Policy & Practice - A Development Education Review



Does development education ‘fit’ into adult education?: Offering adult learners the opportunity to engage with development issues

Innovations in Development Education
Spring 2010

Natasha Bailey

To date, there has not been a strategic focus on the integration of development education into adult and community education in Ireland as a way to promote global citizenship and critical awareness of development issues for adults.  In 2008, AONTAS, the National Adult Learning Organisation, in partnership with Irish Aid commissioned a piece of research to explore this topic.  Natasha Bailey, on behalf of AONTAS, examined whether or not there could be a pedagogical ‘fit’ between development education and adult and community education in Ireland, as well as the challenges and benefits attached to that integration.  The research, summarised in this article, also explored how development education could best be promoted to adult and community educators in Ireland. It specifically asked if development education as a process for active citizenship would encourage educators to explore development issues in adult learning.  The research concluded that, initially, the integration of development education into adult and community education could happen most easily and effectively in the context of adult literacy education or community education (an education which is founded on community development principles and practices) provision in Ireland.  This article aims to convince development educators and development organisations to proactively engage with the adult and community education in Ireland to increase the opportunities available to adults to learn about development issues.


There has been some strategic effort made in Ireland by Irish Aid, development organisation partners and the Department of Education and Science to integrate development education into primary and secondary schooling (see for instance, NCCA, 2006).  While this integration is not compulsory, many development NGOs work proactively with schools to provide resources and train teachers, and this work has become more widespread in recent years.

            In contrast, adult learners would appear to be, save for a very few development educators, a neglected constituency for development education.  Until the publication of the White Paper on Irish Aid (Irish Aid, 2006), few development education stakeholders had made a strategic commitment to ensuring that adults had the opportunity to engage in learning about development issues.  However, in that White Paper, Irish Aid stated ‘Every person in Ireland will have access to educational opportunities to be aware of and understand their rights and responsibilities as global citizens and their potential to effect change for a more just and equal world’ (ibid.,:107).  The 2007 Irish Aid Strategic Plan made a similar commitment to exploring how it could support educators to engage adult learners in development education through intermediaries like AONTAS (Irish Aid, 2007).  AONTAS is a membership organisation whose mission is ‘to promote the development of a learning society through the provision of a quality and comprehensive system of adult learning and education, which is accessible to and inclusive to all’ (see http://www.aontas.com).

            In 2008, Irish Aid and AONTAS partnered to carry out a piece of research to explore how development education could be strategically integrated into adult and community education, and whether or not it could be promoted to educators as a process for encouraging active citizenship, as the latter is a strategic aim for AONTAS.  The aim of this paper is to persuade development educators, through the findings of the research, to proactively and strategically engage with adult and community education providers and promote the usefulness of development education as a process for fostering key competences in adult learners, including their potential and skills to effect change for a more just and equal world.

            To elicit data for this research, a number of methodologies were implemented including: a quantitative survey; semi-structured interviews; mini case studies; and focus groups with key stakeholders in adult and community education and development education.  The research was contextualised by literature exploring key theoretical debates about active citizenship, development education and adult and community education.  This article will present the theoretical commonalities found in each of these practices; where there are connections and opportunities for curricular integration.  It will also briefly summarise how adult and community education is managed and provided in Ireland, as development education stakeholders interviewed for the research described reservations about engagement due to a lack of knowledge about the sector and how it works.  Lastly, it will present the key research findings and recommendations pertinent to the development education sector for the strategic integration of development education into adult and community education in Ireland.


