Lexicometric methods in the study of lifelong learning

I was recently asked to provide a foreword to a new study of the troubled relationship between lifelong learning research and European education policy. The author, Lisa Breyer, was formerly a colleague at the University of Cologne, and is now a head of department at the Volkshochschule Rhein-Erft. While her book is in German, she has published lexicometric analyses in English on approaches to social justice in adult education and on comparisons of national adult education policies.

Given the widespread use of ‘critical discourse analysis’ in Anglophone research in our field, I was delighted to read and recommend a rather different and – as I see it – more grounded method of analysing the languages of lifelong learning policy. If you want to read more of Lisa’s own work in English then take a look at the two papers I mentioned above. What follows here is an expanded and slightly reworked English language version of my foreword.

Adult education research has to position itself in a field rich with tensions, which is influenced by scholarly theory, educational policy, and practical pedagogic demands. Unlike most academic disciplines, the study of adult education developed out of the field of practice, and was also shaped by policy measures. At the same time, policy actors increasingly support their decisions with reference to research findings and recommendations, all in the name of evidence-based policy. Relatively few studies so far have been concerned with the relationship between and form of the communication process between research and policy.

In our field at least, this book presents a new approach to policy research. Lisa Breyer has gone beyond standard approaches, contributing both to our understanding of policy influence and to our methodological repertoire, as well as provoking reflection on the much-debated relationship between policy and research, by subjecting a corpus of 288 texts from adult education research and education policy covering a 20-year period to lexicometric analysis. Her findings force us to think again about the relations between policy and research.

While much discourse analysis tends to be based on the researcher’s reading of a relatively small number of texts, Dr Breyer uses lexicometric techniques to examine and compare the ways in which the core concepts of „Lebenslanges Lernen“ (lifelong learning) und „Kompetenz“ (skill) feature in systematically selected papers from the European Commission as well as in journal articles by adult education researchers. Her analysis of the findings sheds light on relations between research and policy in adult education, as well as on the differing ways in which researchers and policy-makers understand, use, and contextualise the basic concepts in the field. Indeed, even where there is a shared use of terms like lebenslanges Lernen and Kompetenz, Breyer’s findings show that the very notion of a field of adult education is often understood very differently by policy actors and researchers.

Although some of these patterns will seem familiar to readers, as in the divergence between the economic and employment focus of policy as against the emancipatory and critical values of researchers, the book provides a rich variety of evidence and  a refined analysis of the complexities and nuances that can be found. She also examines the attention that each party pays to the other: while researchers refer explicitly to the European level of policy, policy-makers implicitly privilege comparative survey data as their main source of research evidence while turning to researchers as a source of evidence-based policy. This evolving relationship, Breyer contends, means that it is necessary to redefine the relationship between research and policy.

These reflections complement other research and publications of the DIE, particularly in respect to system and policy. However, the book also serves as a case study in a relatively new method. Breyer has adapted her lexicometric approach to the discipline of adult education research and applied it to a corpus of 288 texts, and concludes that the method allows us to identify patterns and relationships that cannot be shown by analysing a handful of texts. This seems to me to have wider methodological ramifications for comparative educational research in general, as well as for adult education research in particular. I am not aware of any other lexicometric study in adult education of such scale and ambition; and personally I am convinced that she has abundantly demonstrated the potential of this approach, and thus makes an important contribution to our methodological debates.

The shift to online learning and skills training shows promising trends and troubling signs

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an abrupt transition to distance education, training and e-learning. The crisis has resulted in massive shifts to…

The shift to online learning and skills training shows promising trends and troubling signs

Lifelong learning in crime fiction: murderous Scotland and the MOOC

Traces is a series on Alibi, which usually runs endless episodes of classic TV detective series. It has a lot going for it: a stunning cast, unfeasibly attractive principal characters, strong female leads, suitably atmospheric locations, and a plot inspired by Val McDermid.

Traces also features a MOOC as a basic plot device. Emma, the lead character, has returned to her home town of Dundee to work as assistant in a forensic science lab. As part of her induction she undertakes a MOOC, which is designed and delivered by senior staff in the lab, only to discover that it involves a case study which closely resembles the murder of her own mother some 18 years before.

