Picture: learn by Mark Brennan. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons cc-by-nc-sa2 licence. heycoach-1197947341

Participation in learning projects and programmes. Why do people engage in learning projects? What are the barriers to participation? How are we to theorize participation?

Contents: defining adult education · the shape of participation · barriers to participation · theories of participation · cross – chain of response model · further reading · how to cite this piece

In northern countries discussions of participation in adult and continuing education are far more likely to be found in the literature than, say, explorations of involvement in primary and secondary schooling. In many southern countries – where, through various economic and political reasons, schooling is not available to all and there are various barriers to participation – this tends to be far less true. The main reason for the northern attention to adult participation is not difficult to see. Where attendance at school is compulsory – and there is a high take-up of places – why people participate may be seen as of ‘academic’ interest only. In those situations where participation in educational activities is voluntary the picture changes. Programme providers need to have an appreciation of what their target groups want from education, their motivation for engaging in learning, the barriers to participation, and the preferred forms if they are to both be effective and survive.

Defining adult education

Here we explore people’s participation in what might be described as ‘adult and continuing education’. In doing this we have to pick our way through a terminological minefield. As Courtney (1989: 15) says, adult education, continuing education, lifelong learning, independent learning projects, community education, community development, adult learning, andragogy, adult basic education, animation, facilitation, conscientization have all been used at one time or another to mean more or less the same thing. Here I want going to short circuit these considerations and focus on learning projects and learning programmes.

The shape of participation

There has been a significant amount of research exploring the participation of adults in learning. Not unexpectedly participation in adult and continuing education is patterned according to key social dimensions. There is a division in subject interests, for example, between men and women; differential rates of participation between different ethnic groups (with an overall participation rate affected by higher unemployment and racism in the labour market); and, most significantly of all, striking differences along class and age lines – particularly in relation to organized education provision (see, for example, Sargant 1997).

In the case of the former, much of the research conducted in North America points to a strong correlation between relative success in schooling, further, and higher education and a readiness to engage with organized education provision in later life. As Cross (1981: 54) put it ‘young people who advance furthest in the formal education system are the most active learners as adults’. There is also some indication that this acts independently of socio-economic status and income (Darkenwald and Merriam 1982: 121). In other words, it is not so much the particular occupation that a person is in, as their experience of education that is significant. As there is a significant correlation between class and initial educational success then this is carried through into adult life.

As Sargant (1991) reported , there is strong skewing of educational participation to certain age ranges. The majority of students on qualifying courses, not surprisingly, are at the younger end of the age range (ibid: 42). There is a significant tailing-off at age 45 years and above. In part this may be explained by people feeling that there is less need for them to study for employment. A further factor is that the relative length and depth of older people in formal education provision in their youth is substantially less than that which pertains today. There are, however, also significant barriers to participation as we will see.

Barriers to participation

Within the literature of adult education a good deal of attention has been given to ‘non-participation’. Some of the reasons for this are pretty obvious as we have seen. The problem for researchers is that simply going up to people and asking them why they have not taken part in education projects and programmes does not necessarily tell us very much. For example, there is some evidence that people may be either embarrassed about their reasons e.g. around finance and literacy, or lack a detailed analysis concerning the operation of the system. In her discussion of education in the ‘developing world’, Graham-Brown (1991: 50) lists a series of filters, both within the educational system itself, and in the wider economy and society, which tend to reproduce existing social hierarchies. As she comments, these filters are of different types and intensities depending on the goals and character of particular governments and societies

Education filters

Some forms of selection:

  • those overtly defined by government policy: for example, exclusions based on race or language.
  • those created by gaps in the education system (especially in rural areas).
  • those caused by the inability of certain disadvantaged groups to enrol or to remain at school because of language, gender or the poverty or isolation of the community.
  • the way the formal education system selects through examinations – although it may be formally accessible to all, relatively few are expected to complete all its stages.
  • the chances of a child completing school depend on his or her socio-economic circumstances, including the economic situation of the family, the educational background of parents and the perceived relevance of education.
  • different types of education in a particular society are given differing social and economic values: for example, private/public, academic/vocational, formal/non-formal.
  • the value placed on different types of work and skills: for example, manual as opposed to white-collar work. (Graham-Brown 1991)

This listing has the virtue of drawing our attention to social and structural factors which may affect participation. Much of the (North American) literature of adult education rather tends to look to what is going on for the individual when making choices. If, within a society, there are only limited forms of formal education provision – and it is oriented to particular ends, and directed towards certain sections of the population – it is hardly surprising that various social groups do not participate.

