Life Long Learning – The Quest For Knowledge, Or the Stimulation of Growth?


“Why are we here?”

“To discuss education.”

“Who wants to talk about that? Everything has already been said.”

“Very little has happened.”

“So why are you here?”

“To discuss the waste of children’s lives. Every child grows up in school. He spends 10 to 20 years in that environment. He is there when he is most open to new experience and least burdened by the practical responsibilities of existence. And the results are very meager. Something is wrong with the whole operation.”

“That’s easy enough to say. What would you change?”

“I would emphasis education for growth rather than for knowledge.” (Mann 1972).

From the moment we come into this world and take our first breath, learning is instinctive. As we grow, the world around us unfolds and new experiences ranging from intrigue and excitement, disappointment and fear, wet our appetites and feed our desire for more learning. As we grow older, life delivers a remarkable variety of complications and challenges and places us in environments over which we have little or no control. It is partly the way in which we fail; cope; conquer; or progress and learn that shapes our development. The society in which we live and the support we have available through our network of parental; family; peers; teachers; and mentors also facilitates our growth. Life long learning in a learning society is an aspiration which, as we will see later, is sadly not available to all, but those who grasp it, regardless of the constraints in which they live, win the opportunity to reach their full potential.

“Does some reader say, why should you touch this incident? And I answer, I have a library now of about three thousand volumes…; but in that first purchase lay the spark of a fire which has not yet gone down to the white ashes, the passion which grew with my growth, to read all the books in the early years I could lay my hands on, and in this wise prepare me in some fashion for the work I must do in the ministry…. I see myself in the far away time and cottage reading, as I may truly say in my case, for dear life. (Robert Collyer b.1823)

Rose (2001) is seeking to demonstrate that the power of reading at such an early age sustained Robert Collyer through his childhood, into his working years as a minister and the hunger remained in retirement. The catalyst? Simply the moment when, as a child labourer in a linen factory, he chose to pick up his first book, ‘The History of Whittington and his Cat’. This would suggest a strong argument to place the responsibility for lifelong learning in the hands of the individual, regardless of their circumstances. However, an opposite view is eloquently put by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and political philosopher, who was born into poverty.

“I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge.”

The twentieth Century has heard many debates calling for education to be freely accessible to all citizens as an integral lifelong process. (Yeaxlee, 1920, 25). As we will discuss later, however, the issue of class status can have a significant impact on the individual’s opportunity to reach their full potential.

Field (2000), identifies that the debates concerning lifelong learning took on a global perspective when educational representatives of the inter governmental bodies of the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) commissioned Edgar Faure, the former French Prime Minister to produce a report entitled ‘Learning to be’ in 1972. This was the start of transformational reform in education in many European countries. The report highlighted that education should be structured in such a way that it is made easily available for all individuals, for their whole life and that this would mean addressing social concerns of health, culture, environmental considerations and inclusion.

At the beginning of this essay, two educational issues were contrasted. The quest for knowledge, or the stimulation of growth? However, over the last thirty years a third element has crept in and clouded the direction and conclusions that our first two speakers may have followed. The impact of competition. The OECD began to influence a view that education should be tailored in terms of human capital, linking the need for governments to invest in life long education with the output being the creation of a workforce, sufficiently skilled to deliver economic prosperity. If the economy prospers, so will the individual.

The European Commissions white paper on education in 1994, highlighted the threats and opportunities of globalization, rapid and unprecedented development in information technology and science and the increasing role of Japan, U.S.A. and China in the world economy.

“Preparation for life in tomorrow’s world cannot be satisfied by once-and-for-all acquisition of knowledge and know-how….. All measures must therefore necessarily be based on the concept of developing, generalizing and systematizing lifelong learning and continuing training” (CEC 1994, p16, 136)

Another white paper produced by the Commission of The European Communities identifies that internationalization of trade and information technology will have major consequences for the skills needed in the global economy. The future and competitiveness of individual countries and indeed, collectives such as Europe, will become increasingly uncertain if they are unable to upskill the population.

“Europe is faced with a situation in which its success in terms of economic growth is not matched by an equal capacity to create jobs” (EC 1996 p5).

Lifelong learning is seen as the answer to the problem. Programmes such as Leonardo da Vinci, Socrates and Erasmus are designed to deliver inclusive educational policies and create opportunities for all areas of society to embark on the learning journey.

The UK Government white paper on Further Education, published in March 2006, accepted the main recommendation from the Foster report ‘to help gain the skills and qualifications for employability’. It also stated, however, that ‘this strong focus on economic impact does not come at the expense of social inclusion and equality of opportunity – the two reinforce one another’.

