By Uwe Gartenschlaeger, DVV International, President of EAEA

The Nordic Secret

Training in Danish folk high schools start with singing a song. What is the rationale behind this strange tradition? In their book The Nordic Secret – A European story of beauty and freedom, Danish philosopher Lene Rachel Andersen and her Swedish colleague Tomas Björkman claim that the success of the Nordic countries is closely linked to their approach to education. Nordic countries have changed from being one of the poorest and remotest regions in Europe to being social and economic leaders in many ways. And this seems to be closely linked to the success of the folkbildning concept.

Folkbildning aims to create an adult learning culture based on the humanistic concepts of individual growth and the holistic development of communities and societies. This concept represents an interesting alternative to the instrumental approach to adult learning which has become dominant over the last decades.

The BILDUNG concept

These were some of the reflections that were shared at the beginning of the project, “Building Inclusive Lifelong learning systems by Developing a European Understanding of Bildung for the Next Generations (BILDUNG)”. The project is funded by the European Union’s Erasmus+ program – and aims to contribute to the re-thinking of Adult Learning and Education (ALE). Rooted in the tradition of the German enlightenment and the Nordic Folkbildning the project envisages an education system that addresses the development of individuals, communities and societies, addressing ethical, emotional and scientific dimensions in a holistic manner. Eleven network partners from all over Europe will explore the use this concept for the ALE sector in the fields of digitalization, sustainability, democracy and basic education.

In a first concept paper, Lene Rachel Andersen describes four main pillars of the BILDUNG-concept:

  • The ability to understand the world in all its dimensions, something Anderson calls “transferable knowledge”. In her “Bildung Rose” (see illustration), she identifies six main dimensions she calls production, technology, science, aesthetics, narrative and ethics, claiming that our traditional education systems, including ALE, are focusing nearly exclusively on the first two dimensions to prepare people for the labour market. This leads to neglecting other dimensions, especially narratives and ethics.
  • The second aspect concerns the “non-transferable knowledge”. This covers emotional learning and personal growth. The idea is based on a concept of German writer Friedrich Schiller, who described personal growth from being a purely physical person facing the challenge of controlling emotions to becoming what he calls “a person of reason”, who is able to respect norms and expectations and finally become a “free, moral person”, able to question and transcend existing norms.
  • The third aspect covers the expansion of the sense of belonging. While our existing social and educational systems form and educate us to develop strong ties to the family, the community and (as a result of the successful educational system of the past two hundred years) the nation, it is necessary now to develop the sense of responsibility and belonging towards mankind and life on earth. Lene Andersen describes this using the image of “Ten Circles of Belonging” (see illustration)
  • Finally, and this is a lesson learnt from folkbildning, we need to foster civic empowerment by equipping and motivating citizens to take action, to shape the future and transform our societies and lives.

A World in Transformation

The concept was presented in 2019 to the General Assembly of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA), where Lene Andersen’s intervention was met with great interest and a passionate call for action, as many participants saw the need to re-think ALE because of the multiple challenges we are experiencing, including climate change, digitalization, growing gaps in our societies and changing relations between the regions in the world. It was agreed that a new project should explore the potentials of the BILDUNG concept for developing ALE further and link it to four priority topics:

  • Bildung and Democracy: We witness the rise of populist movements and leaders in several European countries and a decline of support for democratic values. The project will explore good practices of activating citizen’s engagement especially on the local level and raise their capacity for transformative action.
  • Bildung and Digitalization: The challenge of digitalization is not limited to learning new tools but understanding the mechanisms and being able to act. On another level, ALE providers and trainers need to adopt participatory methods to digital learning.
  • Bildung and Sustainability: Education for Sustainable Development is a well-known concept. Bildung has the potential to expand our sense of responsibility to a global level – and all life on earth. Bildung brings moral and emotional aspects into learning.
  • Bildung and Basic Education: This aspect would tackle the perception that Basic Education is for compensating the marginalized (e.g. migrant communities) and lift it towards a broader view.

Within the next two years, the project will develop outputs and good practice on these four topics. At the end of the process, policy recommendations will be developed for the European and national levels. You can follow the progress on the project’s website.


The European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) is the voice of non-formal adult education in Europe. EAEA is a European NGO with 133 member organisations in 43 countries and represents more than 60 million learners Europe-wide.

EAEA is a European NGO whose purpose is to link and represent European organisations directly involved in adult learning. Originally known as the European Bureau of Adult Education, EAEA was founded in 1953 by representatives from a number of European countries.

EAEA promotes adult learning and access to and participation in non-formal adult education for all, particularly for groups currently under-represented.

DVV International

DVV International is the Institute for International Cooperation of the Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband e.V. (DVV), the German Adult Education Association, representing approximately 900 adult education centres (Volkshochschulen) and their state associations, the largest further education providers in Germany.

As the leading professional organisation in the field of adult education and development cooperation, DVV International has committed itself to supporting lifelong learning for 50 years. DVV International provides worldwide support for the establishment and development of sustainable structures for Youth and Adult Education.

DVV International’s vision is to fight poverty through education and support development. As a globally acting professional organisation for adult education, we build a sustainable system for further education along with citizens, educational organisations and governments. Together with the people in our partner countries, we establish places for lifelong learning.