One way of looking at some of the barriers is to differentiate between situational, institutional and dispositional factors. These obviously overlap and interconnect. To these might be added simple lack of information. As McGivney (1993: 17) comments, a common finding in participation research is that non-participants have little or no knowledge of the educational opportunities available.

Perceived barriers to learning

Situational barriers: those arising from one’s situation at a given time.

  • lack of money – the cost of studying, the cost of child care and so on
  • lack of time, for example, because of job and home responsibilities
  • lack of transport to study venue

Institutional barriers: those practices and procedures that exclude or discourage adults form participating in activities.

  • inconvenient schedules or locations for programmes
  • lack of relevant or appropriate programmes
  • the emphasis on full-time study in many institutions

Dispositional barriers: those related to attitudes and self-perceptions about oneself as a learner.

  • feeling ‘too old’ to learn
  • lack of confidence because of ‘poor’ previous educational achievements
  • tired of school, tired of classrooms (Cross 1981: 99)

Research has found significant differences as to the strength of such factors in different countries (see McGivney 1990). For example, while cost of programmes was seen to be a highly significant factor in British research, it was rated far less highly in the USA.

Theories of participation

As will now be apparent, the motives for engagement in learning projects are often mixed and can operate at a number of levels. McGivney (1990) has provided a useful summary of some of the better known theories which she divides into single strand and composite (involve a number of strands). Later we will look at an influential ‘composite’ theory – that of Cross, for now we will look at McGivney’s summary. (Cross 1981 also discusses most of these theories/models).

Needs hierarchy theory: The main line of argument here is that participation depends on the extent to which a person has been able to meet a range of primary and secondary needs (after Maslow 1954) and the influence of positive and negative forces (see, also, ‘force-field analysis below). For example, as basic primary needs are met (as one economic and social position ‘improves’), higher needs are activated, and the balance between negative and positive forces shifts. As a result people are more prepared to take part in educational activities. (See Miller 1967).

Congruence model: In this model it is suggested that people are more likely to participate in educational activities where there is some congruence between their perception of themselves (their self concept) and the nature of the education programme/environment. One of the key findings in the North American literature which has driven this is the correlation between the number of years spent at school and college, and the likelihood of taking part in education programmes after that. (See Boshier 1973).

Force-field theory: This approach draws heavily on the work of Lewin (1947; 1952). Miller (1967), in particular, sought to draw together Maslow’s and Lewin’s theories to explain why socio-economic status (class) is linked to participation in adult education. He charts positive forces and negative forces and their relative strengths. This is then taken a step further by Rubenson (1977). He argues that education, like work, is an achievement-orientated activity, ‘meaning that people who want to get ahead will put effort into personal achievement’ (Cross 1981: 166). Rubenson suggested that motivation emerges from the interaction of two factors: expectancy and valence. ‘Expectancy’ consists of two components: the expectation of personal success in the educational activity; and the expectation that being successful in the activity will have positive consequences (op cit). ‘Valence’ refers to the sum of positive or negative values that people assign to learning activities. For example, participation in education can lead to higher pay, but it can also mean seeing less of the family or spending less time in social activities (Cross 1981: 116).

Life transitions theory: The notion of ‘transition’ has assumed a much larger role in thinking about the take-up of education. This has been reflected, for example, in shifts in UK research concerning young people’s participation in further education (see, in particular, Banks et al 1992). In North America populist accounts of the impact of ‘life-changes’ (e.g. Sheehy 1976) have had a significant impact. The basic hypothesis involved is that participation in education projects is frequently linked to changes in life circumstances such as changes in job, the break-up of relationships, having children, bereavement and retirement.