So far so familiar: Traces is a cold case series, clearly rooted in McDermid’s long-standing interest in forensic science. I’ve now seen all of the series, and found it watchable if unexciting. Surprisingly, given McDermid’s involvement, the main problem lies in the script; the plot seems mechanical, the narrative clunky, the dialogue punctuated more than once by the need for explanation, and some of the relationships overly coincidental. But that’s just me.

Meanwhile, the role of the MOOC threads through the story. The decision to use a MOOC in this fictional series presumably has its origins in a real-life MOOC, developed by Dundee’s Professor Sue Black, which included a Val McDermid story. Given that the script involves several explanations of what MOOC stands for, I guess we are not yet at the stage where MOOCs are a part of everyday life. But the fact that one features so prominently in a prime time tv series suggests that we are getting there.

https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/books/10k-enroll-on-val-mcdermid-inspired-forensics-course-1-3849399

‘Dundee, it’s been an utter pleasure’: Professor Sue Black prepares for next adventure

Lockdown reading: 21 April – 20 May

North York Moors

Non-fiction

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work

Mike Dennis, The Stasi: Myth and reality

William Atkins, The Moor: Lives, landscape, literature

Fiction

Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock

Antti Tuomainen, The Man who Died

Graham Greene, Stamboul Train

Sujata Massey, Die Tote im Badehaus

Doris Lessing, Landlocked

Adult education, democracy, and murder in Nordic Noir

In her novel Red Wolf, the Swedish crime writer Liza Marklund bumps off a character who lives in the far northern region of Norrbotten. Margit Axelsson, a one-time Maoist revolutionary in the 60s, now makes a living by teaching ceramics to adults in the remote town of Piteå.

Norbotten, photographed by Simo Rasanen (Creative Commons)

Marklund portrays Swedish adult education, at least as carried out by the Arbetarnas bildningsförbund (AFB, or WEA), as an extension of Margit’s beliefs:

The Workers’ Educational Association had always believed that those who had received the fewest of society’s resources should be compensated through education, cultural activities, and opportunities. he regarded it as jjstice applied in the educational and cultural sphere.

Study groups were a lesson in democracy. They took as their starting point the belief that every inividual has the capacity and desire to develop themselves, to exert influence and take responsibility, that every ndividual is a resource.

And she saw how the members grew, youing and old alike. Whwen they learned to handle the clay and the glazes their self-confidence grew, their understanding of the opinions of others, and, with that, their ability to actively influence what went on in the society around them.

It all ends badly for Margit, but isn’t it interesting to see an author set out such a clear analysis of the wider effects of adult learning? I have no way of knowing whether the study circles of the Arbetarnas bildningsförbund really do have these effects, but I hope so.

Why a fearless Welsh journalist praised German work camps in 1933

Gareth Jones was a fearless investigative journalist, famous for his reports on the horrific famine that followed enforced collectivization in the Ukraine. He is the subject of a biography published by the Welsh Academic Press, but is now becoming familiar to a wider audience thanks to the newly-released Mr Jones, a major film directed by the wonderful Agnieszka Holland, starring James Norton as Jones (and featuring part of Fife as his home town of Barry).

James Norton

jones

I first came across Jones in a rather different context, while researching for my study of British work camps. In a series of articles in spring 1933 for the Western Mail and South Wales News, Jones reported on his visits to German labour camps in February 1933, an experience that ‘impressed me deeply’.

Jones’ impressions of the German camps he visited were overwhelmingly positive. He compared the large scale of the German Arbeitsdienst camps with the handful of voluntary and government camps in Wales, concluding that the latter had lessons to learn.

If Wales had done as much as Germany for the unemployed there would now be 300 camps here, and about 10,000 young Welshmen between 18 and 25 years of age would be engaged at useful work, repairing boots, singing, doing physical exercise, playing football or cricket and discussing everything under the sun. . . .Germany is years ahead of Wales in tackling unemployment. Thus Wales has a chance of catching up its brother nation and perhaps of beating Germany in the quality of work done. The opportunity is a magnificent one, especially for the Churches (Western Mail & South Wales News, 27 April 1933).