A note on community education

The reader may notice that adult education is referred to throughout the article as ‘adult and community education’.  This label is used in order to ensure that community education is seen as both equal to and different from formal adult education provision in Ireland.  In 2008, there were around 44,000 community education learners in Ireland (Department of Education and Science, 2008). For those who are not familiar with community education, it is an approach that, like adult education, embraces a range of different models that can each result in different outcomes.  However, all models encapsulate adult learning that is community-based, non-formal and provided according to the community’s wants and needs.  As with the other practices described above, community education can be seen as having a ‘soft’ purpose, which is about providing an educational service to a community for individual development or a more critical purpose, which is evident in the following definition from AONTAS:


“Community education is education and learning which is rooted in a process of empowerment, social justice, change, challenge, respect and collective consciousness.  It is within the community and of the community, reflecting the developing needs of individuals and their locale.  It builds the capacity of local communities to engage in developing responses to educational and structural disadvantage and to take part in decision-making and policy-formation within the community.  It is distinct from general adult education provision, due both to its ethos and to the methodologies it employs” (AONTAS, 2000).


            Community education provision in Ireland is also currently subject to a human capital emphasis, because policy makers typically see it as education for disadvantaged groups that can be a bridge to more formal learning that should eventually result in progression to the labour market (Expert Working Group on Future’s Skills Needs, 2007).  However, because it is non-formal, providers see it as more flexible and open to different processes and topics than other adult learning opportunities.


Adult learning in Ireland and the DEAL project

In Ireland, the adult and community education is diverse and learning opportunities are provided in a number of programmes and settings.  A recent report showed that there are at least 141,255 adult learners participating in Department of Education and Science-funded adult and community education in Ireland (Government of Ireland, 2008).  The bulk of adult and community education funded by the Department of Education and Science is delivered locally as part of the adult education service of the 33 Vocational Education Committees (VECs) through various programmes.

            Many adult learning opportunities are accredited through the National Framework of Qualifications (see http://www.nqai.ie), a ten level framework of single modules or courses and awards, including a few dedicated global education modules.  However, there is no full development education award at any level of the framework.

           In 2008, the County Clare VEC commenced the one-year Development Education in Adult Learning (DEAL) project, funded by Irish Aid.  This project is the first example of a VEC putting in place a project that aims to integrate development education into adult learning throughout the VEC.  Its stated aims are to:


  • Encourage and support tutors to integrate development education topics into their course materials and lesson plans;
  • Design and pilot a module on global citizenship; and
  • Raise awareness of development education work in adult education through the project's website (see http://www.claredeal.ie).


Finding space for development education in adult and community education

This research was carried out during a time of great debate about the fundamental purpose of adult and community education in Ireland which touched on key questions relevant to this debate.  For instance, many academics and practitioners asked what impact a human capital emphasis on adult education is having on the content and methodology of adult learning opportunities. Some also asked whether there is room for development education in an adult education process that, according to the prevailing policy zeitgeist in Ireland, should focus on the development of skills for the labour market.  Baptiste argued that under human capital theory (HCT), the ‘qualifications employers want’ become the educational outcomes valued (2001:184).  Thus, adult learning becomes handmaiden to the market economy.

            In this view of adult and community education, providers and the State do not have a responsibility to foster democratic agency separate to that of consumerism.  Giroux argues ‘democracy necessitates forms of education that provide a new ethic of freedom and a reassertion of collective identity as central preoccupations of a vibrant democratic culture and society’ (Giroux, 2004).  However, the human capital purpose of adult and community education is argued to predominate in Ireland (Grummel, 2007).

            This prevailing logic about adult and community education has the potential to limit the space available to educators whose processes and theoretical commitments are concerned with fostering the kind of education that Giroux describes and with which development educators are most likely concerned.  It is important to engage in the debate to assert the importance of a more radical and democratic purpose for adult and community education.  However, development educators need to be able to persuade adult and community educators who are working within a system governed by human capital logic how development education can help them achieve existing learning outcomes.

            For development educators the need for adults to engage in development education is a central element of their practice.  The importance of North/South solidarity (Naidoo, 2004), the need to tackle social exclusion on a global level (Najmudin, 2004) and enhancement of community cohesion (Scottish Executive, 2003) are all rationales for ensuring adults have the opportunity to learn about development issues.  It may be more challenging to convince adult educators of the rationale for development education.  The challenges to doing so could include lack of skills, knowledge or capacity (many adult education tutors are volunteers), and adult educators’ own immersion in the human capital imperative resulting in them not seeing development education as relevant to their teaching.  These obstacles could, in part, be addressed by enabling adult educators to see how development education can help adult and community education in meeting strategic commitments at a European level.  The European Commission has set out eight key competences that should be fostered through lifelong learning.  They are compared in Table 1 against what some of the literature posits as the outcomes of development education for adults.


