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Is there pedagogy of adult education? Part 1

August 8, 2013

Is there pedagogy of adult education? Can we talk about an approach to Teaching, Learning and Assessment (TLA) that is distinctive and constitutes a shared and understood body of practice?

As my colleague Greg Coyne says there ‘is a rich literature and experience in adult learning stretching back for a hundred years…’ I want to look at some of this experience, and a bit of the literature in order to throw light on the question. The selection is admittedly serendipity, reflecting what I know or have read about and it focuses on broadly defined ‘social purpose’ and/or liberal adult education. The hope is to add something to contemporary discussions on the topic and promote further debate.

I’m not focusing particularly on educational theorists although some have clearly been very influential. Ann Walker has done that in her ‘Hall of Fame’ blogs (link below). Instead I’m looking at the practice of adult education to see how understanding has developed, some of the tensions that have merged and common threads of good practice.

This started out as a blog and turned into an indigestible essay so instead I’m doing it in bits, starting with two significant models of what adult education should look like. Forthcoming blogs will examine particular TLA issues.

Tutorial classes: the classic model

The three-year tutorial class with weekly meetings was the classic model of liberal adult education practiced by the WEA and universities (who provided the tutors) in the first half of the last century. They were designed for adults who hadn’t had access to secondary schooling and provided a serious introduction to academic study, reaching university level in the third year.

The predominant teaching method evolved as a one hour lecture followed by an hour’s discussion with assessment via students’ written work. Student essays along with a minimum attendance requirement were conditions of access to the ‘golden stream’ of public funding first secured for tutorial classes in 1909.

An interesting outcome of some tutorial classes was the impact that student experience had on some of the young university lecturers teaching the classes. This is acknowledged, for example, by R H Tawney, teaching economic history in Stoke and Rochdale from 1909 and fifty years later by E P Thompson whose ground breaking ‘Making of the English Working Class’ draws on the experiences and memories of tutorial class students in 1950’s Yorkshire. In both cases their understanding of social history was significantly formed though discussion with their students.

Tutorial classes began with a conventional approach – lectures and essays – but the experience of working with highly motivated and experienced adult students prompted the development of discussion-based and experiential learning that have become influential parts of a more distinctive adult education methodology.

‘Social Movement’ education

The tutorial class movement declined significantly in the 1950’s; classes became shorter with a subject shift towards liberal arts subjects and an ending of the requirement on students to provide written work. The social relevance of adult education was widely questioned with universal secondary education, near full employment, greater social mobility, and the expansion of mass media, particularly television.

Different and radical models of adult education however emerged in the 1970’s connected with  the collapse of the post-war consensus around the Welfare State, the ‘second wave’ women’s movement, trade union militancy (including health and safety), inner city struggles around housing, regeneration and community development, and resistance to unemployment. The ambition of many adult educators at that time was that their work should support these new social movements.

Part of this involved re-thinking of the relationship between tutors and students; often summarised as a shift for the tutor from ‘expert’ to facilitator’. This shift recognised the wealth of knowledge and experience amongst students and the need for education to help groups in the community define and work towards their own aims. The understanding of knowledge was quite different to the tutorial class model where it had been assumed that education introduced students to a body of knowledge necessary for their individual or collective development.  Social movement educators echoed Friere’s critique of the ‘bank of knowledge’ and student as an empty account.

Approaches to pedagogy stressed the informal, the committed and the importance of action research. Assessment was about the campaigning or policy impact of the social movement of which education was a part. Staff working for the Home Office Community Development Projects (established in deprived areas) brought together researchers, community activists and adult educators. In the workplace,  trade union tutors and students in Leeds researched stress amongst bus workers and used the results in a campaign for improved working conditions.

Social movement education was, and remains, important as a model but practice on the ground was surely more ambiguous and mixed. Interestingly the trail blazing Liverpool ‘Second Chance to Learn’ scheme insisted on the ‘Oxford’ model of teaching, learning and assessment with lectures, individual tutorials and student essays and projects. Laudably their thinking was ‘nothing’s too good for the working classes’ although, according to the scheme’s evaluator, many of the students found this approach heavy going and it was modified as a result.


Examination of these two models has illustrated the development of important and distinctive adult education notions of TLA around – for example – student experience, the role of the tutor and expert knowledge, and the relationship of education to social action and change. In forthcoming blogs I want to explore some of these issues in more detail picking up on ideas of curriculum negotiation, discussion-based learning,  embedding study skills, and feedback and assessment practices in adult and community learning. 

Please comment giving your own thoughts and perspectives.

