Researching older men`s self-directed learning in

Paper to Symposium of Self-Directed Learning
As part of the 8th Congress in Self-Learning
Strasbourg, France 29-31 Oct 2014
Researching older men’s self-directed learning in Australian
community contexts: Methods, framework and results
Barry Golding and John McDonald 1
To Christophe Jeunesse late Sept 2014
Our paper explores some research methods, frameworks and results of research into
older men’s self-directed learning in Australian community contexts. It reflects
critically on research approaches appropriate for examining learning acquired
informally through community organisations, effectively through informal
communities of older men’s workshop practice, called men’s sheds. This field of
research and the context of investigation is distinctive in that being grassroots and
informal, it does not presuppose that highly effective learning needs to be structured,
assessed and deliberate. Also, it contends that the outcomes, benefits and
contributions of learning through men’s sheds can be measured by its contribution to
the community in addition to any individual benefit. Some implications for future
research in this field, including the use of autoethnographies, are included in the
Our paper has two starting points. The first, discussed in the heading immediately
below is essentially contextual and relates to the field of learning that is of interest.
The second starting point is essentially methodological, and refers to the research
designs that might be appropriate to the context and purposes of men’s sheds.
What learning are we concerned about, and for what purposes?
Faculty of Education & Arts, Federation University Australia, and
Researching older men’s self-directed learning in community contexts is our
particular research interest in this paper. This field of study neatly fits Foucault’s
(1980) category of ‘subjugated knowledge’, in that it might be regarded in some
educational hierarchies as local, regional, vernacular and naïve. Field (2000, p. 35)
described a relatively recent fundamental shift in the learning behaviour of adults,
who increasingly regard the day-to-day practice of less formal adult learning as
routine. Mark (2013, p. 778) describes the shift from more formal adult learning for
the very few, to a newer, less formal lifelong learning for many more adults of all
ages in Scotland:
The new adult learning is part of a much broader process. As individuals come to rely
less on traditional institutions and the authority figures associated with them – church
leaders, parents, aristocracy – to guide their behaviour, so they become more selfdirected.
Much literature, research and policy on education for adults available to Anglophone
speakers is written in English and from Western liberal democracies. From a
neoliberalist standpoint, the acquisition of formal educational skills and qualifications
is primarily for individual economic advancement and employment prospects.
However, we regard this as an obsolete notion insofar as it applies to adult learning.
Our interest in this paper is in the broader value of older men’s informal and lifelong
learning, including learning that is lifewide: that is, for other purposes and across the
life course at any age. Using Pollard’s (2010, p. 362) three-strand typology of
learning, our interest goes mainly to the second and third strands of philosophical and
political thinking on educational purposes to be found in contemporary Western
democracies: these are essentially concerned with social cohesion and inclusion, in
addition to wellbeing. Our particular concern is that the first strand, which regards
teaching and learning as being linked mainly or solely to economic productivity, gets
most of the attention. While seductive in policy terms, our argument is that this is a
partial and impoverished view of the wider benefits of learning.
While we acknowledge, with Pollard (2010), that the three strands are ‘deeply
interconnected’ (p. 362), and accept that there is a demonstrated correlation between
school and post-school educational success and employment, like Gorard (2010) we
are more concerned about the persistent flipside for some older men. That is, that lack
of success in learning is typically correlated with increasing difficulties through life,
in and beyond paid work, and that many of these difficulties are closely related to
class and family background. Further, our concern is that many of these disadvantages
go well beyond the individual to become intergenerational and familial, and are
exacerbated and reproduced by formal educational learning.
Our concern in this paper is to avoid simplistically linking educational qualifications
with employment for older men, without acknowledging the inequity of prior
education as the central determinant for selection to employment. As Gorard (2010)
puts it, when we take a life course view, qualifications, rather than being a causative
agent, can alternatively be seen as ‘a substitute variable summing up the prior
individual, economic social and economic determinants of ‘success’ at school and
beyond’ (p. 359). As Gorard concludes:
Educators do not select their potential students, nor employers their employees, on the
basis of their socio-economic status, ethnicity or age, as this is both unfair and illegal.
However, they do select them on the basis of a substitute variable – prior education –
that sums up, and is very heavily correlated with, such background factors. What is the
sense in that? (Gorard, 2010, p. 358)
Much educational discourse is premised on the idea that access can be broadened if
young people and adults can be encouraged to become ‘aspirational’, that is to
overcome impediments or ‘barriers’ to the desirable education on ‘the other side’.