Reference group theory: This theory is based around the assertion that people identify with the social and cultural group to which they belong – ‘normative reference group (NRG) – or with another to which they aspire to belong – ‘comparative’ reference group (CRG) (McGivney 1993: 25). A number of studies point to the extent to which people’s total environment and group membership creates an orientation to involvement in educational projects and programmes (Darkenwald and Merriam 1982: 142). In the case of CRG, people have some sense of ‘missing out’ or ‘being deprived’ and thus seek out opportunities to advance themselves. CRGs may be provided by the mass media, by colleagues and by relationships e.g. keeping pace with your partner (Gooderham 1987).

Social participation: This approach has now been developed at some length by Courtney (1991). He argues that significant learning often takes place in organizational settings (schools, community groups, work). Thus to seek motivation for learning, ‘we might seek for those factors which motivate people to join or be part of organizations or for reasons why organizations compel as well as encourage forms of voluntary participation’ (ibid: 99). Second, if learning is a ‘discretionary act’ – a function of ‘leisure’ time – then we must look to the total distribution of life’s activities over the day/week/year to understand why people participate or not. Last, he argues that we need to consider the idea that learning involves socialization or integration of the individual within the larger whole. Therefore, ‘reasons for learning might be sought in the “function” played by education in giving or denying the individual access to social roles and rewards’ (op cit).

Cross: the ‘chain of response’ model

Here I want to focus on one, highly influential, model – that of Cross (1981). She takes various elements from the theories just described and moulds them into a seven-stage process. It begins with the individual and ends with external factors. It is called the ‘chain of response’ model because each of the stages are seen as links in a chain! Each stage influences another. ‘The more positive the learner’s experience at each stage, the more likely he or she is to reach the last stage – the decision to participate (McGivney 1993: 27)

K. Patricia Cross: Chain of response model

Participation in a learning activity, whether in organized classes or self-directed, is not a single act but the result of a chain of responses, each based on an evaluation of the position of the individual in his or her environment (Cross 1981: 125). The main elements in the chain (above) are:

A. Self-evaluation.

B. Attitudes about education.

C. The importance of goals and the expectations that these will be met.

D. Life transitions.

E. Opportunities and barriers.

F. Information on educational opportunities.

G. The decision to participate.

Cross’ model is an important contribution to the literature – it brings together a number of elements in a useful way. Crucially, it emphasizes the interaction between various elements and in so doing moves away from simplistic explanations. However, it does leave a number of questions.

First, although Cross (1981: 129) makes clear that she has over-emphasized the linearity of the model to illustrate the cumulative nature of the forces, there are problems about the systemic way in which she sets out the process. Theorizing about the process of reflection generally also falls into this trap. As Dewey (1933: 199-209) has argued things often happen all at once, elements are jumped, matters need not move in a ‘logical’ order. I suspect what we need is something much more fuzzy and less linear than this – a model which allows for zig-zagging movements, and for interaction and accumulation (see Smith 1994: ch. 7).

Second, the theories that Cross draws on are culturally-bound. We need to look, in particular, at the notion of the ‘self’ involved – and ask to what extent does it reflect dominant western views of the individual. The way we understand ourselves is bound up with the culture of which we are a part. The ideas around the self that many Western educators hold as ‘obvious’ are rather peculiar in the context of the world’s cultures (Geertz 1983: 59).

To members of sociocentric organic cultures the concept of the autonomous individual, free to choose and mind his own business, must feel alien, a bizarre idea cutting the self off from the interdependent whole, dooming it to a life of isolation and loneliness. Linked to each other in an interdependent system, members of organic cultures take an active interest in one another’s affairs, and feel at ease regulating and being regulated. Indeed, others are the means to one’s functioning and vice versa. (Schweder and Bourne 1984: 194)

Other assumptions too need testing for their cultural specificity – after all just about all the writers Cross draws upon are writing within, and using data from, the North American context.

There are other questions – how does this model work in relation to self-directed learning projects, for example? How it might apply to education around literacies?

Further reading

Here I have tried to include texts that take forward the theorizing around decisions to ‘participate’ in adult education and learning and some of the more recent UK surveys.

Courtney, S. (1992) Why Adults Learn, London: Routledge. Reviews the North American literature on adult participation in education in order to build a theory of participation. Operates from a sociological rather than psychological basis – which is welcome in the context of the literature.

