What is Lifelong Learning?
Lifelong learning is learning without boundaries
It can be learning for personal development (i.e., intrinsic learning - maybe simply for enjoyment) or learning for professional development (i.e., extrinsic learning - maybe upskilling for employment opportunities).
Chan, CKY (2021)
There are many definitions of lifelong learning, some consider lifelong learning as beyond the traditional formal education, some consider lifelong learning as self-motivated learning that is focused on personal development.
Other definitions include that of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO, 1984):
All purposeful learning activity undertaken throughout life with the aim of improving knowledge, skills, and competencies within a personal, civil, social and/or employment-related perspective.
And Jarvis (2006) with a more detailed definition of lifelong learning:
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 (p. 134).
Learning could be further classified into formal, non-formal, and informal. As defined by Tissot (2004),
Formal learning consists of learning that occurs within an organised and structured context (formal education, in-company training), leading to formal recognition (e.g., diploma, certificate) (p. 70);
Non-formal learning consists of learning in planned activities that contain an important learning element such as vocational skills acquired at the workplace (p. 112);
Informal learning is that resulting from daily life activities related to family, work, or leisure, often called experiential and accidental learning (p. 76).
Lifelong learning does not restrict itself to the formal learning in school settings alone, but extends to the non-formal and informal learning in relation to everyday life experiences. Thus, it describes a holistic approach to learning that encompasses more than what occurs in the classroom. Such an approach can be further illustrated by the four pillars of learning (GRUO021):
Learning to know: Mastering learning tools (i.e., literacy, numeracy, life skills) rather than acquisition of structured knowledge;
Learning to do: Mastering the acquisition of skills (closely linked to vocational-technical education and work skills training) to better prepare for the future work environments;
Learning to live together with others: Learning social skills and values, such as social awareness, acceptance, and respect, as well as an appreciation of human diversity, achieving peace and harmony in the society;
Learning to be: Mastering the acquisition of skills to complete the fulfilment of human in all the richness of one’s personality (from body to mind and spirit), which promotes the whole person development.
Four Pillars of Learning (Adapted from GRUO021).
For details about the Four Pillars of Learning, please refer to Delors (2000) and Nan-Zhao (2005).
We can thus see that learning to know focuses on the development of literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills, learning to do highlights the development of work-related technical skills, learning to live emphasises the development of social and inter-personal skills, and finally, learning to be stresses the skills for all-round development. Thus, lifelong learning can be concluded as an umbrella term of skills and competencies that we need to develop throughout a lifetime, leading us to be better persons.
What are the Other Terminologies Related to Lifelong Learning?
Continuing education, adult education, and lifelong learning are synonyms that refer to an educational or training process for professional and personal skill enhancement and enrichment, which enables an individual/ organisation/ a society to succeed.
Continuing and adult education began in the 20th century when the world moved to an industrialised economy, which demanded that the working adults quickly adapt to industry changes and rapidly identify solutions for obstacles or barriers in the organisation encountered in the quest for upward career mobility and job enhancement. Thus, they needed to seek out opportunities for further learning or training. Similarly, the shift to the knowledge-based society (because of the technological advancement) in the 21st century also drove the demand for further education or training, spawning lifelong learning. The driving forces and the rationale behind these concepts are similar. Thus, as Courtney (1989) states, adult education, adult learning, continuing education, community education, lifelong learning, etc., have all been used to explain the same thing, at one time or the other.
Yet, it is believed that lifelong learning has a broader coverage than continuing and adult education, as it is not restricted to the education or training from adulthood only. Learning how to talk or ride a bicycle (from childhood) is a good example of lifelong learning. It is also not limited to work-related skills. Learning a new sport or a new language demonstrates lifelong learning. Because of its holistic element, the term lifelong learning is widely accepted in the literature and policy discussions (Laal et al., 2014).
What are the Differences between Traditional and Lifelong Learning?