Link to Ann Walker ‘Hall of Fame’ blogs:

Interesting discussion by John Field about how far adult education is/was a ‘social movement’

From → Adult Education

  1. Excellent. Keep them coming Pete. I don’t think the two models have to be mutually exclusive. Recognise the wealth of knowledge and skills adults bring to the classroom and use that to everyone’s benefit, but also acknowledge that the ‘Oxford’ model has its part to play too, in the hands of a sensitive and effective adult educator. What about a sort of hybrid pedagogy?

    • Pete Caldwell permalink

      Hi Jol, Your ‘hybrid’ comment is spot on. The ‘models’ are useful; they give a strong focus on particular features or issues but don’t on their own address all the complexities of particular TLA settings.

    • Agreed, spot on Jol. (Although I am not sure about the term ‘hybrid pedagogy’ here.) The “Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks” reading group and exchange, organised by @TeachNorthern, would interlocute well with this discussion (and that on ‘social purpose education’). I am mulling it all over! Thanks, Camila

      • Pete Caldwell permalink

        Your ‘hybrid’ comment may well be right; I’m thinking of having a go at curriculum negotiation next thta might be one way of looking at it?

  2. This is a good read Pete. So much wider education debate is about issues that are peripheral to pedagogy / andragogy and it’s good to share these reflections online as well as in our internal WEA discussions.

    We need to build on the body of professional knowledge and experience from the past and present and to develop adapted approaches that work in a world of rapid economic, social and technical change. I know that you’re focusing very much on this as part of your role.

    Look forward to the next instalments…..

    • Pete Caldwell permalink

      Thanks Ann. I have found it quite rewarding to revisit some of the earlier practitioner discussions and think about how they relate to our work today. In a sense that’s what we’re doing with Social Purpose Education and it’s proving quite enlightening

  3. Thanks – interesting read and pertinent to a blog I’m writing at the moment on teacher training. I have worked both as a teacher of kids and of adults and it seems to me the issues and tensions are pretty much one and the same. We are, after all, all learners whether grown up or still growing! My feeling is that if teachers of all kinds can be more in touch with what it is to be a good learner then they will be in a position to offer strong role models and to provide contexts and opportunities that allow their students to do the same.

    • Pete Caldwell permalink

      Thanks for the comment and I look forward to your blog. I tend to agree that there are no fundemental differences between children’s and adults’ learning.

  4. Jill Westerman permalink

    Thanks Pete. This is interesting and useful- we’re doing a lot of thinking at Northern College about teaching and learning, teaching for a social purpose and improving our practice. I’ll look forward to more from you to add to our thinking.

    • Pete Caldwell permalink

      Thanks Jill for kind comment. I do follow quite a lot of Northern College’s thinking on social purpose teaching via twitter and website. It’s really good stuff and good for WEA and Northern to share ideas

  5. Good stuff, Pete, with the helpful links – for example Ann’s quote ‘The best education encourages students to ask questions’. A few key questions based on our experience: I) How do we connect all the informal contemporary adult learning (philosophy-in-pubs groups and many similar; book groups; U3A; etc) to the more formal professional adult education?; ii) ‘Education for social purpose’ – fine, but are
    some subjects/themes-for-study more relevant to this than others?; iii) Do new technologies and on-line learning make lectures/lecturers and, indeed, professional tutors redundant – or create new facilitating roles for professional teachers?

    • Pete Caldwell permalink

      Thanks for the feedback. Big questions to mull over, perhaps others will comment. I am planning a future pedagogy blog on ‘lectures, questions and discussion’ (or something like that). Hope that RWF is still going strong, Pete

  6. Well Hello Pete Caldwell! Glad to see you looking so bonny! Great, WEA discussing pedagogy. I’m writing up PhD research at this moment about the qualitative evaluation of community/participatory projects, especially those with creative elements. It’s interesting to see in academia that Freire is still well regarded: There’s interesting stuff by Sara Motta et al of the ‘Theorising Critical Pedagogy in the Teaching of Social and Global Justice Group’ (where she uses Deleuze & Guatari to ‘modify’ Freire for middle class students!) and a necessary critique from Elizabeth Ellsworth (‘Why doesn’t this feel empowering?’) which you might like (pdf at ). Have you also come across, ‘Participation the new tyranny?’ Bill Cooke, Uma Kothari ? I do agree with the previous comment, that bell hooks is massively relevant. Meanwhile, I am working with creative, expressive participatory methods, using my experience as an artist and community artist (& as WEA worker of course) to inform this (paper on Best wishes to you & WEA ! Sue

    • Pete Caldwell permalink

      Hi Sue; great to hear from you and your work. I’ll follow up the links; they’ll be of interest to others too. all the best, Pete

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