Coffield (2007) holds the view that Further Education in the UK has been driven to deliver only the former, to the cost of the latter. In his article ‘Are we on the right Road?’, Coffield highlights the positive improvements to education under the labour government, but then goes on to challenge the short-termism of their policies and the precarious journey the UK is currently taking which, without a change of culture, has only a slim chance of success.

Certainly the current UK government has done more than any other in terms of placing education higher in the agenda, by virtually doubling funding to the Learning Skills Council from £5.5 Billion in 2001-02 to £11.4 Billion 2007-08. This has engendered a diverse and flexible education system, responsive to educational needs and demands, allowing local innovation and second chances for the disaffected, with significant provision in FE from level 1 to 3. There are a number of excellent partnership programmes with employers and a network of Sector Skills Councils which meet the majority of employers’ current and future needs. There are reported high levels of satisfaction amongst student faculties and there is good career mobility. There is also a marked improvement in the provision and use of adult and community education, helping to increase social cohesion. Fundamentally there is a wealth of knowledge, enthusiasm, passion and desire in the teaching profession which has delivered all of the above.

On the downside, however, there are real concerns being voiced from many quarters that the UK educational policies are underwritten by one sole overriding objective that, in order to maintain our competitiveness and prosperity in the world economy, the population must be ‘given the skills and qualifications for employability’. The UK is performing badly in compulsory education, ranking 24th out of 28 OECD Countries, with a participation of 76% of 17 year olds and 23,000 children leaving school in 2006 without a single GCSE. With the emphasis on the need for employable qualifications and schools being league tabled to deliver, systems of testing knowledge and performance goals, rather than learning growth in schools, are leading to lower levels of self esteem and reducing levels of effort by the less successful students (Black et al 2002). At present 56% of 16 year olds are leaving school with 5 good GCSE’s. That means that 44% are leaving falling short of the recognised benchmark that has been established to reach the minimum standard necessary for employability, or indeed further hierarchal learning in Higher Education. However, a good plumber does not have to know algebra or the works of Shakespeare, so one could argue that the percentage leaving with 5 good GCSE’s has little relevance to the standards of employability except for those entering white collar employment. We don’t need all our dustmen to have 5 GCSE’s. If they did, perhaps they would be doing something else. Education only fails when an individual is cleaning a toilet, who has the capacity to be a rocket scientist. Coffield reports that:

“Educational policy continues to be based on three underlying and damaging assumptions: first, that ‘our future depends on our skills (Foster); second, that in all matters concerning vocational education and the skills strategy it is appropriate ‘to put employers in the driving seat’; and third, that market competition is essential to make providers efficient and responsive. All three of these assumptions have been roundly criticised for almost 30 years, but they continue to appear”

Looking at these three issues in turn, in 2005, Tony Blair claimed ‘A Country such as Britain in the 21st Century will succeed or fail by how it develops its human capital’. But this rather short sighted, one dimensional, liberalist view is driving education more down the road of exclusion, rather than inclusion, because it has the effect of measuring the validity and success of education only by its results. The increasing emphasis on delivery is causing pressures that are having a detrimental effect on the overall education system, which is evidenced by our standing in the OECD community. Even where the output is good, graduates in recent years have faced increasing competition from well educated and professionally trained graduates from countries such as China, India and as recent as Poland and are falling short of the standards they have attained. Coffield is scathing in his assessment of the treatment of teachers and the teaching profession, but perhaps the change of view from Tony Blair ‘We will ensure that the workforce can implement what they are asked to do’, to the view expressed by Gordon Brown, ‘To build trust, we must also listen more, hear more and learn more’, will result in more engagement of the teaching profession and more teacher and student led improvements in UK education over the coming months.

On the second issue of workplace learning and the role of employers, The Times Educational Supplement recently reported that ‘Employers have failed to back the Governments drive for a better skilled workforce’. Employers have demonstrated that they do not want the responsibility by failing, in the main, to train their workers. Perhaps this is because there is a greater demand at present for unskilled labour and employers in the UK now have the luxury of the overseas graduate market to pick and choose the best candidates. Furthermore, a survey of adult education participation produced in May 2007 by Niace, the national organisation for adult learning, reports:

“With 500,000 fewer adults in study now, compared with a year ago, the survey suggests the Train to Gain scheme, which compensates employers for money spent improving the basic skills of the workforce, is missing the mark.”

