Every year we get a slew of reports full of platitudes about ‘Lifelong Learning’, usually, of course, by people who make a living from selling paper qualifictions. 'Lifelong Learning' trips off the tongue (beware of alliteration) but it’s a glib, confused, if not misleading, phrase. No real person describes themselves as a ‘Lifelong Learner’ – it would sound pompous, even ridiculous. To be honest, I’ve come to believe that Lifelong Learning is NOT a 'thing', just the rhetoric one sees in reports and PowerPoints. It has become a tired old phrase, a construct only used by educators. But it is an educational conceit. Educational institutions have no intention of letting their models go which is why they play little role in real Lifelong Learning. That’s because Lifelong learning has little to do with ‘lifelong schooling’ or ‘lifelong formal learning’.
Myth of reskilling
The myth is that we will be reskilling as we change careers every few years. No we don’t and no we won’t. Know that quote “65% of children starting primary school today will enter into jobs that don’t currently exist” That was made up, a complete fiction. Even if true, the idea that Universities are the solution to this need is ridiculous. Few adults go back into formal education.
In truth, most of us, after being put through the wringer of intense schooling, can’t wait to see the back of it. Even those who extend schooling for another three or four degree years are often weary of the endless diet of formal learning and exams. If Lifelong Learning means more and more qualifications, forget it. Lots of people are now being prompted and pushed into being academic, when they’re not, prolonging their schooling, when the evidence suggest that it neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives. Lifelong learning, so far, has meant extending schooling. Of course, the answer to bad schooling is always more schooling. We may even want less learning. More people are getting ‘schooled’ for longer and longer. But to what end? Signalling. Credential inflation is the wasteful result.
We need to reframe lifelong learning and recognise that very few return to years of formal schooling. Lifelong learning needs to recognise that you have had a heavy dose of formal learning at school, possibly college or University, then go on to gain the skills to be a more autonomous, self-directed learner. As Winston Churchill observed ‘I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught’.
Few grown-ups yearn for the student experience and those that do would do better doing it online. Adults do not want to be infantilised by this sort of jargon. They’re adults not learners. The older you get the less inclined you are to want to cram and sit exams, as you know you’ve forgotten most of what you previously learnt. I’m all for recommending that people remain curious throughout their lives but life is not a course.
In my lifetime, I‘ve seen the Lifelong Learning lobby dismantle vocational learning in favour of University for all – well not really all, as they killed off support for adult learners (which is what Lifelong Learning was supposed to be about). They talk the talk but at the end of the day – the focus has been on 18 year-old undergraduates. That’s a shame. For all the rhetoric they default back to their own little world.
Life is for living, not learning
Lifelong Learning is a shallow phrase as it assumes that we need something we don’t. For many, the book group or film club is formal enough, a group that encourages you to read something new and different. Life, for most, is for living, not learning. We learn to lean without formal structures, following our interests and curiosity. To present lifelong learning as a return to college and formal qualifications is largely credentialism. Most adults become more autonomous as learners. The Long Tail of lifelong learning for most is to learn within the workplace or turn to the web and free resources to learn through tools like Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and the available and growing abundance of free resources and services.
Lifelong learning, for most, is the Long Tail of informal learning through work, self-development and interests. Technology will continue to increase opportunities to learn for the curious. To live is to learn.