Let adults share the whole learning experience

DID you know that yellow is the last colour in the palette to be recognised by people developing Alzheimer's Disease? And that red is the second last? I learned it during Adult Learners' Week, when the older learners' project at Brockenhurst College received an award for its work with social services and a group of residential homes.

Those in the project showed great patience, care and imagination in building a curriculum fit for their students, whose ages ranged from 75 to 106. Exercises in the project's art classes focus on yellows and reds, rather than the sludgy browns and English greys that Alzheimer's sufferers let go first.

Working with adult learners always involves three overlapping disciplines, well illustrated by Brockenhurst. The first, of course, is the discipline of the subject - the accumulated understanding of everyone who has struggled with a body of ideas, or a set of practical challenges.

The second is the discipline involved in teaching that subject to adults. It involves the recognition that adults have a wealth of experience to bring to their learning, negative as well as positive, and that any effective learning involves a dialogue that draws on that experience.

The third discipline relates to context. You cannot teach art to the cosmopolitan communities of south London without locating the different aesthetic traditions that shape the cultural heritage the capital draws on. You cannot drape the walls of a dressmaking class with stereotypical images of young white women without contributing to the invisibility of everyone else. This third discipline is the central focus of much equal opportunities work. And the Brockenhurst example highlights the professionalism tutors bring to the task of turning the slogans of widening participation into a lived practice.

In a magical inaugural lecture at Leicester University, in which she asked what Dickens would make of vocational education and training now, Lorna Unwin reminded us that medieval university students were awarded Master of Arts for completing an apprenticeship in "the crafts of the free person". The craft needed to offer the Brockenhurst learners access to the stimulus of learning, and its associated freedoms, is not acquired quickly, and to be applied needs patient co-operation by people working across policy silos. Not surprising, then, that the real costs of successful widening participation are one and a half times the cost of conventional participants in further education, and one and a third times the cost of the better-funded participants in higher education.

My son had his ninth birthday on the Saturday of Adult Learners' Week and I found I could not easily switch off thinking about the less formal learning we rely on to make sense of our lives. Lewis and his friends had a football party in a local indoor warehouse, which hosts 120 indoor football league matches each week. The coach who organised the games was experienced at crowd control and at the rhythm of individual and group-focused skills needed to keep boisterous nine-year-old boys, and the odd five-year-old girl contented. Where did he learn them? Mainly on the job, swapping experiences with other people, noticing what works, he said.

Later in the day, the awards ceremony for Nirvana football club was held in the African Caribbean Centre in Highfields, Leicester. The club runs teams for under-eights through to under-15s in local leagues, and this evening of celebration noted the highest goalscorer, the most-improved player, the player's player, and the manager's player, for each of the 12 teams supported by the club. Then we highlighted the achievements of the managers, volunteers, and the women who wash the kit. In events like this, people practise the skills of active citizenship, managing the surplus energies of boisterous kids, the shyness of adults unused to the limelight - sharing values, skills, energy. Nirvana is living proof of the benefits that derive from an open society. The club draws on the full range of Leicester's cultural mix - but we also noted the improvement of results due to the arrival of refugees from Afghanistan and Somalia. Voluntary agencies provide spaces for people to build new relationships and they are a rich source of mutual learning. No one spoke about formal learning all evening, but I am in no doubt that the people who give up time to make the club work have a rich vein of understanding of the crafts of a free person.

Now what has all this to do with workforce development on which the LSC is currently consulting? Everything and nothing. Lorna Unwin held out a vision in which vocational learning enriches the whole person - just like Lewis's football club. We should seek nothing less.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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