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Motivation is key to persuading adults back to learning

Learning throughout life makes sense. Research evidence shows that it is good for your health, your wealth, your civic engagement, and for your family’s future prospects. It prolongs your independent life and enriches your quality of life. It makes sense too for companies to invest in upgrading the skills of their employees – as this fosters flexibility and creativity, problem solving, team work and better productivity.

Motivation is key to persuading adults back to learning

Minister for Manpower, Mr Lim Swee Say speaking with jobseekers during the official opening of Careers Connect at the Lifelong Learning Institute in July 19. There are plenty of opportunities in Singapore for workers to go for training, but some will learn the right stimulus to do so, says the author. TODAY file photo

Learning throughout life makes sense. Research evidence shows that it is good for your health, your wealth, your civic engagement, and for your family’s future prospects. It prolongs your independent life and enriches your quality of life. It makes sense too for companies to invest in upgrading the skills of their employees – as this fosters flexibility and creativity, problem solving, team work and better productivity.

This is particularly so at a time when firms need agility in facing the challenges of the latest industrial revolution.

And for governments, supporting learning in later life helps to boost the employability of rapidly ageing populations. This is crucial in preserving social order.

Why then do so many adults pass up the chance to take up learning?

Certainly, in Singapore there are opportunities aplenty – both in the range of provision on offer in a wide range of the country’s institutions, in the advice available on the SkillsFuture website, and in financial support provided for learners.

The ongoing month-long Lifelong Learning Festival shows that when providers come together to promote education for adults, there will be thousands who want to be involved.

At the same time, there are many more who think that continuing education and training is not their cup of tea.

The memory of bad experiences at school may be a reason for this.

Adults whose families and friends see little value in learning will be less inclined to upgrade their skills.

Employers clearly are also a factor in decision-making.

They can be a positive influence by giving staff the chance to exercise their own judgment at work.

But employers who expect little innovation and creativity from their staff reinforce the sense that learning is for other people.

Adults are often most open to the possibility of participation at moments of transition – around the birth of a child, after bereavement, when they have just moved house, changed jobs or retired.

But for them to act on the possibility, they need to know that learning may make a positive difference to their lives.

THE SECRET TO FALLING IN LOVE WITH LEARNING

25 years ago, I was involved in starting an annual Adult Learners’ Week in the United Kingdom, recognising that motivation is of key importance in educating adults.

The evidence is clear that people who have positive learning experiences come back for more.

And learning spreads. The skills you learn in one context spill over elsewhere.

Adult Learners’ Week was built on a simple idea – that if you celebrate adult learners in all their diversity, it can encourage adults like them to give learning a chance.

Local providers offered thousands of taster days.

A national learning advice line was set up, and 55,000 people called in the first week, more than half of them out of work. Three months later, half had started courses. Television, radio and the press told the stories of adults who had transformed their lives through learning. The stories moved politicians and potential learners alike. Take Peter F, who learned to read in prison, came out, got a job, and went back as a visitor to help others to read and write, and campaigned tirelessly for prison education.

Or Fred M, who at 108 was the oldest learner in the country, studying art and French in his retirement home.

Or Castleford Women’s centre, which set up an independent learning centre for working class women in a deprived area of Yorkshire. Or the pensioners in Brighton who campaigned against funding cuts by painting the night away.

Suddenly, adult education stopped being something done quietly away from the public gaze and was celebrated in the media, debated in Parliament. And learners developed a collective voice to advocate for good conditions for learning, and to encourage people to join in. Harbans Bhola, the distinguished Indian adult educator called this ‘banging drums for attention’.

Motivation matters, and motivating adults to join and stay is a key element of keeping the passion for learning alive.

Over time, the idea spread across Europe. Then UNESCO adopted Adult Learners’ Weeks and Learning Festivals, as a tool for reaching under-represented groups, and the idea spread to some 55 countries.

In Russia, the organisers took the Trans-Siberian railway, alighting at every stop and setting up an adult education event. In Switzerland, buses in Bern offered a different learning activity every hour for 24 hours. In Benin in West Africa the organiser took a lorry, materials, and visited every village in the country to mobilise people for International Literacy Day.

Offering a familiar activity in an unfamiliar way, or at an unusual time makes people see it afresh.

Such activities work best when there is a well-developed infrastructure to respond to learners’ curiosity.

And Singapore has a better set-up - with its individual lifelong learning awards, online guidance and coherent strategy for skills and industrial development - than in many other developed or developing nations.

So if you are reading this, and wondering if Singapore’s Lifelong Learning Festival might have a course for you, take the advice of Siwla, M., a Welsh adult learner who said, ‘don’t wait for the wind, take the oars’. Go on, treat yourself.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Alan Tuckett is Professor of Education at the University of Wolverhampton and past president of the International Council for Adult Education. He visited Singapore for the inaugural Lifelong Learning Conference co-organised by the Singapore University of Social Sciences and SkillsFuture Singapore. The Conference was part of the Lifelong Learning Festival 2017, which continues till November 28.

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