Looking at one of the UK’s largest business operations, The Royal Bank of Scotland Group, there is no overall corporate strategy to support the Governments initiatives, whether they fall under the guise of Train to Gain, Skills for Life or the 14-19 agenda. There is no work taking place at present to look at supporting the Business and Finance Diplomas due to be launched in 2008. Internally, training is left to local managers who are responsible for improving the performance of their staff, developing their skills and preparing individuals for future roles and responsibilities. With a lack of central co-ordination, this unfortunately results in huge differentiation in the quality of ‘local’ training and no synergy within the company. Hence it would be difficult to see how this organisation, which consists of approximately 30 different companies worldwide, (some of whom have Investors in People status and others who do not) could become engaged with Government sponsorship without a more centralised, co-ordinated approach. To its credit, the Bank does offer employees a vast range of training support schemes, both internally and in support of external qualifications such as MBA’s and degrees, but this is on the premise that individuals take responsibility for their own development and apply for the schemes that are available. The mantra ‘if it’s to be it’s up to me’ applies to the upskilling of the workforce in this organisation.

Large companies like the Royal Bank of Scotland have no real incentive to further the education of their employees; by paying well they will always get the best candidates available in the market place and the competition for progress within the company will ensure that the individual takes responsibility for their own development.

More is certainly asked of us now than ever before, with targets to achieve, efficiency measures, tight deadlines, high reported levels of stress, longer working hours and understaffing. As employers relentlessly seek to outperform their competitors and drive short term results, they appear to have put aside the investment in training and placed the onus on the individual to develop themselves in their own time. I would argue that this complacency has filtered through to large numbers of employees, who have not sought to develop themselves, often using the excuse of not having sufficient time to do so. Could the distractions of multi-media, internet, game consol’s and addictive, repetitive, non-educational television be to blame? Has the welfare state encouraged people not to strive for an education as they know that they will be looked after even if unemployable?

“If there is learning, there is also non-learning. People often fail to learn, or actively resist learning…. Consider the smokers… If there is education, there is also mis-education.” (Foley, 2004).

To gain more buy in from UK employers and employees, perhaps the Government should reconsider leaving the question of lifelong learning and training in the workplace to the sole discretion and complacency of employers. In this respect, they could take a leaf out of the book of the French government, who operate two tax exemption schemes; the apprenticeship tax (0.5% of payroll) for initial training and the training tax (1.5% of payroll among enterprises having ten or more employees, 0.15% among those having less), used primarily to finance lifelong learning of enterprise staff. The focus has shifted from general education and cultural development of staff towards continuous education and training for employment. All companies benefit in proportion to the number of employees they have. The scheme has led to increased training expenditures that surpass the total amount of taxes paid by enterprises.

The third point regarding the need for competition to make providers efficient and responsive, by it’s own inference, directs educational establishments towards being seen as successful educational providers. This perception can easily be manipulated by selecting only those candidates with the potential and motivation to succeed. Thus we have a legacy of schools expelling poor performing students to avoid an adverse effect on their league table results and Grammar schools and Universities operating strict selection criteria that ‘guarantees’ their success, often leaving Further Education to pick up the pieces. All the time league tables measure knowledge attainment rather than learning growth, this element of elitism in education is creating the legacy of widening the gap between the learning have’s and the learning have not’s,

The point is argued more strongly by Paulo Friere whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed is currently one of the most quoted educational texts (especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia).

Submerged in reality, the oppressed cannot perceive clearly the order which serves the interest of the oppressors whose image they have internalized. Chafing under the restrictions of this order, they often manifest a type of horizontal violence, striking out at their comrades for the pettiest of reasons; the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction toward the oppressor and his way of life. Sharing this way of life becomes an overpowering aspiration. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressor, to imitate him, to follow him. This phenomena is especially prevalent in the middle class oppressed, who yearn to be equal to the eminent men of the upper class. Self-depreciation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them. So often they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing and are incapable of learning anything that they are sick, lazy and unproductive, that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness.”

This opens the question as to whether the class societies in which we live have been founded as a form of eco-system, whereby those at the top of the food chain, ie the upper class and some elements of the middle classes, can only exist comfortably as long as there are lower classes to serve their needs. Someone needs to be there to collect the rubbish and deliver the harvest. Disney eloquently demonstrated this type of society in the film ‘Bugs Life’. Williamson (1998) quotes Salman Rushdie in this respect:

“Those who do not have the power of the story that dominates their lives – power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change – truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts”

Freire puts it in his own omniscient style:

“There is another fundamental dimension on the theory of oppressive action, which is as old as oppression itself. As the oppressor minority subordinates and dominates the majority, it must also divide it and keep it divided in order to remain in power. The minority cannot permit itself the luxury of tolerating the unification of the people, which would undoubtedly signify a serious threat to their own hegemony. Accordingly the oppressors halt any method (including violence) any action, which in even incipient fashion could awaken the oppressed to the need for unity. Concepts such as unity, organisation, and struggle are immediately labelled as dangerous to the oppressors for their realisation is necessary to actions of liberation.”

