Comparative and international research in adult and lifelong learning

I’m currently working with some German colleagues on a paper about comparative adult education research. Our starting point is our impression that this area of study is not in great shape. And this is in spite of the funding available through European Commission sources to support international and comparative activities.

As a quick way into this area, I carried out a simple search of article titles in three journals. First, I looked for the word “comparative” in titles in the International Journal of Lifelong Education and Adult Education Quarterly; then I searched for “lifelong learning” and “adult education” in titles in Comparative Education and Compare. I confined the search to articles published between 1999 and 2015, and excluded book reviews and short notes.

The first thing to say is that this is a very rough and ready measure. Even though I think these are decent journals, there are many others that I could have chosen. And my search terms meant that I missed some important contributions, including an analysis of the OECD’s PIAAC survey of adult skill, while the dates excluded a European comparative study using fresh survey data. But this was only ever meant to provide a starting point, as well as a simple test of whether our hunch about the poor health of the area is accurate.

Second, there are many more papers on adult learning in the two comparative education journals (42) than papers on comparative studies in the adult education journals (9). Compare came out top with 27 papers, thanks partly to special issues on lifelong learning in 2006 and 2009; Comparative Education also had a special issue on lifelong learning, in 1999. AEQ came bottom, with 2, and neither of the adult education journals published a special comparative issue. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to find it an interesting pattern.

New Picture

Annual totals of relevant titles in all four journals

Third, if the trend data don’t show a decline, neither do they suggest an area in rude health.  What they do show is the importance of special issues devoted to research on adult learning; and it is worth bearing in mind that as well as the direct boost of a special issue, the articles that feature in it will then generate furthe debate and in turn stimulate more papers. Given this, it is a bit worrying that the last special issue in  these four journals appeared in 2009.

It’s wise not to over-generalise on the basis of limited data and a simplistic analysis, but let me hazard some informed suppositions. I think the special issues were probably largely a response to the rise of policy interest in lifelong learning. It strikes me that the adult education journals aren’t as open to comparative research as the comparative education journals are to studies of adult learning. There is little evidence here of a European effect, though some of the papers may well have drawn on evidence that was provided through EC funding.

All in all, people who care about comparative adult education research have a bit of a challenge on their hands. Or perhaps this is something that we are happy to leave to the OECD and European Commission, who will then undertake surveys that we can contentedly critique, without actually doing much comparative research ourselves?

 

CfP: International comparison of basic education policies

The Zeitschrift für Weiterbildungsforschung, or Journal for Research in Adult Education, is planning a special issue on the ways in which large scale surveys such as PIAAC are influencing the debate on the best policies for promoting basic adult skills. The editors asked members of the editorial board to circulate the call for papers, and I have pasted it it below.

The journal publishes in English and German, is refereed, and is open access. The deadline for submissions is May 1, 2016, and the issue will appear in August 2016. For further information on the journal see www.springer.com/journal/40955 („Submit Online“).

International comparison of basic education policies

Editors: Alexandra Ioannidou / Josef Schrader
report

Ever since the PIAAC data (OECD 2013) as well as the “leo. – Level One Study” in Germany
(Grotlüschen/Riekmann 2012) were published, the highly developed industrial and knowledge-based society’s failure of securing a minimum of basic competences for all members of society and stabilizing those competences throughout life can no longer be denied. In addition, these studies confirm the connection between social status, participation in continuing education and available competences. In this large scale study, competences were measured, which are classified as indispensable for cultural and social participation as well as employability in each society.

Within the German discussion, those skills are often referred to as basic education, whereas in an international context various different versions of the literacy concept prevail. Both concepts can be regarded as relative, contextual and dynamic terms, based on current social requirements and subject to constant change (Tröster, 2000). Due to the different perceptions of various stakeholders, this dynamic and relational term is difficult to determine.

In the light of the large scale study’s findings, over the last years the scientific debate of the basic education concept has gained in importance along with the education policy debate on compensatory functions of basic education and literacy as well as securing a minimum level of education and competences for all. As a result of the current immigration caused by flight and expulsion and the subsequent expectations of integrating these refugees, the challenges for research, politics and practice of continuing education are increasingly intensified.

During the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003–2012), a literacy and basic education
network was constituted in Germany with various stakeholders from federal government and states, continuing education organisation, social partners as well as the German Federal Employment Agency. In addition, a national strategy was developed, which was transferred into the National Decade for Adult Literacy and Basic Education proclaimed in September 2015.

As the interim results gained in the DIE project “EU-Alpha” indicate, several other European and non-European countries have observed similar developments. They point to the influence of  international and supranational organisations on national policy and practice in the field of basic education.

Until now, little research has been conducted on the national and international reaction of
education, labour, social and integration policy to the problems pointed out by empirical
education research and the resulting operational success. This requires multi-level analyses, which unite system and governance structures with micro data from relevant studies on adult competences (e.g. PIAAC) in an international comparative perspective.

