Recent research I did with trade union members who learnt maths while in the workplace points to the important role that supportive union colleagues and fellow learners play in motivating adults to learn maths. This support helps adult learners overcome anxieties and develop their confidence with maths, both inside and outside the classroom. For example, when learning maths and when using their maths skills to negotiate pay and conditions with management.
Members I interviewed had to overcome a range of barriers to re-engage with learning mathematics including practical barriers such as shift work and caring responsibilities, as well as other more emotional barriers often related to poor previous learning experiences.
However the great thing was they were able to overcome these barriers and were motivated by a combination of personal drivers and social support. The adult members initial motivation to re-engage with learning maths related to:
- Individual needs and goals such as: improving job security, filling a personal knowledge or skills gap, helping their children and or gaining a qualification for promotion.
- Being supported and encouraged by face-to-face social groups such as work colleagues, Union Learning Representatives (ULRs), fellow members, other learners and their family.
- Enabled by opportunities to learn, funded and negotiated by trade unions and employers.
However their motivation to continue learning relates to the importance of experiencing what they called a 'different' way of teaching and learning, which made it seem ‘easier’.
One man (34) explained it was “not what I would call a formal learning environment, [it was] very relaxed.”
A woman (46) described the classes where “we were all sat around table, the tutor mingled with everyone”. She called it “a relaxed environment”.
Another man (46) talked about how the teacher “has more time to spend with you on [the maths problem] and will explain again and again...” whilst “other colleagues in the room came up with [other ideas about] how they did it, so you had multiple choices as to how you worked it out ...” He compared this approach with his school experience where, “the classes were so big ... you couldn’t ask questions”. He said he found this approach to be more “enjoyable”, which makes it seem “easier to learn”.
This positive learning experience also helped learners develop positive feelings towards maths, that resulted in them feeling more confident using their skills outside the classroom, for example:
- When negotiating on behalf of fellow trade union members.
- With their finances, enabling them to better support their families.
- Becoming teachers of mathematics in the trade unions.
- Supporting the integration of newly arrived children into the UK education system.
I also found that members felt more positive towards the trade union that had helped them develop their skills.