Lifelong Learning – How Are We Doing?

Lifelong Learning

These days it seems that almost every school, new or established, mentions in its mission, vision, values or some other important statement that lifelong learning is a major priority of the school. School Heads, Principals and Directors talk a lot about lifelong learning in major events and gatherings with students and/ or parents.

This has now been the case for a few years, so it’s worthwhile to pause and ask – How are we doing? Has all this attention on lifelong learning changed anything?

Well, first of all, where did it come from and why did people start to think it mattered? Around 10-15 years ago more and more evidence was emerging that pointed to the likelihood that young people in school were going to grow up in to a world and environment where they would not simply have multiple jobs, but multiple careers. It was clear that the pace of change in the world, especially technological, was accelerating and the best prospects for the future would lie with those people who through continuous learning were most capable of reinventing themselves, shedding their existing knowledge and taking on the right new learning.

I believe that if we look at the tertiary sector first, quite a lot has changed in response to the recognition of the need to support lifelong learning.  We have seen quite a rapid increase in the availability of online learning options that support adults in processes of continuous learning. There are also many brick and mortar institutions that have supplemented their traditional learning programmes with more modular offerings, sometimes offered as hybrids that are conducted part face to face and part online, with scope for people to learn more at their own pace to fit in with the fact that they’re often still working full time.

There is a definite break away from the idea that formal and informal learning are completely separate, or that formal learning all takes place in a purely linear fashion, to be completed in the earliest part of ones life by the age of about 21 – 25. We see Universities and colleges questioning what they should look like when it comes to physical infrastructure. It’s costly to create physical places of learning and therefore there must be a justification to create the physical infrastructure. Then, there are considerations about how specialised or general the learning spaces within those buildings should be in order to best support modern and effective learning practices.

Too often I see these debates happening when new institutions are being created, or where major construction is due. There are still arguably too many institutions (especially in developing countries) that look to purely and simply replicate the traditional models of the past, more intent on churning out young people with bits of paper than focused on enabling learning.

In developing countries, universities and colleges have not gone far enough to place the focus on self-directed, self-driven learning, owned by the learner. There are all sorts of arcane rules about attendance, rigid generalist course structures with whole cohorts progressing through at the same time, at the same pace, subject to strict rules, hierarchies, even uniforms. They look little different to traditional schools for overgrown children.

So, overall, worldwide i might be inclined to give the tertiary sector about a 5 out of 10 for progress towards playing their part in a world of lifelong learning.

And what of the K-12 schools?

Firstly, what is the role of K-12 schools towards lifelong learning?

I believe it’s twofold;

a) To equip young people, in age appropriate ways with the tools and skills to be effective self-directed lifelong learners. 
b) To ensure that pupils have the motivation to be self-directed lifelong learners

Every baby and infant is a highly self-directed, highly motivated learner. They don’t wait for anyone to come with a syllabus or a curriculum. They don’t wait for permission to learn or to be instructed. They don’t go out of their way to take short cuts to learning so that they can spend their time idly. So, we’d do well to question ourselves about how our schools stifle these natural inclinations that ought to be the perfect foundation to grow and develop tomorrow’s motivated lifelong learners.

I believe that one of the biggest problems with point b) is related to teachers. If, as an adult and potential role model for lifelong learning it would be fair to expect;
(i) Teachers admit to their own learning and talk about it openly.
(ii) Focus on potential more than performance, both related to themselves as well as their pupils,
(iii) Shed their focus on competence, in favour of vulnerability and the ambiguity of openly being a learner. If a teacher has to be the ‘fully complete expert’ in the classroom, then by implication their learning process is complete and they no longer need to be learners,
(iv) Teachers would be open about how they drive their own personal learning curriculum. They would openly talk about things they’re not expert in.  They would reveal to their pupils the things they’re learning. They would even be open to learn from the pupils in areas where they have more knowledge (such as IT).
(v) Teachers would not say things like, “Yes, I believe in lifelong learning. I’m always looking to learn from everyone around me.”
That’s a cop-out, an excuse for not pursuing real, hard learning. Instead, it implies that this lifelong learning is just another name for a dab of responsiveness and listening to others around – not something like real learning that involves investment of real time and effort in risk, vulnerability and deep dives in to new and varied areas of learning directly or even slightly linked to their work.

Our schools and school leaders still behave as if learning is something that is done to pupils, not something they do for themselves. The assumption built in to the culture of schools in dozens of ways big and small is that pupils would not learn unless made to do so. And, we have to say that the way most of the learning  in schools is still done, it’s no surprise that it will only happen under duress. It’s one-way, one size fits all (that it’s not personalised despite all the talk of personalisation I’ll save for another post).

Turning to point a)  a school/ learning environment that really cares about development of lifelong learning would place at least as much emphasis on process as outcomes. And our schools don’t. Schools would be places where children are encouraged and motivated to pursue deep and broad learning according to personal interests. They would be helped to understand HOW to learn most effectively.

This would bring in opportunities for children to learn and understand how their minds work, how memory works, how motivation impacts learning. They would not simply learn to read, but would be equipped with opportunities to acquire skills to read in different ways for different purposes. Children would be learning effective ways of note taking and how to work out the learning techniques and methods that work best for them.

An open climate based on common growth mindset, the presence of healthy grit to push through when learning is challenging, to seek out one’s own sources, to discern between the quality of different sources etc.

So, in conclusion – is it really fair and honest for schools to be telling the world that one of their core values is the development of lifelong learning? Are the school leadership really doing the introspection about every aspect of their school’s practices, habits, methods and whether they take their pupils towards or away from lifelong learning?

Are pupils walking out of the school gates the day after graduation saying  – “that’s all over and nobody’s doing that learning stuff to me any more,” or “Ok, I’m ready – where’s the next great learning that i want to bring on for me?” Are they seeing learning as a pull rather than a push process?

If not, then K-12 certainly isn’t at five out of ten. It might not yet even be at two out of ten.

A long road ahead and lots of work to do. And we won’t enable lifelong learning for pupils until we embrace it for ourselves.

That easy!

%d bloggers like this: