There is no consensus definition of lifelong learning. 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 schooling within the scope of lifelong learning. It is frequently described as continuous learning from cradle to grave.
Some definitions of lifelong learning specify that learning should be considered to 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 environments, including at work or at home.
Education has traditionally focused on formal learning . Lifelong learning puts increased focus on non-formal learning and informal learning , which represents a paradigm shift in the way people think about education and learning.
The OECD cites the centrality of the learner as a key 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:
- Adult education is specifically targeted at people who are considered adults, therefore excludes the shooling that occurs during childhood and adolescence. Adult education is only a subset of lifelong learning.
- Further education / continuing education: these terms are similar to adult education, but usually more narrowly focused on developing career-based skills. They also represent a subset of lifelong learning.
- Recurrent education: in contrast to the continuous nature of lifelong learning, recurrent education is intermittent. Recurring education distributes education and training across a person’s lifespan, usually alternating with periods of work. Learning by this definition is not ongoing, but periodic.
- Lifelong education (education permanente) is the predecessor to lifelong learning that placed more focus on formal teaching and less on self-directed learning.