Breaking social patterns

Motivating early school leavers for learning is one of the main challenges for adult education. A study shows that Danish non-formal adult education has created learning environments that is able of breaking social patterns - thanks to special pedagogic approaches.

By Michael Voss (InfoNet)

"I enlisted, because I had a depression. I never really fitted in anywhere. Actually, most of the time I just stayed in bed and did nothing.
Then I heard of this place. And I thought: OK, if it is not all about reading, it may be all right.
And for the first time I had an experience of being understood and accepted as I am. There was a fantastic atmosphere.
Now I am moving on. Actually I am graduating from upper secondary school this summer."
These are the words of a participant in one of the five non-formal adult education (AE) courses that are objects of a scientific study.
In the study Steen Elsborg and Steen Høyrup from The Danish School of Education, University of Aarhus, have employed a learning theoretical view on the five cases.

On the edge
A number of non-formal AE institutions organize courses aimed at early school leavers and other citizens that are alienated to formal education. In the words of the two authors these are individuals "on the edge of knowledge society".
According to the study these types of courses have the potential of essential impact on the participants:
- Increased self esteem, self knowledge and self confidence
- Motivation for creating a new content of life
- Readiness for new challenges
- A wish to develop new competencies
The reason for these achievements is the ability of the non formal AE schools to create a learning environment by applying five elements of a special pedagogic, say Elsborg and Høyrup. These are:

1. Focusing on each participant as a resourceful actor and approaching him/her with respect and understanding.
"I don't meet them with some conceived knowledge and reservations. I meet them with an open mind, an empty screen and this point of view: I believe in you," says one of the quoted teachers.
Another puts it this way:
"I focus very much on, what are their strengths, what are their dreams and what are their desires for the future, what are they really enthusiastic about."

2. A social environment that gives the individual strength and energy for action.
The participants bond and become a community, and this creates a positive learning environment.
"Wow, there are other people just like me. It is not only me that is strange or weird or different. This is what participants often realize. It creates a sense of normality, security and trust, and that is what it is all about," says a teacher.

3. Flexible, targeted organization of the educational program
Teachers are always ready to seize the moment when participants are motivated for learning and guidance, and they change plans accordingly. Guidance focus on self knowledge and new possibilities of action. But they don't compromise with the level of skills and requirements.
"Looking back on the course one of the good elements was the way they always slipped in new challenges to us," says a participant.
"Talking to one participant I focus on the difficulties of job-interviews, while talking to others I help them getting a trainee position," says a teacher.

4. Teaching and guidance are interrelated
A characteristic of the motivating learning environment is the special relations created between participants and teachers/guides - based among other elements on the dynamic coherence between guidance and teaching.
A participant describes it this way: "She [the teacher] has been there for me all the time. And she has opened up new possibilities for me. Now I can see a good future in front of me."
Another participant says: "Sometimes one of us go off the deep end. Then she gets angry and hard. We have disappointed her or made her sad. That shows that she wants us all the best."

5. Learning is directed towards society
Teachers take responsibility for mediating and translating between the individual and the society. Participants experience the course and the school as a base for moving out into a society that until now may have appeared dangerous and hostile.
"We usually use the metaphor that you walk out life's highway, but there are many roundabouts. They then move in circles. Maybe they turn to the right and realize that it was a blind alley.
Then we have to bring them back into a safe room with people they trust. And then we can make them move forward again," says a teacher and guide.

The findings of the Elsborg and Høyrup study has been part of developing a new AE concept, named Tailor made Individual Preparatory Education (TIPE; in Danish: IFU).