Participatory Learning in Formal Adult Education Contexts

Participatory Learning in Formal Adult Education Contexts

Ilhan Kucukaydin (Penn State Harrisburg, USA) and Patricia Cranton (Professor of Adult Education, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/javet.2012010101
OnDemand PDF Download:
No Current Special Offers


Formal courses in adult education are most often housed within schools or faculties that include other disciplines such as teacher education, psychology, or training and development. Adult educators teaching these courses may feel obligated to follow the procedures and practices of the institution as well as of the programs with which they are associated. This creates a set of paradoxes and conflicts that are rarely addressed. Adult educators working in formal contexts teach about critical pedagogy and democratic practices without engaging in those practices themselves. This article advocates a participatory learning model based on the historical foundations of adult education theory and practice. The authors explore teaching as a subversive activity, hegemony, critical pedagogy, and power relations. The authors then discuss implications for practice in formal contexts.
Article Preview


Even though some authors, such as Campbell and Burnaby (2001) and Shor (1992) claim that the origin of participatory education can be traced to Freiriean popular education and its concepts began being used in the adult education literature in the 1980s (Jurmo, 1987; Suave, 1987), we can find even earlier roots. The development of adult education has been commonly linked to teaching and learning practices in which participatory methods were central. For example, Merriam and Brocket (2007) link the development of adult education as a field of study to social movements in which participatory methods were commonly used. In The Meaning of Adult Education, Lindeman (1926) emphasizes the crucial role of adults’ participation in the learning process. Lindeman claims that adults base their learning on materials and problems that are derived from their own experience, which also helps adults to develop a form of group motives and qualities. He further claims that this participatory feature of adult education distinguishes it from other forms of education. Social movements in Canada and the Highlander Folk School in the US support the roots of participatory education in adult education.

MacKeracher (2009) explores and describes four Canadian social movements: Frontier College, the Women’s Institute, the Antigonish Movement, and the united Farmers of Canada. Participatory teaching and learning were central in these movements. For example, Frontier College, an alternative to higher education, sponsored a literacy program that provided Bible studies, literacy training, educational discussions, and other activities to workers after their working hours. Even though this program used traditional methods at the beginning, it was transformed into participatory education when laborer-teachers (volunteer university students hired as laborers) started working beside their worker students. Laborer-teachers realized that when workers’ needs were a focus, better learning occurred, and the workers related the learning materials to their experience and problems. In the labor camp, these laborer-teachers authentically managed to establish an educator-student relationship where both laborer-teachers and workers learned from each other (Campbell & Burnaby, 2001).

Another example of a participatory adult education experience from the early 1900s is the Women’s Institutes. Although it was born and established with the support of the Farmers’ Institute (MacKeracher, 2009), most of the Women’s Institutes (which had spread to most Canadian provinces in a couple of years) and their programs were truly formed by women themselves. Again from within and through participation, Women’s Institutes utilized study club methods. They also adopted technology and included Farm Radio Forum study groups in their programs. The Women’s Institutes became a “rural women’s university. . . . . In many isolated communities, and on rural farms, the Institute was the only organization where women could get together with other women to learn, grow and develop themselves by individual and group study and action” (Witter, 1979, as cited in MacKeracher, p. 28).

In the U.S., another example is the Highland Folk School (now called the Highlander Research and Education Center) founded by Myles Horton and his colleagues in 1932. The goal was to provide literacy skills for ordinary people as a way of initiating social change and to challenge oppressive organizations and the government. Ebert, Burford, and Brian (2003) interviewed current educators from the Center and came up with nine themes present in the work done there: creating a safe place for dialogue and reflection, appreciating participants’ knowledge and expertise, helping people to not feel isolated, encouraging ideology critique and critical thinking, developing the confidence to act, solving practical problems in groups, creating community, and implementing continuous improvement.

Complete Article List

Search this Journal:
Open Access Articles: Forthcoming
Volume 10: 4 Issues (2019)
Volume 9: 4 Issues (2018)
Volume 8: 4 Issues (2017)
Volume 7: 4 Issues (2016)
Volume 6: 4 Issues (2015)
Volume 5: 4 Issues (2014)
Volume 4: 4 Issues (2013)
Volume 3: 4 Issues (2012)
Volume 2: 4 Issues (2011)
Volume 1: 4 Issues (2010)
View Complete Journal Contents Listing