Adult Learners' Week is celebrated in Canada every year. April 6 to 14, 2013 provides a focal point to consider the importance of lifelong learning and recognize the achievements of Canadian adult learners.
It's also an opportunity for all adults to take a pause and think about their own learning: What did I learn in the past year? What am I in the middle of learning right now and what should I be thinking about learning next? And what motivates me to learn?
In this way, Adult Learners' Week can be a bit like New Year's -- an opportunity both to reflect and make plans for the future. And like New Year's resolutions, the plans made for learning are much more likely to come to fruition if they are practical and integrated into a regular schedule, and if the person is truly motivated to learn.
Valuing all kinds of learning
Adult Learners' Week is about all kinds of learning. Practitioners in the Literacy and Essential Skills (L/ES) field talk about formal, non-formal and informal learning, which roughly correspond to course-based learning, loosely structured learning (usually non-credit), and experiential learning (everyday learning by doing). While Adult Learners' Week tends to focus on the stories of learners who have enrolled in a program or successfully completed a course, it's equally valid to celebrate learning any new skill (quilting, driving, propagating fruit trees!) or upgrading abilities to the next level.
As Canada continuously seeks to improve adult education and training opportunities and outcomes, valuing non-formal and informal learning is becoming increasingly important, and this is being reflected in our provincial and territorial adult learning strategies. This year UNESCO published new Guidelines for the Recognition, Validation and Accreditation of the Outcomes of Non-formal and Informal Learning. Recognizing learning that takes place outside of formal settings is considered by UNESCO to be essential for building a culture of lifelong learning. It makes it more apparent that all learners are individuals at the centre of their own personal learning journey.
Moving away from an in-school/out-of-school dichotomy to an idea of a lifetime of learning that moves in and out of formal, non-formal and informal modes better reflects the world we live in and the way we live. And it may, along with improved opportunities, help those most in need of L/ES up-skilling to engage in purposeful adult learning and reach their goals.
Investing in adult learning
This isn't to say that non-formal and informal learning alone can meet the learning needs of Canadian adults. On the contrary, a basic level of literacy and essential skills is the bedrock upon which lifelong learning stands: people must have the ability to work with information and formulate plans in order to set and achieve learning goals. Without it, they need structured assistance to improve their literacy and essential skills.
We know that about 40 per cent of Canadian adults (aged 18-64) fall below the international benchmark for adequate literacy and essential skills.* Canada's challenge is to develop a coordinated approach to providing L/ES up-skilling opportunities which value the experience of all learners and inspire them to embrace lifelong learning. Across all provinces and territories, we need to target the population groups most in need of up-skilling and provide programs that are both culturally appropriate and able to produce positive outcomes.
Investing in adult education and training has the potential to generate widespread benefits, not just for the individual learners but for all of us. Better literacy and essential skills also mean (at the population level) more income, better health, higher labour market attachment and greater community engagement. The ripple effects across Canada's economy and social fabric would significantly enhance our national prosperity and quality of life.
During Canadian Adult Learners' Week 2013, reflect on what you've learned this year, and think about what an effective strategic investment in adult learning could do for Canada.
Visit www.adultlearnersweek2013.org to find information on Canadian Adult Learners' Week activities, and take the survey on adult learning in Canada.
*International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) Level 3 (of 5) is considered as the minimum desirable threshold.