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Olga Tregaskis

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Why adult learning is so good for wellbeing


Recent research shows the benefits of learning throughout adulthood are not only critical to enhancing future employment opportunities but provide individuals with the social and relational capabilities to make a contribution to community life more widely and increase their sense of wellbeing.

Previous reviews have demonstrated the wellbeing gains from training in the workplace. Indeed, it is estimated that taking a part-time work-related course can yield wellbeing benefits to the learner equivalent to £1,584 of income annually.

Workplace training that helps employees in their job role increases their job satisfaction and this improves people’s overall satisfaction with life. However, what about the wellbeing benefits of adult learning outside of the workplace? In recent research the What Works Wellbeing team at the University of East Anglia examined the wellbeing outcomes from learning programmes.

What did the research find?

Because this research focused on studies that tracked the outcomes for individual learners it was able to understand the cause and effect relationship between learning and wellbeing. The research reviewed some of the benefits for older learners, marginalised groups and from community projects.

It was evident that taking part in learning can improve an individual’s wellbeing through the social contact it generates, the sense of purpose it creates and tangible progression it delivers in, for example, mastering new skills or knowledge.

Community and economic outcomes

Adult learning is extremely important for developing what are often referred to as soft skills.

However, what has perhaps been under-estimated in the past, is how pivotal these soft skills are to economic and community outcomes alongside personal wellbeing. These soft skills include self-confidence in learning, self-esteem, sense of fulfilment, and capabilities for social interaction and creating social networks.

The power of these soft skills as an enabler allowing individuals to better identify and seize life opportunities is considerable.

The breadth of adult learning opportunities

Often adults’ primary exposure to learning has been through compulsory education. Yet adult learning opportunities are often more varied, leaving behind the more rigid classroom based format to embrace learner centred and learner led approaches where the learning meets a specific need or interest of the learner.

For example, the review revealed learning created around community projects such as gardening or workshops for furniture making or using skilled trades, provided older learners with the opportunity to use their expertise to contribute to community goods and at the same time acted as mentors to others.

The act of mentoring of itself provided these learners with added social connections and a sense of purpose enhancing their personal sense of wellbeing.

What about younger learners?

For younger learners they were often motivated by the opportunity for personal development, particularly in areas of self-confidence and confidence in social relationships which in turn aided progression in more formal learning attainment and employment opportunity.

In these specific learning situations the inter-generational learning was evident with older learners using not only their technical expertise but their organisational skills to run community projects and helping to prepare younger people for the world of work.

For those adults who may be more marginalised in community and work life due to social or economic disadvantages then learning acts as an important resource.

Participation in adult learning helps build the personal and social competences that support formal educational qualification and in turn increases employment prospects.

The tailoring of learning

Where adult learning is sufficiently tailored to the specific needs of its users, then it can operate as a powerful pathway for building the necessary soft skills and educational attainment to enhance their economic prospect and in so doing improves individual wellbeing.

This improvement is wellbeing for certain groups is vital because of the potential to create a positive cycle of economic and social progress.

Those with higher wellbeing are more likely to engage with lifelong learning which in turn has positive wellbeing benefits and so the wellbeing cycle replenishes.

But those with lower wellbeing may feel less able or confident to engage in learning and as such are missing out on the opportunities that can follow.

Learning provides individuals with a pathway to personal wellbeing through its ability to equip us with the human competencies to both get the most from economic and social life, but importantly to also contribute to economic and social life.