The Imperative of Lifelong Learning

Phil Von Heydebreck
10 Oct 2019

Lifelong learning is of vital importance both for individuals and the modern societies in which they live. Learning is the driver of personal and societal change. For individuals, lifelong learning is the key not only to ensuring continued employability but also to personal well-being and self-fulfillment. For broader society, lifelong learning can be an important factor in finding solutions to intractable challenges such as inequality, poverty, disease, conflict, populism, intolerance, climate change, and environmental degradation. 

The concept of lifelong learning resonates with people. The majority of populations in Western countries consider themselves lifelong learners. A 2016 survey found that 73% of American adults consider themselves lifelong learners. An older survey of Europeans found that 70% expressed the desire to continue learning throughout their lifetime. Lifelong learning has also become a guiding principle for the transformation of education in most developed countries and is a significant consideration in the policies of many developing countries. 

Despite its broad appeal, the term lifelong learning has been used inconsistently. More concerning is the assessment by international organizations that actual participation in lifelong learning has lagged behind the popularity of the term. This article will explore the concept of lifelong learning in-depth, including its definition, origins, and evolution. It will attempt to clarify how social, technological, and economic changes have made lifelong learning an imperative. It will argue that the objectives of lifelong learning go far beyond economic and market-driven concerns. Lifelong learning is a path to better and more fulfilling lives for individuals and to a better, cleaner, and more peaceful world. While governments can take steps to facilitate lifelong learning, much of the onus is on the individual because it requires self-motivation and self-direction. For lifelong learning to become a reality, we need both societies that encourage learning throughout the lifespan and individuals who make lifelong learning a habit. 

What is lifelong learning?

There is no consensus definition of lifelong learning, but it is most frequently characterized by an extension of learning and education beyond initial schooling to encompass all stages of a person’s life cycle. Most definitions include compulsory schooling within the scope of lifelong learning. It is frequently described as continuous learning from cradle to grave.

Some definitions specify that learning should be life-wide, which means that it is possible in all life contexts and environments. Lifelong learning does not only take place within institutions like schools, colleges, and universities but can take place in a range of other settings including at home or at work. 

Learning activities can be categorized into the following three types:

Education has traditionally focused on formal learning. Lifelong learning increases the focus on non-formal and informal learning, which represents a paradigm shift in the way people think about education and learning. 

Learning can be categorized into formal, non-formal and informal activities

The OECD identifies the centrality of the learner as a vital characteristic of lifelong learning. In contrast to the traditional educational paradigm that was focussed on teaching within institutions, lifelong learning recognizes that a significant proportion of a person’s learning is self-motivated and self-directed. 

Lifelong learning is an umbrella term that encompasses all forms of deliberate learning throughout a person’s lifespan. Although it is sometimes used synonymously with similar terms it can and should be distinguished from them: 

To review the sources used for this section follow the links for sources pertaining to the definition of lifelong learning and formal, non-formal and informal learning.

Lifelong learning improves knowledge, skills, and competence

Although learning is frequently associated with the acquisition of knowledge — often the focus in education — there is more to learning than knowledge. Many definitions extend lifelong learning to skills and competence. Although these terms are commonly used interchangeably, the word competence takes on a broader meaning in the fields of education and human resources. Skills are the ability to carry out a task. Competence is the combination of skills, knowledge, behaviors, and attitudes applied in context. Improving one’s competence enables better performance in a type of activity (e.g. management, communication, problem-solving). 

Learning improves knowledge, skills, and competence

To review the sources used for this section, follow the link to knowledge, skills, and competence.

Lifelong learning is indispensable in modern societies

Several overlapping social, technological and economic forces are responsible for making lifelong learning an imperative in modern societies. Continuous learning is perceived as a necessity to remain relevant in a rapidly changing labor market and dynamic community. The world has seen a profound transformation of economies from agricultural to industrial models. Many have continued to evolve into post-industrial knowledge economies. In such economies, productivity no longer depends on unskilled labor, but on skilled knowledge-workers whose primary skill is thinking and manipulating information. That shift has led to changes in the demand for skills in the workforce. 

To remain competitive, and to give low- and high-skilled workers alike the best chance of success, economies need to offer training and career-focused education throughout people’s working lives.

The Economist

Economic transformation has been enabled by rapid technological change that has also had a significant impact on communication and individual behavior. At the same time, economies have been restructured by the forces of global trade. 

Cultural and social change has accompanied the profound technological and economic transformation. As the world becomes more integrated and interdependent, there is increased lifestyle diversity and cultural pluralism (culturally distinct groups living together). Humans are living longer than ever which is challenging the traditional education-work-retirement pattern of life stages. 

In 1975, lifelong learning theorist Paul Lengrand wrote that —  in addition to the challenges people have always faced, such as war, illness, and death (among many others) — starting in the 20th Century people began encountering several new problems. Over 40 years later, his list of challenges remains relevant: 

To review the sources used for this section, follow the link to the lifelong learning imperative.

