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Foggy Forest


Conversations and Adult Learning –

A Short Asian Social-cultural Perspective

Thomas Kuan

The wisdom of our late Chris Duke was in his statement that 'conversations and languages can bring about cultural changes' which he mentioned during the online PIMA AGM on 12 May 2023. Profound words from a great social justice activist. It resonated with writings about the 3 great religions – Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism - arising from China – that had been at war for several hundred years. People had then prayed for peace and paintings depicting the 3 founders coming together for conversations were drawn. Although Buddha had never met Lao Tze and Confucius physically in his life, their conversations (recorded by their followers) had been on philosophical alignments and social harmony. Such thoughts inspired painters to portray them together to satisfy people who yearn for peace and to live with reason.      

Note: The painting of the Three Teachings by Chinese painter Ding Yunpeng (c. 1547-1628) depicts (left to right) Confucius, Shakyamuni, and Laozi communicating and debating with one another, representing the “Three Teachings Harmonious as One” thought prevalent in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). This image is from the Chinese Social Sciences Today @

Today, many conversations from two and half millennia ago are still being discussed and debated without the dangers of armed wars. Some conversational themes are life meaning and spiritual enlightenment; health and longevity; the art of understanding and solving problems through Qi Men Dun Jia (translated as 'Mysterious Doors Escaping Techniques'), feng shui (translated as 'the way of wind and water' which is the art of aligning buildings, objects and space to benefit from the energy flow to achieve harmony and balance); face reading; and consultations on daily activities to select dates for auspicious occasions. Such conversational thinking influenced cultures and communities. It has influenced the founding of new religions integrated with indigenous beliefs and practices in South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and other East Asian nations.  


This 21st century has generated new interest in ancient philosophies through the use of digital technologies; it revives sages' conversations and their relevancy in digital-era societies. Social gatherings (both physical and virtual) were organised to seek further understanding of sages’ conversations. Articles were written, such as ‘Conversations with Confucius (551-479 BCE)’ by Yeophantong (2016) is a personal dialogue with Confucius on his teachings in today’s lifestyles. There are yearnings for new perspective conversations. 

AI (Artificial Intelligence) and IoT (Internet-of-Things) have impacted learning. Robots, chatbots, and related technologies can perform conversations with humans affecting life socially.

Some digital platforms can even predict conversational moods using advanced algorithmic which are more advanced than Pask’s (1976) cybernetical approach. 

But it is still the human conversations that make life meaningful unless one is devoid of emotions and feelings (like robots and some persons with dementia). Learning conversation in the informal learning environment can foster social interactions among friends and family. 

In early Singapore (during the 1890s), social campaigns were the beginning of adult education. One campaign where the colonial government wanted to keep the community rat-free as good public health had generated conversations on the reward of one dollar per rat caught. The reward was a big value at that time, but the bigger reward was to be educated on social hygiene. The poster was 'Thousands of rats over-ran our island. Many people even complained they were attacked and knocked over when they went out at night!‘ 

Social conversations of yesteryear campaigns

(see Singapore Campaigns of the 70s/80s | Remember Singapore )

are reminiscences of the adult education timeline. ​ 

Kuan 2.jpg

Note: Image credit is with the National Archives Singapore   

In the community, the U 3rd Age (an NGO) started SMS (Seniors-Meet-Seniors) Knowledge Cafe platform for conversations by seniors. It began in 2017 when bi-weekly conversations were organised to allow seniors to share ideas and views among different races, to create opportunities for social connections with friends,  and to keep boredom away. See SMS's informal learning platform empowers a culture of shared learning where co-producers of knowledge and opinions through conversations can be a voice for hope for harmonious living.  


Conversations and languages influenced social-cultural changes. In Asia, it has enabled new religions along with its social-cultural values to be embraced by its citizens. Conversations encourage informal learning in a digital era where AI, VR, and robots are changing the landscape of adult learning. Digital conversations have abilities to analyse speaking moods into emotional statistics – curiosity, reflection, and excitement – and this makes adult education challenging. Any local community of seniors’ conversations is best done in a safe and productive environment to allow co-producers of knowledge and bonding of friendships. 

About the Author

Thomas Kuan is the Founder U 3rd Age; Singapore and has been an active member of PIMA including three years as Treasurer. He is the Hon. President of the East Asia Federation for Adult Education (EAFAE), a Fellow with Phi Beta Society, USA, and a Certified Qigong Trainer. Email:


Pask, G. (1976). Conversation techniques in the study and practice of education. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 12-25.

Yeophantong, P. (2016). Conversations with Confucius (551–479 BCE). In R. N. Lebow, P. Schouten, & H. Suganami (Eds.), The return of the Theorists (pp. 13-21). Palgrave Macmillan.

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