The purpose and process of lifelong learning: all work and no play?

By Ezri Carlebach –

The term ‘lifelong learning’ has its modern origins in post World War I reconstruction efforts. In view of the extension of suffrage, and with a least one eye on the principles of the October Revolution in Russia, the Adult Education Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction declared in 1919 that;

“adult education… is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong”.[1]

The use of lifelong learning as a policy term took recognisable shape in the 1970s with the arrival of the ‘knowledge economy’ as a driver of education and skills thinking, soon followed by the creation of a ‘learning society’ as a pan-political aspiration.

Lifelong learning in the sense I intend it here extends across a range of different settings, whether in the workplace, in a youth group, at a local library or community centre, or in a college, institute or university. It also stretches from some point in life at around 14 years through – if demographic predictions are to be believed – to 114 years, covering the various milestones that can occur in a person’s life such as parenthood, career change, relocation and so on.

Lifelong learning builds innovation

As Will Hutton recently pointed out, the competitiveness of the UK depends on the promulgation of a “learning culture” that will support the knowledge economy. To achieve that, we need highly skilled and adaptable workers who can fill the jobs that are now, and will be increasingly, dependent on higher-order thinking and creative abilities. Hutton posits lifelong learning as;

“part of Britain’s emergent innovation architecture”. [2]

If we truly believe in lifelong learning, the knowledge economy and a learning society, then we need a system that reduces rather than emphasises differences between the process and experience of learning in the different settings and life stages alluded to above. While it will continue to be the case for most young people making choices at 14 or thereabouts that there are broad variations in possible pathways, there needs to be considerably more weight given to choices that extend options rather than reduce them.

Speaking at the 2011 Owers Lecture[3] Peter Mitchell, chief executive of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, highlighted the need for better progression planning right through the education system, planning that involves employers much more effectively and that is based on encouraging learners to “leave doors open”.

The University Technical Colleges (UTCs) that the Baker Dearing Trust is now promoting, and which the Coalition government has pledged to support, hold out the promise of a more ‘open-doors’ approach in the critical 14-19 space. The UTCs are based on partnerships between universities, colleges of further education, local authorities and employers. The universities contribute, among other things, curriculum development, support and mentoring for students – including pathways into degree courses – and expertise in information and research skills.

Work, learn and play

These things, the current orthodoxy asserts, all contribute to employability, encourage aspiration and provide a platform for a future commitment to learning, retraining, reskilling and so on. But it is precisely in the 14-19 age range, when young people make extraordinary leaps in their physical, emotional and intellectual growth, that our system tends to marginalise specific attributes and attitudes that are, in fact, essential to the desired employment and economic outcomes.

These attributes and attitudes are found in play more readily than in either learning or work. The video games industry often comes up as an exemplar of modern design and manufacturing in which the UK leads the world. It seems we have no problem with play as a factor driving consumption of goods and services, but we don’t sufficiently appreciate or encourage its importance to production – and therefore wealth creation – whether in the technical or business realms.

This is of course because play is seen as the realm of the very young or of those at leisure, and thus the opposite of work, whilst at the same time work itself has become an all-encompassing realm, as indicated by the shift in Sunday supplement-speak from ‘work-life balance’ to ‘work-life blend’. Some may argue that ‘life’ here includes play, but not, I would suggest, in the specific manner in which play is important to lifelong learning and its economic consequences.

In his classic work on the primary role of play in creating human culture, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote;

“[t]o dare, to take risks, to bear uncertainty, to endure tension – these are the essence of the play spirit”.[4]

They are also the hallmarks of effective lifelong learning and at the same time characterise the very employability skills most needed by successful modern knowledge workers and their employers.

Rousseau spoke of “the most useful of all arts, the art of training men”.[5] The current political climate demands that those providing publicly supported lifelong learning must prove their usefulness; i.e. that they deliver value for money to ‘UK Plc’ in the form of jobs and/or wealth created, whilst apparently granting less credence to the role of ‘arts’ in those accomplishments. As Hutton again points out, it was the knowledge economy, particularly the creative industries, that led Britain out of recession in the 1980s and 1990s, and it is likely that they will lead Britain out of its current woes.

The question that remains for anyone concerned with the learning supply side is what impact does this economic imperative for lifelong learning have on our practice and our values as a learner- and learning-driven sector? It is important to observe that not only are those values not at odds with the economic priorities of a post-recessionary environment, but they are actually fundamentally important to recovery and growth. We must also beware that the economic imperative does not drive out the play spirit that is, in fact, at the heart of our ability to overcome technological, economic and social challenges.

Ezri Carlebach was Communications & Research Director at Lifelong Learning UK, the sector skills council for post-compulsory education employers, until it closed in March 2011. He has previously held senior marketing and communications roles in higher education, the arts and heritage sector and financial services. He now works on a number of strategic communications projects and is completing a Master’s in Philosophy at Birkbeck College.

[1] Quoted in John Field, ‘Lifelong Education’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 20: 1, 3 — 15, 2001.

[2] Keynote speech, Lifelong Learning UK annual conference, 8 December 2009.

[3] The University Technical College: A basis for a manufacturing renaissance? 24 March 2011

[4] Homo Ludens, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1950.

[5] Emile, 1762, Project Gutenberg E-edition, 2004.

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