Believing they can: Albert Melo on the secret to adult education enrolment

In an interview for EPALE (Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe), Alberto Melo describes the importance of recognising and validating students’ skills.

Watch the video here, or see our transcription below.

The secret for motivation to further learning is for people to acquire another level of self-trust in their own skills, capacities. They have to believe they can learn in order to enrol for a learning process.


My name is Alberto Melo. I’ve been working in adult education for quite a long time now in different contexts: in university, within public administration, public decision-making, and also as a field worker, if you like, a practitioner, in local development projects.

And in one of those local development projects which I was coordinating in the south of Portugal – in the very isolated villages of the north of the Algarve, therefore in the south of Portugal – instead of starting with a pre-planned programme and syllabus and curricula for the poorly-schooled residents, we decided first of all to try and know them.

So for many weeks we just went to the hamlets and the villages and talked to people and listened to them, and actually we had very good contact and very good relations with such people, most of them quite aged already, because the more active – say younger people – had emigrated, either to the coast of Algarve or even abroad.

So talking to those people and telling them we are coming from the University and wanted to do some activities with them, and help in any way we could help, they would start by saying, “Oh, you are very educated, we are ignorant, we don’t know anything, so I don’t know what I can tell you about”.

But bit by bit we start talking, and they were showing the – for instance, the house, where they lived. They said, “Well, my grandfather has built this bit, and my father has made an extension, and I have actually changed the doors, the windows, the roof”, and that was their work. And then I realised they all had some land plots, where they were growing vegetables, fruit trees – also breeding animals, like sheep and goats and pigs. And then they would of course use those products to process and make food for the whole year round. And they had, in many houses, they had a loom, very old and home-made loom, where they would weave blankets, jumpers, for their own use. And they kept telling me they have done all those things.

At the same time, they would say, “I’m ignorant, I don’t know anything, I haven’t been to school”, or “I just stayed at school two years, I don’t know how to read or write”.

But I realised, they knew much more than I did, with all my academic qualifications. Because they could survive, and I wouldn’t be able to survive, in any sort of environment.

I was education to earn money, not to actually do things. To buy them. So this was a very strong sort of revelation: that people, because they have poor schooling, they are called ‘under-skilled’ or ‘low-skilled’, and I could see so many skills in them.

So later on, when I was invited by the Department of Education to design a new strategy for adult education in Portugal, I decided to base this strategy on a process of identifying, and recognising, and validating the skills that people had, and had acquired and produced all along their lives, despite longer or shorter schooling experiences.

And this, I think, responded very well to the needs, the requirements, of the adult population in Portugal, because after a while the system became very, very popular. And out of a population of ten million, which means more or less six million adults or so, we had one million and one hundred thousand people going through the process. And actually about four hundred and fifteen or twenty thousand, actually got a school certificate at the end of the process. All the others had went through the process, and for them – the ones I interviewed, who I talked to – this has been a very, very rich experience, because they realised, by having their skills talked about, and recognised, and validated, they could see themselves a different person.

And this, in my opinion, is the secret for motivation to further learning: is [for] people to acquire another level of self-trust in their own skills, capacities. They have to believe they can learn in order to enrol for a learning process.

So even the outreach activities are not enough if they are just taking information outside to them. Information is not enough. So you need, really, activities that make people believe they can actually learn.

And this started curiosity, and even the motivation, to learn more. Because those adults I talked to, which had been through the process and managed to get lower secondary education, the first thing they did was to ask, “Where can I get upper secondary education now? Where shall I enrol?”

And many of the people who went through this process went also, later, to university. And I know now cases of people who went through this process, and they are now architects, and engineers, lawyers, doing PhDs. So this has been very successful, because I think it just responded to the needs of the adults, really.


Read more on use of the term ‘low-skilled’ in policymaking contexts here.

Published by Youth Education Service

The Youth Education Service (YES) is a Bristol charity providing group and one-on-one learning support for adults and young people. We assist students with a wide range of learning difficulties and disabilities, and offer a range of courses (including our popular Dyslexia Support Course) to help our students improve their essential skills. With our uniquely personalised and nonjudgemental approach to literacy (reading, writing, spelling) and numeracy (maths, counting), our students feel welcome, valued, and respected every step of the way.

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