Historically, adult education and literacy have evolved outside the formal system of education. Adult education and literacy programs have often been referred to as nonformal education. Typically, formal education stresses the development of academic skills, while informal education stresses the development of skills learned in the workplace, or the community at large.
Several theories and philosophies guide adult education and literacy. This entry focuses on two well-known and distinctively opposed approaches: technicist-vocational and popular liberating education. The technicist-vocational approach targets mostly working class adults and stresses a utilitarian approach in which the learner gains essential knowledge and skills in reading, writing, and computation for effective functioning in society. The main concern is to help the participants fit into the existing socioeconomic structure, particularly jobs at the lower end of the economy.
The alternative approach to technical and functional adult education and literacy is adult popular education for social transformation. This approach, typified in the work of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, is aimed at enhancing human potential and dignity while working for a better world—that is, a more humane, just, equitable, and sustainable society. Adult education as popular education for social transformation is built upon a critique of the technicist functional approach, and looks toward expanding and enriching the narrow view of the latter.
The focus of this type of popular education is the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised. Freire and Donaldo Macedo define literacy as “reading the word and the world.” Accordingly, adult literacy takes place by adults reading and writing their own reality. From these theorists’ perspective, no one is completely illiterate, and no one is completely literate. The popular knowledge coming from people’s daily lives and experiences is valued and used, as well as challenged. Adults study not only what their reality is but also how this reality should and can be transformed. In doing so, they embrace education as a tool for their own empowerment.
Adult Education For Social Transformation
Education for social transformation involves a language of critique or denunciation, and a language of possibility or annunciation. Freire argues that all education is political and that participants in the educational process should be tactically inside and strategically outside the system. According to him, adult learners need to demystify the reality constructed for them through the mainstream media by those in power. The adult education curricula should be built with the participants by using their own experiences and realities to help them understand whose “reality” is constructed through the media, including textbooks. In addition to learning basic skills, they should be made aware of how public consent is manufactured. As citizens who contribute to the transformation of the world, adult learners should not merely learn basic skills but should focus on understanding the world so that they can contest hegemonic social practices and systems. In Freire’s model of education, adult educators assist learners in unveiling the everyday taken-for-granted realities and prejudices that result in oppressive practices and inequity.
Goals Of Adult Education For Social Transformation
According to Freire, embracing adult education for social transformation should lead to an understanding of how the dominant culture works and should thus provide a basis for joining forces toward transforming the oppressing conditions in which these adults and their families and communities live. Curricula should be developed by involving participants in dialogue in the context of democratic relationships between adult educators and adult participants. Participatory adult education should include theories of human and social sciences in addition to the enhancement of their job and life skills. Thus, participants learn both techniques, and the whys and the what for, from their own point of view and for their own benefit.
Denying the human and social aspects of adult education is detrimental to learners and their growth. Adult education for social transformation should go toward building counter-hegemonic power through collective action and solidarity. In brief, it is aimed at creating critical collective consciousness and action toward a better world from the point of view of the adult learners themselves.
Engaging in adult education for social transformation implies two major goals: achieving critical consciousness and moving to work collectively toward improving life conditions, starting with those of participants themselves. Critical consciousness may be promoted, nourished, and supported through dialogue in culture circles, an idea introduced by Freire in adult literacy programs in Brazil in the early 1960s.
To promote participation and interaction, a culture circle has no more than fifteen participants. Dialogues among the participants are facilitated by tutors. The tutors are people from the community and/or very close to participants. They are prepared to understand the core notions of democratic liberating education, and to devise opportunities for the adult participants they are working with to understand more deeply and broadly their realities and to build an understanding of the whys of their situation and why the world is the way it is. Tutors also are prepared to carry out with the participants thematic research about the topics that are going to compose the curriculum. This way of developing a curriculum increases the possibility that it will be culturally relevant and socially responsive to participants and is essentially democratic.
Not all the topics that compose the curriculum come from adult participants; the adult educator also brings some that may help in the process. Freire always stressed the topic of culture. In the culture circle, adults are assisted to understand that culture is created by people, and that people like themselves are able to change those elements of culture that are harmful to themselves. Through dialogue, adult learners can discover what elements exist that need to be changed.
From the perspective of popular adult education for social transformation, genuine participatory democracy facilitates adult participants in bringing to the classroom the topics that really matter to them, and thus assures that adult learners have a purposeful and meaningful understanding of them. Dialogical participation means that the realities of the adult participants are part of the curriculum building and development, which is opposed to the top-down curricular decisions of the technical-functional model of adult education and literacy. An example of this is given by Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, who used the language/vocabulary of participants’ fears, problems, hopes, and dreams as the basis for learning reading and writing in culture groups. In addition, the work of Erich Fromm in The Revolution of Hope helps us to clarify what should be the primary values and goals of society and consequently of education in general and adult education in particular. Indeed, the end should be human well-being and the enhancement of quality of life, not “efficiency” (to produce more and consume more) as an end in itself. Adult popular education and literacy thus should aim at human fulfillment and collective enhancement of life conditions as the primary goal, overshadowing the technical goal of preparation for entering the labor force. Adults as humans are not the means for meeting the needs of industry, which are driven by profit; on the contrary, labor is the means for human fulfillment and transformation of the world for the benefit of humankind and the environment. From a sociohumanist view of life and education, human beings are always the ends in themselves, never the means; and the ends never justify the means—even when those ends are very noble and altruistic.
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- Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2003). New literacies: changing knowledge and classroom learning. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
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