This cheery picture might seem odd, given how we now view the German labour camps. But when Jones visited Germany, the Nazi Party was just consolidating its hold on power, participation in labour service was still voluntary, and the camps were still organised by a wide variety of voluntary organisations.

Jones visited at least one camp run by the Stahlhelm, a nationalist and conservative paramilitary grouping founded in 1918 as a veterans’ movement; after the Nazi seizure of power, it was integrated into the Nazi structures in 1934. Jones noted that the unemployed trainees wore uniforms and helmets, concluding that the Stahlhelm camp ‘had done excellent work in making orchards and building roads, but their outlook was nationalistic and military’.

Jones also visited other types of camp, including one organised by a Christian group. But he worried that ‘Now, however, the whole system is in the melting-pot, for Hitler is in power, and it is feared that he may destroy its voluntary basis and make it compulsory and narrowly nationalistic’. As indeed was the case when the Nazis replaced the voluntary system with their universal male Reichsarbeitsdienst.

Jones was far from alone in admiring the voluntary labour service of pre-Nazi Germany. In my book I quoted Jones alongside the example of a Workers’ Educational Association study tour which was particularly taken with the ‘democratic way of living’ in a German camp. The fact is that many if not most of these camps were very different animals from the universal labour service enforced by the Nazis.

Entirely consistently, Jones also admired Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, another large scale work camp initiative which trained young unemployed men on public works, in what Jones described as ‘a labour army’. Jones valued such camps because they ‘rescue’ unemployed men from ‘the apathy of worklessness’; what he despised was indifference to their plight.

Did this make him a Nazi sympathiser? Not at all, but Jones certainly has good contacts with the Nazi leaders, and he was denounced by some Western anti-fascists for ‘smearing’ the Soviet Union, of which the Ukraine was a part.

Jones died young, murdered in China in 1935 shortly before his 30th birthday. I very much welcome the film’s celebration of a journalist who uncovered uncomfortable truths about things most readers preferred to ignore. Meanwhile, if you want to read more on 1930s work camps in Britain (and to a lesser extent Ireland), hunt down a copy of my book.

Commercial adult learning: mountain skills

I spotted this poster in the men’s room at my favourite outdoor shop. Tiso’s in Glasgow has a cafe, making it a good place for a break on the drive over to visit family in Dunoon. It has offered outdoor skills training since 2000.

Tiso’s developed the courses as a by-product of its main retail trade. They are held across climbing and skiing sites across Scotland. A one-day course will set you back £85-£95. The main instructor is an experienced mountaineer who holds a Mountaineering Instruction Certificate, an award of Mountain Training UK.

If you want to know more, check out the details on https://www.tiso.com/courses

Adult learning in spy fiction: John Le Carré

Le Carré at the Zeit Forum Kultur, 2008, Hamburg

There’s a brief but telling mention of adult education in John Le Carré’s latest novel. Describing a character who has a left-wing father from a mining background, Le Carré adds that

His mother spent whatever free time she had from work at adult education classes until they were cut.

Le Carré is describing here a politically engaged self-improving working class milieu which he believes no longer exists, due in part to the erosion of public civic spaces of learning.

Agent Running in the Field is entertaining enough, but it’s unlikely to be judged one of Le Carré’s better novels, though its plot may resonate with the beliefs and fears of some Remainers. For the purposes of this blog, though, I will confine my comments to his very brief mention of adult education.

First, the author presents the weakness of UK adult education as a given; and while I think he is wrong about it, I understand that a lot of his readers will share this view.

Second, I’m encouraged that an author of his stature has actually noticed that UK adult education is not in great shape, and can assume that this observation will resonate with his readers. Maybe someone should be signing Le Carré up as patron of a campaign for adult learning (while gently pointing out to him that it isn’t quite dead yet).

Education and the Brexit saga

One thing seems to be consistently clear in the debate over the UK’s relationship with the EU: our participation in the EU’s education and training programmes is set to continue. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, as all the main UK parties have said repeatedly that they would like our participation to continue. And now the political declaration attached to the latest withdrawal agreement confirms it.

