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date: 14 October 2019

Lifelong Learning: Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

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.

Keywords: learning theory, learning research, continuous learning, adaptive change, generative learning

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.

Creating Learning Environments

Sternberg (1997) argued that society needs a broad understanding of intelligence as “the mental abilities necessary for adaptation to, as well as shaping and selection of, any environmental context” (p. 1036). Students perform better when they learn in a way that lets them capitalize on their strengths and compensate for and remediate their weaknesses. As such, instruction and assessment should be diverse to allow for learner-guided methods for encoding and applying subject matter.

Tannenbaum (1998) described how salient aspects of an organization’s work environment can influence whether continuous learning will occur. He surveyed over 500 people in seven organizations. The results showed that every organization has a unique learning profile and relies on different sources of learning to develop individual competencies.

Zairi and Whymark (2000) showed how the transfer of learning can become embedded in an organization. They described the case of Xerox’s and Nationwide Building Society’s continuous quality improvement training and processes, started in the 1970s, which became the basis for the company’s later culture of quality improvement through its business excellence certification process.

Other Handbooks of Lifelong Learning

Several handbooks of lifelong learning examine alternative views of lifelong learning. In the introduction to his handbook, Jarvis (2008) focused on the awareness of the gap between what we know and do not know as the stimulus for learning at any stage of life. In today’s complex world, the challenge of a learning gap is increasingly frequent, making lifelong learning a habit for many people. Learning becomes necessary to ensure employability and career progression (Jarvis, 2007). Employers recognize the need to provide learning opportunities to keep their employees, and their companies, competitive (Department for Education and Employment, 1998). From a societal perspective, nonindustrialized societies have more to learn, and learning is more nuanced and complex in industrialized societies (think knowledge workers; Jarvis, 2008). His handbook (Jarvis, 2008) focuses on the learner and the societal and international context. It examines where people learn, the modes of learning, social movements, and national policies that support lifelong learning.

The International Handbook of Lifelong Learning, edited by Aspin, Chapman, Hatton, and Sawano (2001), proposed policies and an agenda for schools in the 21st century, arising from the concept of the learning community and transformations of information technology, globalization, and the move toward a knowledge economy. “We are now living in a new age in which the demands are so complex, so multifarious and so rapidly changing that the only way in which we shall be able to survive them is by committing to a process of individual, communal, and global learning throughout the lifespan of all of us.”

Focusing on transformative learning, King’s (2009) Handbook of the Evolving Research of Transformative Learning Based on the Learning Activities Survey recognizes the multiple ways that people make meaning of their lives. “Transformational learning theory serves as a comprehensive way to (p. 6) understand the process whereby adult learners critically examine their beliefs, assumptions, and values in light of acquiring new knowledge and correspondingly shift their worldviews to incorporate new ideas, values and expectations” (King, 2002, p. 286). Phases of transformative learning include experiencing disorientation (e.g., recognizing a learning gap), self-examination, critical assessment of assumptions, realizing that others have experienced similar processes, exploring options, forming an action plan, and reintegration (cf. Mezirow and Associates, 2000; Cranton, 1997).

Wang and King’s edited book (2007) focused on workplace competencies and instructional technology advances for vocational education to support workforce competitiveness. Longworth (2003) considered policy implications of lifelong learning.

Evers, Rush, and Berdrow (1998), addressing instructional development specialists, academic leaders, and faculty members in all types of postsecondary institutions, explained what skills and competencies students need to succeed in today’s workplace. They suggested how colleges and universities can strengthen the curriculum to cultivate those skills in their undergraduate students. The book is based on research that asked executives and university presidents to identify technical skills essential for workplace mastery. These skills include managing self, communicating, managing people and tasks, and mobilizing innovation and change.

Scope of the Field

In my chapter on lifelong learning for the Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (London, in press), I examined lifelong learning from the standpoint of organizational needs and expectations, the importance of learning and development for career growth, individual differences in propensity for continuous learning, and support and reinforcement for development. I pointed out that trends driving continuous learning include pressures to maintain competitiveness and readiness to meet future needs influenced by such factors as globalization, changing technology, emphasis on sustainability, and economic cycles. I noted that support for learning includes the corporate environment and culture, the emergence of learning organizations, empowerment for self-development, and formal and informal methods of development. I discussed technological advances in career development, such as online multisource feedback surveys, just-in-time coaching, and Web-based training.

Understanding lifelong learning requires analyzing the societal, cultural, and organizational trends that drive continuous learning opportunities and behavior. Continuous learning has become a core competence for employees at all career stages (Hall & Mirvis, 1995). “Lifelong learning is an essential challenge for inventing the future of our societies; it is a necessity rather than a possibility or a luxury to be considered” (Fischer, 2000, p. 265). In particular, consider the implications of lifelong learning for the growing body of professionals who are “permalancers” (Kamenetz, 2007). These individuals freelance their work as opportunities are available. They need to be aware of developments in their field of experience and may even have to change career directions in order to remain employed as they move from one temporary position to another. For most everyone, and especially knowledge workers, the complexity of our knowledge society poses information overload, the advent of high-functioning systems, and a climate of rapid technological change that demands continuous learning (Fischer, 2000).

