Co-operative learning requires practical co-operative experience, argues Bruno Roelants, the new director general of the International Co-operative Alliance.
Mr Roelants was a keynote speaker at the Co-operative Research and Education Conference in Manchester, hosted by the Co-operative College, where he explored the nature of co-operative learning.
“When we talk about the co-op model, we should think about learning by co-ops on co-operatives, through co-operative experience,” he said, adding that teaching co-operation must start at an early age. In Argentina there are 13 pupil co-operatives while Japan has 192 student co-operatives. Similarly, in France 5.2 million pupils are members of 51,000 school co-ops.
Mr Roelants pointed out that in spite of several successful examples across the world, co-operative pedagogy has not been used by the co-operative movement.
Education has been one of the co-operative movement’s principles since 1844, the days of Rochdale Pioneers. Its importance was reinforced with each new version of the principles adopted by ICA co-operative congresses and highlighted in the ILO’s Recommendation 193 on Co-operatives.
Adopted in 2002, the recommendation says national policies should promote education and training in co-op principles and practices at all appropriate levels of the national education and training systems, and in wider society. But national regulations tend to ignore the 5th co-operative principle.
In terms of learning skills that could prove to be useful for the future, Mr Roelants thinks co-ops can make a difference in activities and processes that are not foreseeable and where empathy plays a part. These would include social services, health services and human interaction-based activities. Democratic control was another aspect of co-operative learning, he added.
“Learning to do then leads to learning to be and goes back to learning to do,” he said, giving example of José María Arizmendiarrieta, the father of co-operation in the Basque Country, who reinforced learning to be in the co-operative movement. Arizmendiarrieta helped to set up what is today one of the world’s largest co-operatives, the Mondragon Group.
Confirming that co-operative research and education will remain an important aspect of the Alliance’s strategy, Mr Roelants said there was an important link between learning and research.
A recent survey of Alliance members revealed they felt they were learning from exchanges of international experience and valued research. The organisation plans to continue to favour links between co-op learning and research initiatives across the world and promote educational and research policies working with the UN and other agencies.