Cross, K. P. (1981) Adults as Learners. Increasing participation and facilitating learning (1992 edn.), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Become established as a modern ‘classic’. Has chapters on the growth of the learning society; issues in recruiting adult learners; who participates in adult learning; why adults participate (and why not); towards a model of adult motivation for learning; implications for increasing participation; patterns of adult learning and development; how adults learn and want to learn; facilitating learning.

McGivney, V. (1993) Women, Education and Training. Barriers to access, informal starting points and progression routes, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. 113 + xii pages. What are women’s education and training needs, and what are the factors that impede access, participation and progression? Focus on the characteristics of successful threshold provision.

McGivney, V. (1998) Excluded Men, Leicester: NIACE. 80 pages. Examines barriers to participation and implications for targeting and curriculum approaches. Provides examples of practice.

Preece, J. (ed.) with Weatherall, C. and Woodrow, M. (1998) Beyond the Boundaries: exploring the potential of widening provision in higher education, Leicester: NIACE. 128 pages. Number of case studies examining attempts to develop responses to ‘the learning society’.

Sargant, N. (1991) Learning and ‘Leisure’. A study of adult participation in learning and its policy implications, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. 132 pages. A major study which provides useful data on participation in both informal and formal education.

Sargant, N. (1993) Learning for a Purpose. Participation in education and training by adults from ethnic minorities, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. 117 + viii pages. Follow-up study to Sargant (1991) that highlights significant differences in participation and the role of educational aspirations, cultural backgrounds, and occupation environments in decisions to participate in, and access to, adult education.

Sargant, N. with Field, J., Francis, H., Schuller, T. and Tuckett, A. (1997) The Learning Divide. A study of participation in adult learning in the United Kingdom, Leicester: National Institute of Continuing Adult Education. 127 pages. Report of a study undertaken in early 1996 and thus providing a much needed picture of adult education participation following changes in funding and the move towards vocationalism and accreditation. It is difficult to compare these findings with earlier surveys as there have been changes in the questions used (which was especially important in the area of informal learning). The survey confirms the continuing impact of social class; age; gender; location and previous educational experience. The survey also deals with issues around advice, travel, finance, personal circumstances, use of leisure time, and participation in arts and crafts.

West, L. (1996) Beyond Fragments: Adults, motivation and higher education. A biographical analysis, London: Taylor and Francis. Exploration of the relationship between motives, educational participation, biographies and present situations based on work with a number of adult students in access and foundation programmes. The approach Is ‘a kind of cultural psychology’. Also draws on the psychoanalytical tradition in some interesting ways.

Also referenced

Banks, M., Bates, I., Breakwell, G., Bynner, J., Emler, N., Jamieson, L. & Roberts, K. (1992) Careers and Identities, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Barton, D. and Padmore, S. (1991) ‘Roles, networks and values in everyday writing’ in D. Barton and R. Ivanic (eds.) Writing in the Community, Newbury Park: Sage.

Boshier, R. (1973) ‘Educational participation and dropout. A theoretical model’, Adult Education 23(4): 255-282.

Brockett, R. G. & Hiemstra, R. (1991) Self-direction in Adult Learning. Perspectives on theory, research and practice, London: Routledge.

Brookfield, S. D. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. A comprehensive analysis of principles and effective practices, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Calder, J. (ed.) (1993) Disaffection and Diversity. Overcoming barriers for adult learners, London: Falmer Press.

Courtney, S. (1989) ‘Defining adult and continuing education’ in S. B. Merriam and P. M. Cunningham (eds.) Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Courtney, S. (1991) Why Adults Learn. Towards a theory of participation in adult education, London: Routledge.

Cross, K. P. (1981) Adults as Learners. Increasing participation and facilitating learning (1992 edn.), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cross-Durrant, A. (1987) ”Basil Yeaxlee and the origins of lifelong education’ in P. Jarvis (ed.) Twentieth Century Thinkers in Adult Education, London: Croom Helm

Darkenwald, G. G. and Merriam, S. B. (1982) Adult Education. Foundations of practice, New York: Harper and Row.

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (rev edn.) Vol. 8, The Later Works 1925-1953 (ed.) J. A. Boydston (1987), Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.

