“Do something outside your comfort zone – you might enjoy it!”: New Creativity Takes Courage Learners As Leaders Programme

3 Aug 2022
"Learners As Leaders" is a learner-centred flexible programme that brings adult learners together from across Ireland, empowering them to share their stories, build their skills, and become advocates for adult and community education, and for their communities. This July and August, AONTAS EU Projects Officer Ecem Akarca, Project Officer for Capacity Building Conor Thompson, and Communications Officer Kate Smyth are running the programme with the theme of "Creativity Takes Courage", which includes a painting class!

Learning online can bring advantages and challenges. Last week, twelve participants on our latest Learners As Leaders programme told us how much they enjoyed doing a painting class through Zoom. Many were nervous, and had not painted since school, or had never painted. But they joined us anyway and, as one participant commented, “sometimes you just don’t know what you’re interested in.”

Each learner received paints and supplies in the post in advance, and we all tuned in for a session facilitated by Paint and Prosecco (without the prosecco) to paint lions, all from our own homes across the country! We run the Learners As Leaders programme twice a year through the European Agenda for Adult Learning, and every time there is a different theme. The programme provides a platform for learners to share their experiences and ideas so that they can help shape how learning is delivered, and share the benefits of learning with other people in their communities or families.

Image of a canvas with a painting of a lion against a background showing the Irish countryside, with a hill and lake and cloudy sky

This year, we decided on the theme of “Creativity Takes Courage” – a quote from French artist Henri Matisse – because the main session of the programme was an online painting class, and because it takes courage to join a class or course, to show your creativity, to be vulnerable, to open up to the possibility of “getting it wrong.”

According to one participant, the programme actually helped them to challenge that idea of right and wrong in learning, and to think of making mistakes as part of a growing experience: “You learn more by getting it wrong,” he said. It helps developing your curiosity and, he said, “getting outside your comfort zone is a good thing.”

This was reflected by another participant, who told us that anyone thinking about getting back to learning should do it: “Do something outside your comfort zone – you might enjoy it.” She said the fact that she enjoyed the painting session through Zoom “proves you should push the boundaries.”

The facilitator showed participants how to paint their lion, providing tips on how to sketch the image first, and then how to build up the painting, using different colours and brushes for different sections. He emphasised the importance of “creative interpretation” when painting, and stressed that no two paintings will be alike and that is a good thing.

This helped to ease participants’ sense of self-doubt or unease at the process. One learner reported that she was apprehensive about the session beforehand. “But I’ve broken that barrier in my mind,” she said, and felt she would now be more confident with online learning.

While digital learning was the only option available for most of the last two and a half years, now many are choosing to return to in-person learning. Learners often find this more beneficial as it provides a sense of community and inter-personal contact. It gets people out of the house. It is also often easier to learn, to ask questions, or to maintain attention in an in-person learning environment.

However, remote or online learning is still a valuable option for many. This can be to do with geographical location, and we had learners join the “Creativity Takes Courage” programme from across the country, from Clare to Donegal to Wicklow. Online learning can also be a good option for older people or those with health concerns. COVID-19 is still with us, and some people are not yet comfortable about returning to in-person classes. It can also be helpful for those with caring responsibilities or demands on their time, such as part-time or full-time work. One participant on the programme was minding her grandchild, who decided to paint along with us (showing the intergenerational power of learning!)

Several of the learners expressed surprise at how much they enjoyed the experience, given how nervous they were beforehand. One participant said she felt “anticipatory dread” the night before, but then asked herself: “What’s the worst that could happen?” She said that the tone of the session was warm and friendly, and it helped that the AONTAS team and the facilitator all took part in the painting sessions.

Another learner said that she had been apprehensive. “But I’ve broken the barriers in my mind,” she stated. Online learning is important for her because she has a degenerative disease and at some stage, “the digital world will be my world.”

One participant described it as “extraordinary” that people could get together online, from all across Ireland, for a facilitated painting course. He was energised by the experience and spoke about the boost it provides. Similarly, another learner stated that it was “great fun and fun is really important in learning.”

“But there’s a difference between academic learning and creative learning,” another participant commented. She said that in academic learning, there is no fun, while in a session like this one fun is part of the process.

Findings from the programme are still being developed, and there is a third and final session next week for this year. However a couple of preliminary findings include:

The importance of setting the tone with learners, including holding ice-breaker sessions, break-out discussions, gathering feedback, and, importantly, letting the learners’ needs guide how the programme or course is structured and delivered

Working towards making academic learning, or education for skills or employment, more fun and engaging, and more of an enjoyable experience. Education can be designed to achieve a goal for learners, while also being an enjoyable experience and a warm, encouraging, positive environment. Positive reinforcement works much more effectively than negative reinforcement, especially when encouraging learners to keep coming back and keep logging on, and especially in consideration of other difficulties and barriers they may face, such as health issues or caring responsibilities. If we can make learning accessible, engaging and fun, people will want to learn.

On 9th August, we will hold a further session with the group to gather more feedback and ask their ideas about how online learning can be improved. Watch this space for more.

Click here to find out more about last year’s Learners As Leaders programme.

This programme is funded through the New European Agenda for Adult Learning

For more information, contact our Ecem Akarca, AONTAS EU Projects Officer, at:   

Written by Dr Kate Smyth, AONTAS Communications Officer