The modern concept of lifelong learning took shape during the 20th century

The concept of learning throughout life is not a new one. Continuous learning has been considered a virtue in many cultures, both ancient and modern. According to Kenneth Wain, the modern concept of lifelong education began to take shape in Britain around 1919-1920, where people such as Basil Yeaxlee began to promote the idea that education should be permanent throughout life. 

The whole of life is learning, therefore education can have no endings. 

—Basil Yeaxlee, Lifelong Learning

The concept began to appear in policy documents in Great Britain during this time: 

Adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there, nor as a thing which concerns only a short span of early manhood, but that adult education is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong.

—Great Britain Ministry of Reconstruction, Final Report of the Adult Education Committee (1919)

The concept caught on in France in the 1930s, where lifelong education was called éducation permanente. There, advocates such as Paul Lengrand pointed out that it was no longer possible to provide people with a formal education that would equip them for a lifetime. Education must continue throughout life. 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was one of the key players in establishing lifelong learning as an educational concept and policy. Two reports commissioned by UNESCO are considered the defining documents of UNESCO’S position on lifelong learning.  

In 1972, a commission chaired by Edgar Faure produced a report titled Learning to Be, which is often referred to as the Faure Report. It proposed lifelong education as the master concept for educational policies.

We propose lifelong education as the master concept for educational policies in the years to come for both developed and developing countries. 

—Edgar Faure and others, Learning to Be

In 1996, a commission chaired by Jaques Delors produced Learning: The treasure within, otherwise known as the Delors Report (1996), which updated the UNESCO conception of lifelong learning, calling it “learning throughout life.”

The concept of learning throughout life is the key that gives access to the twenty-first century. 

—Jaques Delors and others, Learning: The treasure within

In the 24 years between the two UNESCO reports, there was a shift in terminology. Lifelong education became learning throughout life. Lifelong learning puts the emphasis on the individual rather than the institution. The focus is on the agency of the learner.

The influence of UNESCO in educational policy waned following the Delors Report. The OECD and the World Bank became the most influential shapers of educational policy. However, the concept of lifelong learning continued to gain strength and evolve. 

To review the sources used for this section, follow the link to the origins of lifelong learning.

The objectives of lifelong learning go beyond employability

Lifelong learning has become virtually ubiquitous. It is rare to find educational policies that do not reference lifelong learning in some way. However, there remains disagreement about what the objectives of lifelong learning are and how to achieve them. This disagreement is not surprising considering the broad scope of the term spanning all learning across the entire human lifespan. Lifelong learning was bound to be hard to define succinctly. Cultural differences naturally flavor local interpretations. 

The most significant schism in the debate about how to define lifelong learning appears to be the primary motivation for pursuing it. Many observers would argue that economic and market-oriented concerns are the dominant driver of lifelong learning policies today. The early theorists had more transformational humanistic principles in mind. Through an economic lens, individuals are considered human capital. They are resources whose knowledge, skills, and competences are to be improved to achieve a competitive advantage in a globalized economy. Critics of this narrow view argue that learning could become a trap in which people must endlessly learn to earn to stay employable in a fast-changing economic environment. 

Lifelong learning can be pursued to achieve objectives other than employability. The European Commission’s definition, for example, lists personal, social, and civic objectives in addition to employment-related concerns. 

[Lifelong learning is defined as] all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills, and competence, within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective.

—European Commission, Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality 

The Delors Report emphasized four pillars of learning, that can be interpreted as objectives for the UNESCO vision of lifelong learning: 

The pillars of learning are frequently referenced, but they leave much room for interpretation. Based on a synthesis of several sources, the following can be considered as possible objectives of lifelong learning.

To review the sources used for this section, follow the link to the objectives of learning.

Early theorists envisaged the creation of a learning society 

Every individual must be in a position to keep learning throughout his life. The idea of lifelong education is the keystone of the learning society. 

—Edgar Faure and others, Learning to Be

The vision of lifelong learning that was put forward by Edgar Faure and Jaques Delors is considered by many to be a “maximalist” position. The hope was not just to rethink education, but to transform society. They envisioned a society in which educational systems were reimagined. The rationale was that formal education could not provide all the knowledge and skills to prepare individuals for life in an ever-changing environment. Learning should be continuous and extend beyond what is taught in educational institutions. 

Robert Hutchins first proposed the concept of a learning society, which is “characterized by the freedom of its citizens to cultivate their intelligence through liberal education.” It aimed to extend the possibilities of learning to all members of society, not just an educated elite. The objective of learning in this society is not limited to training skilled individuals who can then generate economic growth. It hoped to foster continuous learning by providing equal opportunities to citizens and empowering them to be active participants in democracy. The learning society represents a humanistic and utopian vision of a better society in which individuals have the freedom to pursue self-fulfillment through self-directed learning. 

