What does the term “lifelong learning” mean for you? It’s an important question for learning business professionals to ask because taking the time to reflect can lead to a better understanding of the influential role your learning business plays in your stakeholders’ lifelong learning journey.
In this episode, we explore the history of lifelong learning and major viewpoints on what it is, the reasons behind a renewed interest in lifelong learning, and why taking time for to know the backstory of lifelong learning represents an opportunity for learning business leaders.
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Celisa Steele: [00:00:30] At Leading Learning, we’re all about supporting the learning businesses and learning business professionals that create and support adult lifelong learning.
Jeff Cobb: [00:00:39] But “lifelong learning” can be an ambiguous term.
Celisa Steele: [00:00:43] Well, in fact, “lifelong learning” may be even more than ambiguous. We might even call it polysemous. Ambiguous, deriving from the Latin ambi-, meaning both, which suggests two, but there are more than two takes on what lifelong learning is.
Jeff Cobb: [00:01:01] I’m not convinced we’re going to sell folks on the idea of using the term polysemous. Maybe. I don’t know. Ambidextrous might go over better. But I know that’s your leaning, to go into language like that.
Celisa Steele: [00:01:13] Well, we’re talking about the meaning of words, so it seemed legitimate to me to make this point. And language and etymology are also things that I enjoy studying as part of my own lifelong learning.
Jeff Cobb: [00:01:27] To each her own, I suppose. But it is interesting that even in that comment about what you enjoy studying and calling that lifelong learning, we start to get into some of those differing opinions about what lifelong learning is or should be and why it is, in fact, polysemous, as you say.
The History of Lifelong Learning
Celisa Steele: [00:01:45] That’s right. So let’s talk about some of those differing opinions and their origins. We’ll do a little bit of history. We’re going to focus primarily on the history of lifelong learning in Europe and the U.S,. and we’re going to focus primarily on the 20th and 21st centuries. So be forewarned that that’s where we’re focusing.
Jeff Cobb: [00:02:06] I think it could be interesting, at some point, to go beyond Europe and the U.S. I have to say my own knowledge there is very sketchy. We need to fill in that knowledge at some point and make it part of the podcast. But, as you say, Europe and the U.S. right now. I’d also love to go back, pre-20th century, to see, in all those ages of enlightenment and the Greeks and everything else, how was this thought of, this whole idea of lifelong learning? What was it called then? But, back to where we are today.
Celisa Steele: [00:02:34] That’s right. For today, we’re going to impose these artificial limits. I have in mind three major lifelong learning paradigms that are still around and still guiding thinking, and these were developed by three European groups: the Council of Europe, UNESCO, and the OECD.
UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. That was founded in 1945. It has an aim to promote world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the arts, sciences, and culture.
And then OECD is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. That’s another intergovernmental organization. It has 38 member countries. That was founded a little bit later, in 1961, and the goal there was to stimulate economic progress and world trade.
Then the Council of Europe is another international organization that also came about in the wake of World War II. It was founded in 1949. It has 46 member states, and it’s really focused on trying to uphold human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe.
We have these three organizations, and all three of them were pushing for some form of lifelong learning. This was in the 1960s and 1970s, when they really made this push.
Jeff Cobb: [00:03:59] I’ll say, as you noted, these are primarily associated with Europe, these organizations. Though, obviously, the United States is also involved in the United Nations to at least some degree. I don’t actually know the ins and outs of how involved the United States is in UNESCO, but I’m going to make the assumption that, hopefully, we’ve had at least some involvement there. But I do note that most of what I see coming out of UNESCO, the OECD, or the Council of Europe seems to be paid attention to more by European countries at this point than by the United States.
Celisa Steele: [00:04:32] If we look at what those three groups were writing about, proposing, and arguing for in the 1960s and 1970s, we have a few different terms that were being used.
The Council of Europe was really focused on this idea of “permanent education.” That’s what they wanted to call it. Again, “permanent” instead of “lifelong” learning. You get this idea of you need to keep educating yourself.
The OECD was focused on a term called “recurrent education.” Their idea there was that we tend to chunk education into full-time learning and then full-time work, and they thought it would be better to mix it up. So maybe you have full-time study, then you might go to work full-time, and then you have a sabbatical leave to go back to studying for a little bit there.
