The Times are Out of Joint: Chrononormativity and the normal age of learning

The word ‘chrononormativity’ refers to the way in which our experiences follow patterns over time in conformity with normative frameworks. Some of these patterns are pretty obvious: for example, there are age-defined periods of compulsory education, and the right to vote or marry, as well as responsibility for one’s own crimes, are defined by age. So, if it is that obvious, why bother to call it ‘chrononormativity’?

Apprentices at Hornsey Rail Depot, by Lynne Featherstone

I’ve been thinking about this question since reading a new paper on older workers in the apprenticeship system. It’s a great paper which uses the idea of chrononormativity to show how oft-unexamined assumptions about age shape the everyday experiences and understandings of older workers, their trainers, and their managers, in ways that are not always helpful for the intended goals of the training programme.
The authors conclude that the concept of chrononromativity helped reveal the complex ways in which the age-training relationship works out, with older apprentices having to take the initiative in disrupting normalising assumptions, in order to negotiate relationships with (younger) peers and trainers. This is a familiar idea to those who have studied the lives of mature students in higher education, or in other age-bound educational settings such as schools. But if the idea is familiar, the word itself is relatively new.
The authors of the paper on older apprentices acknowledge its origins in queer theory, where Elizabeth Freeman used it in a 2010 book to explore the noncontinuously gendered life narratives of transsexuals. For Freeman, though, the term also has a wider relevance: people are controlled through the regulation of time. She defines chrononormativity as ‘the use of time to organize human bodies toward maximum productivity’. More broadly, ‘chronobiopolitics’ underpins various forms of social solidarity: ‘people are bound to one another, engrouped, made to feel coherently collective, through particular orchestrations of time’.
And this is where I think the concept might be helpful in understanding adult learning. It doesn’t point to anything particularly novel, as we have known for many years that most people see learning in adult life as a deviation from the norm: that is why advocates constantly remind people that learning isn’t just for the young. But it does draw attention to the way that our ideas of the ‘normal right time’ for things is patterned, and is tied in to other socio-cultural (and economic) patterns.
Less attractive, to me at any rate, is the way that Freeman uses the passive voice to describe chrononormativity and its effects. She talks about the way in which ‘people are made to feel’ something – and thus rules out the idea of anyone actually doing the making. The talks about ‘the use of time’ to enforce productivity – and not about who is doing the using, and in whose interests. This is also connected, I believe, to a tendency to ignore or underplay the agency of those involved – yet plenty of people do kick against the constraints of chrononormativity, adult learners included.
Stripped of these limitations, I see this idea as potentially relevant for our understanding of what it means to be ‘learning out of joint with the times’. When three of us wrote a paper drawing on our study of learning biographies, we found it useful to distinguish three representations in people’s accounts of time: chronological time, narrative time, and generational time.
I can see with hindsight that, athough the idea of chrononormativity was present in some of what we were saying, an explicit focus on the norms and practices associated with the concept might have sharpened our discussion of all three representations. Or perhaps it would have annoyed readers without adding anything new.
Potentially, I think the concept is worth exploring as we try to understand people’s experiences of learning ‘out of joint’, as well as improving the ways in which learning and its provision are managed. Whether it brings any novel insights, or simply underlines and helps clarify what we already know, remains to be seen.

Adult learners in England still under attack

In the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking that participation in public adult learning could not get much worse. Data updated today, available here, show that after repeated declines in recent years, the number of adults in England taking courses funded by the Skills Funding Agency fell yet again last year.

New Picture (1)

The detailed results of the Statistical First Release show that the collapse was sharper than average among those taking ‘Full Level 2 courses’ –  i.e. precisely the skills level that government is prioritising. This group fell by 12.7% over the year. Even worse, though, was the collapse in those taking ‘below Level 2 courses (excluding English and Maths)’, who fell by 21.4%.The numbers in community learning courses fell by 7.2%.

The system did little better by basic skills learners. The number of ESOL learners fell by 5.8%, Maths learners by 6.6%, and other English learners (mostly literacy students) by 5.5%. In fact, the only groups to increase were adult apprentices (very welcome, but they are still well below their peak level two years ago) and those – relatively few – who took Level 4 courses.

Of course, there will be alternatives to publicly provided adult education, with a thriving commercial sector and a very active third sector (think men’s sheds and the U3A). Meanwhile, the poorest and those with the least cultural and social capital will be left behind.

Little wonder that the All-Party Group for Adult Education, chaired by Chi Onwurah, recently reported widespread fears of a ‘stated danger that national policy for adult education could disappear by 2020’. And this for a country with an aging working population, and a poor productivity record, facing massive technological and social changes.