Table 1. European Union lifelong learning competences and outcomes of development education for adult learners


European Union competences

Development education outcomes

Communication in the mother tongue;

Communication in the foreign languages;

Mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology;

Digital competence;

Learning to learn;

Interpersonal, intercultural and social competences and civic competence;

Entrepreneurship; and

Cultural expression.


Knowledge about systems and societies that a nation trades with in order to implement fair business behaviour;

Self-directed learning and problem solving (Toepfer, 2003);

Understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity;

Understanding the global employment market (Scottish Executive, 2003);

Coping skills for rapid change;

Social literacy to work with others to address global issues (White, 2004);

Making connections between different contexts and situations (Osler, 2004);

Research and debating skills;

Campaigning and protest;

Critical analysis of complex social issues – ability to connect single events to systemic arrangements; and

Making value judgements (Rost, 2004).



The table shows that there are many similarities between the strategic directives and the skills fostered through development education.  The research presented here also sought to explore whether development education as a process for active global citizenship education could be used as a message to encourage adult and community educators to engage adult learners in development education.  However, as with the purpose of adult and community education, the notion of active citizenship is also hotly debated.  The focus of policy on active citizenship at a national level in Ireland has placed more emphasis on legal citizenship than cosmopolitan, critical citizenship.  In other words, policy is concerned with enabling ‘soft’ forms of citizenship like voting and volunteering as opposed to critical citizenship involving protest and critical analysis of inequality.

            This debate begs the question of what forms of citizenship should be legitimated and taught in adult and community education, using development education processes.  Different approaches to development education have an impact on what forms of active citizenship are fostered in learners (Andreotti, 2006).  A ‘soft’ or moral stance can result in an uncritical commitment of either time or money to church or state development work overseas. On the other hand, critical development education supports reflection about global social injustice, a commitment to challenging different forms of inequality and working to implement a different vision of the world.

            A review of the literature (published in full in the research report) reveals that active citizenship, development education, and adult and community education intersect under two approaches; a liberal approach, or a justice/critical approach, which then show what different types of citizenship and skills for active citizenship are fostered through each (see Table 2 below) (Task Force on Active Citizenship, 2007; Khoo, 2006).


Table 2. Approaches to active citizenship, adult/community education and development education





A communitarian approach, individuals should make a contribution to the collective good, i.e. volunteering.  May not critically examine how some do not have equal access to participation in civic life.  Focus on obedient citizen (see Task Force on Active Citizenship, 2007).

Critical citizenship based on human rights and responsibilities.  Fosters skills for participation for all out of a recognition that some do not have equal opportunities to participate in democracy.  Advocates action for social change whether it is critical of decision-makers or not.  Takes the side of those who do not have power (see Naidoo, 2005).

Adult/ community education

Learner-centred – the learner returns to learning to satisfy personal goals be they the development of hard or soft skills.  Current emphasis on development of vocational skills for personal advancement (for example as described in Knowles, et al., 2005).

Learner and collective-centred employing Freirean methodologies and a concern for radical social change.  Fosters learning as a site for analysing and resisting inequality.  Fosters critical analysis for social change and individual and collective empowerment (see Mark, 2007).

Development education

Not uncritical about development processes in other countries or interdependence.   Learner asked to take action by supporting existing campaigns. Does not seek to foster citizen’s own critical analysis (see Andreotti, 2006).

Employing Freirean methodologies and human rights, fosters idea that we are interdependent and should play an active role in changing unjust social structures that cause global inequality, poverty and injustice.  Fosters critical analysis and skills to take action for a more just world, including campaigning and protest (ibid.).


