5 Whys for Lifelong Learning & the Role of Learning Organizations

We’ve talked about “lifelong learning” for decades but what do we mean by that phrase, how is it different from the past, and what are the implications for learning organizations? On one level, it is simply learning throughout life, but there are different arguments for the importance of lifelong learning that give us a more complete understanding of the term. As such, following are five ways of thinking about it along with a few thoughts on the role of learning organizations and education companies in each of these areas. Advocates for lifelong learning do not necessarily separate it into these distinct categories, but doing so sometimes helps us develop a richer understanding of the phrase across contexts. Doing this is also critical for learning organizations and educational companies that are considering their role in supporting different types of lifelong learning.

A Life of Many Chances

As Jacques Delors explains,

“In the 1996 report, the UNESCO Commission on Education places a strong interest on lifelong learning…the further we evolve in a society that is both fixed and constantly changing, in the context of globalization, the more we become aware of the centrality of education, the central nature of education in society, and we defined four objectives relating to education that, it seems to me, are still relevant today:

  1.  learning to know – a world subject to major evolutionary change, but which also entails learning to know history and scientific discoveries;
  2. learning to do – by which I mean having access to necessary competencies;
  3. learning to live together – undoubtedly the most important of all in the world riven with inequalities, fundamentalism and wars;
  4. and finally learning to be – in other words, getting to know oneself better in order to gain self-confidence.

Delors goes on to explain that a critical why behind lifelong and adult learning is to fill gaps that were missed in primary education and to address inequities that result from having those gaps. This might include a person who grew up in a community or part of the world with poor or limited access to early education, but it also includes someone who missed important lessons due to various life and social circumstances. Should such a person be restricted from the many jobs and opportunities of life because of those early experiences? Proponents of lifelong learning like Delors argues that this should not be the case, and we can help by giving learning experiences throughout the life span that are substantive, accessible and equalizing. This is a vision for lifelong learning that rejects the idea that, if you missed it the first time, then you just have the live with the consequences.

What is the role of learning organizations?

As we look at this why, learning organizations contribute by creating opportunities for formal education that has a low entrance barrier, embracing the opportunity and challenge to help people address potential gaps in their learning. This might come through degree programs, certificates, stand alone courses, as well as non-credit offerings. There are also organizations dedicated to helping people gain the pre-requisite skills to be successful in future formal learning. In addition, education companies provide inexpensive learning solutions, often available online, that help people fill gaps and gain skills that increase one’s employability.

In some ways, this was a large part of the early vision behind the online learning revolution that launched in the 1990s and is already integrated with mainstream approaches to both K-12 and higher education. Online learning continues to increase access and opportunity. It started by reaching out to those who were not served or undeserved in traditional contexts, and it has now gained a solid grounding in the broader landscape of P-20 education. Today online learning is one of many forces that is helped move higher education from an education of the elite to an opportunity for the majority.

 Living & Learning in a World of Constant Change

Others focus on the reality of modern life, that lessons learned in school five, ten or twenty years ago are not enough to prepare us for the constantly changing world in which we live. We must embrace a mindset and commitment to ongoing learning: acquiring new knowledge, skills, mindsets…and we must further develop important character traits as we face increasingly complex challenges and gain access to greater opportunities. Within this perspective on lifelong learning, we see champions of ongoing formal and informal learning experiences. We notice reminders that education can’t be segmented into an early stage of life, as if you get and education and then go on with the rest of your life. Learning does not stop with primary school, secondary school, a first college degree or even a doctorate or other terminal degree. It requires a lifelong commitment.

What is the role of learning organizations?

Here learning organizations are partnering with companies to provide formal and custom training to meet the changing needs of organizations, and the changing demands of work in these organizations. There remain many leaders and individuals who are overwhelmed and less interested in the “teach a man to fish” approach. They want packaged training and educational programming that will help them achieve their goals and meet the immediate demands. As such, there is a massive market for startups, educational publishers and content providers, and traditional learning organizations who are willing to partner around these goals, or to simply create and market produces and courses that address high-demand training needs.

MOOCs, personal learning networks, online communities of practices and many other develops are helping to meets some of these needs as well.

