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date: 20 November 2017

European Studies and Research in Adult Learning and Education

Summary and Keywords

The European Commission launched a renewed agenda for adult learning with the objective of ensuring access to high-quality educational opportunities to adult learners for the promotion of their personal and professional development. Thus, European researchers in this field are paying attention to lifelong learning actions in order to address this challenge. Studies in this area are exploring how adult education can strengthen adults’ skills, in particular those required in the current knowledge society (information and communication technologies, problem solving, foreign languages, etc.). Simultaneously, some investigations focus in depth on the role that adult education can play in overcoming social exclusion for the most underserved groups. This paper describes the contributions of these investigations as well as the steps carried out by programs and theories that have contributed the most to adult learning. Lastly, future developments and challenges on this field are explained.

Keywords: adult learning, adult education, lifelong learning, basic skills, literacy, European research

List of abbreviations

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

  • Conférence internationale sur l’éducation des adultes (CONFINTEA)

  • Council of the European Union (CEU)

  • Dialogic Literary Gatherings (DLGs)

Conceptualizing Adult Education in Europe: A Historical Account

Adult learning has internationally been considered to be a key issue in discussions of the role of education in society. The most relevant international bodies with any kind of role in education, such as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the European Commission, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), have included adult education in their official statements (OECD, 2005a; UNESCO, 2010; European Commission, 2015a). In this regard, it is important to first mention the work developed by UNESCO that in 1949 started a set of periodic conferences on this topic (UNESCO, 2016). In the first conference, held in Denmark, the basis of the contributions of adult education was established. Within this basis, the principal important points were (1) the relevance of the United Nations (UN) and UNESCO to the adult education movement and (2) the strengthening of institutional assistance in this field to less-developed countries. Later, UNESCO organized more conferences under the name Conférence internationale sur l’éducation des adultes (CONFINTEA) in 1976, 1985, 1997, and 2009. These conferences became a key meeting point for practitioners, policymakers, and other stakeholders involved in adult learning to establish guidelines and challenges. Thus, CONFINTEA became an international forum with a wide influence on the adult education arena; in fact, worldwide policy guidelines on adult education were regularly discussed, aiming to cover humanitarian and social gaps (Knoll, 2007). The conference held in 1976 in Nairobi, Kenya, was particularly important because it concluded that it was important for governments to commit to fostering adult education as a key part of the educational system, with a strong connection to the lifelong-learning approach (UNESCO, 1977). Thus, UNESCO (2016) determined the definition of adult education within the aforementioned framework:

Adult learning and education is a core component of lifelong learning. It comprises all forms of education and learning that aim to ensure that all adults participate in their societies and the world of work. It denotes the entire body of learning processes, formal, non-formal and informal, whereby those regarded as adults by the society in which they live, develop and enrich their capabilities for living and working, both in their own interests and those of their communities, organizations and societies. Adult learning and education involves sustained activities and processes of acquiring, recognizing, exchanging, and adapting capabilities. (p. 6)

Drawing from this international definition, it is also important to clarify the terms commonly used in the field of adult learning, which include literacy, numeracy, permanent education, recurrent education, further education, continuing education, and lifelong learning. Following the most recent international definition given by UNESCO (2016), literacy involves “the ability to read and write, to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials, as well as the ability to solve problems in an increasingly technological and information-rich environment” (p. 7). Therefore, literacy concerns the performance of relevant abilities, in particular those that are currently most in demand in the labor market, such as problem-solving in highly technological environments. Similarly, numeracy is understood as an ability to treat, explain, and communicate numerical, quantitative, spatial, statistic, and mathematical information that is useful in different contexts (UNESCO, 2006, p. 150). Another important term is permanent education, which has a prominent presence in regards to adult learning, incorporating learning elements that are not referenced in the other concepts, such as the development of educational activities that refer to continuing courses, languages, and professional development (Delors, 1998). Delors (1998) also added that permanent education goes beyond this professional development and includes issues related to individuals’ wisdom and action. Other significant terms are further education and continuing education, which are commonly employed in United Kingdom, Ireland, United States, and Canada. The first involves any educational provision after secondary level without considering higher education and focusing on English and math as main subjects.1 Similarly, the second implies different learning opportunities that citizenship needs outside of basic literacy, education, and primary education (UNESCO, 1993).

In recent decades, the conceptualization of lifelong learning has become the most employed at the social and political levels. In fact, lifelong learning has an important role across the world, particularly in Europe, because it is perceived as a mechanism to rapidly respond to the changes created by the knowledge society (European Commission, 2010). Thus, the European Commission, in the framework of its strategy for Education and Training 2020, includes lifelong learning as a mainstreaming element to “promote equity, social cohesion and active citizenship” (p. 5). Previously to this strategy for 2020, the European Commission (2001) had already published a document, entitled Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality, in which it indicated the role that lifelong learning had in the future of the European Union. Thus, in addressing the challenges established for 2010, the European Commission wanted to design policies on lifelong learning in order to empower its citizens in the fields of employment and learning. Starting from this objective, lifelong learning embraced the following definition: “all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective” (European Commission, 2001, p. 9). These efforts on the development of lifelong learning were directly linked to the political objectives that the European Union launched for 2010 and 2020, that is, in the wording of the Lisbon strategy, “to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion” (European Parliament, 2000, n.p.). Within these objectives, the European Commission paid specific attention to how adult learning can reinforce the following aspects of such growth: personal fulfilment, active citizenship, social inclusion, and employability. In 2011, the Council of the European Union (CEU) enriched this debate with the publication of a communication presenting the renewed European agenda on adult learning (Council of the European Union, 2011). Taking as guidelines the goals of the initiative Europe 2020, the CEU noted the relevance of lifelong learning and skills development in facing the difficulties of the financial crisis. This document specifically stressed the point that adult learning can help to reduce early school leaving and the high percentage of low-skilled people, because literacy and numeracy are effective strategies for improving both problems, especially when taking into account the situation of disadvantaged groups such as Roma and migrants.

The European Commission followed up its commitment to these principles of adult learning through the creation of a set of programs with significant funding. Hence, in 1994, within the framework of the Socrates Programme, adult education became a particular topic aimed at fostering research and innovation projects on this field. Later, in 2000, Grundtvig actions were created to continue with the efforts on adult learning. Although the Grundtvig actions focused mostly on developing initiatives that promoted the creation of innovative ideas, research projects were also included. In 2007, this program was changed and became centered on lifelong learning. The Lifelong Learning program incorporated the action Jean Monnet created in 1989 to stimulate research on adult education. Finally, in 2014, the program ERASMUS+ became the main reference at the European level on this matter. ERASMUS+ has a wider scope, mostly connected with the objectives set for 2020, and one of its main aims is to foster adult education and the new skills demanded by the current labor market. In short, all these programs constitute successive phases of an ongoing effort from the European Union in the field of education.

In parallel with these efforts, the most important research program in Europe, currently named Horizon 2020,2 launched some calls that took adult education as a relevant point. For instance, the objective of one call in 2015 was to explore how policies on lifelong learning can help young adults around Europe.3 In addition, before Horizon 2020, the European Commission conducted research programs, called Framework Programmes, in which several calls for in-depth research in social cohesion and education included adult education.4 Building on these conceptual and political frameworks, the following sections will explore in depth different aspects of adult education and learning in Europe: first, several theoretical insights from leading scholars in adult education, and then recent European research contributions to this field. Finally, a section describes some European challenges on adult learning that illustrate new relevant debates.

Influential Research Theories in Adult Education

Among the main theoretical approaches developed in Europe and internationally in adult education, there are different influential theories that acquired significant relevance in the development of its studies. These contributions are focused mostly on different paradigms and disciplines: (a) pedagogical explanations of literacy, adult learning, and andragogy, (b) psychological analysis of adult intelligence and learning, and (c) socioeconomic studies of lifelong learning, quality and effectiveness of adult education and participation. Coming from different academic disciplines, these approaches provide scientific explanations for the mechanisms shaping adult learning. Firstly, from a pedagogical point of view, an overview about the educational actions improving adult learning is described. Secondly, the psychological basis of learning throughout adulthood is presented. Finally, a socioeconomic perspective about the development of the conceptualization of lifelong learning, quality, and effectiveness and participation in adult education are introduced. This section will summarize the main ideas of these three approaches.