In the liberal tradition the commonalities include a focus on the common good and the individual, and the promotion of action to enhance this focus.  It also relies on the individual to make personal choices or changes.

            In the justice/critical framework we see a great deal of overlap between the three practices in terms of the importance of critical analysis and recognition of inequality.  This framework emphasises fundamental social change and a resistance to the status quo.  The process shared in adult and community education and development education in this framework is a participative Freirean methodology.  In this understanding of active citizenship and development education there is an emphasis on taking action to achieve equality and social change.  The justice approach to all three practices shares the values of equality, social justice, solidarity, empathy and respect for human rights.             

            It is in the justice/critical tradition that we see the impetus for an understanding of development education as education for global citizenship. Development education has a valuable role to play in contributing to a new broader, more inclusive understanding of active citizenship, which acknowledges the global responsibilities of individuals and communities (Osler, 1994:3).

            This research sought to understand what frameworks research participants were employing to make connections between the three practices.  Many saw them as well-connected within a justice or critical perspective, which then required them to articulate in which type of adult and community education provision these connections could be implemented.  These articulations are presented in the findings section below. The next section describes the methodology used to compile the research.


Research methodology

A mixed method ‘real world’ approach was taken to achieving the aim and objectives set for the research.  This mixed motive common-sense approach is described by Robson who says that ‘the basic claim is that principled enquiry can be of help in the office…or wherever, and in initiating sensible change and development’ (Robson, 2002).  In other words, the research strategy needed to ensure that the researcher could both access ‘hot knowledge’ or, ‘the developing knowledge generated by professional practitioners who have to…face the client groups’ (Kegan, 1999) and those who could offer ideas about how those practical insights could be integrated strategically for practitioners across adult and community education provision. This imperative resulted in the mixed motive design.  Quantitative methods were used to access a large number of practitioners to identify trends in practice.  Qualitative methods were employed to gain more detailed insights into both the practice of integrating development education into adult and community education and the ideas of those who were strategically placed in the adult and community education and development education sector consulted for the research.  Table 3 below details the levels for which data was collected, the methods used to do so, and the sampling strategies employed.


Table 3. Research Methods Employed




Policy / Strategic

·      One-to-one semi-structured interviews with policy-makers, managers and leaders;

·      Focus groups.

·      15 interviews with key informants snowball sampled from the adult and community education sector, nine from the development education sector;

·      two focus groups (AEOs, CEFs).


·      Survey questionnaire to map the extent of development education in the adult/community education sector;

·      Case studies.

·      256 purposively sampled practitioners in adult and community education;

·      five purposively sampled case studies:

  • one community education centre;
  • adult educators’ training programme;
  •  women’s community education group;
  •  adult basic education group;
  •  community education/ development education centre.

Tutor/ Facilitator

·      Focus group.

·      focus group with adult and community education practitioners.


·      Focus group.

·      group of basic education learners (sampled from one of case studies).



A total of 301 individuals participated in this research either through the survey, one-to-one interviews or focus groups.  An additional five organisations assisted in the development of case studies.


Research findings and recommendations

The research resulted in a range of findings and recommendations; those presented here are considered to be those most pertinent to development educators and development organisations.

            The research showed that development education is not widespread in adult and community education.  The survey conducted for the research was sent to over 1,000 adult and community education stakeholders in Ireland and had a response rate of about 26 per cent (256).  Of the 256 respondents, about 205 providers delivered some type of development education with their learners most often through the use of materials about international human rights or global issues.  A further 77 per cent (175) of those providers ran or supported international events for their learners.  Respondents to the survey indicated that they had little knowledge of the concrete themes that could be explored as part of development education, although they did see it as a process that fostered critical analysis and a focus on global social justice.

            The survey indicated that a key challenge to delivering development education was a lack of materials and resources showing educators how to educate on development themes.  Since the survey was completed by a small proportion of adult and community educators in Ireland it cannot be considered fully representative of the sample group.  However, the research concluded that a great deal of work is needed to create awareness of development education among adult educators and persuade them of its value.