Livingstone’s (2000) study of informal learning in Canada examined self-reported learning activities from a 1998 telephone survey of a national sample of 1,562 Canadian adults. The study found that more than 95% of the respondents reported being involved in some form of explicit informal learning activities that they considered significant, spending approximately 15 hours per week on informal learning on average, compared to an average of 4 hours per week in organized education courses. The most commonly cited areas of informal learning were computer skills for employment, communications skills through community volunteer activities, home renovations and cooking skills, and general interest learning about health issues.

Theories of Learning and Education

In my summary article describing the field of lifelong learning (London, in press), I noted that theories of learning and development focus on the interaction among environmental conditions, individual differences, task demands, educational technology, and career opportunities across the life span. Scholars have developed models of lifelong learning. For instance, Kozlowski and Farr (1988) developed and tested an interactionist framework to predict employee participation in updating skills. They highlight that innovation, adaptation to innovative change, and effective performance require up-to-date technical skills and knowledge obtained through (p. 7) participation in professional activities, continuing education, and new work assignments. Moreover, individual characteristics (e.g., technical curiosity and interest, readiness to participate in professional and continuing education activities) and contextual features (e.g., support for continued training, work characteristics that allow autonomy, and on-the-job support for learning, including feedback, the need to work with others, having a range of job functions, encountering novel problems, and uncertainty of outcomes) jointly affect individuals’ perceptions of need to learn and eventual participation in learning. People differ in their motivation to learn and in their ability to be self-directed in identifying need for learning and to control their engagement in learning (Candy, 1991). People develop a learning orientation as a positive feeling about learning (cf. Maurer, 2002) and form mastery learning goals (Bandura, 1986; Dweck, 1986). A “reflective practice” of viewing experiences as opportunities for learning and reexamining assumptions, values, methods, policies, and practices supports continuous learning habits (Marsick & Watkins, 1992). People learn to value and seek feedback to help them improve their performance (London & Smither, 2002)

Life Span Development

Lifelong learning is knowledge-intensive and fluid. The clear divide between education followed by work is not as clear as it once was (Fischer, 2000). As such, considerable theory and research has focused on life span development. Vygotsky (1978) called the difference between an individual’s current level of ability and accomplishment and the individual’s potential level the zone of proximal development. Learning stimulates awareness of potential and of the gap between current knowledge and skills and one’s potential level. This awareness stimulates more mature, internal development processes. People become aware that they need to learn and they also become more aware of how they learn. As this occurs, they are likely to try more complex ways of learning that require deeper thinking and learning. According to Kegan’s model of life span development (see, for instance, Kegan, 1982, 1994; Kegan & Lahey, 2001), a person moves to increasingly complex “orders of mind,” deeper levels of self-understanding and awareness of how others see the world—qualitatively different levels of social construction:

  1. Stage 1: Cognitive processes of a young child.

  2. Stage 2: Older children, teens, and some adults whose feelings are inseparable from those of others.

  3. Stage 3: (“Traditionalism”) Teens and many adults who distinguish between their own and others’ viewpoints but feel responsible for others’ feelings. As such, they are terrific team players. More than fifty percent of all adults do not proceed beyond this third stage.

  4. Stage 4: (“Modernism”) People who have a sense of self that is separate from a connection to others. They are autonomous and self-driven, self-governing and principled, but they do not quite understand the limits of self-governing systems.

  5. Stage 5: (“Postmodern”) People who come to recognize the limits of their own system of principles—a stage of cognitive development that happens before midlife, if it is reached at all.

Learning experiences must be structured to recognize how people interpret events and deal with challenges that require a higher level of cognitive and emotional functioning. Some are more able than others.

Other stage models focus on ages and related life and career transitions. Hall’s (1976) career growth curve distinguishes between (1) exploration and trial (between ages 15 and 30), (2) establishment and advancement (ages 30–45), and (3) (after age 45) continued growth, maintenance, or decline and disengagement. Levinson’s (1997) career growth curve distinguished between (1) preadulthood (birth to about age 22), the formative period of defining and developing relationships and gaining a sense of self; (2) early adulthood (ages 17–45), when the individual defines and develops relationships and gains a sense of independence, the biologically peak years that may include the emergence of satisfaction from career advancement, creativitiy, and achievement of major goals or may be marked by disappointment and stress with overwhelming financial obligations, marriage problems, and parenting troubles; and possible (3) midlife transition (ages 40–45), with a new sense of individuation and contentment; (4) middle adulthood (ages 40–65), with diminished biological capacity but potential for personally and socially satisfying life and mentoring others; and (5) late adult transition (60–65 and beyond) with the potential for continued generative and reflective development, but for many, a time of physical or mental decline.

Theories about how people learn distinguish between reflective/passive learners, who learn by watching and listening, and experiential/active learners, who learn by doing (Kolb, 1984; Boyatzis (p. 8) & Kolb, 1991; Mainemelis, Boyatzis, & Kolb, 2002). Experiential learning occurs as individuals engage in exercises and on-the-job experiences that are unexpected and pose challenges. Van Velsor and Guthrie (1998) distinguished between four learning tactics: thinking, taking action, asking others, and dealing with one’s feelings; they suggest most individuals prefer one learning style but may use several.