In order to quickly adapt to industry changes, traditional learning was challenged, and more opportunities were created for lifelong learning. World Bank (2003) summarised the differences between traditional and lifelong learning as follows:
Differences between Traditional Learning and Lifelong Learning
(adapted from World Bank (2003) and Chan (2009))
From the above, we find that one of the major differences between traditional and lifelong learning is that lifelong learning focuses learning on learners/students. Such learner-centred (or student-focused) perspective distinguishes lifelong learning from traditional learning.
What are the Examples of Lifelong Learning?
Lifelong learning is a holistic approach of learning, which covers:
the development of a new skill, such as talking, walking, riding, and biking (from childhood), sewing, cooking, programming (from adulthood), and so on;
the learning of a new sport or activity, such as martial arts, skiing, and exercise;
the learning of new technology, like smart devices, new software applications, etc.;
the acquisition of new knowledge, for example, taking a self-interest course online or face-to-face classrooms; and
a wide range of self-taught studies, including, but not limited to, learning a new language, researching a topic of interest, and subscribing to a podcast.
These are examples of lifelong learning competencies that we engage in on a daily basis. They confirm that lifelong learning extends beyond the boundaries of the formal education system and has no age limits.
Do you have any experience of lifelong learning?
Are You Dedicated to Lifelong Learning?
If you are literate in lifelong learning, you should:
be curious about learning;
be proactive to learn;
recognise the need of self-improvement; and
commit to self-development.
Elaborating on these mindsets, Knapper and Cropley (2000) and Love (2011) suggest that lifelong learners:
Understand the broader environment (e.g., social, political, technical) surrounding their profession;
Take responsibility for planning their own learning and for the identification of knowledge deficiencies and learning opportunities in their fields;
Seek certifications associated with their profession;
Assess their own learning (or ask their peers to assess their learning), and take learning action based on assessment and reflection;
Learn in both formal and informal settings or adopt different learning strategies for different situations;
Learn from their peers, teachers, mentors, etc.;
Learn outside their profession;
Integrate knowledge from different subject areas when required; and thus,
Are active rather than passive learners.
Are You Dedicated to Lifelong Learning?
Why is Lifelong Learning Important?
There are many reasons to explain why lifelong learning is important in this 21st century. For example:
Adapting to New Changes
Knapper and Cropley (2000) suggest that the importance of lifelong learning lies in its helping learners adapt to new changes in the knowledge-based society. For instance, lifelong learning helps meet:
The expanding educational needs and expectations of students from increasingly diverse backgrounds;
The needs of new occupations and careers and the rapid transformation of others;
The explosive needs in knowledge and technology, especially in the 21st century, which is an information society; and
The needs of economic restructuring and organisational reforms, and changes in the workplace and career patterns.
Nordstrom (2008) suggests that lifelong learning is important because it helps:
Open our minds;
Create a curious, hungry mind;
Increase our wisdom;
Find meaning in our lives;
Make ourselves happier;
Make new friends and establish valuable social relationships;
Improve our physical and mental health; and
Keep us involved as active contributors to the society.
In sum, lifelong learning is important because it changes our lives and prepares us to face future challenges. For growing into a better person and for creating a better world, we should never stop learning.
How is Lifelong Learning Developed?
What are the Unique Challenges of Lifelong Learning?
Lifelong learning is a holistic approach of learning. Due to its broad coverage and wide scope, lifelong learning is challenging not only to the learners themselves, but also to the governments.
Lifelong learning is not easy to learners, as there are not many incentives. We do not have a strong motivation to start and sustain our self-directed learning. We may get tired and give up learning easily. Further, we may not have enough money, time, and space to learn. Formal, non-formal, and informal learning activities could be very costly, especially those offered by the accredited institutions. To make lifelong learning successful, governments also need to play a crucial role to create a suitable learning environment for the society. All these factors drive us away from learning after formal education.