Regarding the first, it is important to mention the American scholar Knowles’s (1968, 1970) contributions, which question previous pedagogical approaches connected with empiricism and behaviorism that led to the use of andragogy as an important term on the theorization of adult learning. Knowles starts from a humanistic conception on adult learning taking autonomy as a crucial element in learners and the understanding of teachers as facilitators. The central points of Knowles’s analysis are learners’ perspectives and the construction of knowledge that is shaped considering adult people’s previous experience. This process is reinforced through an interactive process of interpretation and reflection of people’s subjective world. John Dewey (1938) is the basis of this approach, because he insisted on the relevance of adult people’s reflections on their learning process that should be linked to practical materials and life experiences. The American scholar Kolb’s (1984) analysis has also Dewey’s work as a central reference, as can be observed in his theory of experiential learning. This theory pays attention to how learning is performed, taking experiences of daily life, strongly connected with opportunities that the environment provides (farms, companies, etc.), into account. Danish professor Knud Illeris (2003) based his work on this paradigm; he studied adult learning considering the cognitive, social, and emotional dimensions underling the relevance of external interactions to consolidate the learning process.

The Brazilian Paulo Freire (2000), in spite of not being European, is the contemporary pedagogue most internationally quoted in the field of adult education. He provides new and relevant insights for European researchers in this field thanks to his deep analysis of the development of literacy. He researched adult learning in the most disadvantaged communities, starting with his own experience as an educator of illiterate workers in Brazil. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he described how literacy helped to liberate the most oppressed groups, which for him included people who cannot read and write, and they started to learn basic skills. Based on the theory of dialogic action, Freire affirmed that pupils should learn through dialogue, that is, without impositions of others’ ideas or power-based relations. For him, this dialogue is the central tool in the learning process, so teachers must ensure that it arises in an egalitarian manner. In addition, Freire argued that literacy should be dialogic because it contributes to the liberation of oppressed citizens. Thus, he categorically rejected the performance of the so-called banking education that treats learners as containers of knowledge and omits development of the critical skills that allow them to think differently. Freire said that this kind of practice fosters oppression: “The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students’ creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed” (Freire, 2000, p. 73).

Several researchers in Europe have been inspired by Freire’s approach, among them Spanish scholar Ramon Flecha. Flecha (2000) is known for his theoretical development of dialogic learning based on adult learning through classic literary works. In that study, Flecha demonstrated how adult learning is mostly consolidated with solidarity, instrumental dimension, and transformative expectations. Flecha investigated how adults without basic education learned to read and write by discussing and sharing the main ideas of the most complicated works of classic literature. His work illustrated how adult learning can be accelerated when high expectations and motivation are promoted in literacy education. These two elements emerge when an egalitarian dialogue is regularly established between educator and learners. In the same dialogic framework, the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1981) expounds the concept of dialogic imagination which involves the idea of a chain of dialogues that contributes to people’s learning. According to Bakhtin’s work, learning is shaped through the previous dialogues that people have during their communication, which means that there is an interconnection of dialogues that contributes to understanding new concepts.

Psychology has articulated different explanations of how psychological development is shaped in adulthood. For instance, the German scholar Erik Erikson (1998) changed the psychological analysis of adulthood. In his book The Life Cycle Completed, he explains the psycho-social stages of an individual’s life cycle. Erikson introduces the psychological bases that determine people’s lives. He investigated adulthood, introducing the life-cycle stage from adolescence (12 years old) to youth (20 years old). For him, in adolescence, several elements which form identity are consolidated, such as sexuality, political ideology, professionalism, culture, and religion. He stresses that this stage implies a learning of ways of acting that configure social life, and how this process is connected to attitudes that define behavior. In the next stage (20–30 years old), sexual and affective intimacy becomes a central element of motivation, and it is the driving force to construct sexual, affective, friendship, and labor relations based on ethical principles. Later, during the period between 30 and 50 years old, the sense of caring and training of the next generations emerges with great strength. Erikson underlines that during this stage a dialectic between personal and others’ well-being is settled, so for him this situation can be faced if the subject learns to love others. Finally, in the last stage, which begin after the age of 50, integrity and wisdom are the main motivators. This stage is characterized as valuing the knowledge that subjects have accumulated along their life.

