Jan Sjunnesson on Adult Education



Sandeep: Good Morning Jan. We will start with the objectives of Adult Education and its relevance for society?

Jan:  Adult Education in Scandinavia, which I know most about (because I am an Adult Education Teacher) is to provide people – who have dropped out either voluntarily or for some reason have not completed their high school degree – the ability to do it in later years of their lives.

The second objective is that it provides stakeholders, who in Scandinavia are popular movements such as labour movements, democratic popular movements, etc, a way to find leaders and members and have a voice in society.

Sandeep:  Adult learners learn differently from other learners. What are the peculiar characteristics of an adult learner that needs to be kept in mind when you are dealing with them or are working with them to enhance their skills?

Jan: An adult learner is an ADULT. That means that you can’t treat that person as a juvenile person; who is without rights to integrity, voice and respect.  The other thing is that an adult learner knows more about life, as such. If you are 25, 35 or even 45 (years of age), you have so much more experience. So when you teach adult learners you must provide some kind of contextualisation of the knowledge and skills you are teaching to them.

Treat them as Adults” means that you “Treat them like Adults”, even though, they don’t know many things that may be elementary for many people – reading, writing, doing arithmetic.  Their learning has to be contextualised so that that they do not feel that they are being put down like a 10 year old.

Sandeep: This is something that we find is picking up more and more in schools also -contextualisation of education for school going children, contextualisation for his environment, contextualisation for his community and his surroundings. So this is a best practice that is also now percolating down from Adult Education to making education more meaningful for children also.

Jan: Yes, but I would say that there is a power over younger people. Young people are not allowed to protest. Or I would put it as- young people are not as easily bored as adult people.  So if you do rote learning with someone who is 38, the person will be very bored very quickly; whereas if that person is 12, you have some power. And, we know that young people, actually, sometimes like rhyming and rote learning. They like to play around with it and so it is not that difficult.

But a man sitting and repeating something (will be difficult for him). Maybe if you are very dedicated, for instance, learning Sanskrit, you must do some rote learning to some measure.  But I would ensure that the Sanskrit student has a very good context to put that Sanskrit knowledge into.

Sandeep:  What are the more prominent philosophies of Adult Education that you know of? Sweden has got a very good system that you come from, but there are other systems around the world, which also work. How are they different from each other? Could you elaborate on that?

Jan: No, I don’t know in that sense. But, I would like to distinguish between two kinds of Adult Education. One is the so-called Folk Education and the second is Adult Education.

Sometimes these get mixed. I come from what you call folk education, which was something done first in Denmark in the 1800s by priests and a pedagogue called Grundtvig. He started residential rural folk high schools in Denmark and these (later) spread to Norway, Finland, Sweden; where young people – first men and later women – were allowed to take this as a secondary school degree, but in a fashion that was outside the academic establishment. It was rooted in folklore (Grundtvig was very much a folklore person) and also later in popular movements that I mentioned (the Labour Movements, the Temperance Movements, the Evangelical-Christian Movements in Sweden and also the Farmers’ Movement).

So folk education, which is different from Adult Education, has the characteristic that they want to foster their own leaders, they want to have a say in society and they don’t want to go through an academic establishment or any kind of professional schooling but their own residential folk high schools.

The second, what I call Adult Education, is what is provided by municipal governments in the West. In Sweden, municipal Adult Education is actually a replica of the Secondary School System, but at an adult level. But the same diploma (Secondary School Diploma) can also be taken at the folk high school. The folk high schools usually have an idealistic political philosophy (i.e. can be a part of the sports movement or any kind of cultural or club ideas that one may want to put forward in society). It has that kind of ideological flavour to it, whereas municipal Adult Education, does not as it is only for the provision of a second chance in life.

Sandeep: Skill based!

Jan: Skill based, but getting that secondary school diploma. That’s the goal of Adult  Education in the municipal regime. Folk high schools have this – we want to have our own leaders who can put forward our own ideas.

Sandeep: What are the major challenges to Adult Education seen in India and how are we dealing with it?

Jan: I would like to see an Adult Education movement in India. I know you don’t have it. I know that the dropout rates of people in the primary schools are high. And how many people those go to secondary schools and tertiary education is not that high, even though you are so many people. But there should be, I think, a provision for people who are above 20, to be able to get that 10th standard diploma or 12th standard diploma later in life.

