GLL – Learning in social action (Foley)

COURSE: Global/Local Learning– GLL

FORUM: on Learning in Social Action (Foley)

TOPICS: local global learning, feminism, empowerment, Popular Education

Step 4 – Part 2: Adult education/learning in civil society organisations and social movements

Keywords: Marxism, popular education, civil society, democracy, oppression, informal learning

Link to blog

Link to forum

Foley, G. (1999) Introduction (chapter 1), in  Foley, G., Learning in Social Action: A Contribution to Understanding Informal Education. London: Zed Books.

  • How does Foley conceptualise ‘education’ and ‘learning’?

Foley presents a similar approach to adult education as we saw in Walters (2006). Walters distinguished between Adult Education and adult Learning, with the former being the hardware of education, and the latter being the software for a more personal, community-related process of knowledge building. Similarly to Walters’ “adult learning”,  Foley recognizes how “some of the most powerful learning occurs as people struggle against oppression, as they struggle to make sense of what is happening to them and to work out ways of doing something about it.” (p. 1) “This conception stands against the received body of adult education theory in the English – speaking world, which focuses on individual learners, educational technique and course provision,” (p.1) basically the premises of Walters’ “adult education”.

In his view of education, Foley recognizes the core role of social and cultural processes. “Adult education is not just a technical process, nor is it value-free. Like any human endeavour, adult education is a complex social and value-creating activity, one, which is shaped by, and which shapes, social structure and culture, and which inevitably involves ethical judgements and choices.” (p.2)

Based on the preceding consideration, Foley suggests a theoretical framework (see below for more comments) that results from the interplay of learning processes, local politics and social forces.

Foley gives preference to informal, incidental learning as a means to uncover and redress oppression through a process of conscientization that reminds me of Freire’s thinking. He writes that, “For people to become actively involved in social movements something had to happen to their consciousness – they had to learn that social action was necessary and possible.” (p.4) The goal of such process of awareness building is the unlearning of dominant ideologies. I would say that this is the primary goal in Foley’s model of learning for social action. It is well summarized in the following quotes:

“The unlearning of dominant, oppressive ideologies and discourses and the learning of oppositional, liberatory ones are central to processes of emancipatory learning.” (p.3)

“These relationships of domination are learned, and can be unlearned.” (p.3)

  • What in your view are the key theoretical (ideological?) perspectives that inform Foley’s conception of the relationship between ‘struggle’ and ‘learning’?

Foley’s ideas are deeply rooted in an anti-capitalist discourse, as he himself writes in his article:

“I argue that the received notion of economic ‘restructuring’ constitutes a myth that masks the actual processes of capitalist reorganization. The current phase of reorganization of the economy, workplaces and education has been misrepresented by policy-makers and many intellectuals, who are promoting simplistic technical solutions to complex social problems. To understand this restructuring and the role of education and learning in it, it is essential to understand capitalism.” (p. 3)

He later restates that “a critique of capitalism must lie at the heart of emancipatory adult theory and practice.” (p.4)

Based on these premises, Foley’s theoretical framework recognizes “the widespread and powerful informal and incidental education and learning that occur around social and political struggle.” (p. 4) He suggest a set of variables that are – in his opinion – concurring in the development of learning and education practices and policies that would eventually dismantle the capitalist exploitative system.

Even if I can agree with him on his list of grievances on the structural and ideological building blocks of capitalism, I disagree with his (and others’) dichotomous view of socio-historical-cultural-economic scenarios. I believe his antagonistic view of history – as it transpires from his article (pp. 4-5) – is not accurate. History was not a sequence of black and white situations. It was full of shades. In my view, Foley re-proposes a trite essentialist interpretation of human history and relevant processes of affirmation. Again, as I wrote with regard to Youngman, (Link to forum ) I prefer a different, more refreshing, systems-based, experimental approach that would leave “old” diatribes behind, not because they cannot be supported by relevant discourses, but simply because it’s time “to move on.”