Continuing in this psychological framework, other theorists have paid attention to the processes of configuring adult intelligence with a great influence on the changing of previous analytical paradigms which start from the premise that adult intelligence decreases with age (Wechsler, 1958). The English psychologist Raymond Cattell (1971) is an example of this, because he made a distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence. The first is focused on reasoning and the capacity to solve new problems regardless of one’s previous knowledge. This type of intelligence is physiological and tends to decrease over the years. The second, crystallized intelligence, is understood as the ability to employ skills, knowledge, and experience in situations of daily life. The author’s analysis provided evidence that crystallized intelligence improves and increases with age because it is based on individual life experiences. From another point of view but with certain similarities, the American K. Warner Schaie (1983) carried out a set of studies that demonstrated that intelligence did not decline radically during adulthood. Starting from longitudinal studies, Schaie corroborated that after age 14, people’s intelligence did not consistently decrease, at least not until they reached age 60. These studies showed that intelligence could change during the life-span depending on different elements, and a clear example of this is the work of the above-mentioned Ramon Flecha (2000). He introduced the term cultural intelligence and added more arguments to describe how adulthood can be perfectly connected to vigorous intelligence which can lead to powerful learning, because cultural intelligence is acquired through interactions and communication along people’s life-span. This latter perspective was very influential in discourses on adult learning, in large part because they helped to break with unsupported stereotypes such as ageism. Ageism refers to discriminatory and stigmatizing practices against elderly people, simply because they are considered too old to carry out some activities (Butler, 1969; Nelson, 2002).

The British scholar Peter Jarvis (1995, 2004, 2007) is one of the greatest exponents of the sociological perspective of lifelong learning, focusing his analysis mostly on Europe. Jarvis explored in depth the central discourse of lifelong learning in different areas such as policy, employment, and personal life. He stressed that this concept is sometimes adopted by public bodies but that they omit its essence. In fact, he is highly critical of the conceptualization adopted by the European Commission on this issue, affirming that it is very individualistic and is based only on an instrumental point of view. Thus, Jarvis (2004) proposed another type of conceptualization:

The combination of processes throughout a lifetime whereby the whole person—body (genetic, physical and biological) and mind (knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, emotions, beliefs and senses)—experiences social situations, the perceived content of which is then transformed cognitively, emotively or practically (or through any combination) and integrated into the individual person’s biography resulting in a continually changing (or more experienced) person. (p. 134)

Along the same lines, Peter Jarvis (2004) believes that the term lifelong learning has been misused in relation to employment issues. He notes that work has changed its role in the current society because it is not permanent—people can rapidly change their jobs throughout their lives. He associates this change with the necessity of “keeping abreast of employable knowledge” (p. 132). In parallel, he links lifelong learning with active citizenship, which is also a central issue for European public bodies. For him, when adult learning is promoted, knowledgeable people are educated, and this education helps them to participate in relevant spaces of public life, such as politics, and at the same time fosters the strengthening of democratic values. Drawing on the relevance of participation, this has been an issue widely explored on the literature through large-scale surveys which attempt to identify barriers to involving adult learners in education (Courtney, 1992; Rubenson, 2011; Rubenson & Desjardins, 2009; Merriam, 2005; Desjardins, 2015). National and internationals bodies, such as OECD with PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies), have identified through their analyses the persistence of obstacles for adult people to be more active in adult education; for instance, lack of time is an issue frequently repeated in learners’ answers (Rubenson & Desjardins, 2009). Taking the results from IALS (International Adult Literacy Survey) into account, family responsibilities are also considered as impediments to registering in adult education provisions; in parallel, in several countries of European Union and North America the cost of the courses is perceived as another difficulty (Chisolm, Larson, & Mossoux, 2004).