What exactly this will mean in practice is another matter. Given its track record, the question of whether the U.K. Border Agency is capable of distinguishing between students and illegal immigrants at point of entry is a good one. And I have no idea whether we are reaching the end of the beginning in the never-ending story of Brexit.

Still, it seems clear to me that those who value international exchanges now have work to do if they are going to shape the scope and scale of future U.K. participation – especially if they are involved in areas other than the well-represented and lobby-rich sectors like schools and higher education.

Responding to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education – just do it!

If you are a UK adult educator, you are probably a bit taken aback by the sheer number of current inquiries into lifelong learning. The Liberal Democrats and Labour Party both have their own inquiries, another is being led by the college sector, and the House of Commons Select Committee on Education has just announced its own study of adult skills and lifelong learning. And these come on the heels of a variety of high level reports in the past couple of years.

No wonder that some of us are inquiry-weary.  When I tweeted a link to the Select Committee Inquiry, one person responded: “I cannot see what else there is to learn. It’s essential end of! Back it fund it do it stop talking & I dare to add spend more money on finding out what we know”. Another commented: “Not again! I’ve been seeing these reports all of my long life – and learnt nothing”. So I hesitate, if only briefly, before urging you to respond to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education.

Centenary-Commission-on-Adult-Education

Members of the Centenary Commission (from Cooperative News)

The Centenary Commission’s starting point is the 1919 report of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s committee on adult education. The report was a landmark in adult education history, and is often credited with persuading the Government to expand the role of local authority adult education, and inspiring the formation of the British Institute of Adult Education (now the Learning and Work Institute).

While the 1919 report is certainly open to criticism, not least for the unmanageably large number of its recommendations (and its neglect of Scotland), it offered an inspiring vision of the broad and constructive contribution of adult education to a vibrant functioning democracy. And that is something we need to explore all over again in our new times.

So if you are interested in adult learning and education, let me urge you to overcome your inquiry fatigue. It is really easy to do, and the more of us who take the time to do so, the more likely it is that the Commission will have some impact. Of course, if you don’t respond, then I think you lose any right to pop up later complaining that you don’t like their report.

Not wishing to influence your own thinking, here’s what I said in reply to the Commission’s question about examples of good practice:

  1. The French approach to individual learning accounts (the compte personnel de formation) is one of a number of learning account schemes that seem to me well worth looking at. While it has not yet reached huge numbers, it nevertheless provides a model of incentivising learning by funding learners rather than simply increasing funding to institutions.

  2. The concerted and intensive awareness-raising of Adult Learners Week made a real contribution to culture change. In England there is now a rather less focused month-long festival; in Scotland and NI, ALW lost its funding, and now no longer occurs at all. By contrast, Wales has maintained ALW, and my impression is that it continues to retain a momentum and impact that is missing elsewhere in the UK. I’m sure you are already speaking with LWI Wales about the WAG approach to ALE, and it would be useful to know also what their view is of ALE vs a month-long festival.

  3. OER/MOOCs. Digital resources and mobile devices are game-changers. Of course there is considerable hype around MOOCs as well as equally vacuous counter-hype, but they present opportunities for extending and widening participation that we really shouldn’t ignore. I suggest contacting Peter Shukie to share his knowledge of who is doing what with COOCs.

  4. Transformative learning. The forthcoming Global Report on Adult Learning & Education (GRALE4) will show that while ALE is in reasonably healthy condition at global level, ALE for citizenship is an exception; in fact it is in parlous health. UNESCO will formally launch report at its November 2019 conference in Paris; if you want a preview of the findings, you should contact the UIL. Incidentally, the UK chose not to respond to the GRALE survey (neither did it respond in 2015).

And here’s how I replied to the invitation to specify ‘the single most important recommendation the Commission could make ‘:

Reintroduce a system of individual learning accounts, supported by guidance, and favouring those who have benefited least from publicly funded post-16 education. Drawing on experience elsewhere, as well as previous experience in the UK, redesigned ILAs will incentivise learners and improve institutional responsiveness. It might take the form of an entitlement, but I wouldn’t at this stage be too prescriptive about administrative shapes – better to get the min design principles right. This will of course be resisted by HEIs and colleges, who would prefer any additional funding to come to them, so recommending something along these lines will send a very clear message about your priorities.