Sessa and London (2006; London & Sessa, 2006; 2007) distinguished between adaptive, generative, and transformative learning. Adaptive learning is reactive, changing in minor ways or not at all depending on pressures or opportunities in the environment. Generative learning is proactive. Generative learners challenge themselves to become experts, seeking and trying new behaviors, skills, and knowledge (Senge, 1990). They take the initiative instead of expecting to be told what they need to learn and when they need to learn it. Transformative learning is reconstructing meaning and changing modes of operating in fundamental and dramatic way. People are ready to learn generatively and transformatively when they are high in such characteristics as self-efficacy, internal locus of control, extraversion, mastery learning orientation, cognitive ability, conscientiousness, self-monitoring, feedback seeking, openness to new experiences, and public self-consciousness (London & Smither, 1999a).

Resources for Learning

Learning is both an individual and organizational responsibility. People do the learning, and must be motivated and take action to learn. The organization needs to provide the resources to enable and reward learning. An environment that empowers people to learn provides individuals with nonthreatening performance feedback, ensures choices for learning, encourages feedback seeking, and rewards participation in learning activities (London & Smither, 1999b). In such an environment, managers support and reward employees who “(1) anticipate learning requirements, by, for instance, identifying areas for future job requirements and implications for needed skill updates, (2) set development goals that reflect needed knowledge and skill structures, (3) participate in learning activities, (4) ask for feedback to test goal relevance, and (5) track progress” (London & Smither, 1999b, p. 11).

Support and resources for learning comes from employers, educational institutions, and readily available resources, such as the Internet. An organizational culture for learning encourages discussing performance requirements, assessing performance, and providing in-the-moment coaching and feedback about performance (DeNisi & Kluger, 2000; Hall, 2001). Learning organizations are environments that are ripe with continuous change and that support experimentation. Learning organizations support learning at three levels: “(1) individual, through continuous opportunities, inquiry, and dialog; (2) team, through action learning and collaboration; and (3) organization, through systems that capture learning, empower participants, and link to the environment” (Marsick & Watkins, 1996, p. 18). Formal training options include classroom/in-person training and distance/e-learning, just-in-time on-the-job training, Web-based training delivery, methods that blend Web-based with in-person training and formal training. Informal training is learning from experiences and challenges (career transition points, such as job transfers, exposure to different cultures, and being responsible for visible and difficult job assignments).

Organizational systems that promote learning need to take into account individual, group, and organizational factors (Kozlowski, Chao, & Jensen, 2009). At the individual level, required task and teamwork knowledge, skills, and abilities must be aligned with opportunities for acquiring technical and process knowledge through informal means, such as implicit learning, socialization, and mentoring, and formal means, such as workshops, courses, and on-the-job training, to increase employees’ task-relevant knowledge. At the group level, unit technology and work-flow structures must be aligned with chances to share knowledge through team learning and development, producing team members’ shared mental models, memory of how transactions are conducted, and the production and distribution of knowledge. At the organizational level, the organization’s mission, strategies, technologies, and structure must be aligned with a climate for learning and leadership training.

Focus of This Volume

This introductory section sets the stage by reviewing the scope of the handbook, identifying basic concepts and defining them, and relating continuous learning to environmental conditions, in particular, technological, economic, and organizational changes and individual motivation for learning and development across the life span.

(p. 9) The second section covers developmental theories and research. Chapters examine models of lifelong learning, the neurobiological bases for learning across the life span, developing self-awareness, and the value of experiential learning. Theoretical applications are considered within stages of the life span, including college students’ learning outside the classroom and a paradigm for intergenerational learning.

The third section is an extensive review of learning programs, tools, and technologies with a focus on corporate programs and business education. Chapters examine employee training and development, leadership development, continuing education, professionals as lifelong learners, and ways to foster students’ engagement in learning. One chapter considers the value of learning humanities as a foundation for critical thinking. Other chapters in the section consider tools and technologies such as assessment center applications, 360-degree survey feedback and coaching processes, electronic learning, and emerging wireless applications for access to learning through virtual environments.

The fourth section considers international perspectives on lifelong learning. The chapters in this section consider the implications of national cultures, and include a comparison of Western and Asian perspectives, a discussion of cross-national policy differences in school-to-work transitions, a look at alternative models of career development in Scandinavian countries, and a discussion of the impact of change and economic transformation on lifelong learning in Russia.

The fifth section focuses on emerging issues and challenges. Chapters examine the role of continuous learning in corporate performance management programs, gender-role and career opportunities for women, social entrepreneurship as a learning process, and the learning challenges faced by immigrants. Developmental issues for adults with learning disabilities are also examined.

The final sections address the importance of assessing learning needs and outcomes in lifelong learning support systems, emerging conceptualizations of adult training and learning, and lessons for educating tomorrow’s leaders. I conclude with an overview of trends and directions for lifelong learning programs and research.

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