At the end of his article, Foley makes a concession, in an attempt at opening up his Marxist approach to more serendipitous possibilities: “I also still believe that socialism and the working-class movements are central to this project. But I have come to understand the complexities and problematic nature of popular struggles and movements must be recognized, and that only democratic means can generate emancipatory ends.” (p. 7) His statement does not sound very convincing. Just a few paragraphs later he re-states his position with very strong words: “Marxist political economy, history and cultural analysis are fundamental to my thinking. The Marxism that attracts me is reflexive and empirical. Dogmatism and excessive abstraction in Marxism or in any other problematic repel me.” (p.7)

  • Think about how the authors see the relationship amongst the learning, political, and organisational aspects of the education and training practices they are discussing.

Both articles reflect a participatory idea of education based on the acquisition of a level of conscientization that will eventually liberate the oppressed and lead us into a brighter future.

In both articles, Civil Society is the locus of the necessary learning experience linked to such societal transformation. While Walters and Manicom emphasizes the feminist aspect of the liberation struggle through education, Foley returns to existing class-based discourses of political emancipation. When reading these articles, I am reminded of the danger inherent in what Usher and Edwards (1005) defined as Confessional education: “practices such as journaling, life planning, self-evaluation, portfolios, and counseling that are commonly associated with experiential learning.” They believe that people become “objects of scrutiny” as they follow their educators’ advice on issues of identity definition. (Fenwick, 2001, pp. 41-42) Extensively, when we engage in learning activities to address social and economic imbalances, we should be mindful of the danger of indoctrination, even when that is not intentional. For example, when Foley (p.4) brings up Zimbabwe’s national struggle for “democracy and socialism,” he clearly fails to mention what came out of that struggle.



Marie wrote: (link to forum)

Foley, (1999) states that all analysis is partial and partisan.  Phenomenologically, this can be seen as huge advantage if the action outcome is to create something whole, not oppose something partial.  The more diversity, the deeper and broader the learning. There doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser.  Foley argued that the most significant learning comes from the struggle to overcome oppression.  Extrapolating from what Walters and Manicom are saying though, if you stick very closely to female experience, then really the most significant learning comes from acts of accommodating conflict and diversity within a larger creation.  The only way to get beyond the strait jacket of context (say in a fundamentalist, gender-biased culture), is to create something even bigger, but still, in some way, inclusive.  Women have been given the role of creating nurturing environments for centuries.  We are good at this.

I think the whole Freirian concept of transformative learning has been hijacked by a masculine bias towards seeing conflict as a polarity, as a problem to be solved.  (Despite the language he expressed his ideas through, I don’t think he actually lived his own teachings that way.)  By contrast, if I think about it, women, (in the way we often ventilate about our problems without necessarily seeking immediate solutions, for example), actually seem to find a kind of energy through conflict that we incorporate into our creativity.

I apologize for how garbled this must sound….

Hi you all,

From what I have seen, I believe it’s ok to comment across groups, so please allow me to say that I found Maries’s comments very relevant to our discussion. They definitely do not sound garbled in any way, as they are trying to break through the dichotomous views that I and several others have criticized.

Marie argues in favor of the creation of “something new.” That is what transformation is all about. Bear with me if I sound repetitive, but sometimes out thoughts – scattered as they are across several forums – need to be re-stated. I feel that there is confusion in the way the concept of “transformation” is understood and presented. It is certainly a contested term. Often it’s used in lieu of “change” and “alternative”. I believe transformation goes beyond that. Obama’s campaign slogan was “we want change.” And in fact, he is now trying to change a few things, but he is not going to transform the U.S.. I believe that for transformation to happen we would need an alchemic process that would allow for the elaboration of a different thinking paradigm. Like Marie wrote, “there doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser.” In another forum (link) I have mentioned the TRC, the truth and reconciliation commission as an example of democratic, transformative learning experience. It involved the participation of several layers of civil society, with the support of state agencies, and its outcome – so I believe – was liberatory both at the personal and at the collective levels.

Thanks for reading this. I am really enjoying all your interesting comments.





It feels like we are at a crucial phase in modern history. Pure capitalsim and free market economics have taken a hefty blow over the past 12 months. I understand that this won’t have the slightest influence on the majority of neo-liberal and conservative thinkers, but it has given more credibility and weight to the voices of those who are fighting for an alternative. I also believe that awareness regarding environmental issues is reaching a point of critical mass as well. We shall see whether it’s all “too little, too late´´, but at least global consciousness is starting to reach serious levels.

Hi Geoffrey,

Your post was what you said..empowering, and I thank you for writing such stirring words  that show how the way we perceive things can also make a difference. When reading Youngman, my reaction was different from yours, and not because I like to wrap myself in pessimism and gloomy thoughts. I believe it’s important that we discuss a lot of perspectives, Youngman’s included. As I mentioned in several posts, my take is that his is just one kind of analysis, one that reiterates existing discourses based on the juxtaposition of capitalism vs. Marxism, Somehow, and this is a very personal response of mine, his thread of thoughts does not touch me as deeply as it does touch others. In a sense, without detracting from the value of his analysis and the contribution that that has made to our understanding of issues of oppression, to me it sounds a bit like “politics as usual.” I hope my remarks are not upsetting anyone. I would also like to say, as it was written in several of our forums before, that whatever approach we are looking at, we need to frame it both contextually and temporally. That applies to Freire as much as it applies to the other writers we are studying.



GLL – What’s transformative education?

COURSE: Global/Local Learning– GLL

FORUM: Samarbeta

TOPICS: local global learning, development, Transformation, Adult Education

Step 3 – Part 1: What is Transformative Adult Education?

Link to blog

Link to forum


Youngman, F. (1996) A Transformative Political Economy of Adult Education: An Introduction in Wangoola, P & Youngman, F (eds) Towards a Transformative Political Economy of Adult Education Theoretical and Practical Challenges, USA:LEPS.


Political economy; pedagogy of transformation; capitalism; Marxism; social change; systems thinking; SAP (Structural Adjustment Program); Imperialism; Post-industrial society; civil society; popular education; destatization; state;


Youngman presents a post-Marxist view of the world, where he envisions a transformative pedagogy of adult education that will eventually transcend capitalism. He believes that “The role of adult education in social transformation is to help challenge the dominant ideologies of capitalism and to build a counter hegemony which will embody the ideas and practices that prefigure a new society.” (p. 11)

“The chapters exhibit an opposition to the following: economic exploitation and accompanying divisions between classes and na­tions; imperialism and maldevelopment in the South; uncontrolled industriali­zation and environmental destruction; poverty, inequality, and social domination; the exclusion of the majority from decisions which affect their lives; the processes of globalization and homogenization of cultures; injustice and violence; values of competitive individualism and ideologies of racism, ethnocentrism and sexism.” (p. 10)

“social action for change is conceived not in terms of incremental improvements within existing structures but in terms of fundamental transformation.” (p.10)

To that extend, he advocates for a systems-thinking approach and a “multidimensional analysis” to address the several levels of entwined inequality and oppression, “namely, those deriving from imperialism, class, gender, and race-ethnicity.” (p. 10)


Even though he emphasizes the need to overcome the language of socialism, in order to move beyond capitalism (p. 10), Youngman makes it clear throughout the chapter that the main goal of a transformative pedagogy of adult education is the eradication of capitalism and of its global, imperialistic agenda.

His writing, dating back to the mid-nineties, does not cover important developments that have occurred over the first decade of the new millennium. His insists on analyzing the state of the world through the lenses of the capitalist-Marxist dichotomy, failing to see that that dichotomy itself may be partly to blame for our current conditions. He seems preoccupied in not sounding like an old-fashioned socialist, but does little to suggest a model that would transcend his class-based view of the world. This is not to say that his remarks do not have merit (one can certainly agree on his analysis of the factors of exploitation that affect both development and education), only that his approach does not depart from the perennial struggle between Marxism and capitalism as it unfolded in the 19th and 20th centuries.


First, I want to say that I do believe in education as a transformative force. However, I do not fully agree on the model suggested by Youngman, which I see as stemming from an inherent rejection of capitalism based on established Marxist discourses.

I would prefer a different approach that could leave “old” diatribes behind, not because they cannot be supported by relevant discourses, but simply because I favor a more refreshing and experimental approach. (e.g. Learning Cape).

In a non-performance-driven learning environment, I favor a transformational approach to adult education that would also address the intercultural learning dimension; free the discussion from established, stereotypical essentialist views of cultures; and explore and clarify issues of identity, assumptions, otherization, representation through thick description of discourses and personal narratives. That would include issues of oppression and marginalization as enumerated by Youngman. (see quote above)

Here are two orientations that I believe could influence relevant transformative adult learning approaches: a constructivist transformational orientation, and an enactivist perspective.

Constructivist transformational orientation

Following this orientation, educators could act as promoters of transformation processes. According to Merizow (1991), this approach leads “to a dramatic shift or transformation in the learner’s way of viewing the world.” by “bringing of one’s assumptions, premises, criteria, and schemata into consciousness and vigorously critiquing them.” (Fenwick, 2001, p. 13)

This orientation is suitable to challenge and discuss cultural assumptions through cognitive reflection. However, one has to recognize that not everyone is interested in shifting perspective, or capable of reflecting cognitively, in which cases this approach may feel to some like a piloted operation.

Enactivist orientation

This orientation promotes a new paradigm of learning derived from whole systems thinking. It transcends the confinements of the established world view (what Youngman is not yet ready to do) and its embedded traditional education practices.

This entails an investigative, open-ended approach to learning that is not separate from teaching. The educator is viewed as a communicator, story-maker, and interpreter. (Fenwick, 2001, p. 49) “The educator’s role might be first, a communicator: assisting participants in naming what is unfolding around them and inside them, continually renaming these changing nuances, and unlocking the tenacious grasp of old categories, restrictive or destructive language that strangles emerging possibilities. Second, the educator as story-maker helps trace and meaningfully record the interactions of the actors and objects in the expanding spaces. Third, the educator as interpreter helps all to make community sense of the patterns emerging among these complex systems and understand their own involvements in these patterns of systems.” (Fenwick, 2001, p. 49) In this way, issues of social, gender, national, ethnic, and racial inequality (to mention just a few) would be discussed within a framework that does not forcibly support Marxist-capitalist juxtapositions.

The language used in this perspective is conducive to understanding relations between systems, including the interplay between actors and issues in the education universe. This presides over the co-emergence of an interrelated pattern, in which “each participant’s understandings are entwined with those of other participants, and individual knowledge co-emerges with collective knowledge.” (Fenwick, 2001, p. 49) The Marxist-capitalist dichotomy would not make much sense in such devised learning context.

I view this orientation as linked to the broader, global perspective of whole systems thinking that envisions the emergence of a new thinking paradigm. Accordingly, enactivist educators “can provide feedback loops to a system as it experiments with different patterns leading out from disequilibrium.” (Fenwick, 2001, p.50) This resonates with views of a paradigmal change such as those presented by Dr. Ervin Laszlo, founder of The Club of Budapest, in his work on macroshifts. (Laszlo, 2001)

This perspective, however, may be of difficult application under today’s established educational circumstances, as it requires reframing current paradigms, discourses, and world views.


Youngman has highlighted the role of certain kind of people’s organization. Defining the role of Civil Society, however, entails to first understand what Civil Society is, and how it related to established agencies (state, local government, international institutions). I hope to get a better understanding of this point from our discussion. Here I would like to make some comments of the term “role”. During the last U.S. presidential elections “civil society” crossed over into politics in support of Barak Obama’s “agenda for change.”

After he became president, the “popular movement” (was it really a movement, or just a campaigning strategy?) dropped out of sight, and did not transition into a government role. Something similar happened to the Easter European people’s organizations that were instrumental to the demise of the Communist regimes. I want to add that, when W.G. Bush got elected, he actually brought into government those very interest groups that had helped him get elected. This did not happen in the case of Obama. With regards to these developments, there is also a confusion of terms. Obama rallied around a platform of “change”, but when he got into office, that quickly changed, as he has presented him as a “reformer”, as one that can fix the broken system. This is a contradiction in terms which should stress the importance of clarity in the language we use when addressing education/learning and transformation.


As I mentioned above, transformative orientations are not good for everyone. Does that mean we need ‘consensus” before we can proceed?

I would like to bring up the following three issues, as I believe they have a huge impact on the effectiveness of adult learning transformational practice

Governmentability: defined by Foucault (1991) as “A form of power that is exercised through an ensemble of institutions, procedures, analyses, and reflections, which results in the formation of a specific governmental apparatus.” (Fenwick, p. 42)

Self-subjugation: Chappell et al (2003) recognize that in many traditions the existing social frameworks remain unchallenged, as individual identities remain anchored in established socio-cultural assumptions. This in turn perpetuates issues of subjugation and domination resting on “false consciousness.” It is important to recognize this, as often established discourses override one’s awareness of mechanism of power and discrimination. (p.6)

Confessional education: defined by Usher and Edwards (1995) as “practices such as journaling, life planning, self-evaluation, portfolios, and counseling that are commonly associated with experiential learning.” They believe that people become “objects of scrutiny” as they follow their educators’ advice on issues of identity definition. (Fenwick, 2001, pp. 41-42)

When we discuss transformative education we also need to be mindful of the educators’ role and how that may concur in reinforcing entrenched patters of discrimination and inequality.


Chappelll, C., Rhodes, C., Solomon, N., Tennant, M. and Yates, L. (2003) “Selfwork” in Reconstructing the Lifelong Learner: Pedagogy and identity in individual, organisational and social change (2003) by C. Chappelll, C. Rhodes, N. Solomon, M. Tennant & L. Yates Routledge Falmer, London

Fenwick, T. (2001) “Experiential Learning: A Theoretical Critique from Five Perspectives” Information Series No 385, ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career and Vocational Education now located at the Centre for Education & Training for Employment at Ohio State University, accessed on June 2, 2009 at

Laszlo, E. (2001). Macroshift: Navigating the transformation to a sustainable world. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

Mezirow, J. (1991) Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Usher, R., and Edwards, R. “Confessing All? A ‘Postmodern’ Guide to the Guidance and Counselling of Adult Learners.” Studies in the Education of Adults 27, no. 1 (April 1995): 9-23. (ERIC No. EJ 504 441)

>>>>>>>>>>>>>FORUM DISCUSSION<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Ginger Norwood wrote:

The role of adult education in social transformation is to help challenge the dominant ideologies of capitalism [or power, or imperialism or or ] and to build a counterhegemony which will embody the ideas and practices that prefigure a new society.” (11)  I’ve been pondering the idea of whether adult education can be both transformational and initiated by the State, and this sentence would make me say no.

This is a point that I also raised in my post. I actually challenged Youngman’s view of transformation as being too concerned with “fighting capitalism.” I believe that such view keeps us inside a repetitive loop of thinking based on the Marxism-Capitalism dichotomy. Youngman’s article does not mention that the 90’s saw a (re)birth of discussions/activities/meetings/literature/experiments/education enterprises/exchange programs that transcended such dichotomy, although they recognized the factors of discrimination/exclusion/exploitation mentioned in Youngman’s writings. This new movement for change and transformation emerged – so I like to believe – from the need to step beyond what had brought us to where we are now, which includes also the perennial diatribe between communism and capitalism (which are actually part of the same worldview). In previous posts I mentioned David Korten as one of those that have been engaged in such approach, but also Vandana Shiva, Ervin Lazslo and many many others.

Ginger Norwood wrote:

It reminds me of Audre Lorde’s famous quote ‘the masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ – the State, as an institution, is interested in preservation, and transformative education implies critiquing the very power that preservation yields.

The quote, like many quotes, may refer to a specific situation, but I am not sure it can be generalized to all contexts. As an example, I remember when Gorbachev introduced his policies of Perestroika and Glasnost. I believe he did that as a way to “reform” the Soviet Union. Instead, his intervention unleashed the demise of his own state, which ceased to exist just a few years later. The same happened when Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk agreed on dismantling Apartheid and, with it, the old South Africa. There is no doubt in my mind that they both knew they were taking a leap of faith and shelving the old system for good.



Here is a paper on perestroika and glasnost and Gorbachev’s “reform” of education:


Elizabeth Saunders wrote:
From the little history I have learned about Hilton Head, it would seem like an example of a sector of civil society having succeeded in maintaining the white dominated way of life, being more right-wing and conservative than the State. This group’s values, life style and behaviour certainly represent a barrier to societal transformation.


Anne, what a great post! Your considerations about that place remind us that class transcends borders. It also reminds me of something I thought when I first came to the U.S. and people were wondering why it was taking the white minority in South Africa so long to relinquish Apartheid. I though that, unfortunately, the same people who were asking that of white South Africans, would have been by far less adamant at relinquishing their privileges in this very U.S. of A. Around the same time, people were asking of the Russians to just dump their “old system” and embrace the glory of Capitalism. Just like that. Now I have been here long enough to know that, when it comes to making NOTICEABLE social changes, Americans are very good at dragging their feet (not all of them, of course. I am talking about societal change)  Health Care “reform”, public transport, building codes, are just some of many examples I could come up with.

At that time I also thought – whether I was right, I don’t know – that the difference between Apartheid-era South Africa and the States was that discrimination in South Africa was codified into the law, whereas the U.S. had a democratic framework. But at the end of the day I couldn’t fail to think that the two countries shared a history of oppression and imperial conquests. Both countries considered territorial expansion as a God-blessed mission. (In downtown San Francisco explicit references to “the American Empire” are visible on several monuments for everyone to ponder on.) The Voortrekkers saga reminds me a lot of the theory of Manifest destiny and the conquer of the frontier so loved in certain American circles. There was – however – a difference. While in U.S. Native Americans were subject to genocide because they were not willing nor able to integrate into a Western-style exploitative system, in South Africa the colonists found a way to integrate the autochthonous population into the perverse economic system that was decades later to become codified as Apartheid.

I am therefore not surprised to hear your story about Hilton Head.



Marie wrote:

My question is: as an era ends and another begins, when changes are happening to us all so rapidly, who educates the educators?

Hi Marie,

I hear you, and share your concern. I believe – like in our case in the ALGC – we are actually educating ourselves. But of course, this is a rather simple way to answer your question.

I have a link to share. It is an article I found at the Linköping University on-line library ( you will need to log on at Linköping University Library to access this:

A Phenomenological Study of the Development of University Educators’ Critical Consciousness

Journal of College Student Development | May 1, 2007| Landreman, Lisa M; Rasmussen, Christopher J; King, Patricia M; Jiang, Cindy Xinquan

The abstract says that “The purpose of this phenomenological study was to explore how multicultural educators known for their expertise in this area acquired the capacity to effectively serve in this role and to explore the kinds of experiences that facilitated these educators’ visions of social justice.”

Click here to go to the file:

A Phenomenological Study of the Development of University Educators’ Critical Consciousness.pdf

This article emphases the use of self-reflection, aha moments (remember Brookfield and Chappel and our discussions on reflective teaching/learning?) to engage in social justice action and coalition building through the development of critical consciousness. (basically Freire’s views). Although I have just taken a quick look at the article, I have the feeling that it connects several aspects of my learning in the ALGC by waving together Freire with issues of intercultural dimension of globalized society (the work of M. Bennett on Ethnorelativism is cited).

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