To review the sources used for this section, follow the link to the origins of lifelong learning.

To make lifelong learning a reality, challenges must be overcome

Although the concept of lifelong learning has been enthusiastically embraced in name, according to an assessment by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), actual implementation of related policies has lagged. Data indicate that the participation of individuals in lifelong learning beyond formal compulsory education remains low. 

The OECD thinks participation rates in organized education beyond formal education are too low

There are many challenges to making lifelong learning a reality. One of them is the increased responsibility of the learner to discover and pursue learning opportunities once they move beyond formal education. Lifelong learning requires individuals to be active learners that have the skills to learn in a self-motivated and self-directed manner. Individuals must develop the motivation and capacity to learn independently early in life. Otherwise, there is a risk that a proportion of the population gets left behind because they are unable to navigate the landscape of learning opportunities successfully. The likely result of such a development would be an increased inequality within the population. 

The best single predictor of later participation in education is earlier participation.

— Albert Tuijnman, Journal of Lifelong Education 

Participation in formal education is a critical step. Providing access to high-quality education and keeping students engaged must be a priority. Increased integration between learning and working environments may help increase the relevance of the material and increase motivation. Additionally, the appropriate guidance, signposting of learning opportunities, and clear learning paths through various life stages, may help people remain engaged with learning beyond compulsory education. 

Although the importance of informal learning is widely accepted, finding ways to assess and recognize it has proven challenging. There is a lack of standards and qualification systems in order to provide forms of recognition that people can use to improve their career opportunities. 

Learning opportunities beyond compulsory education should be structured around adults’ distinctive needs, creating enjoyable and adult-friendly learning environments such as learning-rich workplaces or dedicated adult learning institutions like community colleges or folk schools. New opportunities for learning in digital environments have become much more common as the adoption of the internet and smartphones has increased. These new technologies have facilitated access to a much broader range of learning material. 

Three types of barriers obstruct adult participation in lifelong learning: 

Identifying such barriers makes it easier to overcome them. Supporting lifelong learning requires significant resources and policy coordination across a range of players. Overall, there is still a long way to go before lifelong learning becomes embedded in educational systems. 

To review the sources used for this section follow the links for sources pertaining to the barriers to learning and the challenges of lifelong learning.

In our rapidly changing world, everyone needs a lifelong learning habit

Individuals and organizations have both recognized the importance of lifelong learning. The majority of people in Western countries consider themselves lifelong learners. International organizations, policymakers, and educational institutions have embraced lifelong learning as a guiding principle for the transformation of education. Social, technological, and economic changes have made lifelong learning an imperative. Economic drivers have already caused many to recognize that education and training are necessary in order to ensure their continued employability. If futurists’ visions of a world infused with artificial intelligence and automation become a reality, then employment markets are likely to become even more competitive. 

To keep up with the world of 2050, you will need to do more than merely invent new ideas and products, but above all, reinvent yourself again and again.

—Yuval Noah Harari, Medium

Learning throughout life is vital, and not only for economic reasons. For individuals, learning can improve well-being and maintain cognitive fitness. From a societal perspective, humanity is facing stubborn challenges such as rising inequality, conflict, populism, identity politics, intolerance, the erosion of human rights, climate change, and other environmental damage. Humanity has the best chances of overcoming these challenges if every individual can take advantage of learning opportunities that enable them to fulfill their creative potential.

The mark of a lifelong learner is recognizing that you can learn something from everyone you meet. Knowledge is best sought from experts. Wisdom can come from anywhere.

—Adam Grant, LinkedIn

Policymakers and institutions have found it challenging to implement lifelong learning because it is a holistic vision that spans the entire human lifespan. Formal education can provide the general knowledge and foundational skills required from a lifetime of learning. However, many people exit formal education without the motivation or ability to pursue independent, self-directed learning. 

Being educated is no longer about how much you know, but about having the skills and motivation for lifelong learning so that you can learn new knowledge whenever you need to.

—Andrew Bollington, oecd.org

Lifelong learners cannot depend on government or educational institutions to continuously motivate and guide them as they learn throughout their lifetime. Lifelong learners need to cultivate their innate curiosity and find intrinsic motivation, which will allow them to be active explorers of their environment and take control of their own learning paths. Learning is more enjoyable when learners pursue their goals and personal interests. When they do so, it becomes a habit that spans a lifetime. 

Developing a learning habit requires you to articulate the outcomes you’d like to achieve … based on those choices, set realistic goals … with goals in hand, develop a learning community … to focus on your objectives, ditch the distractions … [and] finally, where appropriate, use technology to supplement learning.

—John Coleman, hbr.org (emphasis added)

When lifelong learning becomes a habit, it contributes to a fulfilled life. It can be a path to professional success and a method to pursue personal interests for enjoyment. Not least, it can also be a way for people to help make the world a better place.

To review the sources used for this section, follow the link to everyone needs a lifelong learning habit.

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