In the last years, issues that focus attention on the study of adult learning are mostly connected with changes in the knowledge society (Jarvis, 2007; Woessmann, 2008; Brookfield, 1995; Oliver et al., 2016). One of these issues involves quality and effectiveness, which means to analyze in depth the social impact of adult education in the changing of reality. In this regard, some investigations concluded that adult education is successful when it contributes to reinforcing collective action and cooperation (Brookfield, 1995). On the other hand, from a very different point of view, the German economist Ludger Woessmann (2008) points out that lifelong learning benefits in particular the most disadvantaged people, particularly to improve their professional skills and consequently to increase the incomes of companies.

Finally, Jarvis (2007) has recently incorporated, as have other scholars in social sciences, the globalization process as a relevant aspect to understand the changes occurring in lifelong learning. He explained that lifelong learning is becoming a new social movement because it has great importance in improving people’s lives. This ideal of returning to education has become a dominant discourse, in other words, an ideology and a perspective for the future. However, Jarvis also argued that sometimes, and in many places, lifelong learning has been transformed into a commodity; that is, enterprises have taken control of it and sell it only for profit. For that reason, students are not perceived as students anymore but instead are treated as customers (Aronowitz, 2000).

This brief recapitulation of the prominent theoretical approaches exemplifies the most internationally influential theories of adult learning over the past several decades. In fact, these theories have been the basis for most research on adult learning and education that has been conducted in Europe. The next section presents in more detail some of the findings of this research.

European Research in Adult Learning and Education

The section “Conceptualizing Adult Education in Europe” introduced the main European programs that support the importance of research on adult education and learning. This was followed by a section outlining some of the influential theories that have affected thinking about adult education in Europe. This third section will present some relevant works that exemplify the main debates in this field. In this regard, it is important to note that during the past decade, European competitive research in adult learning or lifelong learning has often been directly connected to the challenges that the European Commission launched for 2010 and 2020 (European Commission, 2010). These topics and challenges could be structured in three different levels according to how they are tackled: (a) individuals, (b) institutions, and (c) systems.

Before introducing the competitive investigations, it is necessary to clarify the most relevant methodological traditions followed in the research on adult education and learning carried out in Europe. On one hand, there is a research line which employs qualitative methods directly connected with data-collection instruments aimed at understanding the challenges that adult learners have in their daily life. These instruments are biographies, narratives, and life stories (West, Alheit, Anderson, & Merrill, 2007; Zimmerman & Kim, 2017) which deepen the complexity of human beings. It is true that the emphasis given in the last years in the qualitative paradigm is a response to the traditional quantitative methods that have commonly been employed by international bodies such as OECD and UNESCO (OECD, 2005b, 2016; UNESCO, 2016). As was previously mentioned, surveys such as PIAAC, Survey of Adult Skills, and Adult Literacy Lifeskills Survey prioritize identifying different indicators connected with adult learning such as numeracy and literacy achievement, workplace skills, and the impact of adult education on well-being and health, among others. However, in spite of their informative potential, the supporters of qualitative instruments argue that quantitative methodologies do not deepen knowledge of the aspects that drive people to be involved in adult education.

Taking into account the competitive research and regarding the first level mentioned above, that of individuals, there are several research projects which go deeper into the elements connected with adult education that directly influence individuals in their daily life, for instance projects that investigate the importance, on the one hand, of health and digital literacy, and in other hand, of ageing. Health literacy, as several authors, such as Beck, Giddens, and Lash (1994) and Flecha, Gomez, and Puigvert (2003), have underlined, is a topic which exemplifies the questioning of the predominance of expert knowledge in European societies; it has been analyzed by competitive investigations, like the research project Intervention Research on Health Literacy among Ageing Population (IROHLA) (2012–2015), funded by the Seventh Framework Programme. This project developed a specific health literacy intervention model aimed at creating a set of interventions to obtain relevant outcomes in that field. This intervention model approaches different strategies that can be summarized as follows: (1) empowering older individuals with low levels of health literacy; (2) reinforcing supporting systems such as family, caregivers, and communities; (3) fostering the communication skills of health professionals; and (4) improving health systems in order to make them more accessible for the whole society (Reijeveld, 2016). On the other hand, in relation to digital literacy, the project Platform for ICT Learning and Inclusion for Youth Employability and Entrepreneurship (I-LINC) (2015–2017), financed by Horizon 2020, has the main objective of creating an ICT platform to empower young people’s employability. This platform will enable the creation of a virtual environment in which young adults can acquire digital skills and, at the same time, promote their inclusion in the labor market. Thus, this open platform is especially aimed at generating inclusive strategies to have an impact on the most underserved groups, those who had fewer educational opportunities until adult learning provided them with an opportunity to improve their lives (EUROPE ASBIL, 2016). In relation to ageing, the Seventh Framework Programme funded the research project Mobilizing the Potential of Active Ageing in Europe (MOPACT) (2013–2017), whose main objective is the provision of scientific evidence that will be useful for designing ways that European institutions can articulate ageing as a driver of social and economic developments. The project approaches different issues concerning active ageing, such as health, employment, and education. Concerning these two last issues, MOPACT’s findings show how the promotion of lifelong learning and the development of digital skills are helping to promote active ageing with new projects and innovative actions (Walker, 2016).