Preparing for Life in a World of Constant Change

This is largely the same argument as the last, but the difference is on the preparation. Now we are looking at the approach to lifelong learning that is less focused on creating increased access and opportunity to ongoing learning experiences, and more focused on equipping people to be competent and confidence self-directed learners. It is a survival skills approach. Make sure people can survive and thrive in a constantly changing world by being able to own and manage their own learning, becoming confident as both the designers of and general contractors for a life of continual learning. This is something that can be nurtured in formative years, but it can also be developed in adulthood. This short video from Salman Khan illustrates this perspective.

What is the role of learning organizations?

We see more learning organizations embracing the importance of a curriculum that is not simply about learning to know, but about learning to learn. On the K-12 level, there are schools fully committed to nurturing a generation of self-directed learning by creating new types of learning environments where students take greater ownership for how and what they learn. The same thing is happening in some higher education institutions as well as new approaches to professional development in the workplace (like Jay Cross’s excellent work around informal learning).

There are countless online resources and communities to support people who want to learn how to learn, but it takes a certain measure of drive and initiative to pursue them. As such, formal learning organizations and educational companies still have a role to play to help people learn how to help themselves. This might seem counter-intuitive from a business perspective. Why would you want to equip people so well that they don’t need you anymore? Yet, that is the ultimate aim of all great education. While it may seem this way at first glance, I am certain that any organization capable of nurturing and empowering deeply competent and highly confident self-directed learners will have no problem addressing the financial realities of running a learning organization or educational company. Besides, being a self-directed learner is not about being a lone-ranger learner. As such, there will continue to be a valuable role for learning organizations that help people connect, collaborate, network, and co-learn.

Preparing for Changes in Life Circumstances

Just as the world around us is in constant change, people make changes in their lives; and those changes often require new learning, formal and/or informal. As Jeanne Meister points out, Job Hopping is the New Normal for Millennials, with an average of 4.4 years in a job. Some are shifting a job in one organization to a similar one in another. Others are making small or massive career shifts. Both often (or almost always) require some measure of retraining, retooling, and new learning. Sometimes these changes are by choice. Other times, people experience changes in their lives beyond their control that require them to look for new lines of work.

What is the role of learning organizations?

Adult education programs in community and technical colleges, traditional Universities, online schools, and other organizations already offer a multitude of options for this purpose. There is no evidence that this is slowing. There will continue to be huge demand for programs and services that help people transition from one context to another, or that prepare people to do so through formal and informal education (and training) programs. Any program, product or service that proves its value in helping people make these changes will find plenty of opportunities.

Ongoing Personal & Professional Development, and Peak Performance

A fourth why for lifelong learning relates to the traits of those who achieve true expertise and excellence in one or more domains. It is about reaching new heights in one’s life, goals and aspirations. How does a concert pianist become that skilled and continue to develop throughout her career? How does one grow as an increasingly effective or excellent leader, educator, government official, parent, community organizer, gardener, designer, or entrepreneur? This is an area that has its own domains and disciplines, and is sometimes separated from what we refer to as lifelong learning, but it is certainly a vibrant part of learning throughout life.

What is the role of learning organizations?

At different stages of life, people experience plateaus. Sometimes this leads to frustration, other times to boredom. Achieving new goals, growing and improving helps people remain engaged in their work. Companies want people who are deeply engaged in their work in ways that help the organization achieve its goals. Similarly, there are many other aspects of a person’s life that are important to them: health and wellness, family and relationships, avocations and hobbies, leadership capacity for future possibilities, financial goals, citizenship and activism. As such, there remains a valuable role for learning organizations that help people improve and advance through training, resources to help with accountability, networking with like-minded peopled, formal coaching and mentoring, rich and engaging interactive content with feedback, along with guides and tips for taking things to the next level.

Lifelong learning is the new normal. It is a perspective on education that has largely shattered past notions of education as something limited to primary school, secondary school, a college degree, or a formal training program. The shift from a schooling to an education mindset is largely complete, even as some only focus on the former. What does this mean for learning organizations? As I see it, this further solidifies the value of agile, innovative, and learner-centered organizations. It invites them to consider the distinct role(s) they will play in the 70+ year education of people in the modern era.