Geertz, C. (1983) Local Knowledge. Further essays in interpretive anthropology, New York: Basic Books. (Now also available in Fontana Paperbacks).

Gooderham, P. (1987) ‘Reference group theory and adult education’, Adult Education Quarterly 37(3): 140-151.

Graham-Brown, S. (1991) Education in the Developing World. Conflict and crisis, London: Longman.

Jarvis, P. (1987) Adult Learning in the Social Context, London: Croom Helm.

King, K. (1991) Aid and Education in the Developing World. The role of donor agencies in educational analysis, Harlow: Longman.

Levine, K. (1986) The Social Context of Literacy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Lewin, K. (1947) ‘Frontiers in group dynamics. Concept, method and reality in social science ‘, Human Relations 1: 5-41.

Lewin, K. (1951) Field Theory in Social Science, New York: Harper and Row.

Lindemann, E. (1926) The Meaning of Adult Education (1989 edn), Norman: Oklahoma Research Centre for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Maslow, A. H. (1954) Motivation and Personality, New York: Harper and Row.

McGivney, V. (1990) Education’s for Other People. Access to education for non-participant adults, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. Extracts are included as McGivney, V. (1993) ‘Participation and non-participation. A review of the literature’ in R. Edwards, S. Sieminski and D. Zeldin (eds.) Adult Learners, Education and Training, London: Routledge.

McGivney, V. (1992) Tracking Adult Learning Routes. A pilot investigation into adult learners’ starting points and progression to further education and training, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

McGivney, V. & Murray, F. (1991) Adult Education in Development. Methods and approaches from changing societies, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Miller, H. L. (1967) Participation of Adults in Education. A force-field analysis, Boston: Center for the Study of Liberal Education for Adults.

Munn, P. and MacDonald, C. (1988) Adult Participation in Education and Training, Edinburgh: Scottish Council for Research in Education.

Nyerere, J. K. (1978) ‘”Development is for man, by man, and of man”: the Declaration of Dar es Salaam’ in B. L. Hall and J. R. Kidd (eds.) Adult Learning. A design for action, Oxford: Pergamon.

Rogers, A. (1992) Adult Learning for Development, London: Cassell.

Rubenson, K. (1977) ‘Participation in recurrent education. A research review’ Paper presented at meeting of National Delegates on Developments in Recurrent Education, Paris.

Sampson, E. E. (1993) Celebrating the Other. A dialogic account of human nature, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Sargant, N. (1991) Learning and ‘Leisure’. A study of adult participation in learning and its policy implications, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Sargant, N. (1993) Learning for a Purpose. Participation in education and training by adults from ethnic minorities, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Sargant, N. et al (1997) The Learning Divide. A study of participation in adult learning in the United Kingdom, Leicester: NIACE.

Schweder, R. A. & E. J. Bourne (1984) ‘Does the concept of the person vary cross-culturally?’ in R. A. Schweder & R. A. LeVine (eds.) Culture Theory. Essays on mind, self and emotion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sheehy, G. (1976) Passages. Predictable crises of adult life , New York: Dutton.

Smith, M. K. (1994) Local Education. Community, conversation, praxis, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Street, B. V. (1984) Literacy in theory and practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, M. C.(1989) ‘Adult basic education’ in S. B. Merriam and P. M. Cunningham (eds.) Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Thompson, A. R. (1981) Education and Development in Africa, London: Macmillan.

Tough, A. M. (1967) Learning Without a Teacher. A study of tasks and assistance during adult self-teaching projects, Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Tough, A. (1976) ‘Self-planned learning and major personal change’ reprinted in R. Edwards, S. Sieminski and D. Zeldin (eds.) (1993) Adult Learners, Education and Training , London: Routledge.

Tough, A. M. (1979) The Adult’s Learning Projects. A fresh approach to theory and practice in adult learning, Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Yeaxlee, B. A. (1929) Lifelong Education. A sketch of the range and significance of the adult education movement, London: Cassell and Co.

Acknowledgement: Picture: learn by Mark Brennan. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons cc-by-nc-sa2 licence. heycoach-1197947341

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (1998, 2010). ‘Participation in learning projects and programmes’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. http://infed.org/mobi/participation-in-learning-projects-and-programmes/. Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 1998, 2010

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