With reference to the second level, that of institutions, there are a set of projects which address the examination of the interconnections between adult people and educational institutions. Thus, at the end of the twentieth century and during the first decade of the 2000s, these analyses investigated in detail access for nontraditional adult students to higher education, as well as the connection of higher education to adult education (Bourgeois & Frenay, 2001; Merrill & Hill, 2003). In this regard, investigations of initiatives such as the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) are highly relevant. APEL in several European countries has become one of the most important strategies for fostering the access of adults without an academic background to higher education. APEL means that adult learners who do not have the necessary qualifications for entering a university can benefit from policies that recognize their life experience, either in the workplace or in informal educational environments. APEL promotes social inclusion, because it fosters such affirmative action for vulnerable groups that have had fewer opportunities in the educational system. However, APEL is implemented differently among European countries (Merrill & Hill, 2003). For instance, in France, more attention is paid to learners’ skills in problem solving and developing critical thinking. In the United Kingdom, experiential learning is supposed to be directly related to the academic program in which the student wishes to enroll. Bourgeois and Frenay (2001), in the large-scale project funded by the European Framework Programme, University Adult Access Policies and Practices across the European Union; and their Consequences for the Participation of Non-traditional Adults (1998–2001), explored in depth the role that adult education must have for nontraditional learners, that is, to ensure a good transition to higher education systems. In this regard, their findings illustrated that adult education is a relevant actor in guaranteeing that most underserved groups, those that are most socially underrepresented, can also gain educational experience at universities. Thus, adult education becomes a second-chance provision, because it offers new opportunities to early school leavers, whose risk of social exclusion is higher in almost all the countries of the European Union (Gillies & Mifsud, 2016).

Lastly, the third level of analysis is connected to systems and involves projects that are characterized for approaching issues that contribute to change social structures, in particular, studies concerned to identify how adult education can have an influence in the political and economic arena. Following relevant sociological analyses which try to understand the configuration of the current European Union, the idea of European citizenship and its political project (Habermas, 2009; Beck & Grande, 2007), the investigation Education and Training in Governance and Active Citizenship in Europe (ETGACE) (2000–2003), funded by the fifth Framework Programme, had the main objective of identifying educational elements that promote active citizenship in Europe. As a result of a wide qualitative study, the project concluded that the stimulation of active learning becomes a central point in fostering this active citizenship. Active learning is particularly developed through adult education courses; in fact, based on participative pedagogical methods, these courses promote the idea that adult students have an active role in their learning (Holford & van der Veen, 2003). Thus, findings showed, through illustrative case studies, that adult learners who became involved in adult schools later transformed themselves into very active citizens in their communities, neighborhoods, or NGOs aimed at social justice.