            The research reaffirmed that there is not a strategic focus on the provision of development education in adult and community education.  It is ad hoc, depending on organisations’ and individual tutors’ motivation to provide it.  Strategic integration is challenged by a number of findings from the research. For example, some of the research interviewees from the adult and community education sector understood development education as being solely about individual and community development and not about integrating a global dimension into learning. Interviewees for the research did not, on the whole, have a shared definition of active citizenship, development education and/or adult and community education. The research also revealed that stakeholders from the development education sector and the adult and community education sector did not know about the work and management of each other’s sectors.  Of particular note was the fact that development education stakeholders perceived adult and community education provision to be confusing and the sector a challenge to map.


Connecting adult and community education, development education and active citizenship


The qualitative data from the research indicated that there are connections between active citizenship, development education and adult and community education, and that active citizenship could be fostered through development education.  However, many of the interviewees across all the sectors were clear that other outcomes from development education are also of value to the learner and should not be limited to what they perceived to be a ‘thin’ State definition of citizenship.  In other words, many saw connections between the three practices within the critical/justice tradition as evidenced in the following quote from a research participant:


“So if you put the three things together, if development education can awaken people's whole notion that what we do has an impact on people across the globe and we have a role to play in trying to help people to attain a better standard of living through adult/community education then active citizenship flows out of that - the three of them together can rub off each other.  You can come to any one first but if you can link all three together and if they can be part of the same equation or the same approach then it is a very powerful force for good”.


            The outcomes of development education identified by and for adult learners from the research include: learning to learn; research and problem-solving skills; intercultural communication; increased confidence and sense of agency; collective empowerment; critical analysis; leadership; and active citizenship amongst others.  These echo the strategic competences that the European Union calls to be fostered through lifelong learning.

            Many interviewees from both the development education and adult and community education sectors perceived development education to ‘fit’ best into community education and adult basic education provision.  The features that research participants said were shared by these three types of provision are Freirean methodologies, flexible provision, learner-defined content, community development, critical analysis and individual and collective empowerment.  The potential for development education to foster social justice agendas at home as much as abroad was considered particularly relevant to community education and adult basic education.  The following quote from a research participant emphasises the relationship between community education and development education:


“If there’s a chance of helping people or facilitating them to make connections between their life and issues at a global level, it’s in literacy and community education that it’s going to occur because a) you can get at [Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC)] level 3 or 4; and b) it is about pursuing a very specific educational programme but in the early stages they’re exploring themselves – there’s an opportunity”.


Existing curriculum opportunities for integrating development education

Those interviewed for the research indicated that integrating development education into adult and community education would be a worthwhile venture, albeit requiring a great deal of consultation across the adult and community education sector.  The qualitative data indicated that development education in adult and community education should not be an add-on.  It should be integrated across provision through themes and case studies and dedicated development education programmes should also be developed.  The data indicated that an argument should be made as to how development education can help educators achieve existing aims.

            Qualitative data showed that the types of programmes and courses into which development education could be embedded are diverse, including community development, social studies and social care, personal effectiveness, intercultural studies, politics, history and geography.  There was consensus that development education might not fit into every programme but that providers should look to see where it would fit most appropriately.


Into practice: Examples of integration

The smaller qualitative case studies conducted for the research and presented in the research report gave examples of adult and community education that had integrated development education into programmes for adult learners.  These case studies included life skills training for former drug users, an adult basic education group, a women’s leadership programme, a course on gender and development, and an adult educators’ training programme.  Data used to compile the case studies included tutor feedback and learner evaluations.  Each of the case studies involved development education, which was situated within a justice/critical tradition.

            It was clear that the nature of the provision in the case studies allowed both learners and facilitators to co-direct the learning, enhancing engagement for both parties.  For instance, the women’s leadership course learners chose to work towards stated learning outcomes through an exploration of the global nature of violence against women, and the lack of human rights for women globally.  It was clear that when the provision is flexible enough for learners to state their needs or interests and those needs and interests are connected to development education themes, it can result in achievements well beyond those originally scoped.

            For instance, a key theme arising from the cases was that taking a critical global dimension to the learning broadened the world of participants that, in turn, resulted in an increased sense of agency for them.  For instance, the learners in the adult basic education case study constituted the participants in the learners’ focus group for the research and made the following statements about the impact of development education on their lives:


“More knowledge made me feel more powerful” (learner focus group participant A).


“I felt as though I could talk about things with my family or friends without feeling stupid” (leaner focus group participant B).


According to tutors consulted in the case studies, this agency fostered confidence, assisted engagement in the learning process and led to participants taking action to address both local and global issues.  The learners themselves brainstormed most of the forms of active citizenship carried out across the case study groups.  According to evaluations carried out for the programmes spotlighted in the case studies, development education also fostered participants’ insight into their own lives and communities, developed self-esteem and increased interest in the skills elements of the programmes.  To demonstrate this, below is one tutor’s summarised observation of her learners in a life skills programme for former drug users, and their feedback from a participatory evaluation done with them at the end of the programme:


“Given their own drug use, they could understand the connections and consequences [of the drug trade in other countries] very clearly.  They could understand why there might be poverty, violence and devastation in (for example) Colombia and Afghanistan.  Trying to get off drugs, to lead a healthier, happier and less anti-social lifestyle was a big step towards active citizenship. Taking responsibility for their lives and families was a way of becoming active, engaged members of society.  The skills practised by the participants in the course included literacy, social skills, listening skills, problem-solving, thinking and reflecting, discussion, decision-making and time management”.


            It was evident from the case studies that an exploration of global issues, injustice and inequality using development education methodologies can have wide-ranging and transformative impacts on adult learners.  Overall, the research concluded that there is latent potential in the adult and community education sector to integrate development education in an embedded fashion.



For development educators or organisations that would like to begin to focus on supporting adult and community education providers to engage adult learners in development education this research provides a number of recommendations set out in Table 4.

            The ideas, findings and recommendations presented here are a small part of a much larger research report.  Interested readers should go to http://www.aontas.com to download a full copy of the report.  The hope is that this article has assisted development educators to see the potential for them to encourage and support development education in adult and community education provision in Ireland and has provided advice as how it could be done.  The article also aimed to show that integrating a critical development education in adult and community education can help to hold a space for adult learning which fosters critical awareness, analysis and active global citizenship for learners.


Table 4. Recommendations for integrating development education into adult and community education

  • Lobby vocational education committees (VECs) to present development education to their constituencies as a possible consideration for the next education plan for the VEC area;
  • At local level, contact your community education facilitator or adult literacy organiser or local area-based partnership to see if they are interested in promoting or integrating development education themes in their work;
  • Identify local champions of development education, such as expert practitioners or innovative projects, and promote them to the VEC or adult and community education providers in your area;
  • Identify where the responsibility for continuing professional development (CPD) is held in your local VEC and lobby those stakeholders to integrate development education and critical analysis into their training programmes;
  • Bring your ideas about integrating development education into adult and community education to the Irish Development Education Association (IDEA) and see what is happening at a national level; and
  • If you have a third level provider locally that trains adult and community educators ask if they integrate development education into that training and promote its value in training for adult and community educators.




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Natasha Bailey is an independent research consultant who was contracted by AONTAS to carry out the piece of research described here. Her academic background is in gender studies and communications.  She has 10 years of experience in the adult and community education sector in Ireland delivering, managing and training in both those sectors.  She is particularly interested in researching and mapping the non-economic benefits of learning such as civic and social engagement, including the potential of adult and community education to foster active citizenship, self-esteem, resilience and critical awareness of learners.

Bailey, N (2010) 'Does development education ‘fit’ into adult education?: Offering adult learners the opportunity to engage with development issues', Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 10, Spring, pp. 59-41.