Who will do it? I don’t think that the municipal Adult Education concept is something for India.  India has enough problems with its elementary education system and secondary education system. I can’t see it taking on the responsibility of educating adult learners.

But I think that the folk education system, where you foster leaders who have their own kind of independent schooling, residential rural colleges, like we had in Sweden in the 1800s-1900s, could be more efficient for India. It could be the Dalits, it could be the farmers; it could be workers’ movements, it could be any kind of group in India. You are very good at organising people to some extent, especially, of course, in West Bengal and Kerala, for civil society participation. But, the schooling system does not match that kind of participation. I don’t see any, what I would call, folk or adult education of people in those movements in India.  You had the Centre for Science and Environment in the 1980s and 1990s in India, when you did surveys on India’s state of environment.

You also have ASER, Annual State of India’s Education, put out by Pratham; where they have about 30,000-50,000 volunteers going out to villages and asking mothers if their children know how to read and write. And if the mother says yes, they actually test the child – a little bit in maths and a little bit in English. Now, if you build on that; Pratham now has on its database about 100,000 volunteers. These volunteers could be enrolled in some kind of residential or non-residential form of Adult Education. These volunteers are themselves almost illiterate, yet they go to the villages and ask these schooling questions.

So I see that there are avenues in India. You have very good ideas. Some kind of organisation (is required) around the execution of ideas (organisations like) Pratham have. You need to have a slightly longer term perspective on this, because getting an Adult Education system means people to investing 2 – 3 years, maybe, (at a time) in their life when they might have children or might be living with their parents or not with their parents. And how (do) you support them? And all these ideas, you know, how would you fund this system?

Sandeep: That’s correct Jan. Who would be responsible for running an initiative like this?

Jan: Well, I don’t see at the moment anyone else than these (movements) – if you call Pratham a movement. I don’t know what the other centres for collecting education data there are, or bodies in that sense. But I would say that it should be, what I mentioned, farmers, civil society organisations, trade unions. Any kind of organisation that believes that they want to have a voice in society in 10 – 15 years and who (want to develop people who) are going to talk for their aims in Indian Society – Ambedkar’s vision for the Dalits, for instance. To some extent this has been done in UP.

But if the Dalit movements themselves could say – OK, we will build this residential rural collage outside Lucknow or somewhere in UP. There is 178 million people in UP, and starting in UP with the Dalits, there are 20% Dalits. That’s a lot of people. If you start with some residential colleges, I am sure there will be funds available from that movement itself. I can’t see the government doing this and going to the Dalits and saying – “Hey, come get a secondary school diploma!”

Buy if Mayavati looks to her future, or rather her next generation’s future she would, instead of building a statue, put out (this many) lacs or crore rupees for a residential college for the people. And then they (could) have some kind of collection money within that movement.  That’s the way it started in Scandinavia. There wasn’t any government. There weren’t any big funds.  It was farmers.

In Sweden and in Scandinavia we have a winter that goes on from November to March, which is the time we can’t sow or harvest anything.  So it was very cleverly organised that the residential rural folk education colleges were open between October and March – first for adult males and then for women – where they could do some reading, writing, maths, but also to be able to conduct meetings, to chair a committee, to chair a meeting, giving people voice, taking down minutes, making a protocol after each meeting. All these things led to a huge amount, in 1950 a third of all the members of parliament in Sweden were educated in this folk education system. They didn’t go to college and universities or to the city’s secondary school; which was considered for the upper class. The lower class, in this case, the rural people educated themselves – started in about 1900, and by 1950 had reached this amount.

If you have this perspective, 1 or 2 generations out, I think, for instance, the Dalits could be the stakeholders that could launch this.

Sandeep: Thank you so much Jan for your time. That was very, very informative.


Mr. Jan Sjunnesson is an M.Ed, MA (Philosophy) and has a diploma in teaching and journalism.  Living in Delhi since January 2010, he is a senior member of the management with Centre for Civil Society – a prominent activist group campaigning for the implementation of RTE, School Choice Program (Voucher program), etc.  Jan’s 25 years professional experience covers journalism, teacher, school manager, teacher-trainer and folk education/ folk high school teacher and activist.

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