Neil Hopkins (2014) recently extended this analysis and determined that the inclusion in an adult education curriculum of citizenship education powerfully influences the configuration of democratic values and participation in decision-making processes. Similarly, the project Governance of Educational Trajectories in Europe: Access, Coping and Relevance of Education for Young People in European Knowledge Societies in Comparative Perspective (GOETE) (2010–2013),5 funded by the Seventh Framework Programme, analyzed the role that political discourse on lifelong learning plays in the changing of educational trajectories. Its findings showed that this kind of discourse has an impact on better preparing young adults, particularly those with fewer educational and social opportunities, for the challenges of the knowledge society. The project explored educational reforms instituted by several European countries, such as Finland, France, Germany, and Italy, and how they influenced the increase of young adults’ levels of qualification. In addition, GOETE stressed the effects of such discourses in the curriculums, which, in most of the countries, included issues of lifelong learning and employability (Walther, 2014).

The project Globalization and the Education of Adults (GLOBE-A) (2013–2015, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Action) paid more attention to the economic arena, trying to explore discourses that link adult education to the globalization process. GLOBE-A explores more deeply the role of intergovernmental and international bodies in the consolidation of adult education across the world, taking into account the last steps carried out in Europe before the global financial crisis. Institutions such as the Council for Adult Education, the European Association for the Education of Adults, or DVV International are acting as lobbyists for the inclusion of adult education as an important issue in facing the educational problems caused by globalization and the financial crisis (Milana, 2016). Continuing with this interest in economic issues, other projects have studied the influence of adult education in innovation processes. For instance, the project Lifelong Learning, Innovation, Growth and Human Capital Tracks in Europe (LLLIGHT’IN’EUROPE) (2012–2015), funded by the Seventh Framework Programme, aimed at identifying synergies between lifelong learning and entrepreneurship and business creation. Starting from the concept of human capital theory, the results illustrate how fostering lifelong learning activities along the work-life span of employees can help them to develop entrepreneurship skills and generate innovative knowledge (Ederer, 2015).

In addition of the competitive projects presented above, there is a European network called ESREA—European Society for Research on the Education of Adults—which has been promoting the development of research on adult learning since its founding in 1991. It is aimed at creating a forum where researchers involved in adult education can share their advances and knowledge in this field (Nicoll, Biesta, & Morgan-Klein, 2014). It is organized in specific networks that follow research interests that have been previously differentiated. For instance, there are networks centered on the analysis of identity (individuals), others on access to higher education (institutions), and another interested in the development of policies in adult education (systems). ESREA has organized seven international conferences and has created the European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults, which compiles articles from different theoretical and methodological perspectives and traditions. Although there is an important set of projects, scholars, and academic networks that directly or indirectly address adult education or different ways of learning, there are some challenges that, according to the European Commission, should be addressed in the future, such as the second-chance route to learning, intergenerational learning, learning provision for vulnerable groups, and adult learning in hospitals and prisons (Council of European Union, 2011). The next section presents some insights on recent European research projects which are identifying ways to tackle the aforementioned issues, paying particular attention to three aspects: prison education, family education, and intergenerational learning.

New Challenges in Research on Adult Education

Family Education—Intergenerational Learning

Intergenerational learning is one of the issues that most concerns the European Commission (European Commission, 2015a). Therefore, it has launched several campaigns and initiatives to promote experiences in this area around Europe. However, it states that these experiences should be beneficial for both parties in order to be successful. It was confirmed that when this “win-win” perspective is achieved, several stereotypes are overcome, thus reducing ageism (European Commission, 2015b). Consequently, research in this field has paid attention to the role of low-skilled families in supporting their children’s education, for example, in helping them with homework and schooling. In fact, an important amount of literature and international studies corroborates the link between these low education levels among parents and children’s academic performance (OECD, 2014; Janta, 2014). However, this is not a deterministic statement, because more recent research has demonstrated that some educational actions can overturn this negative dynamic. For example, the research project Strategies for Inclusion and Social Cohesion in Europe from Education (INCLUD-ED) (2006–2011), funded by the Sixth Framework Programme, which was included in the list of ten success stories of European research (European Commission, 2010), identified a set of successful educational actions that, regardless of the context and where they are implemented, achieve better results (Flecha, 2015). Some of these successful educational actions are linked to adult education; for example, one refers to “educative family-community participation” and shows how intergenerational education can improve families’ skills levels. Although this project mainly focused on compulsory education, connections with adult education were undertaken along the entire research.

