Transformative education and lifelong learning: how about the adults?
I first met Mila – a volunteer living in a resource-poor rural community in the Philippines – during my doctoral study fieldwork in 2017. Mila, along with her neighbours of 50 households, have been evicted from a piece of land that they have been living in for over seven decades. To counter this injustice, they started a grassroots movement to fight for land tenure. Leading the organisation was overwhelming for Mila. She always told me that she is not ‘educated’ owing to her being ‘only a high school graduate’. Yet for almost a year of following Mila’s leadership, I saw how she accomplished complex tasks with impressive mastery – from sophisticated numeracy skills in accounting for their funds to strong leadership and communication skills during campaigns.
In conversations around social development, I’ve noticed how people like Mila – e.g. ‘uneducated’, ‘poor’ or ‘rural’ – are often considered as recipients of development programmes. In education policies, they are the ones framed as those needing to be taught – where the starting point is often on what they ‘lack’ that the programmes can then ‘fulfil’. However, my research on everyday learning practices among volunteers in the Philippines made me realise how lifelong learning as a concept allows us to recognise the local knowledge and expertise already existing in communities. In my Bridge47 paper, I argued that no matter the socioeconomic status, people have ‘banks of skills’ and ‘funds of knowledge’ that they draw from to actively participate in a host of activities in the society.
To effectively respond to the needs of groups like Mila, there seems to be a need to build upon lived experiences and understanding of their situation. My point here is not to disregard the needs of marginalised communities, rather to also recognise their agency and knowledge as they respond to issues that are important to then. For policymakers and practitioners, this opens the possibilities of engaging these groups as stakeholders (and beyond as beneficiaries) and explore how they can help effectively shape educational policies and agendas.
Who gets to participate in the debates that shape local policies? When SDG 4.7 speaks about transformative education, who transforms? Who defines what this transformation could look like and for whose benefit? More than expanding our understanding on what learning is (and where it happens and when), lifelong learning more importantly encourages us to acknowledge and build upon everyday learning practices of individuals and communities. In solidarity, individuals like Mila are not subjects of transformation – they are actors that could shape social change and make it happen. It would be exciting to see what kind of programmes and policies we can develop if our starting point is each other’s skills, knowledge, values, capacities and agency.
The focus on lifelong learning within SDG Target 4.7 allows for renewed focus on everyday learning practices and their role towards sustainable development. In my research as part of the Bridge 47 policy paper on this area, I was struck by how the contributions and learning of adults – particularly women – tended to be side-lined in some of these debates. Social inequalities are persistent. Trenches that divide the rich and the poor have only been sharpened by the pandemic. Therefore, I truly believe that for SDG Target 4.7 to achieve its goal of transformation and sustainable development – there needs to be a serious consideration of who are included and excluded in these activities.
Chris Millora is the author of Bridge 47's research paper on Unlocking the transformative potential of education: the alliance between Lifelong Learning and SDG Target 4.7.