Solutions to Lifelong Learning Challenges
There is no universal strategy for overcoming the challenges posed by lifelong learning worldwide. There is a clear need for each country to develop its own tactics to deal with issues in the promotion and implementation of lifelong learning. Bengtsson (2013) suggested some common steps for achieving lifelong learning in the society:
Governments, social partners, non-profit government organisations, universities, and education and research communities should establish close cooperation for promoting and implementing lifelong learning;
Governments should come up with a clear roadmap (accepted by all the stakeholders) for lifelong learning implementation; and
Governments should develop a set of indicators to track the progress of implementation and evaluate the quality of the lifelong learning system.
More specifically, Ayas (2015) suggested that the governments could:
Develop a greater public awareness and culture of lifelong learning in the society;
Increase opportunities and provision for lifelong learning;
Improve coordination and governance of the lifelong learning system;
Monitor and evaluate the lifelong learning system regularly to ensure its quality;
Improve linkages between education and work;
Improve lifelong learning guidance and counselling for citizens;
Provide an incentive to support lifelong learning (such as developing a national qualifications framework and providing adequate and effective financial subsidies); and thus
to build an effective lifelong learning system in the society. By doing so, it is hoped that the learners will be motivated and pursue learning over a lifetime.
How Should I Assess Lifelong Learning?
Lifelong learning is a continuous building of skills and knowledge throughout a lifetime. It occurs through several life experiences, such as work-integrated learning (Sproule et al., 2019) and project-based learning like the capstone projects (Bhuyan, 2021; Kapusuz & Can, 2014) at universities, the life after university graduation (Cournoyer & Stanley, 2002) and retirement (Lam et al., 2010). As lifelong learning refers to the learning activities over a lifetime and is as such difficult to assess, the following ways of assessment are suggested.
(Electronic) Portfolios/Reflection + Rubrics
(Electronic) Portfolios is an important way to evaluate lifelong learning skills because they ask the students/learners to articulate their learning objectives, self-assess how and to what extent these objectives have been met, and reflect on how to improve the lifelong learning skills in the future. Cournoyer and Stanley (2002) demonstrated how to prepare a portfolio for the social work students to use as a learning guide, and following graduation, as a tool to maintain their social work licenses or other pertinent professional credentials. Such a portfolio functions as a bridge between undergraduate education and working life and provides evidence for future employment by presenting the students’ assignments and projects, as well as learning and achievements. These documentations serve as a qualitative window into the students’ capabilities. To further quantify them, a lifelong learning questionnaire was designed by Cournoyer and Stanley (2002), suggesting self-assessment of the capabilities.
Examples of Assessment Approaches for Lifelong Learning
Reflection assignments also serve a purpose similar to (electronic) portfolios, by asking the students to assess and reflect on their learning activities, providing evidence for the assessment of lifelong learning. Sproule et al. (2019) assessed the lifelong learning of students in accounting and financial management through the reflection assignments, after they completed their work-integrated learning. Two reflection assignments were submitted: (1) The Major Reflective Report, and (2) The Reflection and Personalised Development Plan. In the first reflection, the students were asked to respond to a series of prompts on their knowledge, skills, and values after their first work term. The second reflective assignment required the students to reflect on their experiences, assessing their growth and then setting learning and development goals consistent with the development of successful accounting and/or finance professionals. These two reflective assignments were evaluated using the Lifelong Learning Rubric with five dimensions of lifelong learning (i.e., curiosity, initiative, transfer, reflection, and resilience). For details, please refer to the following Rubric.