It is important to note that educative participation goes beyond such ideas to other typologies of participation that are focused only on informing and consulting members of the educational community about something that has already been decided by teachers. This participation implies the involvement of the whole community, in particular families, in educative activities inside the school. These activities could be linked to children’s daily work in the school, for example, helping them to promote interactions in their classes, or could be addressed to families with the goal of bringing them the possibility of participating in training courses (INCLUD-ED Consortium, 2009). INCLUD-ED named this last typology of educative participation family education, meaning that family members—mothers, fathers, grandparents, and other relatives—can go to school to learn in areas such as literacy, foreign languages, digital skills, robotics, or a certificate for secondary education. These training courses have different transformative effects. First, they help to generate high expectations for family interest in education. Second, they contribute to improving parents’ skills in several topics. Third, and most importantly, they generate educational and working spaces in the home that influence children’s motivation and performance. These benefits demonstrate, on one hand, that intergenerational learning is possible, and on the other hand, that school openness contributes to the consolidation of adult learning. Such consolidation is especially important when vulnerable groups with few economic resources can enroll in activities that normally are too costly (Flecha & Soler, 2013).

Prison Education

The other challenge noted by the EC in its renewed agenda of adult education is prison education. Drawing on previous European research on this field, there are three different approaches on regards to this typology of education (Costelloe & Warner, 2014). The first approach focuses on the development of the curriculum of secondary education, although the implementation is mainly based on the needs of adults. The second is directly addressing employability, without including the traditional contents of secondary curriculum. Lastly, the third approach has the most criminological perspective and is characterized by offering courses taking the prison context as main variable. This last approach was widely accepted in several European countries keeping the attention on the development of actions that try to modify criminal behaviors (anger and addiction management). However, the evaluations carried out about the impact of this typology of prison education have evidenced that it is less effective than the more humanistic ones (Duguid, 1997, 2000). In fact, some recent studies that analyze the implementation of humanist actions that are based on scientific evidence demonstrate this great impact (Flecha, García, & Gómez, 2013). One of these actions is the Dialogic Literary Gatherings (DLGs),6 an educational action identified by the previously mentioned INCLUD-ED project, which have been particularly successful in prisons. Analyses of their effects illustrate how DLGs empower prisoners and even change their life expectations. Pulido (2015) described in detail the changes that DLGs had caused in the life of a woman who was incarcerated because of various challenges encountered in her life, such as drug addiction. After being involved in a DLG and reading and sharing ideas about classic books such as those by Kafka and Brecht, she changed her way of thinking and wished to rebuild her past and construct a new future connected to education. This transformation drove her to complete her secondary education during her incarceration and to dream of pursuing higher education when she left the prison.

Research on adult education and learning is contributing in different manners to European society. Firstly, adult education helps to reduce educational inequalities, that is, to promote second-chance provisions to those most underserved, such as nontraditional adult learners and ethnic minorities. Secondly, it is helping to develop a European active citizenship interested in transforming the European Union, taking social cohesion as a main principle. Thirdly, adult education provisions are also making possible the insertion of adults into the labor market as well as the improvement of their skills in order to be prepared for the challenges of the current knowledge society. However, the increasing economic disparities that have occurred in recent years due to the financial crisis in the European Union and the alarming situations experienced by refugees are creating new necessities that adult education should not forget. Governments, civil society, and researchers have to unify efforts to implement and identify effective adult education actions and programs that promise a better life for the most disadvantaged. In short, adult education must have a central role in fostering social justice (Groener, 2006). In this regard, the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen (2001) concludes that adult education ensures freedom and development when it responds to the real necessities of the population and when it can act as an agent of transformation for learners’ realities. Therefore, all efforts to strengthen adult learning should be continued as an essential mechanism for creating a better world. This is the path that Freire’s work started several decades ago, and it continues today with even more strength because of the economic challenges that Europe is facing during the recession. However, as Freire (1997) said, we need to believe that social change is possible: “Education needs technical, scientific and professional training as well as dreams and utopia” (p. 34).7


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(2.) Horizon 2020—General overview.

(3.) See more information on this call in the following link:

(6.) The origins of DLG at La Verneda Adult School: “Finding courage through classics”

(7.) Own translation.