This chapter examines the scope of the field of lifelong learning, covering definitions, environmental pressures, principal theories of development and learning, and environmental resources and structures that support lifelong learning. Lifelong learning is a dynamic process that varies depending on individual skills and motivation for self-regulated, generative learning and on life events that impose challenges that sometimes demand incremental/adaptive change and other times require frame-breaking change and transformational learning. The chapter previews the major sections of this handbook, which cover theoretical perspectives, research on learning throughout life, methods to promote learning, goals for learning (i.e., what is learned), the importance of cultural and international perspectives, and emerging issues and learning challenges.
Learning is all about change, and change drives learning. The two are inevitable and go hand in glove. Change imposes gaps between what is and what is going to be, or between what was and what is now. Change creates opportunities and imposes demands. In the workforce and other areas of life, change raises questions about readiness to take advantage of opportunities or to face demands for different ways of behaving and interacting and more demanding goals to achieve. Learning can bring about change by creating new capabilities and opening the door to new and unexpected opportunities. As such, learning is risky. It upsets the status quo, raising ambiguities and uncertainties. It also has the potential to empower a person to influence the future, providing choices that would not be available otherwise.
Throughout life, changes occur that are large and small. Small changes provoke incremental changes in behavior. They force us to adapt. Indeed, we learn to adapt to these small changes almost unconsciously. We develop routines that work and apply them as coping mechanisms for managing change. Usually, behaviors that work in one setting apply equally well in another setting or a different situation, perhaps with minor adaptations. However, when we are thrust into totally new situations—transitions that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable, we learn new behaviors and skills that lead to transformational changes. If we fail to learn and fail to make the transformational change, we are likely to be mired in the past, perhaps stuck alone on a plateau while others move away and ahead of us, or worse yet, we face loss and a life of self-doubt or unhappiness.
Change and learning occur throughout our lives. They occur in work and career. Indeed, we spend our early lives in educational settings that give us life skills, but ultimately prepare us for a career. The question is whether we also learn how to learn so that we are prepared to face change, and create positive change for ourselves and others. Adaptive learners are prepared to make incremental (p. 4) changes. Generative learners are ready for transformational change. They seek new ideas and skills, experiment with new behaviors, and set challenging goals for themselves that bring them to new ideal states. Transformative learners have the skills to confront and create frame-breaking change. For them, change is the process of recognizing gaps, setting goals, establishing a learning plan, and maintaining motivation for carrying out the plan to achieve the goals.
This handbook is about lifelong learning. It clarifies the context and need for learning and sets an agenda for theory, research, and practice to promote successful learning and change throughout life. It examines the press for change and the concomitant need for learning at all career and life stages, through minor shifts and major transitions. It considers the extant research on learning and paves the way for exciting research that is needed to understand and promote learning to face the complexities, stresses, opportunities, and challenges of life. It examines methods to encourage and facilitate productive learning (learning that leads to goal accomplishment and meets life’s demands). It considers technological and cultural issues that shape learning in our fast-paced world. It recognizes generational differences and the value that people from different generations can contribute to each other. It also focuses our attention on emerging issues that direct future research and practice.
Lifelong or continuous learning is often viewed as the domain of adult or continuing education. This field examines how adults learn, usually within work contexts. The field encompasses continuing education and professional development programs offered by universities and corporate training centers. Today, such education is influenced by new technologies for instructional design and delivering educational programs. This handbook takes an expansive view of lifelong learning drawing from a host of fields, including psychology, sociology, gerontology, and biology. It looks at learning in young and old, in work and in life beyond the job, in Western and Eastern cultures across the globe. It offers understanding and direction to shape thinking about aging, personal growth, overcoming barriers, and innovation.
Transitions are a time for change. A key question is whether people are ready to change and learn. Opportunities for change may go unrecognized because people are stuck in their routines (Hertzog et al., 2008). People who are used to adapting will rely on transactions that worked in the past making incremental adjustments if necessary. People who seek new knowledge, like to try new things, and are sensitive to demands and challenges in their environment have learned how to be generative. Some have had the opportunity to be transformative in bringing about frame-breaking change.
< Defining Lifelong Learning Consider ways that lifelong learning has been conceptualized. A simple definition of lifelong learning is that it is “development after formal education: the continuing development of knowledge and skills that people experience after formal education and throughout their lives” (Encarta, 2008). Lifelong learning builds on prior learning as it expands knowledge and skills in depth and breadth (London, in press). Learning is “the way in which individuals or groups acquire, interpret, reorganize, change or assimilate a related cluster of information, skills, and feelings. It is also primary to the way in which people construct meaning in their personal and shared organizational lives” (Marsick, 1987, p. 4, as quoted in Matthews, 1999, p. 19).
The basic premise of lifelong learning is that it is not feasible to equip learners at school, college, or university with all the knowledge and skills they need to prosper throughout their lifetimes. Therefore, people will need continually to enhance their knowledge and skills, in order to address immediate problems and to participate in a process of continuous vocational and professional development. The new educational imperative is to empower people to manage their own learning in a variety of contexts throughout their lifetimes (Sharples, 2000, p. 178; see also Bentley, 1998).
A traditional definition of lifelong learning is “all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective” (European Commission [EC], 2001, p. 9). Jarvis (2006, p. 134) offered a more detailed definition: “The combination of processes throughout a life time whereby the whole person—body (genetic, physical and biological) and mind (knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, emotions, beliefs and senses)—experiences social situations, the perceived content of which is then transformed cognitively, emotively or practically (or through any combination) and integrated into the individual person’s biography resulting in a continually changing (or more experienced) person.”
London and Smither (1999a) conceptualized career-related continuous learning as a pattern of (p. 5) formal and informal activities that people sustain over time for the benefit of their career development. Claxton (2000), examining the challenge of lifelong learning, focuses on resilience, resourcefulness, and reflectiveness and the learner’s toolkit of learning strategies including immersion in experiences. Candy (1991) examined the concept of self-direction for lifelong learning, exploring four principle domains of self-direction: personal autonomy, willingness and ability to manage one’s overall learning endeavors, independent pursuit of learning without formal institutional support or affiliation, and learner-control of instruction. Ways of increasing learners’ self-directedness is a challenge for adult educators.
Edwards (1997) examined different notions of a learning society and the changes in adult education theory and practice that will be required to create a learning society. He addressed issues of government policy pertaining to knowledge development, economic growth, technology, and learning. The focus should be less on ways of providing adult education in a formal sense and more on understanding outputs, that is, learning and learners’ capabilities. As such, adult education should support access and participation, open and distance learning, and assessment and accreditation of outcomes in an increasing number of learning settings.
Field (2006) considered lifelong learning as a new educational order. Noting that governments are actively encouraging citizens to learn and to apply their learning across their lifespan, he explored policy measures that governments are taking to encourage adult participation in learning across the life span to achieve a viable learning society.