Lifelong learning: some food for thought

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Lifelong learning has become a universal panacea: the Holy Grail, winning the lottery, a double Scotch, Viagra, whatever turns you on.

So says Maggie Woodrow, Executive Director of the European Access Network based at the University of Westminster, in an article for The Journal of the Institute for Access Studies and The European Access Network entitled 'The Struggle for the Soul of Lifelong Learning'.

The article aims to expose what Woodrow terms the contradictions inherent in the definition and concept of lifelong learning, and to offer some ways of clarifying the issues involved.

Woodrow says it is difficult to establish exactly what lifelong learning is, because it means different things to different people. 'Lifelong', for example, can be used to define people of working age, or extended at either end of the age spectrum. In addition, although some countries emphasise the essential difference between lifelong learning, adult, or continuing education, elsewhere the three are treated as one part of the same.

The idea behind viewing lifelong learning as inclusive as a way to encourage those who had bad experiences at school to return to learning seems to be failing on several counts. Woodrow cites research by the Higher Education Funding Council for England undertaken a few years ago, using post code data, shows that "the pattern of participation by social group for mature entrants is not very different from young entrants".

Considering lifelong learning as both formal and informal learning will help to include those who find formal learning institutions intimidating. Woodrow quotes a UNESCO definition of lifelong learning as a natural part of the everyday lives of men and women, but questions what constitutes 'everyday learning'? If everyone is engaged in it, Woodrow says there is a danger of trivialising learning by "equating it with the incidental and effortless acquisition of superficial information".

In addition, those who have no access to technology, little motivation and who have been switched off from learning in the past are those least likely to learn successfully in informal ways. The emphasis on the learner as an independent learner making decisions for themselves, is, argues Woodrow, a problem for those who have low motivation, poor experience of formal learning and have a lack of existing qualifications. In addition, Woodrow says that market forces pushing adult education will only serve to increase the differences between the haves and have-nots.

Woodrow says the solution should be to concentrate on the collective benefits of disadvantaged groups instead, but that there is no sign of this happening. With the latest push towards lifelong learning being driven by economic imperatives, however, a question mark hangs over the role of lifelong learning as "a renaissance for a new Britain".

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