What on earth is lifelong learning?

3rd October 2022

Author: Professor Stuart Billingham.

Stuart Billingham photoI am not the first to say, nor you the first to think perhaps, that the concept 'lifelong learning' is a very messy one.

For one thing, how does it differ from 'lifelong education'? A simple answer to this is that the use of 'learning' should focus our attention on the processes and experiences of those engaged in them, whereas 'education' tends to draw our attention more to the institutional side of things such as the level of study, the places where it happens, or how it is accredited. Of course, simple dichotomies like this rarely reflect how things are for different groups and communities nor how terms are used by them.

For example, lifelong learning is routinely used to refer to certificated learning after compulsory education, and lifelong education is sometimes used to refer to non-institutional, community-based learning. Hence, there can be quite a lot of confusion. So, how do we cut through such mess?

Well, one approach I find works well is to think of lifelong learning as a learning journey, which may or may not involve certificated, formal learning along the way. I think of it as being analogous to a long car journey: from Land’s End to John O’Groats in the UK; from Paris to Berlin via Stockholm perhaps; or from coast to coast across the USA. Imagine you are going on such a long car journey.

You would be unwise to set out on any of these journeys without preparing in advance. For example, by having a qualified mechanic check the car over, maybe change oil and filter, etc. How embarrassing if the car broke down at the end of your street with all your friends and neighbours waving you off. You would also make sure you had packed appropriate clothes for the various types of weather you might encounter – having researched them beforehand. You would also, no doubt, check maps and decide on the best route. Maybe the fastest one to get to the end, or maybe one via various historic and/or beautiful places where you would stop for a while to take-in what they had to offer.

Of course, on car journeys of these distances, things can go wrong however much you plan and prepare beforehand. You might have a tyre blow-out, or the car develop a more serious problem. There might be very severe traffic problems forcing a change of route. The weather might be very, very challenging forcing an unplanned overnight or even longer stop over. Nevertheless, you get on the road again as soon as you safely can.

It is very easy to stretch analogies such as this much too far, but I hope by now you have picked-up some clues about lifelong learning. Here are just some which this analogy highlights:

  • Lifelong learning is like a journey, where the end point is potentially a long way away
  • Preparing for the learning journey is very important, at least to make sure you have a good start
  • Deciding on your route – this course not that one; this learning experience rather than this other one; this certificate not that one
  • Being flexible if your chosen route must change
  • Understanding that stopping en-route is not the end-of-the-world in terms of your learning journey.

One problem with the concept of lifelong learning, is that it is so often defined not as a process but as one or more types of post-compulsory education. This tends to 'shut down' discussion of opportunities rather than open up the possibilities.

Here are just some of those types of post-compulsory education which you will find being used, individually and/or collectively, as synonyms for lifelong learning, by politicians, policymakers, administrators, as well as others:

  • Adult and community learning
  • Further education
  • Work-based (work centred/work-focused/work-enabling/work-related) learning
  • Prison education
  • Leisure -related
  • Higher education learning

I believe from my work, that this 'chopping-up' of lifelong learning, as opposed to seeing it as a process – a relevant and exciting journey – has led to the fact that,

"…lots of adults do not believe they need to carry on learning"

(David Hughes,  Why every adult needs to be in lifelong education)

our goals

Quality education for all

We believe in quality education for everyone, everywhere and by highlighting the issue and working with experts in the field, we can start to find ways we can all be part of the solution.