Adult Learning at the Nexus of Life Course, Work & Transitions

Wednesday, September 27th

Unless stated differently, all sessions take place in room NG 1.741 on the first upper level (1. OG) of the Side Building (Nebengebäude) of the IG-Farben Building on Goethe University’s Westend Campus. Please see the map in Logistics for details on how to find the venue. For a printable version of the program please see here.

12:00 p.m.


1:00 p.m.

Symposium Opening

Opening remarks by Sabine Andresen, Dean of the Faculty of Educational Sciences, Goethe University Frankfurt.

Adult learning at the Nexus of Life Course, Work, and Transitions: Some Remarks on the Emergence of an Idea. Christiane Hof, Goethe University Frankfurt.

1:45 p.m.

What is Learning For? Changing Relations of the Past and the Future in the Present

Jean Lave

University of California, Berkeley, USA

A decade ago, I joined colleagues in Belo Horizonte and Copenhagen to invent a collective Brazilian-Danish Workshop. We are now finishing a book of our long theoretical/ethnographic research collaboration. Early on we called the book “Beyond Situated Learning.” But a lot has changed over the years. Theoretically — in the spirit of situated learning — we have pursued a critical historical/political relational theory. Ethnographically — a dozen or so members of the Workshop have produced ethnographic studies of bakers’ apprentices in Denmark, sex workers in Belo Horizonte, bank clerks in Bologna and a rock band in Arhus as it creates music. Others are studies of how children learn (not) to take part in social life at school in Denmark, and (not) to do household chores in Brazil; how children learn to play soccer on the streets of Belo Horizonte but try not to be taught soccer in school; and studies of alienated young people in a gang exit program, an alternative youth center and production schools in Denmark. My part of our project explores the counter-hegemonic, disalienating, workshop-mediated practices of learning in Danish production schools. Theoretical inspiration has come from Gramsci’s and Lefebvre’s dialectical relational method of inquiry.

3:00 p.m.

Coffee Break

3:30 p.m.

Learning in Transitions: Introductory Remarks from a Biography Research Perspective

Christiane Hof &
Michael Bernhard

Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany

In my contribution, I discuss the possibilities of an approach to adult learning, and particularly the idea of learning in transitions, which is informed by theoretical and methodological concepts of biographical research. The outline of the biographical approach will be presented by focusing on two of its central aspects: first, the complex processuality of biographies and learning, and second, the nexus of individual learning with the social context in which it is embedded. By focusing these two aspects, the specific potential of biography research for new empirical insights and also for the theoretical discussion on adult learning can be highlighted. Certainly, there is a general consensus in adult education research that learning is seen as a process, located in social contexts. Nevertheless, these aspects are often neglected, simplified, overlooked and even countered by an individualizing view in many studies on learning in the life-course as well as in educational practice and policy.

The benefits of the biographical approach will be demonstrated by using examples taken from a research project on students’ learning experiences and biographies, and more specifically by examining the relationship between education and work in students’ life stories. This relation is often seen as a consecutive transition between two separate spheres. First of all, we find this idea in the curricula and idealized objectives of higher education, which suppose that, after a phase of studying, the degree qualifies and entitles to a subsequent working life. There is a similar idea also in educational research, for learning processes are often examined along this curriculum, which is why Theodor Schulze spoke of “curricular learning” (1993). According to the curricular idea, transitions in learning biographies are usually seen as sequential “steps” – individually taken – from here to there and from now to then.

In contrast, our interviews conducted with students of educational science show that many of them are already working parallel to their studies, not infrequently also in pedagogical fields. Moreover, in their biographical perspectives as well as in their everyday lives, these students establish manifold connections between the two fields. These observations suggest that the transitions between education and work are fluid and that the two areas are not isolated from each other but interpenetrate in many ways.

The assumption that these intertwined relations also affect the learning processes of the subjects is more than obvious. The question of how this can be reconstructed through the analysis of biographical narratives will be at the core of my lecture.

4:00 p.m.

Coffee Break

4:30 p.m.

The Role of Work: Understanding Learning Experiences in Higher Education Beyond the Institution

Flora Petrik

University of Tübingen, Germany

This paper aims at better understanding the interrelations of life course, work, and transitions by exploring learning experiences from the biographical perspective of first-generation students. Studies on higher education have shown that the transition to university bears the risk of social exclusion and thus reproducing social inequalities (Finnegan, Merrill & Thunborg 2014). While the challenges for those who are the first in their family to attend university have been well described (Bathmaker et al. 2016, Reay, Crozier & Clayton 2010), little attention has yet been paid to their learning beyond institutions of further and continuing education, e. g. in the context of work. Not only are students without academic family backgrounds more prone to enter term-time employment (Lessky & Unger 2022), but literature shows that they are more likely to have regular prior work experience (Hauschildt et al. 2021).

Combining work and studies can not only create challenges, but also learning experiences. Therefore, my contribution raises the questions: What role do work-related learning experiences play in transitions to university? How are these processes of learning shaped, produced and experienced? In what sense do they relate to social mobility? For this purpose, I build on a theoretical framework that combines the notion of transitions as relationally constituted (Walther, Stauber & Settersten 2022) with biographical perspectives on learning processes (Dausien 2008). Drawing on 24 biographical case studies that have been produced over the course of three years (2019-2022) across universities in Austria and Germany (n=4), the paper points to the temporal, spatial and affective situatedness of work-related adult learning. I conclude by discussing how these perspectives on work-related learning experiences further a better understanding of learning in relation to social inequality and higher education.

5:30 p.m.

Wrap of Day One

5:45 p.m.

Optional Campus Walk

Welcome to Goethe University’s Westend Campus which together with the Riedberg Campus, where the natural sciences are located, and the University Clinic in Niederrad, the Westend Campus has been one of the university’s three main locations since 2001. However, the history of the area and the buildings that you see today runs much deeper, evolving from 14th century castle grounds to the once largest office building in Europe used by the infamous I.G. Farben AG and later as the “Pentagon of Europe” by General Eisenhower. We invite you to explore the complex history of this campus at your leisure by using the handout provided.

7:00 p.m.


Thursday, September 28th

9:00 a.m.

Ontogeny and Worklife: Educative Experiences, Personal Curriculum and Epistemologies

Stephen Billett

Griffith University, Australia

Working life is often central to adults’ subjectivities, learning and development across its lengthening span, the transitions to be negotiated and reconciliations of personal, institutional and brute factors that they suggest. Founded within a cultural psychological framing and drawing upon earlier and current worklife history studies, this contribution offers some bases for understanding adult learning and ontogenetic development within and across working lives. Advanced through a consideration of a duality between affordances of brute and societal factors, on the one hand, and personal processes of construal and construction of experiencing premised upon pre-mediate experiences, on the other, three explanatory concepts are proposed. First is a broadened conception of what constitutes educative experiences as afforded through work, educational institutions, community and by familiars. Second are personal curriculum that captures and articulates individuals’ pathways of experiences and experiencing across working life, that captures the transitions and negotiations that arise. Thirdly are adults’ person epistemologies that are both a product of and contribute to the learning and development across the span of working lives. This contribution progresses by elaborating the key concepts of affordances and engagement and the dependence between them, making distinctions between learning and development, and the centrality of work life transitions as means to understand and support adults’ learning. This followed by elaborations of the explanatory concepts of educative experiences, personal curriculums and epistemologies. Beyond their explanatory worth, they provide focuses for procedural responses to enhance, guide and support adults’ learning and development across working lives.

10:00 p.m.

Coffee Break

10:30 a.m.

On the Importance of Transitions in Iterative Educational Processes: Transitions between Education and Employment in the Context of Vocationality and Professionalism

Katrin Kraus

University of Zurich, Switzerland

This contribution deals with work-oriented education and focuses on the two concepts of vocationality and professionalism. Based on an understanding of these two concepts, the importance of an interplay between experiential and theory-based learning for the development of vocational and professional competences respectively is demonstrated. The interplay between these two forms of learning is conceptualised as “learning in the mode of iteration” (“Iterative Bildung”) and involves temporal and spatial iterations between different forms of education. The related transitions between different forms, spaces and times of learning and their connection with occupation are the focus of the contribution. In a first part, the spatial dimension of iteration is elaborated and its significance as well as the challenges of transitions in building competences are explained. In this part, the example of vocationality is used to show how transitions between different spaces and the associated forms of work-oriented learning can be understood as part of the process of competence development. The second part deals with the temporal dimension of iterative learning, where the concept of occupational biographical shaping competence plays an important role and the management of transitions is introduced as part of this competence.

11:30 p.m.

Coffee Break

12:00 p.m.