Today this is a global issue and surprisingly little has changed in peoples attitudes since the 18th Century which saw many examples of the unease felt by the educational middle classes, who according to Rose (2001) ‘found something profoundly menacing in the efforts of working people to educate themselves and write for themselves’. How true this remains in many countries in the world today and indeed, one could argue, in the very fabric of our current state education system. Do we really cater for all and do all we can to widen participation and include the lower classes? Class culture is still a feature in British society as well as on a world-wide scale, creating inequality, eroding self confidence, holding people back and depressing the further development of society.

Returning to Friere, however, he identifies that within each person lies an instinctive hunger and desire to better themselves and it is this overriding factor that links the issue of lifelong learning back to every learner and keeps the debate alive. To those that overcome all the obstacles, the world can become their oyster. Employment can certainly be one motivating factor to get people to make the most of educational opportunities, particularly those who are open to exploring future prospects and gaining new skills and qualifications that will enhance their lifestyle, self worth and identity. Coare and Thompson (1996) have collated a series of diaries from learners which explain that:

“a tentative first try at adult education has awakened a hunger for learning which may be fired by the thrill of mental and physical stimulation and new skills, or by the companionship and pleasure of learning as a group.”

Lifelong learning, however, is not just limited to the world of schools, colleges, universities and the workplace. It goes much deeper and broader into the fabric of society.

“One of the strongest themes to emerge from the diaries is that lifelong learning requires a deep routed learning culture – embedded in institutions and workplaces, in homes and communities and in our hearts and minds – which will support people to overcome the obstacles preventing access to, or participation in, adult education.”

Coare and Thompson include the story of Sue Townsend, who encapsulates my generation when she paints a picture of a 15 year old who couldn’t wait to leave school and become a sophisticated adult with huge dreams of living a comfortable, fulfilling life. Then hitting the ground of reality with the legacy of no qualifications; a resultant low paid job; an attempt to make up for lost time with night school; abandoned when falling in love and later in life feeling the pull of further/higher education:

“I sometimes think that learning is wasted on the young. They are contained in these places called schools at exactly the wrong time. Their bodies and minds are too fidgety to concentrate on things like demography of Bolivia. It’s adults who benefit most from education…. We actually enjoy the learning. We are motivated. I know many people whose lives have been completely changed since they became an adult learner. From those who have learnt basic literacy skills, to others who have taken degree courses. Its an extremely harsh world out there. Jobs are going, more computers are coming. But the people who are studying Cantonese at night school are, I would say, in with a chance.”

The issue of lifelong learning dominates discussion and debate concerning the foundation and direction of continuous education from the cradle to the grave. What’s needed is a solid partnership between citizens, teachers, employers and government bodies, nationally and globally for all parties to be fully engaged in and take ownership of educational opportunities that further the development of growth first, knowledge second, put aside the obstacles of class and harness the benefits of competition.

The challenge facing education today is arguably not too dis-similar to the challenges faced by the UK National health service – the more investment, effort and advance that is made, the quicker the speed of intellectualisation, development, global demand and human need. Thus the dichotomy in the question – is the learning gap closing or widening? Williamson (1998) quotes Richard Hoggart who noted that we now live in a society:

“whose members are insufficiently educated for its complexities, educated only to the level at which they may be exploited”

However, the demand and desire of humanity for humanisation and the thirst for knowledge and growth, keeps the educational debate alive and it is through this debate that people develop new views and learn more about themselves in the world. The more we know, the more we realise we don’t know and the greater our desire to grow. So much can be done to stimulate and widen peoples desire to learn and grow and break down the barriers that exclude people from learning. However, as Williamson (1998) puts it, closing the gap between the learning rich and the learning poor will need to:

“Lead to fundamental changes in the organisation of society itself and its structures of inequality and power. New opportunities for learning presuppose a new kind of society to sustain them and the political will to open them up. The challenge for political leaders is to have the courage to work for these ends, knowing beforehand that they cannot predetermine what use people will make of their new found knowledge and ideas.”

This represents an exciting thought for those who may feel stifled and “oppressed”, ie. all of us ants, but perhaps too scary a journey for the grasshoppers in power to take. What is very exciting about lifelong learning, however, is that somewhere in the world right now, a youngster is about to pick up their first book and young minded 85 year old is about to log on to a PC for the first time in their life.


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