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Lifelong Learning

Evolution of the Lifelong Learning Movement, Implementation of Lifelong Learning, Ongoing Issues in Lifelong Learning, Conclusion

Lifelong learning is a broad, generic term that is difficult to define with specificity. Its overlap, or its interchangeable use, with other closely related concepts, such as lifelong, permanent, recurrent, continuing, or adult education; learning organizations; and the learning society (society in which learning is pervasive), makes this even more true. For some it includes learning from childhood and early schooling, while others treat it in terms of the adult learning process. It has grown to a global concept, with differing manifestations that vary with national political and economic priorities, and with cultural and social value systems.

Lifelong learning is used here in an inclusive sense that accommodates this heterogeneity. A statement resulting from a collaboration of the European Lifelong Learning Initiative and the American Council on Education provides a workable expression of this broader acceptance:

Lifelong learning is the development of human potential through a continuously supportive process which stimulates and empowers individuals to acquire all the knowledge, values, skills, and understanding they will require throughout their lifetimes and to apply them with confidence, creativity and enjoyment in all roles, circumstances, and environments. (Longworth and Davies, p. 22)

This definition includes several basic elements of the lifelong learning ideal: (1) a belief in the idea of lifetime human potential and the possibility of its realization; (2) efforts to facilitate achievement of the skills, knowledge, and aptitudes necessary for a successful life; (3) recognition that learning takes place in many modes and places, including formal educational institutions and nonformal experiences such as employment, military service, and civic participation and informal self-initiated activity; and (4) the need to provide integrated supportive systems adapted to individual differences that encourage and facilitate individuals to achieve mastery and self-direction. Society should make these systems available to learners with flexibility and diversity.

Evolution of the Lifelong Learning Movement

Lifelong learning crystallized as a concept in the 1970s as the result of initiatives from three international bodies. The Council of Europe advocated permanent education, a plan to reshape European education for the whole life span. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) called for recurrent education, an alternation of full-time work with full-time study similar to sabbatical leaves. The third of these initiatives, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report, Learning to Be (1972), drew most attention and had the broadest influence. Commonly known as the Faure Report, this was a utopian document that used the term lifelong education instead of lifelong learning, and it foresaw lifelong education as a transformative and emancipatory force, not only in schools, but in society at large. One commentator, Charles Hummel, called the UNESCO concept a Copernican revolution in education.

U.S. educational and political leaders took note of these ideas. Usually, they adopted the term lifelong learning (rather than lifelong education) and applied it to adult education, leaving initial and secondary education to the existing system. The American discussion tended to be more pragmatic than visionary, addressing specific categories of educational need rather than proposing systems. The Mondale Lifelong Learning Act of 1976 included in its scope a laundry list of nearly twenty areas, ranging from adult basic education to education for older and retired persons, a charge that proved too diffuse to address with public policy. European and American policy interest in lifelong learning waned after the early 1980s, although interest continued among educational institutions and nongovernmental organizations.

Interest in lifelong learning revived in the early 1990s, both in Europe and the United States. A fresh round of studies and reports popularized the idea of lifelong learning, and it became part of national policy discussion, particularly as global competition and economic restructuring toward knowledge-based industries became more prevalent. In a full-employment economy, corporations perceived a benefit from investment in human capital, while a new workforce of knowledge technologists expected their employers to maintain their employability by investing in their education. The focus on learning thus shifted from personal growth to human resource development. Meanwhile, education and training approaches became central to a transition away from unemployment and welfare dependency.

Implementation of Lifelong Learning

Adult participation rates suggest that a mass population has embraced lifelong learning and that the learning society may have arrived. U.S. data for 1998–1999 show that an estimated 90 million persons (46% of adults) had enrolled in a course during the preceding twelve months, an increase from 32 percent in 1991. There are indications that large increases also occurred in other developed countries. Field called this a "silent explosion" that makes the most of the people inhabiting learning societies.

The U.S. figures stated above include only formal courses led by an instructor, divided into six categories: (1) English as a second language (ESL), (2) adult basic education and high school completion courses, (3) postsecondary credential programs, (4) apprenticeship programs, (5) work-related courses, and (6) personal development courses. The largest categories of participation during the twelve-month period were work-related and personal development courses. Informal learning was not included.

