What is folkbildning?

“Folkbildning” is a form of accessible education with a focus on peer-to-peer learning. The critical component is that folkbildning is collaborative, with each participant bringing their own point of view and experience to the process. Folkbildning is an umbrella term for a variety of educational formats, ranging from folk high schools (independent adult education colleges) to study circles on everything from rock music and sewing to political ideologies.

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Currently, there are 9 adult education associations and 156 folk high schools in Sweden that are all eligible for state funding. Together, every year, they engage close to a million people in study circles, cultural activities and courses. The adult education associations offer activities in all 290 Swedish municipalities. Folkbildning is a vital part of Swedish democracy, with member organisations, founders and collaborators from across society. The adult education associations and folk high schools coexist with thousands of organisations and associations across the country. 

Finding the right vocabulary

Finding the right vocabulary to define folkbildning can be tricky, as the term “adult education” is too broad and non-specific – and the term "popular education" is not broad enough.

Other attempts to translate folkbildning, include "non-formal learning" and "informal learning" and they might be more accurate. The peer-to-peer learning at the heart of folkbildning relies heavily on informal exchange, as the thousands of study circles under the folkbildning umbrella are very much non-formal, as they are not part of any curriculum-driven educational system. At the same time though, folk high schools provide education with a specific plan both for the courses offered and for the results. In fact, many folk high school courses are designed to provide participants with the tools they need to continue on to further and formal education, such as university.

Ultimately, it is the methodology and approach to learning that jointly define folkbildning, and thus it transcends the limitations, and the very purpose, of concepts like "informal" and "non-formal". Simply put, there is no proper translation for the word, folkbildning is simply folkbildning and there is nothing else quite like it.

Describing the methodology

In simple terms, for folkbildning to live up to its name, participants must be able to affect and form their own learning environment. Their contribution must be the most vital part of the learning process, and the goals and requirements for success should be achieved by working together. Folkbildning is about collective discovery and is therefore more accessible, and at the same time more complex, than any other way of learning. 

Forged in harder times – a brief history of ideas

The emergence of folkbildning can in part be attributed to the rough life of factory workers and rural labourers, longing for knowledge at the beginning of the 20th century. With a lack of books and material and with widespread illiteracy being the norm, people with a thirst for educational discovery had no choice but to gather wherever such material could be found. This sparsity forced people to share. And discussing what was written became as important as the actual reading.  

As the thirst for knowledge grew, the labour movement started organising study circles to make it easier for people to share material and information. The same thing happened in the sobriety movement and independent churches. As these popular movements grew, so did learning, and the methodology of folkbildning. The concept of study circles and folkbildning soon became a common part of society and appeared everywhere from churches to sororities.

The formal structuring of the “folkbildning methodology” is often attributed to Oscar Olsson, a lecturer with ties to both the labour movement and the sobriety movement. More than anything else though, folkbildning was a sign of the times as many associations and institutions forged new ways of learning. The universities developed folkbildning as a means of spreading their research and having it discussed with those outside their walls. And people and organisations gathered their knowledge and material in makeshift libraries, later organised into an evolving infrastructure for folkbildning all over the country.

Of course, ideas from other countries also contributed to and influenced the emergence of folkbildning. The origin of the folk high schools can be found in Denmark, conceived by the Danish priest Nikolaj Frederik Grundtvig, during the latter half of the 19th century. The basic idea was to find a way to educate en masse, providing short courses and seminars for young farmworkers and others with little or no previous education. The lectures had to be both easy to organise and capable of awakening the "cultural and spiritual curiosity" of participants. Grundtvig wanted education to feel alive and exciting! In Sweden, the folk high schools soon became closely linked to the emerging popular movements of the time and the methodology of the study circles. As previously stated, folkbildning became a crucial ingredient in all social movements and people like sex educator Elise Ottesen-Jensen took folkbildning on the road, with seminars and workshops about sexual liberation and women's rights. Sweden would never be the same again. 

Putting it into practice 

What does all this mean for the actual activities being organised? How can a group of friends who play together in a rock band fall under the same category as those on a course on, say, eastern philosophy? The answer is surprisingly simple. In folkbildning, the focus is always on sharing ideas and exploring solutions, together. In a rock band, everyone must work together to make the songs work. Similarly, on a course on eastern philosophy, the teacher might know the knowledge that is needed to pass the course, but it is the participants who must identify that information. By working together, they can discover this knowledge with discussions, joint research and practical projects. In folkbildning, the group-dynamic is an essential tool for success!

What it does

Folkbildning enables people to keep learning, no matter how old they are or what else is going on in their lives. For some, folkbildning is a way to prepare for university or a new job, for others it is a way to explore a passion or interest in their spare time. But perhaps greater than all of that, folkbildning offers an opportunity for interaction, where people can share ideas and discuss issues that are important to them. When we learn together, we stay together, and that’s just as true for a group of friends as it is for society in general.