Gorard’s (2010) scathing critique of ‘barriers to learning’ is a good starting point in a
critical examination of older men’s learning. Gorard uses UK data to show that once
family background, sex and age are accounted for, ‘none of the measurable variables
in adult life makes any difference to the quality of the predictions’ (p. 357) about
adult participation in learning. Gorard concludes that ‘We need to revise our
complacency that the existing set-up for learning is appropriate for all, and that the
reluctant learner need only be lured back ‘on track’ (p. 357). Indeed, most adult nonparticipants in formal learning are not put off by barriers, ‘but by their lack of interest
in something that seems alien and imposed by others’ (Gorard, 2010, p. 357).
A useful way of perceiving learning barriers, is to acknowledge that there are at least
three factors, beyond the contextual, institutional, informational, situational and
personal/dispositional factors, that come into play for many older men. The first is the
accumulation of often negative early school experiences and their subsequent
association with other forms of learning later in life. The second is the stigma that
some older men experience associated with literacy and learning difficulties in more
formal educational contexts. The third is the male culture of ridicule about pursuing
learning, which some male peers regard as inappropriate and not masculine. What
some men can and do experience in some educational contexts is neatly summarised
from Owens’ (2000) research from Ireland in TSA (2009, p. 21) as:
… a deeply internalised sense of powerlessness … rooted in early school experiences
and in the wider cultural milieu wherein the dominant ideologies of the social order and
masculinity dictate one’s way of perceiving and being in the world.
Research designs that match the context and purpose of learning
Our second starting point is to go ‘back to the basics’ of research design. Qualitative
research designs are typically shaped by the interplay of at least five key elements: the
purposes and or outcomes of the research, the theory or conceptual framework that
informs it, the constraints (typically political, ethical, pragmatic or resources), the
choice of methods of data collection and analysis, and also ‘the philosophical or
ontological perspective of the researcher’ (Sunderland, 2013, p. 59).
Consistent with both the first and final design elements above, we value research
designs that respect the research participants. Griffiths (2014) might suggest we are in
a relatively privileged position, as academics rather than shedders, to ‘give voice’ to
the participants of men’ sheds, who unlike us, ‘may not otherwise have access to
public spaces in which they can make their perspectives known’. Griffiths (2014)
stresses that as researchers, whichever methods we use, whether we acknowledge it or
not, we are always already in our texts, in the judgments and choices we make, about
methodologies and foci of interest, including in this paper.
This leads us to a closely related observation about research and its accessibility to
participants. Whatever the narrow and specific academic purposes of research, our
fundamental argument is that any research undertaken in grassroots places and spaces
(including community men’s sheds) should make a wider and deeper contribution. In
the case of community men’s sheds, research should help inform shedders and the
shed-based organisations which run or auspice them. We contend that any research
should be accessible, in at least some formats, to participants, as a form of reciprocity
for time and effort involved in their participation as research subjects.
Our specific interest in men’s sheds
So what might be some appropriate research designs for investigating the less formal
learning, exemplified by older men involved as participants in community men’s
sheds? Men’s sheds and their relationship to learning for older men are
comprehensively discussed in Golding (2014). Golding used the ‘grassroots’ shed
movement to challenge preconceptions about the difficulty of enabling older men’s
agency and learning. Golding (2014, pp. 125-6) regards men’s sheds in community
settings as being simultaneously conservative and radical.
On the one hand, sheds are conservative in that they reinforce and celebrate some
traditional ways of being a man and doing things ‘shoulder to shoulder’. On the other
hand they are radical in that they are based on models of community involvement that
are democratic and inclusive, which eschew negative and hegemonic masculinities
about women, promote salutogenic (health promoting) behaviour and encourage learner
Our interest includes informal learning that extends into health, wellbeing and
community development. Our interest in exploring these three themes in greater depth
in this part of the paper were provoked in part by Wilson and Cordier’s recent (2013)
narrative review of the men’s shed literature. While we regard the review as useful
and timely, and agree that ‘The range of variables that might contribute towards best
practice in Men’s Sheds has not yet been adequately conceptualised, measured, tested
or understood’ (2013, p. 458), we have two main points of departure. The first
concerns Wilson and Cordier’s (2013) contention that the positivist paradigm is the
‘gold standard’ for evaluating research in this field. The second is their suggestion
that the potential health benefits of men’s sheds should be the sole or principal
Wilson and Cordier (2013) are particularly critical of mixed method studies in the
men’s shed field, arguing that qualitative approaches lack scientific rigour and
generalizability of findings. However, because men’s sheds are community-based and
very diverse in terms of their location, context, organisation, purposes, participants
and outcomes across four nations, ‘gold standard’ research designs to measure men’s
health outcomes are unlikely to produce generalizable findings. The expansion of the
grassroots men’s shed movement can be understood precisely because each shed
emerges and takes shape in response to local community needs. No two sheds are the
same. Sheds defy engineering by centralist bureaucracies. Therefore, imposing a
positivist research paradigm to define universal ‘best practice’ seems futile, as does
subjecting sheds to an evaluative regime designed to measure shedders’ health
Defining some appropriate research questions about men’s sheds
Before examining what appropriate research questions might more effectively
investigate men’ sheds and their link to learning, it is important to briefly define what
they are. Golding (2014, p. 119) defines a men’s shed in a community setting (as
distinct from a personal backyard shed) as providing:
… a safe, regular social space for informal voluntary activity and programmes with
very diverse possibilities and outcomes matching the men and communities in which
they are embedded. Unlike personal sheds, they are available to groups of men,
organised independently or with auspice arrangements through a wide variety of other
community organisations. …. The activity usually (but not always) takes place in a
group workshop type space with tools and equipment in a public, shed-type setting.
The community men’s shed movement, founded in Australia, has grown in just two
decades from early, isolated experimentation in a small number of sheds and
communities in mainly rural South Australia, to a fully-blown, strongly networked,
international movement, with more than 1,000 men’s sheds open worldwide,
coordinated by four national associations in Australia, Ireland, the UK and New
Zealand. It is thus timely to critically examine four key questions: ‘How and why has
this happened? What does this mean for the men involved? What does it mean for the
community?’ and ‘What does it mean for new models of service ‘provision’ (of adult
education, aged care and health, for example)?’
Many nations, governments, communities and service providers are struggling to
address some of the pressing issues faced by an increasing proportion of older or
un(der)employed men disconnected from their communities and dislocated from the
labour force. They are also interested in how grassroots movements, for and by men
themselves, were actually created and took hold. Being essentially a decentred,
‘ground up’ movement, this latter narrative of how and why community men’s sheds
emerged is best approached by historical analysis, exposing many fascinating and
diverse early strands and agendas in each of the four nations, only one of which is
about men’s health. This first question, how and why this has happened, is being
covered more comprehensively in a book by Golding (in preparation, 2014) about The
men’s shed movement.
The second question – about what it means for participants – seems to be particularly
amenable to interpretivist, qualitative research methodologies. By focusing on
understanding the meaning and lived experiences of the participants (Denzin &
Lincoln, 2000), research is situated in the community being studied, and relies on
emergent rather than predetermined research designs. The general characteristics of
qualitative research, summarised by Marshall and Rossman (2011) appear to be
particularly relevant in a men’s shed setting, given that the research is taking place in
the natural setting (as distinct from a controlled environment), using multiple methods
of inquiry and data collection that are interactive and humanistic, and taking particular
account of the context in which the inquiry is conducted. The key point is the link
between the context and purpose of the research, and a qualitative or mixed method
approach. Creswell (2012) argues that it is appropriate to use qualitative research
when our purpose is primarily exploratory such as when variables are difficult to
isolate or measure, when we want to hear stories of the marginalised, when we want
an in-depth, complex understanding of a phenomenon, when we want to empower
individuals, and when the context or setting is important for understanding. All of
these are apposite to men’s shed research.
The third question of what men’s sheds mean for the wider community is one that has
not been comprehensively researched. Most studies of community men’s sheds take it
as given that men are the sole participants and beneficiaries. However in the case of
community men’s sheds, none of the conventional top-down constructs – of student,
customer, client or patient – sit comfortably with men who participate, since they
come from service models presupposing deficit rather than agency. Further,
participants and beneficiaries in many men’s sheds also include volunteers, women
and young people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that beneficiaries beyond the shed
often include partners and families, children and grandchildren, other community
organisations and government agencies. The informal learning for any of these other
potential beneficiaries is likely to be extensive but has rarely been systematically
The answer to the final question about what men’s sheds mean for new models of
service ‘provision’ is particularly interesting and challenging, for gender-related
reasons neatly summarised by the findings of a review of services for older men by
Ruxton (2006) in the UK. There has been a trend until very recently to provide
services through organisations in the community which have: either gender blind
policies and practices, where men and women are treated the same; are gender
differentiated, particularly towards women (where women are treated differently and
separately); or agnostic, where there is no identifiable approach, particularly towards
acknowledging that some men might be disadvantaged. Ruxton concluded that while
the first two strategies, of gender blindness and gender differentiation ‘… were more
effective, having a strategy was more important than what the strategy was’
(original bolding). Rather than being prescriptive, Ruxton recommended that
providers of services to older people ‘develop a strategic approach to working with
older men that is appropriate to their individual circumstances and the needs of their
Consistent with this finding, Men’s Sheds associations in each country have adopted a
liberal policy framework. Associations are not prescriptive of its member organisation
about how sheds should be organised, in what way women might be involved, what
should happen in a shed (other than it being safe and salutogenic: health promoting)
or who should participate, aside from acknowledging that the main participants are
typically men, and that all men should be made welcome. Though most men’s sheds
take a male-focused, gender-differentiated approach (Ruxton, 2006), many sheds
actively involve and include women as participants. Some sheds in both conservative
and progressive communities have sometimes drawn back from naming the
organisation or the place where the hands-on activity occurs as a men’s space and call
it a community shed.
The answers to the third and fourth questions, above, illustrate why a positivist
research paradigm in men’s sheds is always going to involve compromises and tradeoffs. A good example in recent research is the valiant attempt by Flood and Blair
(2013) to test the relationship between participation in men’s sheds in Australia and
physical health and wellbeing. The study used a quasi-experimental design that
included a non-shed control group carefully matched with a shed participant sample,
‘… in order to ascertain whether there are associative factors related to differences
between the groups’ (p. 6). It aimed specifically to test ‘the hypothesis that those
belonging to a Men’s Shed will have better health outcomes and behaviours than the
control group’, in order to ‘rigorously [test] the relationship between Sheds and
health’ (p.6). It therefore used identical, paper-based and online questions about selfperceived health and wellbeing administered to both groups of men.
The obvious and insoluble problem here is that men who participate in men’s sheds
may (or may not) be comparable to other men. Some men who do participate may be
more active and enjoy better self-perceived health than men who do not participate.
Conversely, it could be argued that because of professional referral or self-selection to
a men’s shed (for reasons of unemployment, social isolation, or poor health), men’s
sheds participants will be less healthy anyway. Compounding these difficulties, and
inevitable in any longitudinal study, is the fact that the longer that older men
participate in a men’s shed (median age 70 years in the Flood and Blair [2013] study),
the less likely they are to be well (or employed, or learning) simply because of the
cumulative effects of ageing.
In an effort to establish significant difference between shed and non-shed groups,
Floor and Blair (2013, p. 16) assumed that the shed participant group can and should
be compared to a ‘less socially active’ non-shedders group. This was justified on the
grounds that:
… a more legitimate group for comparison for health factors are those who match the
Shed members demographically but are not engaged in Sheds or meaningful activities.
(p. 16)
While this produced some small but ‘statistically significant differences’ on (SF-12)2
health scores and (WEMWBS)3 mental wellbeing scores, without other data, it raises
A standardized, international health survey-scoring instrument.
An international mental wellbeing scale.
other important and unanswered questions, including what a significant difference
might actually mean.
What are the purposes and intended outcomes of men’s shed research?
It is useful at this point to look closely at the purposes and outcomes of two
qualitative case studies of community men’s sheds. One, conducted by Ballinger
(2007). Another was by Sunderland (2013) on the Taieri Bloke’s Shed in Dunedin,
New Zealand. Ballinger’s stated intention in an unidentified shed was quite specific:
to explore whether and how the men’s shed was health promoting. By contrast,
Sunderland (p. 64) clearly stated that ‘There is no problem being addressed in this
research, but I have set clear aims for the study’, specifically determining ‘how the
culture’ of the men’s sheds works ‘as viewed through an occupational lens’. While
Ballinger relied on semi-structured interviews with staff and participants as well as
document analysis, Sunderland used ethnography by immersing himself in the shed
activities. Sunderland’s stated ‘ultimate purpose’ (p. 20) was ‘to investigate the worth
of this particular community and provide recommendations that have application to
the wider Men’s Shed movement.’
Relevant here is not only the very different methods chosen for quite different
purposes and aims, but also the very different nature of the sheds chosen for their case
studies. While Ballinger (p. 29) regarded her unnamed men’s shed as being ‘fairly
typical of other men’s sheds’, she made it clear that the men’s shed chosen for the
case study operated under the auspices of a community health service. By contrast
Sunderland’s ethnographic case study (within the discipline of occupational science)
was located in a men’s shed that was unaligned with any health-focused organisation,
including with the New Zealand shed movement. Sunderland concluded that while the
shed was ‘first and foremost a place of production, constructive work is the key
occupation and the reason why men join and are involved’ (p. 192). Amongst
Sunderland’s important conclusions is the powerful finding that it was the ‘… making
of the place itself [that] has been important in the development of relationships and
effectiveness of the Taieri Blokes Shed’ (Sunderland 2013, p. 202, italics added).
Letting the men speak
We return finally to a theme that we (Foley, Golding & Brown, 2008) began to tease
out in 2008, arguing that one of the most effective ways of reporting on what happens
in a men’s shed is to let the men speak, with minimal researcher intervention. Muncey
(2010) identifies the particular power of autoethnographies to represent the chaotic
and messy nature of human experience, and argues for a pluralism of discursive and
interpretive methods. We offer two examples (Creswick, 2007; Dubbo, 2012) of
collected wisdom and life experiences from men who participate in men’s sheds,
proudly published by the sheds and shedders themselves, and in their own words, that
provide an extremely rich resource for researchers. Unburdened by external research
ethics, the men chose to be included, to tell all, and to be personally identified along
with their sheds.
We will focus, for brevity, on a few brief but powerful extracts from the Dubbo
Community Men’s Shed collection, a booklet of 128 pages, with deep and detailed
life stories of twelve shedders. The cover notes introduce the context.
What do an Aboriginal poet, retired copper4, truckie, one-time communist, ex-con,
farmer, country ambo and a former prisoner-of-war have in common? … Told in their
own words, and in a spirit of reconciliation, these personal journeys are raw, honest,
courageous and often funny, proving the old adage that in every life there is a good
story to tell.
The Aboriginal elder and poet, ‘Riverbank’, Frank Doolan, accurately observes on the
cover that ‘“Hey brother, tell me a story”, might just be the most life changing thing
you can say to a person’. In his own narrative, Frank tells, in an understated way
about how the young ‘local fellas’ in Dubbo have tried to push the caravan (that is his
home on the riverbank) into the river, smashing all the windows, acutely observing
that “It takes a big tough bloke to do that, I guess” In the next breath, Frank
generously advocates for Aboriginal reconciliation, having designed the Dubbo men’s
shed’s logo of a black and white handshake under a shed roof. The depth and power
of these narratives can never be reduced to a statistical correlation between
independent and dependent variables.
Discussion and Conclusion
Because there are many different sheds for many purposes and researcher interests,
one method ‘does not fit all’. We conclude that amongst the wide range of available
research methodologies, one of the most insightful and powerful is the raw and only
minimally mediated, published stories (narratives) of men who participate. The
Creswick and Dubbo Men’s Shed narrative collections not only illustrate a wide range
of very powerful ideas and themes. They also confirm that a researcher need not
necessarily play any role, other than as reader and interpreter of multiple themes. As
Frank Doolan (Dubbo, 2012) said:
A lot of these guys [in the Men’s Shed] especially the older ones, built the town we live
in now, they put in the hard work and nobody thought to ask them about it. In
Aboriginal culture every story is valid – it’s something the broader community can
learn from. (p. 15) … It’s just a shame that here in Australia a man can get to a certain
age and never get a chance to say to someone, this is what I did. Sometimes the best
you can do for a bloke is say, pull up a chair brother and tell me where you’ve been (p.
We conclude that it is precisely because of the power of storying and reflecting on it,
that there is room for the existence of gendered, masculine, community spaces for
men, which include, but go well beyond, instrumental concerns about physical and
mental health. Men’s sheds provide an informal environment where men can let down
their (hegemonic and hetero-normative) guard, feel safe to expose some of the
‘copper’ = policeman; ‘truckie’ = truck driver; ‘con’ = convicted criminal; ‘ambo’ = ambulance
fragilities and vulnerabilities of their past and present without feeling judged as a
weak or ‘lesser’ male, and to gather resources to develop capabilities for individual
agency (Foley, 2014). What men share and learn from each other in a social, local and
situated context (Golding, Mark & Foley, 2014) is precisely why community men’s
sheds work and why qualitative methodologies are particularly relevant to this field.
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