What's the Point of Adult Education? Action Learning – resuscitating the lifeblood of the WEA


In a challenging piece, which resonates with our ongoing debate about the character and purpose of youth work, Greg Coyne of the Workers Educational Association [WEA] calls for the revival of adult education as a force for critical, democratic engagement.

He reflects:

Over 100 years ago, in a period of much stronger political ferment, a small educational initiative called the  Working Men’s Educational Association was formed to address the situation where working people were excluded from study. Nearly 110 years later the WEA a faces a situation that is worse. The time has come to act.

In his opinion amongst the challenges facing the WEA are:

– That our own programs are often too concentrated on leisure interests, and that we are not contributing enough to education for change.
– That in reality that are very few avenues for serious study available to anybody except the privileged.
– Following the collapse of much of the left, 20 years ago, political education is virtually non-existent, even in major political parties like the Labour Party, there are few opportunities for significant political and social education. Even here education has been replaced by competence training in operating political machinery, the media and electoral processes etc.
– This has the consequence that those independent minded individuals, from working-class backgrounds, who have not progressed to university, but who wish to understand and develop a critique of their situation, have virtually no access to formal educational resources to support them in doing so.
– Given the strength and breadth of the British intellectual tradition, leaving aside the European and global traditions, it is an appalling indictment of the educational system of such a rich and advanced country, that it has virtually withdrawn from critical education for adults.

In looking forward and advocating ‘Action Learning’ he argues;

Our first change must be about how we conceive of education. It is first and foremost a social process were human beings learn off and with each other. The WEA has been drawn too far into a default mindset in education and we need to lead a questioning of this and a reassertion of our belief in a shared process where teaching and learning is shared by student and teacher alike, and not simply process, where the expertise of the teacher is passed to the passive student without, as the saying goes, passing “through the brain of either.” The WEA  needs to consider the balance of teaching and learning, ensuring that the emphasis is shifted from the “sage on the stage” towards the “guide at the side”.

Our second stage must be to re-establish a critical pedagogy ……  in the sense that it develops critical thinking, not in the sense that it necessarily develops a particular political project or indeed any political project. It is about enabling our students and ourselves to re-examine our knowledge so that they consciously determine what it is they wish to think rather than simply acquiring the thinking of the more strident voices in our environment

Read developing a radical, action learning oriented educational approach in the WEA to deal with old challenges in new times in full.

And, if you are close to Manchester, Greg is exploring these ideas at a meeting,’ What’s the Point of Adult Education?’ on Wednesday, November 21, 5.30- 7.30 p.m. Details here. Well worth making the effort to get there, I suspect.


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