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Innovations in Lifelong Learning: ‘ Lessons for an Ageing Society’. Informal learning and community participation - Good practice from the Women’s Institutes Presenter: Jan Etienne . Introduction.

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innovations in lifelong learning lessons for an ageing society

Innovations in Lifelong Learning: ‘Lessons for an Ageing Society’

Informal learning and community participation - Good practice from the Women’s Institutes

Presenter: Jan Etienne

  • Using evidence from an ESRC funded national research study into Lifelong Learning and the Women’s Institutes (WI), this presentation brings to light a particular type of pedagogic practice that bears little resemblance to the practical ‘home making’ skills traditionally associated with the WI. Instead, this type of practice relies heavily on pedagogies that equip older women learners with communication and confidence building skills to enable them to campaign on international issues such ‘trafficking’ as well as on more local concerns such as the closure of a local community hospital.
ageing britain
Ageing Britain
  • The UK’s national population structure in line with most Western societies is ageing rapidly.
  • By 2025 the number of people over the age of 60 will outnumber those under 25
  • In 1951 there were 270 centenarians there are already 6,000 today and it is expected there will be 45,000 by 2030
  • Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive if the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) November 2005
older people benefit from learning source learning in the 21 st century 2005
‘Older people benefit from learning’Source: Learning in the 21st Century (2005)
  • There is good evidence that older people can benefit substantially from continuing to learn and gain new skills as part of a fulfilling and active retirement. For example, 80 per cent of learners aged 50–71 reported a positive impact from learning in areas such as their enjoyment of life, self-confidence, and their ability to cope with events such as divorce or bereavement, while 28 per cent reported an increased involvement in social, community and voluntary activities. For many, involvement in learning represents an important form of social activity.
learning from expert speakers
Learning from ‘expert’ speakers
  • In exploring the nature of informal learning opportunities inside the WI, members participating in the study were asked: What are the activities you found most helpful to your learning? 90% of the women members placed ‘Listening to an invited speaker’ as the activity they found most helpful. In examining further aspects of learning, the study revealed 75 out of 155 WI members held an officer position such as President, Chairman or WI Adviser as a direct result of being encouraged by others or by acquiring increased confidence after listening to and learning from a specialist speaker.
developing resolutions
Developing resolutions
  • Within the informal learning settings of the WI, the women are briefed by a variety of ‘expert speakers’ who share their experiences and knowledge and enter into challenging dialogue where WI members feel compelled to ask questions and are able to put across their often, very strong viewpoints. At the end of these activities, learning outcomes are achieved when the women retire to formulate resolutions; conduct independent research; network; present proposals and eventually work with other WI members to develop local campaigns that matter to them. In response to questionnaires, in focus groups and during one to one interviews the women describe how participating in such activities with ‘invited speakers’ resulted in ‘fantastic networking opportunities for us all’.
benefiting local communities
Benefiting local communities?
  • This practice is usefully employed within women only environments as a key learning strategy which values the contributions of older learners and potentially stand the women in good stead to influence change for the benefit of local communities. In the study, since joining the WI, 60% of WI Chairman surveyed confirmed they were involved in other voluntary sector activities outside the WI. These additional activities included being Magistrates, School governors, Parish Councillors and the women interviewed spoke of the influence of the external speakers who provided the motivation for wider community involvement: ‘They came and spoke to us about the issue and they asked us to sign petitions and a couple …went down to the County Hall when the planning permission was given, to march against it’.
learning from the wi
Learning from the WI
  • The reality of replicating such seemingly successful pedagogic practice that has ‘quietly’ existed inside the WI for decades, primarily for the benefit of WI members is challenging. Not least because it questions the role of the voluntary sector in delivering meaningful pedagogies for wider groups of older learners. Additionally the ‘safe and friendly’ nature of the WI campaigns in mainly rural areas compared to the stark nature of social problems occurring in more diverse urban settings pose further challenges.
a model of good practice for the future
A model of Good Practice for the future
  • Ultimately, finding resources to guarantee the safety of older learners can present barriers not only to learning but to active community participation in later life. However in an ageing society, this type of pedagogic practice of learning from specialist speakers in the way delivered by the WI is a safe option and a ‘model of good practice’ for effective working with older learners. ‘Learning by developing resolutions for better communities’ is likely to increase civic participation and secure meaningful roles for older learners at a time when the worry of loneliness and isolation looms ahead.
  • Baron, S Field J and Schuller T (2000) Social Capital: Critical Perspectives Oxford University Press
  • Field (2006) has learning had its day? Adults learning (April 2006, Vol 17 Issue 8, p16-17
  • Burke P, J & Jackson, S (2007) Reconceptualising Lifelong Learning – Feminist interventions, Routledge
  • Jackson, S (2006) Jam, Jerusalem and Calendar Girls, Studies in the Education of Adults
  • Schuller, T. & Field, J. (1998) Social capital, human capital and the learning society in R. Edwards., N. Miller., N. Small & A. Tait (eds) Supporting Lifelong Learning Volume 3 Making Policy Work , Open University Press.
  • Learning in the 21st Century, Department of Work and Pensions, 2005
  • “I’m suddenly somebody” Birkbeck Institute for Lifelong Learning (BILL) Seminar: 27th April 2006
  • “Like minded people”, BILL seminar, 6th July 2006
  • Learning Citizenship: Lifelong Learning, Community and the Women’s Institutes. ESRC funded research. Project website: