Academic journal article Adult Learning

Self-Directed Learning Projects of Women on Welfare as Political Acts

Academic journal article Adult Learning

Self-Directed Learning Projects of Women on Welfare as Political Acts

Article excerpt

Two Adult Educators

Adult Educator 1: "I made all interesting discovery about women on welfare in the training program. They are actually independent learners attempting to improve their lives and communities."

Adult Educator 2. "Single mothers on welfare are self-directed learners and political. I always thought of them as dependent, needing to be given skills, strict boundaries, and rules to follow."

Introduction and Purpose

In British Columbia (BC), government and private training programs hire adult educators to train women on welfare with "real skills" to break the "culture of dependency cycle" created by welfare (BC Labor Force, 1995, p. 14). By working for these agencies, adult educators discover they agree with the government's premise to "fix up" dependent women on welfare by teaching them "real skills for the real world" (BC Ministry of Skills, 1994, p. 1). On the other hand, some find their beliefs, intentions, and actions are in conflict with those of their government employers. The opening scenario reflects two views of adult education: creating dependency or encouraging citizenship.

Horowitz (1995) posits that relationships reflect society and are modeled by trainers as arbiters or mediators. Arbiters depict the world as full of walls with structured rules and roles individuals must learn to fit with no possibility "to freely construct an independent personal identity, particularly in the public sphere. To do so means risking treatment as a deviant" (p. 229). On the other hand, mediators exhibit a social world where rules, roles, and walls are permeable, fluid, and unstructured. Mediators communicate some rules, but individuals must "seek out and change the shape of the room when necessary" (p. 230) through agency.

Adult educators may act as experts like arbiters, or we may become guides like mediators in promoting citizenship and self-directedness for single mothers on welfare (Andruske, 1997). Through critical reflection, we must ask: Are we creating dependency or encouraging self-directedness for women to navigate structures to make transitions from welfare? Are we seeking "quick fixes" to train women to move rapidly from welfare to low-paying dead-end jobs?

In this paper, I illustrate how women on welfare are, in fact, self-directed learners, and in the process, they act as political agents for themselves and for other women. By reconceptualizing women in training programs, perhaps, as adult educators we could encourage women to engage in self-directed learning (SDL) projects. We could do this by promoting a novel perspective acknowledging their skills and capacities as independent, capable learners engaged in citizenship as political agents instead of dependents.

Contextualizing Self-Directedness, Agency, and Women's Needs

From 1998 to 2001, I followed 23 single mothers, ages 23 to 55, as they navigated structures to leave welfare. From their life stories, I discovered they actively participated, sometimes unwittingly, in struggles challenging structures by acquiring knowledge through SDL projects leading them to strategize ways to gain control over their lives.

To contextualize the women's transitions, I have drawn on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's (1977) theory of social practice, adult educator Stephen Brookfield's (1993) examination of SDL, and feminist Nancy Fraser's (1989) work on needs and oppositional theory Bourdieu contends individuals operate within symbolic sites, struggling for position, power, or needs to maximize life opportunities. SDL projects are one strategy

To better comprehend single mothers' SDL projects, I use Brookfield's (1984; 1993) work as a way to redefine SDL to include marginalized women. Brookfield (1993) maintains that SDL of vulnerable groups can be interpreted as political action and resistance to authority. Moreover, actions resulting from SDL can be "interpreted as part of a cultural tradition that emphasizes the individual's standing against repressive interests" (Brookfield, p. …

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