in a collective learning process. Indeed, the knowledge base of popular education comes primarily from the experiences of the people involved. The method is critical and problematizing, rather than one that produces answers. This education believes in and trusts ordinary people, and is based on the belief that people are capable of understanding and working to improve the conditions of their lives (St. Clair, 2005: 50). Ideally, it is education of equals characterized by a horizontal relationship between teacher and learner.

Third, popular adult education has an action-oriented dimension. Action usually means concrete forms of grassroots activities, which may change power relations. However, critical learning, which corresponds to this education, is also a political act in itself (Newman, 2005) and a critical consciousness is a precondition for action and social change. According to Freire, reflection cannot be separated from action. In Nordic countries, study circles will hardly lead to social and political action; however, it is supposed that they contribute to foster the prerequisite for democratic action (Larsson, 2001). The transformative potential of Nordic popular adult education is not associated with its affiliation to political radicalism, as is assumed in oppressive and developing countries; rather, it comes from the democratic and participatory characteristics of its pedagogy.


Popular adult education is a nonformal type of education that has emerged from the educational work of social movements and may be seen as a paradigm shift to escape from the instrumentalization, systematization, and institutionalization of traditional schooling. It also questions the system of examination in the traditional mode of education, which incessantly serves to reproduce social injustice and its legitimization. The idea of popular education has been formulated as an educational movement to challenge the monopoly of the dominant school mode of education and is capable of presenting alternatives (Han, 1995). Defined in terms of aims, popular adult education may be seen as a specific response in the pursuit of social transformation and change as well as contributing to personal development. Defined in terms of pedagogy and methodology, it is education founded on the principles of voluntarism, institutional independence, dialogical teaching, active participation and the sharing of experiences, and working toward a collective goal. In the Latin American context, popular education represents a critical approach to adult education, which has both a pedagogical aspect of consciousness raising intended to foster a critical awareness of reality, and a political aspect of organizing people for collective action and putting them together for real social change (Han, 1995). In the Northern European context, popular adult education is more about fostering people’s participation in order to stimulate personal as well as social development. The meaning of the term will, however, vary with the social context as the concept is an open-ended process that continues to adapt to individual interests and needs, to the popular and collective struggle to expand one’s freedom, to the pursuit of popular values and cultures, and to the sharing and acquirement of knowledge and culture.

See also: Adult Education and Civil Society; Community Based Adult Education.

S Tøsse, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway

© 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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