Joaquim Barrio, Mame Darra Ndiaye and Bernat Oró from the Adult School of La Verneda-Sant Martí shared with EPALE the school's successful approach to creating effective classrooms with age-diverse learners.
Generations learn from each other
During the first few days of class, the older students in the course for Secondary Education Certificate used to be the most punctual ones and they would normally sit in the first row. At the same time, the younger ones used to be late and they would normally sit at the far back of the classroom. They would talk loudly during class and disturb the older students. But one day the older students decided to take different seats. This way, when the younger students came in late, they had to take the remaining seats and mix with the others. On that day, everything changed. Suddenly, the learning environment evolved for the better.
Some of the younger students had so much enthusiasm and interest in learning that they would pass it on to the rest of the group while others would share new study techniques, skills or practical knowledge. Together, they managed to advance in their academic goals. They all learnt a lot because they all helped each other. And apart from the Secondary Education Certificate, almost without realizing it, they also gained solidarity and friendship.
Say goodbye to old methods
Nowadays, we need to get over the traditional adult education models based on the concept of compensatory education. Oftentimes, educational institutions design educational offers for adults based merely on covering the needs of young people who dropped out of school (like Second Chance Schools). This happens because of personal and professional prejudices that can separate younger and older people within the same group of students. We still have to work on this issue in order to eliminate this old educational model that limits the scope of adult education.
Many social and educational movements led by students, teachers or even some institutions like the European Commission or UNESCO, have argued about the global or transformational dimension of lifelong learning. Also, researchers in psychology or neuroscience have proved that
it is wrong to associate older persons’ age with loss of intelligence or specific life choices and interests.
There are plenty of examples of this in our school too. Last year, we started Russian classes. The first person who enrolled was an 84-year-old woman who wanted to learn the language because her granddaughter was dating a Russian man and she wanted to communicate with him. The second person was a young man that wanted to learn the language for travelling purposes. Another student was an unemployed middle-aged woman who wanted to enhance her employability. Just like we cannot divide students based on gender or culture, we shouldn’t do it based on their age. Only then can adult education become a space for intergenerational dialogue.
In the Adult School of La Verneda-Sant Martí, classes are organised in interactive groups. This way of organising gets the best results in both instrumental knowledge and social cohesion, according to the only research in social sciences and humanities that was included in the list of the ten most successful research papers in the European Commission’s sixth Framework Programme: Includ-ED. Strategies for inclusion and social cohesion in Europe from education. This successful approach promotes learning for all through grouping people of different age, knowledge, gender, culture, etc. The aim is to promote collaboration in order for learners to help each other to understand and learn how to do an activity, and have a fruitful dialogue.
I have been with elder people who helped me, guided me, explained their lives and their experiences to me, and for me it was a reason to keep going, to continue with my studies and everything. (...) If there is something that’s difficult to me, they help me and we help each other. (...) This has always been the pillar of this school – the support between classmates – and this helps us all to improve. One learns from the other, and I like this a lot.
This is how Brahim explains it, a young Saharan refugee who came to the school to learn how to read and write, and who is now about to complete his secondary education. The egalitarian dialogue that takes place in his class is combined with learners’ cultural intelligence, and these are two of the seven principles of dialogic learning. Cultural intelligence is the combination of academic intelligence (the one we use to solve an exercise in class), practical intelligence (which we learn from life experiences) and communicative intelligence (the one we use to solve problems by talking with other people). This principle proves that everyone, regardless of their age, has a lot of cultural intelligence. Every individual has one type of intelligence more developed than the other, and through dialogue everyone’s knowledge can be maximised.
Carlos had worked in the construction field and, when he was 50, he decided to get a certificate for secondary education in the Adult School. His classmates and teachers encouraged him to go further and he is now studying Electronic Engineering and Telecommunications at the University of Barcelona:
There is something that we have all accepted as a truth: when we are older, we are not smart enough to study. I mean, [this is] a complete lie. When we are young, our head is all over the place; we are not really focused, and now at this age… The years have taught us many things without us even realising it, and later when you start studying, you realise that you know more than you thought.
The importance of family
Another Successful Educational Action evaluated in the European project Includ-ED is family education. The Adult School of La Verneda-Sant Martí offers instrumental training (English, Catalan, Spanish, mathematics, literacy, ICT courses…) in local primary schools for the students’ families. This way, the educational offer goes beyond the walls of the school and is even more open to the community. Research shows that when children’s family is involved in their education, this has a direct impact on their academic performance. If they see their fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers studying alongside them, then their motivation increases, as Jie says:
He compares himself to me: ‘I have to study and my mom too’. It is a way of sharing. If I challenge him to do his homework, I also have to do it. Sometimes, when I have a doubt, I ask him and he asks me as well.
With Successful Educational Actions and dialogic learning, through adult education, we make it possible for intergenerational solidarity to be extended beyond schools, to people’s homes and other areas. If we overcome ageism, which is so present in our societies, we can keep our school environments and relationships forever young, as Paulo Freire said:
The ideal, however, is to add, to the readiness of youth that the young possess, the collected wisdom of the old who have stayed young.
The Learning Community Adult School of La Verneda St. Marti is a pluralistic democratic project, where decisions are taken by everyone involved in the community through participation, dialogue and consensus. It is a school with more than 2,000 participants of different ages (over 18 years old) and from different cultures from all around the world. It is open every day of the week (including weekends) from morning to evening. The work and results of the school have received significant international, national and local recognition, and have influenced university research that defines and theorises future educational practices. The last awards the school has won are: Democratic Compromise (2013, Catalan Government), Barcelona Associations Award (2010, Barcelona City Council) Solidarity Award (2007, Catalan Institute of Human Rights). Six books have been published and twenty doctoral theses have been written about our experience, as well as ten other doctoral theses where the school is mentioned as a successful practice. The school experience has been cited in Harvard Educational Review.
Joaquim Barrio – Volunteer from the Adult School of la Verneda Sant Martí. He graduated from the Adult School when he retired. He later graduated from University with a degree in Sociology. Later he got a master’s degree in Employment and Social Policy. His final thesis was on the perceptions about ageism in the current society.
Mame Darra Ndiaye – Participant from the Adult School of La Verneda Sant Martí since two years ago. Spanish student, volunteer in French classes and member of the board of Heura Women Association. Currently she is studying Vocational Education and Training on Administrative Management.
Bernat Oró – Coordinator of Adult School of La Verneda Sant Martí.