To serve such a vast population, and to absorb a nearly 50 percent rate of increase in less than a decade, implies a major increase in providers and services. An exhaustive discussion is not possible in this brief space, but some indications of change can be suggested. Public schools and community colleges in large measure serve ESL, adult basic education, and high school completion needs, especially preparation for the General Educational Development (GED) examination. Data on dropouts who have attained high school equivalency by age twenty-four indicate that these institutions are being successful in this mission. Many community colleges have increased their ESL programs to serve new immigrant populations, and a large number of voluntary and community organizations have joined them, especially in literacy programs.

Programs related to employment come from several sources: apprenticeship programs, work-related courses, and credential programs. An interesting development has been the collaboration between different providers attempting to enhance credentials by offering joint curricula; such as the collaboration between community colleges and corporations to offer apprenticeships and training in conjunction with the associate degree. Work-related courses touch on a broad range of content, providers, and delivery settings. They may be freestanding, self-contained experiences of a single course, or they may include sustained, interrelated courses that lead to a certificate or other qualification. Many sustained programs focus less on technical skills and more on the general education needed in the knowledge-based workforce. In some cases, largely depending on their size and commitment to workforce development, corporations may create their own internal corporate universities to offer extensive programs designed for their own needs. Others prefer to access the resources and experience of external providers, such as higher education institutions or professional education and training organizations. Community colleges have foreseen a major role for themselves in this work.

Around 1970 colleges and universities began to attract greater numbers of adult, nontraditional learners–this population increased from 27.7 percent of all higher education enrollments in 1970 to a range between 42 and 44 percent in the mid-1990s. Many programs adapted their practices and created new programs in response. A generation of innovation in higher education has opened many opportunities for adult learners. Changes have included greater flexibility in admissions and in time and place of instruction, more individualization of curricula, assessment for credit of previous courses and informal learning, transformation of faculty from teacher experts into mentors or facilitators, and provision of more intensive adult-oriented student services, including services responsive to the unpredictable exigencies of adult learners' lives.

Two other developments have attracted considerable attention. One is the rapid growth in the number of for-profit degree-granting institutions, which usually offer high-demand career-related curricula in cohort formats, providing learners with predictability in their time-to-degree and cost commitments. The record of accreditation at these institutions has established a reputation for quality. The other novelty is high-level for-profit certificate programs in information technology. These programs maintain quality through self-regulation, but they stand outside the usual quality-control systems. There is a fear, however, that they may draw lifelong learners away from institutions of higher education.

Personal development courses, which made up 23 percent of the 1998–1999 adult enrollments, are even more heterogeneous than work-related courses, both in their content and their providers. This may be the sector where lifelong learning serves its richest menu, ranging from health and fitness to recreation and hobbies, civic and political engagement, travel and cultural experiences, and religious and Bible studies. It can include every level of interest and every age or stage of development. For instance, major areas of growth have occurred in areas of interest to older learners. Organizations such as Institutes of Learning in Retirement and Elderhostel have played a role in this growth.

Ongoing Issues in Lifelong Learning

Despite a generation of discussion of the concept, a number of questions divide lifelong educators and policymakers. Several still prefer the term lifelong education because it implies a more explicitly intentional learning than the casual, unintended learning implied by lifelong learning. To many observers, lifelong learning itself is a contested concept with varying meanings and values. Some believe the broad humanistic and democratic idealism of the Faure Report has been sacrificed to an instrumental goal of human capital development, thus weakening the commitment to personal enrichment, civic participation, and social capital development.

Early advocates of lifelong learning not only regarded it as extending to the end of life, but also commencing in the earliest years. In practice, most innovation has come in programs conceived specifically for adults. By 2000, however, appeals to engage early schools in the lifelong learning enterprise began to reappear.

Finally, lifelong learning (and the creation of autonomous, self-directed individuals) implies a risk to learners and to social cohesion. Such emancipated persons can become less likely to defer to established institutions or to be guided by common social and cultural norms, adopting instead an analytical stance that isolates them from others and fragments society. The freedom of choice rests with them, but so also does the burden of responsibility in what some call critically reflective societies.


Few, if any, of the comprehensive, integrated lifelong learning systems envisioned by the Council of Europe and the Faure Report in the 1970s have been realized. On the other hand, observers cannot deny how closely linked learning and well-being have become in the twenty-first century–and how pervasive both awareness of and participation in lifelong learning activities are among contemporary populations. Numerous questions remain, not least among them the inequality of opportunity between well-educated persons and the less advantaged in given societies, and between developed and developing countries. Lifelong learning advocates can only hope that enough of the early fervor and optimism of the movement remain to find solutions to these issues.


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