Adjust the text

Study: Irish Men’s Shed Program Ignites Passion for Learning


The Men’s Sheds program has mushroomed across Ireland over the past five years, sparking an explosion of learning among older men.

So what’s going on?

In the May 2015 issue of Adult Education Quarterly, Lucia Carragher and Barry Golding reported the findings of the first ever study of the community-based organization.

The new research is based on data from a questionnaire-study of 297 men registered in the Irish Men’s Sheds Association. Data was also drawn from five focus groups, involving 40 participants. Most men were retired and all were over the age of 50.

Learning drivers

The study found that "shed" learning is powered by three key drivers:

1. Social environment: The shed environment is an important driver of men’s learning, with 95 per cent of participants reporting, "Being part of this shed helps me to learn."

Participants emphasized the importance of being with other men. They touted the small size of the group, saying it allowed them to get to know each other and feel valued for their contribution.

Most called for more learning opportunities in sheds. At the same time, they complained of lack of other places to learn in the community, noting a shortage of local male tutors.

Notably, the study showed the benefits of the shed environment extended well beyond learning to talking about sensitive issues, such as health.

One man explained it this way:

I got diagnosed with a health condition . . . so I told [the men] individually and I found people very helpful and without being intrusive they look out for me, but at the same time they don’t go overboard or aren’t overbearing. I found it easy to tell [the men], but I found it hard to reach the stage where I could tell them and I hope I didn’t over-tell it.

2. Hands-on-learning: Men were looking for activities that will stretch them and give them a sense of accomplishment. However, few were interested in formal learning programs. Instead, they favoured hands-on-learning activities where they could share their skills and experiences with peers.

In fact, Men’s Sheds, a program that originated in south Australia in 1998, is an ideal fit. Each shed is tailored to the local context. Men engage in projects of their own choosing. They can participate in individual activities, act as a mentor or join a small group.

The new research showed sheds offered a wide range of learning activities, including:

  • technical trades
  • computers
  • health and safety skills
  • leadership strategies
  • horticultural and landscape trades
  • creative writing classes
  • beekeeping
  • customer service skills, and
  • crafts and hobbies.

Most sheds had an inside workshop area, which included a place to relax and enjoy a cup of tea. They also had an outside area for social activities and gardening.

"Shedders" talked about how much they learned from their peers. For example, over 80 per cent observed, "My organizational skills have improved."

3. Sense of belonging: Finally, the study showed that shed learning is motivated by a sense of belonging.

Several of the men had recently experienced major life events, including:

  • loss of personal relationship
  • financial crisis
  • unemployment, and
  • depression.

For these men, the shed environment offered a sense of comradeship and a place to feel "at home," the researchers said.

Of those surveyed, 98 per cent reported, "I have made good friends in this shed."

Ten per cent of the men participated in shed activities on a daily basis. About 30 per cent attended several times a week and 50 per cent came at least once a week.

Benefits abound

According to Carragher and Golding, the findings underscore the tremendous potential of this grassroots program to promote learning and reinvigorate men’s lives:

The success of the grassroots shed model as a site for informal learning suggests that something is happening in Ireland that is quite extraordinary in the informal learning behaviour and attitudes of older men.

More specifically, men’s sheds:

  • fill a gap, helping men with the difficult transition from paid work to retirement
  • foster convivial learning by providing men with new opportunities to pool their skills and experience, and
  • provide a community and social hub that is conducive to men’s happiness and health.