Learning at Life Transitions: Supporting learners returning to work or preparing to retire


By John Widdowson, Chair of the WEA and Principal of New College Durham, and Ruth Spellman, CEO of the WEA

People choose to learn for many different reasons. Often, a change in circumstances is the spur. Yet when policymakers and practitioners think about adult learners those external circumstances are often put to the back of the mind. The focus is on the learner in the classroom (or, increasingly, at the end of a broadband connection) and how they can be supported, irrespective of what brought them there. In many respects, this is how it should be – it encourages an equality of approach without preconceptions and it allows the student to bring as much or as little of their external life to their learning as they wish. But it also limits our ability to provide fully responsive education support. If we do not completely understand what motivates learners – or potential learners – to engage with education then we are not best placed to align our courses with the real needs of our students. Even if we achieve a snapshot of our learners’ motivations at any point in time, are we, as practitioners, able to adapt as circumstances change? Do we fully appreciate how life transitions affect why, when and how people chose to learn?

Given the alarming decline in adult learner numbers in recent years, it is vitally important to explore all ways in which a change in policy or practice might stem or reverse the trend. A more nuanced view of adult learning is required. A focus on life transitions is a way of exploring the diversity and fluidity of the adult learner population. We were aware of the growing body of work looking at motivations and barriers for adult learners and also the many ‘commissions’ exploring the policy landscape for adult learning. It seemed like a perfect time to combine our interest in understanding and supporting adult learners with our parallel interest in building an evidence base which can inform future policy and funding.

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