9 Dec 2022

Learning for Being and Becoming – What Does ‘Success’ Mean in Adult, Community and Further Education?

Journal cover that reads The Irish Journal of Adult and Community Education: The Adult Learner 2022

AONTAS recently launched the 2022 edition of The Adult Learner, our peer-reviewed journal published annually since the mid-80s. The Journal brings together new and experienced authors, from adult education practice and academia alike, to examine issues of critical importance to adult education in Ireland.

You can download The Adult Learner now.

“I determine my success by how I cope” - that was the succinct message from adult learner Noel Hanrahan, speaking at the recent launch of AONTAS’ peer-reviewed Journal, The Adult Learner. The 2022 edition focuses on ‘Measuring Success in Adult, Community and Further Education’, and what ‘success’ means beyond traditional metrics such as learner progression rates and attainment of qualifications. As Journal editor Rosemary Moreland puts it in her foreword, “In times of rising cost of living, low wages and insecure employment, the emphasis on adult learning is on accredited education and training, that can lead to employment and career development or transition. This contributes to a narrow focus on how we measure adult learning, where success is limited to those who complete a qualification and can contribute to the economic development of society.” Instead, the Journal explores “the myriad of ways in which adult learning contributes positively to mental and physical health, personal and collective development of individuals and society”.

Reimagining 'Success' for Learners and Educators

Noel Hanrahan embodied this positive contribution of adult learning, in his keynote speech at the online launch of the Journal on 21 November 2022. Noel returned to adult learning in Limerick and Clare ETB three-and-a-half years ago, taking courses on confidence and personal effectiveness. These were “building blocks for what has become a transformative journey”, and enabled him to confront his own past traumas, mind his mental health, and even consider dating once more. As a result, he said, “taking joy in coping and what that means to me is a wonderful new string to my bow. I bring my newly found confidence with me. (Success) is a subject up to a few years ago I would simply have thought did not apply to me”.

Expanding on this theme, Professor of Transformative Learning Arjen Wals spoke about the need for educators to “reimagine and maybe reframe what success means. I think a lot of education is looking at helping the economy grow, and even personal growth has become, in a way, a commodity – all about being flexible workers who can be consumers 24 hours, seven days a week. We are constantly being tempted to participate in activities that are fundamentally unsustainable from a social, ecological and even economic point of view. (...Instead, we should focus on) learning for being and becoming, and the deeper learning within ourselves and how we relate to the wider world. These things are so important but not easily measured. So it’s more about sensing and looking for signs of empathy, compassion, agency, commitment. This maybe requires that we spend more time on design principles for learning environments that invite these types of qualities.”

Success Explored in The Adult Learner Journal

Following the keynote speeches, a range of contributors to the Journal gave overviews of their articles, grouped under five themes:  

‘Liz O’Sullivan—A Lifelong Adult Educator’ and ‘Communities of Practice and Communities in Practice: A Case Study of the Co-Creation of an Adult Education Family Support Network Programme’

‘Psychological Capital: The Missing Link’ and ‘Measuring Success in Adult Education: Recognising Diverse Outcomes from a Diverse Sector’

‘Community Education for Human Rights and Social Inclusion: An Cosán’s Right to Work Education Project’ and ‘Reading Assessment System in ESOL Courses for Low-Literate Learners’

‘Reflections from Previous Chair of ALJ and CEO of AONTAS, Niamh O’Reilly’ and ‘Part-Time Learners’ Perceptions of Success During ERT’

‘Towards Critical, Engaged, Antiracist Learning Environments’.


You can watch the launch recording on our YouTube channel. 

Success and Meaningful Measurement

Participants then broke into facilitated group discussions to explore each theme further. A notable common thread was that while individual educators can recognise the validity of multiple definitions of success, it can be challenging to ‘measure’ these meaningfully. It can be even more difficult to synthesise and present these types of success to others.

In the Inclusion and Human Rights discussion group for example, speaking about participation initiatives such as YouthReach, one contributor noted that “If you trust the stakeholders, then the fact the participants are still engaging in the programme is a success. But the system doesn’t trust and therefore it demands metrics to prove the work.”  

The Measuring Success group discussed the merits of ‘borrowing’ metrics and frameworks from other sectors – such as the concept of psychological capital -  but warned that these must be interrogated carefully before use, as they may have significantly different conceptual underpinnings than those of adult education.

In the Adult Learning for Social Transformation group, the consensus was that Learner Voice is an essential and powerful tool for both measuring and articulating success; “we talked about reflective practice for learners and how enabling learners to share their stories, to vocalise what they've achieved, is one of the best advertisements for the work and for adult learning.”

Finally, facilitator David Mallows sounded a resonant note of encouragement: “Adult educators may not have the power to change these massive institutional structures but we can inform people about them and that empowers others to challenge these. There is a difference between the individual and the organisation. The individual can and should seek after certain educational experiences and should not be judged for this.”  

The launch ended with sincere thanks from the CEO of AONTAS, Dearbháil Lawless, to all contributors to The Adult Learner, and to the editorial board – including previous CEO Niamh O’Reilly - for their tireless work throughout the year.

We in AONTAS are immensely appreciative of the level of engagement and commitment shown by all involved in the launch of the Adult Learner Journal. We would like to thank all participants for taking part in the discussions, and continuing to explore alternatives to traditional metrics of success.  

Visit our Publications section to download all editions of The Adult Learner from 1985 to 1922.

If you would like to contribute to a future edition, visit our Adult Leaner Journal section to learn more or register for a Writers’ Workshop.