It was often verified that processes of educational disadvantage have a cumulative effect during life, continuing education enforces social selectivity with “soft” and “hard” selection mechanisms, and regional contexts are also significant for educational chances (Tippelt/v. Hippel 2005; Bremer/Kleemann-Göhrig 2011; Schlögl et al. 2015; Martin et al 2015). Less information is provided on how precisely factors and constellations on the system and stakeholder level influence continuing education participation and programmes of basic education or the methods of successfully implementing the objective of “Literacy for All” (United Nations). Which constellation of stakeholders, governance structure, continuing education, labour and welfare systems copes most effectively with the challenges mentioned above?

So far, there is no systematic overview on the effects of governance, structure, education,
labour and welfare policy on the level and structure of adult basic skills. Current literature
research regarding this topic only revealed isolated studies on policy programmes in the field of literacy and basic education but few studies, which connect competence assessment to control mechanisms and governance structures.

Against this background, the planned issue of the Journal for Research on Adult Education
refers to the current research approach in the field of basic education policy but also looks at innovative research approaches. Basic theoretical or empirical research is to be presented, particularly research with an international comparative approach. In addition, case studies from various countries are requested.

Contributions are invited with emphasis on the following issues:
– theoretical articles which cover the dynamic and partly relational term of basic education
as well as its empirical registration/measuring (competence modelling and measuring in
basic education)
– theoretical or empirical research on the connection between basic education competences and continuing education, labour and welfare policy in the country
– empirical research which identifies successful political approaches and the integration in the specific national institutional system based on data and case studies in order to point out methods to strengthen basic skills successfully

References

Bremer, H., & Kleemann-Göhring, M. (2011). Weiterbildung und „Bildungsferne“. Forschungsbefunde, theoretische Einsichten und Möglichkeiten für die Praxis. Essen. http://www.uni-due.de/imperia/md/content/politische-bildung/arbeitshilfe_potenziale. [18.02.2016].

Grotlüschen, A., & Riekmann, W. (Hrsg.). (2012). Funktionaler Analphabetismus in Deutschland. Ergebnisse der ersten leo. – Level-One Studie. Münster: Waxmann.

OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD
Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264204256-en

Schlögl, P. Iller,C.& Gruber, E. (2015): Teilnahme und Teilnahmechancen an formaler und nicht-formaler Erwachsenen- bzw. Weiterbildung. In: Schlüsselkompetenzen von Erwachsenen. Vertiefende Analysen der PIAAC-Erhebung 2011/12, Publisher: Statistik Austria, Editors: Statistik Austria, S.81–97 [Available through ResearchGate, 18.02.2016]

Schrader, J. (2015): Large Scale Assessments und die Bildung Erwachsener. Erträge, Grenzen und Potenziale der Forschung. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 61 (2015) 3, S. 410-428

Tippelt, R./V. Hippel, A. (2005): Weiterbildung: Chancenausgleich und soziale Heterogenität. In: ApuZ, 37/2005. S. 38-45

Tröster, M./Schrader, J. (2016): Alphabetisierung, Grundbildung, Literalität: Begriffe, Konzepte, Perspektiven. Bonn

Tröster, Monika (2000). Grundbildung – Begriffe, Fakten, Orientierungen. In Monika Tröster (Hrsg.), Spannungsfeld Grundbildung (S. 12-27). Bielefeld: W. Bertelsmann Verlag. Available at: http://www.die-bonn.de/esprid/dokumente/doc-2000/troester00_01.pdf [17.02.2016].

Learning in later life – extending the OECD skills survey beyond 65

Many people, myself included, are very interested indeed in the findings of the OECD’s adult skills survey. And it has already become clear that there is much more to come, both from the OECD team, but also from other researchers who are analysing the data independently.

Like any piece of research, though, the OECD survey has limitations. One, particularly important for anyone interested in learning right across the life course, is that the sample was confined to adults of standard working age. I was delighted, then, to learn that the German Institute of Adult Education had collaborated with researchers from two universities to conduct a parallel survey of adults aged 66 and over.

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Competencies in Later Life – the German study – was designed so that the quantitative findings are comparable with those of the main OECD survey. CILL also went beyond it. While the results are still being analysed, preliminary results are available, and they make fascinating reading. More detailed findings were presented at a workshop in Bonn, and it seems pretty clear that extending the OECD instruments to cover older adults was a well worth while exercise.

Some of the findings were predictable. For example, the survey confirmed that average skill levels continue to fall with age, with IT competencies falling particularly sharply. While this is exactly what we might already expect from the OECD findings for the under-65s, it is still helpful to have clear evidence that this is indeed the case, with obvious implications for policy and practice. The study also showed that even among older adults, the level of their parents’ education has a powerful influence.

For me, though, the most interesting finding concerned the lifelong influence of initial education. The study showed that there were many variations in the literacy and numeracy competences of different groups, but when the researchers controlled for initial education, these variations tended to disappear.

For example, men on average showed stronger competences in both areas than women, but after controlling for initial qualifications, the numeracy gap was much smaller, and the literacy gap vanished. This is, of course, a generational effect, which is a product of the different participation rates in tertiary education of men and women in past times.

The study also explored the ways in which people use the skills of literacy, numeracy and computer competences in later life. Drawing on qualitative as well as survey data, the study shows the continuing importance of these skills – as well as others – in the everyday lives of older adults, whether they are still in the labour market of not.