Navigating Complexity and Thriving in Liminal Spaces Through Learning-Based Work

Victoria Marsick

Columbia University, USA (presenting)

Rachel Fichter

Columbia University, USA

Karen Watkins

University of Georgia, USA

The increasingly dynamic interplay between work and learning (largely resulting from advances in technology) calls for new perspectives on the role and purpose of learning in the workplace. In the past, workplace learning (formal and informal) typically focused on developing knowledge and skills to improve performance based on predetermined standards or competencies linked to an organization’s strategic goals. More recently however, learning has begun to evolve into something more organic (and paradoxically much more strategic), often bubbling up rather than cascading down, to build individual and organizational capacity that can better address emergent challenges and opportunities. In this paper, we further explore a distinction we made between work-based learning and learning-based work. We elaborate on learning-based work— reflecting on its relationship to transitions in a complex, fast-changing world.

The relationship between work and learning is fundamentally changing amidst increasing complexity. Whereas in the past learning was assigned a subservient role in relation to work (i.e., as a means to improve performance in relatively stable environments), it is rapidly taking center stage. Now, learning is redefining work as it becomes the means to address emergent challenges and opportunities.

In this paper, we consider how intentional (formal or informal) learning across the length, width, and depth of our lives brings new perspectives to the workplace which, in turn, generates new knowledge and innovation. This expanded view of learning-based work suggests a symbiosis with change and its associated transitions, creating liminal spaces in which people can grow and develop. This symbiosis also serves the organization because the individual learner can offer broader networks, untapped perspectives, and deeper insights to help the organization find new possibility in the face of uncertainty.

1:00 p.m.


2:30 p.m.

Time to Combine Work and Sustainability: Learning to Accommodate Rhythms

Elisa Thevenot

University of Tübingen, Germany

Society is experiencing a sustainability transition, e.g., awareness for climate, biodiversity, natural resources, and its link to bigger social phenomena is growing. A societal transition too slow for some and too pushy for others. Indeed, this sustainability transition is experienced, felt, interpreted, and negotiated differently by each individual on an everyday basis (Thevenot, 2022). In this presentation, I will elaborate on findings from a study at the intersection of sustainability, life course and adult learning. Individuals were invited to describe how they conduct(ed) career transitions in the context of sustainable development. The collected narrations, in that respect, account for making sense of one’s biography, of one’s career and life course direction, of one’s personal and professional aspirations. Indeed, career transitions are favorable life course phases for rethinking and reshuffling life priorities; a phase in this specific research, in which to accommodate sustainability in one’s personal and professional life, as well as a phase in which to reflect upon whether work as the main ‘Zeitgeber’ of one’s adult life. In other words, individuals are learning to accommodate both sustainability and work.

The contribution will use rhythmanalysis as a heuristic (see Blue, 2019) and understand work and sustainability to be rhythms that accompany individual life courses. In the narratives those rhythms “crash upon one another” (Lefebvre and Régulier, [1985] 2004: 79), whether they reinforce or weaken each other, they tend to coexist. The empirical demonstration will illustrate this coexistence and point to the moments of learning to accommodate rhythms.

3:30 p.m.

Coffee Break

3:45 p.m.

Constructions of Space-times of Adult Education

Beatrix Niemeyer-Jensen

Europa-Universität Flensburg, Germany

In the 2010 an informal international co-operation of researches raised the issue about the relation of work and learning in a globalised world. This included questions of workplace transformations, gender and other inequalities, labour migration but before all issues around lifelong learning in relation with changing demands within the world of work. First approaches were guided by the (self)experience of intensified workloads, the blurring of boundaries between labour and leisure, globalising work contexts and intensified work regimes in the academic as well as in almost any other sector of human related service work. “Learning and work and the politics of working life” (Seddon et al. 2010) presented a variety of case studies of disturbed work ranging from community college faculty in the US, social workers in Germany, nurses in Finland or Malaysian university lecturers in Australia. The focus of analysis was on the disturbing of working conditions and on the “re-disturbing” by reclaiming command and re-gaining agency within workplace relations. At that time, we weren’t aware that we had set the research agenda for the following decade. The collection of case studies grew in number and diversity though it remained focused on professional health care and education. The research focus gradually moved towards questions about the social situatedness of adult learning and politics of knowledge building. It included a period of intense cross-national, transdisciplinary discussing concepts of experience-based learning of adults and developing an understanding of Bildung, .that preliminary resulted in the concept of (uneven) space-times of education (McLeod et al. 2018).

With my presentation I want to revisit (some of) those case studies and ask about their significance today as a basis for rethinking the concept of space-times of education against the framework of questions raised by this symposium.

4:45 p.m.

Coffee Break

5:00 p.m.

Challenges of Digitalization of Work – An Educational Perspective

Christian Harteis

Paderborn University, Germany

Digitalization of work life is not a new phenomenon – and technical changes always have been part of industrial development. However, artificial intelligence, big data and the internet of things (industry 4.0) raise novel challenges – particularly for vocational education and training. This contribution firstly aims at sketching the new quality of educational challenges. Such may arise from the option that machines can replace human work or they can enrich human work. Secondly, a reflection of learning affordances will reveal that formal education and training can just provide a (solid) base for providing workers with capacities that are necessary to successfully cope with digital transformation of work. Finally, the importance of informal learning settings (i.e., workplace learning) will be argued. From an organizational point of view the question arises how best to support workers for (lifelong) workplace learning. The main assumption of this contribution is that generic capacities will be more important than domain specific ones.

6:00 p.m.

Wrap of Day Two

5:45 p.m.

Dinner and evening activities at your leisure

Friday, September 29th

9:00 a.m.

Analyzing Work and Life Course Learning under Capitalism using a Mind in Political Economy Approach

Peter Sawchuk

University of Toronto, Canada

Labour process researchers have long identified the profound and far-reaching effects of divisions of labour on economies, sectors, firms as well as individuals. Included among these effects are those linked with fragmented task sets as the basis of occupational form which, while often associated with the birth of industrial capitalism, remain alive and well today. I suggest this raises highly relevant questions for understandings of the life course. Thus, responding to an under-developed theme within studies of the life course concerning the role of the organization of work itself, in this paper I argue for a specific means of contributing toward analytic accounts of differences in transitions and turning-points at the nexus of life course and work.

Specifically, this argument is rooted in a discussion of a type of ‘Mind, Culture and Occupation’ (MCO) approach (e.g., Sawchuk 2020, 2022). It is an approach primarily based upon an integrative re-assessment of theories of the labour process (e.g., Braverman 1974), activity (e.g., Engeström 1987) and epistemic culture (e.g., Knorr Cetina 1999). And, I claim it helps shed light on how the coherence or incoherence of trajectories of skill, knowledge and identity development organized by specific occupational forms become embedded in the life course vis-à-vis their ongoing shaping of work-based perezhivanie (i.e., a cultural historical conceptualization of socialized personality: e.g., González Rey 2016). Brief empirical illustrations from studies of social work (Sawchuk 2013) and nursing (Sawchuk 2020) may be provided space permitting. Concluding the paper is a broad discussion of implications of the approach for the life course in terms of occupationally-specific skills versus pronouncements of a post-occupational future, occupational regulation, craft learning as well as labour organizing.

10:00 p.m.

Coffee Break

10:30 a.m.

A Psycho-societal Approach to Adult Learning and Work Life Histories

Henning Salling Olesen

Roskilde University, Denmark

Societal conditions of late capitalism have made the intersection between the development of work life and individual life courses a primary learning arena, changing the requirements for formal schooling in childhood and youth significantly. Life history approach to adult learning and learning careers developed, inspired by biographical research, as counterpoint to traditional education/pedagogy turning the lens from institutional intervention and curriculum to focus on the learner subject.

Its starting point is the intertwining of the individual life experience and the societal dynamics which individually appears as subjective imperatives. It is largely about the political tension between the flexibilization requirements for the workforce and individual (and collective) opportunities for self-management and shaping one’s own life (career) through learning, or in other words learning as a dimension of identity development. You can also say that it is about exploring the conditions for a contemporary concept of education (Bildung).

Theoretically, this becomes a question of a socio-material understanding of the subject and the resources and dynamics that are decisive for learning to become a subjective power of liberation. The concept of experience is crucial here, giving rise to a psycho-social perspective on the life story, connecting a sensory and bodily level (Lorenzer’s theory of forms of interaction in early socialization) and a cultural level (discourses and societal interaction understood through Wittgenstein’s language game concept) (Salling Olesen 2018; 2020).

The psycho-societal approach is working in an interpretational methodology inspired by psychoanalysis. The paper will present recent examples.

11:30 p.m.

Coffee Break

12:00 p.m.

Discussion: Perspectives on Adult Learning at the Nexus of Life Course, Work and Transitions

Moderated by Michael Bernhard & Christiane Hof

Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany

Against the backdrop of the framing questions of this symposium, we aim to connect and contrast the complementary perspectives on adult learning at the intersection of life course, work and transitions. Beyond a mere recap of the sessions, however, we will also look forward and explore where this shared discussion might lead us.

1:45 p.m.


2:00 p.m.

End of symposium