Lifelong Learning Rubric (Adapted from Sproule et al., 2019)
Portfolios and reflections document assess the student performance in lifelong learning through a specific learning activity, which takes quite a lot of time for completion. To perform a quick check of whether the students are lifelong learners, questionnaires are suggested to measure their lifelong learning characteristics. For example, Deakin Crick et al. (2004) attempted to assess lifelong learning through a long 75-item questionnaire (the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory, ELLI), covering seven domains, viz., changing and learning, critical curiosity, meaning-making, dependence and fragility, creativity, learning relationship, and strategic awareness (Deakin Crick & Yu, 2008; Deakin Crick et al., 2004). Thorough as it was, ELLI failed to address some important characteristics of lifelong learning, such as the setting of learning goals/objectives, and the self-evaluation of learning. Kirby et al. (2010) added these constructs into evaluation and developed a generic lifelong learning scale with 14 items (designated the Kirby LLS), covering five domains of lifelong learning, viz., goal setting, application of knowledge and skills, self-direction and self-evaluation, information location, and learning strategy adaption, suggested by Knapper and Cropley (2000). Chen et al. (2013) replicated Kirby et al. (2010)’s instrument to assess the lifelong learning competency of 356 engineering students in a cross-sectional study. Results indicated that the engineering students did not develop all the lifelong learning traits but only some of them, like application of knowledge and skills and learning strategy adaption (Chen et al., 2013). In addition, no significant gains were shown throughout a student’s academic career, indicating that either these traits were well developed before students entered the university or, sadly, they were not being developed during their college life (Chen et al., 2013). Overall, the self-perception questionnaires are considered an acceptable strategy (Strauss & Terenzini, 2005), especially when evaluating the lifelong learning of a large population. A sample self-perception questionnaire for lifelong learning assessment is shown below:
Lifelong Learning Questionnaire (Adapted from Chen et al., 2013)
In sum, both questionnaires and rubrics are commonly used to measure lifelong learning. Questionnaires are particularly useful to evaluate the competency of lifelong learning in a large student population in a short time. On the other hand, portfolios, and reflections, supported by rubrics, quantify the performance more explicitly in grades and marks (with feedback based on the grade descriptors); however, they are more labour-intense and time-consuming. Both methods have their strengths and weaknesses. To increase the validity of lifelong learning assessment, multiple methods (e.g., questionnaires and interviews) are recommended to characterise the abilities in lifelong learning.
For more details about other terminologies related to lifelong learning, please visit:
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For more benefits of lifelong learning, please refer to the following references:
Ezeofor, O. (n.d.). Benefits of Lifelong Learning. Retrieved from: https://lern.org/article/benefits-of-lifelong-learning/
Meridian Knowledge Solutions. (2020). The 5 Benefits of Lifelong Learning. Retrieved from: https://www.meridianks.com/career-development/top-5-benefits-of-lifelong-learning/
Powers, K. (2015). 8 Benefits of Lifelong Learning. Retrieved from: https://ed4career.com/blog/8-benefits-lifelong-learning
Walden University. (2021). The Many Benefits of Lifelong Learning. Retrieved from: https://www.waldenu.edu/programs/resource/the-many-benefits-of-lifelong-learning
These listed benefits can serve as reasons why we need to keep on learning.
Ayas, A. (2015). Challenges and barriers in implementing lifelong learning in developing countries. International Journal on New Trends in Education and Their Implications, 6(3), 1-9.
Bengtsson, J. (2013). National strategies for implementing lifelong learning (lifelong learning )–the gap between policy and reality: An international perspective. International Review of Education, 59(3), 343-352.
Bhuyan, M. H. (2021). Assessing ‘lifelong learning’ through the capstone design project of BSc in EEE Programme. International Journal of Learning and Teaching, 13(1), 13-31.
Chan, A. Y. M. (2009). The Lifelong Learning Education Reform in Hong Kong: A Review from the Perception of Frontline Teachers (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/bitstream/10453/35941/2/02whole.pdf
Chen, J. C., Lord, S. M., & McGaughey, K. J. (2013). Engineering Students’ Development as Lifelong Learners. Atlanta: American Society for Engineering Education-ASEE. Retrieved from http://eproxy.lib.hku.hk/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/conference-papers-proceedings/engineering-students-development-as-lifelong/docview/2317862746/se-2?accountid=14548
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Love, D. (2011). Lifelong learning: Characteristics, skills, and activities for a business college curriculum. Journal of Education for Business, 86(3), 155-162.
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