08 November 2009

On community (whatever that is) adult education...

P. and I had a pleasant day at a graduation event at an associate college, although I don't think I shall go again, and I'm not sure the event itself will survive. It's billed as a "Celebration" (a.k.a. PR exercise) of the HE achievement of the college students; it can't be a graduation as such because that is the prerogative of the universities themselves.

In the days of B. College, which was a "community" college in the real sense, it made sense. We processed from the old Victorian primary school which had been converted into a college annexe, through the main shopping centre, parting the populace doing their Saturday shopping*, to the parish church, which was where the ceremony was held. The church was full, and at the buffet lunch afterwards, everyone seemed to be no more than one or two links away from knowing everyone else.

(*  At our "real" graduation a week or two ago, I heard a toddler ask his mother as we passed by in procession, "Why are all those people wearing those funny clothes?" She replied, "It's to show how clever they are." I don't know how the rest of the conversation went...)

Now two colleges have amalgamated, and the ceremony has moved into the city centre. And all indoors. Apart from a few odd graduates and indeed faculty standing outside the hall for a quick smoke, there was no public visibility at all. We robed up, chatted with other academic guests, formed into a procession and entered the hall to the usual organ voluntary, totally invisible to the city around us.

The hall was, as befits a meeting hall of a major city, too big. The attending graduates (perhaps 30% of those on the roster, but 60% for our course [!]) occupied little more than half of the central block of seats. Their families and friends were scattered in the surrounding arc of seats. It may be a distorted and subjective judgment based on the size of the space, but there seemed to be fewer graduates attending from the former two colleges than from the original one. One division had only two graduates to present out of the 20+ who were eligible.

And afterwards, we got not a substantial buffet lunch but tea/coffee and biscuits; I suspect the fallout of a trade-off of costs between the local parish church and a city-centre hall.

Afterwards, in the bar of the theatre next door, I had an interesting conversation with a college colleague who specialises in working with teachers of literacy skills. She reflected on recent government initiatives in basic skills (or--latest jargon--"functional" skills. Why am I suddenly struck with this urge to explore or even teach "dysfunctional skills"?)

She argued that while there was clear evidence that improving the teaching skills of literacy tutors has been effective over the past few years, it was not making much (or indeed any) difference to their target populations of disenfranchised and alienated people. Observing the practice of her students has taken her into seriously deprived areas of the city, and she implied (I don't want to put words into her mouth) that the issues were not about teaching skills, but about the encounter between bottom-up and top-down culture.

As I think about it, I would go further. The Moser report (1999) identified the basic skills problem affecting up to a quarter of the adult population of the UK [figures which have since been questioned, I must add]. From it arose one of the most obvious and downright stupid social engineering initiatives of recent times. Basic skills (literacy and numeracy--ESOL and later ICT are less significant) for adults were not being adequately addressed because many of the those teaching them were not sufficiently "qualified". [OK--I am short-cutting a lot of stuff here, I know...]

Many of those "insufficiently qualified" teachers were volunteers, recruited through earlier government initiatives. Indeed, they may not have been teaching perfect grammar, but;
  •  Many volunteers simply gave up (at least officially); they were offering something for nothing and suddenly they were being told they had to do this training and that assessment, in order to continue to do something for nothing... Ugh? (There is a clear and present danger that the same will happen to voluntary and informal work with children because of the "Safeguarding Children" provisions coming into force...)
  • there is evidence (sorry, this will take a long time to resolve and I'm not going there) that learners work better with teachers who are just a little ahead of themselves rather than stratospherically so. (See Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986 for the basic argument, and add a dash of Vygotsky for flavour.)

  • They were not "professionalised"; they were not identified with "schooling", at which these adult learners had by definition failed and from which many had been actively excluded. They may even have been (and some still are where neighbour helps out neighbour outside any formal scheme) the "organic intellectuals" identified by Gramsci.
Once more the obsession with direct, professional, technical fixes has failed to engage with the messiness of the real world, I fear.

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