» Recognition of non-formal learning
» The point of view of researchers
Contribution to the European Commission and Council of Europe Partnership Expert Workshop on Non-formal Learning in cooperation with the Youth in Action National Agency for the Czech Republic, Prague, 9 June 2008. Available as pdf.
A report of the workshop will be available on the Partnership website.
This workshop is being held under the title â€˜Continue the pathway towards recognitionâ€™, but I would like to begin by saying that I would always prefer the plural, that is â€˜pathwaysâ€™. I asked myself whether perhaps the singular was used in the title to suggest that it is important that people work together to move forward on achieving specific aims, so that energies are not dissipated by going off in different directions. On the other hand we also know very well that there is more than one pathway to recognition – a phrase which you can approach at different levels and in different dimensions. I would prefer to say that there are several relevant pathways; we have to identify them and to work in a coordinated way to pursue them in coherent ways, each contributing from our own corners.
What follows is not the â€˜Ten Commandmentsâ€™, but two sets of five points that I would like to make. The first five points are of a general nature, in response to the task of giving the point of view of researchers. The second five points are areas of action that may be worth considering in continuing the pathway towards recognition.
In brief digression at the outset, I am sorry to say that I shall be unable to stay for the whole workshop: formal educational institutions and those who work and study in them cannot always be as flexible as we might ideally wish, so that it is extremely difficult to re-arrange oneâ€™s term-time lecturing schedule once the semester has begun. The main reason for this is because todayâ€™s university students cannot easily change their daily and weekly time schedules â€” at least this is so for those studying educational sciences (who will become, or already are, community education workers, youth workers, counsellors, educational administrators and similar). Many of our students take up degree studies in education after having several years work experience, either in educational and social fields or in quite different fields of work; some of them will already have begun degree studies in another subject, some will have completed a degree in a different field altogether. For a range of reasons they will have decided somewhere in the middle of their lives that they want to change their occupation, or perhaps to begin a serious career for the first time. So, many of our students are older than average and many have to juggle family, employment and studies all at once. But those who are younger and do not have family responsibilities are still very likely to have to earn money to finance their studies. Our studentsâ€™ lives are busy and complicated; when they have organised their course schedule for the semester, they usually find it very difficult to shift pieces around if their professor has to go somewhere else at the time when the course is usually held.
I mention all this because it is indicative of what it means to be a young adult today â€” being young does not stop when you reach the age of majority at 18, after all, which is one reason researchers have begun to use the term â€˜young adultsâ€™ to signify a period of life that stretches across â€˜youthâ€™ and â€˜adulthoodâ€™. Juggling with many unknowns, contingencies and incoherencies is a complex game â€” constructing a life that puts all the pieces together, at least provisionally, is a major challenge. This has consequences for what young people experience and learn as they are growing into young adulthood â€” and it therefore has consequences for what young people need to learn and to be able to do in order to construct and manage a life in a very complex society. We should be thinking about the exploding discussions on competence and competences, both as a concept and as lists drawn up by experts and policymakers, from this point of view â€” from the perspective of the real-life conditions in which young people are positioned and with which they must negotiate and come to terms, hopefully positively and creatively.
Take five: researchersâ€™ point of view
1 Who are the researchers in the first place?
The request to contribute with the researchersâ€™ point of view made me feel rather helpless, because I am not sure who the researchers would be or whose point of view I am supposed to be expressing. I certainly do not know of any collective view of what researchers might think, so I can only really say what I think, which might provide some clues, having worked with lots of other researchers for many years. To be honest, the best answer I can offer with respect to researchersâ€™ point of view on the
recognition of non-formal learning in the youth field is to reply: â€˜I draw a blankâ€™. There is no clear group of researchers who address themselves to this issue. There are individual researchers working in many different disciplines in many different kinds of institutions with many different kinds of interests. Sometimes those things all come together, but most of the time they do not. You could surmise that this is an inevitable characteristic of any specialist field as it develops â€” it takes time to
differentiate out into definable thematic sub-fields â€” as, for example, in the case of European youth research, whose first twenty years or so have been spent establishing the field as such. On the other hand, one would have thought that by now, the topic of non-formal learning would have become a distinct thematic specialism within youth research, rather than just a few individuals who are involved with the topic, but not necessarily as the main focus of their research and writing.
On reflection, I think one reason could be that few youth researchers are specialists in educational science; the majority come from sociology, social psychology and political science â€” this is also true for me, I am a sociologist who has always worked in education, but in fact most sociology of education is about formal education and training settings, processes and outcomes. On the whole, few youth researchers are centrally interested in educational questions at all, so very few are likely to place non-formal learning at the centre of their activities.
It has also proven very difficult to recruit young and upcoming researchers to specialise in this field, because it does not deliver the opportunities and rewards they need to build an academic career. For example, the SCI (Science Citation Index) is becoming an increasingly powerful indicator for evaluating where researchers stand in relation to each other â€” it provides a â€˜points systemâ€™ for publications in specific peer-reviewed journals according to their (apparent) professional prestige, as adjudicated by senior academics. It is not relevant in all disciplines, but it is very important in some (such as psychology) and it is increasingly used in universities and ministries to evaluate individual and institutional performance and quality. These kinds of indicators can make a real difference to whether someone is able to get and keep a job or not â€” most young researchers are on temporary contracts and must ensure they fulfil a set of formal expectations, typically in competition with their peers, in order to stay in the game. To put it simply and clearly: a journal like Coyote is not even on the list of SCI-reputable journals â€” but nor are the peer-reviewed youth research journals that are the main orientation points for European youth research, whereas a publication with the Council of Europe or the European Commission may count amongst the real specialists, but is meaningless for most standard research assessment exercises, whether individual or institutional.
In effect, young youth researchers who invest in and engage with the field are unlikely to receive professional rewards for doing so; this is a demotivation to stay in the field. In a feasibility study I undertook last year for the youth affairs department of the Austrian Ministry for Health, Family and Youth, analysis of the authorship of reports and articles showed that most people had contributed to only one or two research or writing projects and had then disappeared from the youth research field altogether. My hypothesis is that the situation is similar in most, if not all countries in Europe. With the lack of a clear and stable reference group, with the lack of rewards and prospects, it is difficult to establish a stable professional community of belonging and identity â€” except amongst those who are already well-established and do not have to worry about the SCI or the next monthâ€™s income.
If I reflect on the four years that have passed since the first â€˜Pathwaysâ€™ document, then it is quite correct to identify an enormous dynamism, so much so that it is fully justified to ask whether things are happening so quickly that there is hardly time to digest and understand what is happening and what should now happen. The statement is correct with respect to policy and practice in the field of non-formal learning and its recognition. It is incorrect with respect to research into non-formal learning and its recognition. Little serious research has taken place and no coordinated research as taken place. The immediate reason is that there is little dedicated funding to do so, but the more important point is to ask why the priority attached to this topic is so low that little funding is made available. What lies behind the fact that there is little concern to establish a credible evidence base?