An adult learner is anyone over the age of about 16. A day in the life of the adult learner is, broadly speaking, eight hours for work, eight hours for personal, family, community and social life and eight hours for rest Adult education respects each of those segments, with knowledge, values, open-mindedness and development for each segment.

Adult education in Ireland emerged in various cracks and crevices over the years, often aligned to what was happening in other places, particularly in Latin America (with the literacy and critical pedagogy movement), in the United States (with the civil rights and women’s movement) and Europe (the tradition of workers’ education and education for civil society).

Adult education emerged from the vision for education for the individual and common good, rather than social mobility or professional and occupational training. It can encompass preparation for employment and work, as part of an overall project on human and social development. That is, adult education is for adult learners and educators to bring about personal and social transformation.

From RTÉ Radio One's A Living Word, poet James Harpur on the extra-curricular essence of an adult education

Firstly, it is a way of working with adults through democratic practice, challenging the traditional set-up of the knowledgeable teacher and passive learner. Democratic practice ensures that everyone has a voice and the educators’ role is to facilitate this, in order to co-create knowledge through dialogue in the learning environment, rather than teaching a series of facts and opinions to be memorised and regurgitated by the learners.

The knowledge base of adult education classes is more likely to be interdisciplinary, without strict boundaries between subjects. For example, a study of English or psychology, history or maths, will endeavour to connect the social, the personal, the economy and the environment with race, class and gender analysis. Most of all, life experience is understood to be a vital element in learning. Reflecting on that experience is both analytical, enabling learners to understand their experience at a deeper level, and capable of imagining and creating new knowledge that can be shared.

For example, people with disabilities do not see themselves as "invalids" or "handicapped", although these terms have prevailed for ages. The knowledge that was developed in disability studies, coming from the experience of people with disabilities, has brought about a profound change in the way society perceives people with disabilities. This is the result of adult learning. Further, adult educators espouse an emancipatory attitude towards adult learners, accepting that all humans are created equal and an equal society is better for everyone. A key role of adult education is to support this.

From RTÉ Archives, John Bowman reports for Learning for Life on adult education in Tallaght in 1975

In addition, adult education includes formal accredited learning in Further Education, the community and adult education centres. Non-formal, which is not accredited, includes classes for yoga, creative writing, how to use your mobile phone and so on. And informal, which takes places in contexts that is outside a specific learning environment, such as parent and toddler groups, comedy shows such as Kilkenomics, libraries, radio -especially RTÉ Radio One- TV, and so on.

Finally, adult education is a model of democracy and participation. It aims to enable everyone to take part, to develop their ideas and to share their learning for the good of their community.

These dimensions set it apart from some other education models, particularly exam-based models and models that re-enforce rather than challenge social inequality. The quest to contest and overturn inequality is a profound confrontation to sincerely held beliefs about the hierarchal structure of society. The belief in the natural order of superiority and inferiority is perpetuated by the reliance on science and education, for example, the superiority of certain professions, the possibility of social mobility and the value of a meritocratic system. The impact of this reliance on these elements means that huge swathes of people are disenfranchised, marginalised, alienated and oppressed.

A recent report from UNICEF shows that Ireland seriously lags behind when it comes to specific groups, including travellers, immigrants, homeless children and low-income families and communities. However, the headline is a bit misleading. This implies that the education system is successful in achieving equality, with the exception of a minority from specific groups. This ignores the obvious problem that when individuals from these groups drop out of school, the remaining cohort, who stay in school, may do quite well. Not only are there distinct groupings left languishing, with low literacy levels, low participation in society, low self-esteem, but schools and society  seem to benefit from their absence, with better results in terms of the optics of equality.

In some ways, adult education takes on a remedial role to redress the failure of schooling and social supports for these marginalised groups. But it also has another vital role. Adult learning is for everyone, in order to develop the awareness about the social factors which create unfairness and inequality in the first place, and to develop enriching ways of addressing them.

By Brid Connolly, Department of Adult and Community Education, Maynooth University.