And then, at UNESCO, there was a really important report that came out in 1972 called Learning to Be. It’s also called the Faure report. And that’s because Edgar Faure was the chairperson of UNESCO’s International Commission on the Development of Education. At the time when that report came out, he was a key figure in developing that report. It used the term “lifelong education.” We get “lifelong.” We don’t quite get to “learning.” It’s still this focus on “education,” but the idea there was that lifelong education could really be transformative and emancipatory.
Jeff Cobb: [06:02] That’s a tough word.
Celisa Steele [06:03] It is a tough word. It’s right up there with polysemous in terms of pronunciation.
Jeff Cobb: [00:06:06] It’s probably a polysemous word.
Celisa Steele: [00:06:09] One commentator, around the time that the Learning to Be report came out, called the UNESCO concept a Copernican revolution in education. That caught my eye when I read that tidbit.
Jeff Cobb: [00:06:23] It is eye-catching. I’m not sure it’s quite turned out that way, but this report has had a lot of influence, I know. At least three comments there. One is I love that there was a prime minister involved in all of this. Somebody at that level of government—you would love to see that across all nations.
Celisa Steele: [00:06:40] Faure was not prime minister at the time, but he had been. So, very clearly, he’s this politician really focused on education and then thinking through the policy and what needed to be in place to actually change education and make it better.
Jeff Cobb: [00:06:57] I won’t name names, but I can think of certain ex-presidents in the United States who would be involved in something like this, and others who probably would not be as involved in something like this. But having that level of involvement is nice. I liked the terminology “recurrent education,” “permanent education,” and even the title of the report, Learning to Be. Even though these haven’t necessarily become commonplace in how we talk about it, they do echo a lot of, or they don’t echo—what we’re doing now echoes them in that we’re starting to really think of learning as this continuous activity.
These days, we talk about things like the other 50 years. You hear terms like the “60-year curriculum.” All of these are more aimed at adult learners or higher education through the rest of life. We’ll talk about what we really mean by the full span of lifelong learning here. But some of the language that was being used at that point, I think, has been very influential over time—the involvement of high-level people in it. I think we will get to this division between education and learning and how we treat those terms at some point in this conversation.
Celisa Steele: [00:08:06] I think what we see in the history is that we have various groups promoting or emphasizing some aspects more than others. I’m thinking it’s probably not just an either/or. It’s not A versus B. It’s probably more of a spectrum. You’ll have idealistic on one end of a spectrum and pragmatic on the other. So we have this idea of let’s create better societies. Let’s create better international cooperation. And learning is one way to do it. Then you have much more pragmatic concerns around how we can deal with workplace skills gap issues, to use modern-day, contemporary talk that’s going on. So that’s one spectrum.
Jeff Cobb: [00:08:51] We often see—I think this, particularly, tends to be the case in the European context; I feel like it’s more the case in the European context—the characterization of a lot of lifelong learning or lifelong education having a remedial focus. Whereas, I think in the U.S., particularly where continuing education and professional development have such an emphasis, it’s really more about advancing careers. That remedial versus advancing careers dichotomy that we often see.
Celisa Steele: [00:09:20] Then there’s, of course, the formal versus informal spectrum. There, we have education and what it brings to mind around, perhaps, collegiate degrees, certifications, and that type of thing, to the more informal, what might you learn through a mentorship, through doing something on the job, or just through a conversation with someone.
Jeff Cobb: [00:09:44] It’s encouraging, I think, that we’ve seen much more attention to the concept of informal learning over the past two to three decades. I think of the work of people like Jay Cross in writing about informal learning and many of his colleagues. But that is starting to become something that’s getting a lot more attention. I still think it doesn’t tend to get talked about or contextualized as lifelong learning per se. It’s a different take on, say, workplace learning in most instances when informal learning is being talked about, but, at least, it is being talked about, and, in some cases, action is being taken around it.
Celisa Steele: [00:10:19] Another spectrum that we might point to is a spectrum that has societal benefits on one end and more personal benefits, or personal, gains on the other. Again, I think this harkens back to this idea of how can we advance democracy, or how we can create good citizens (that being on the societal end) and then, on the more personal gains, that can be career advancement, as we talked about. But, again, why? Who is the learning for? Who does the learning benefit? There are for the individual learner benefits, and then there’s for society at large benefits. You have different groups focusing on different ends of that spectrum.
Jeff Cobb: [00:11:02] Again, these are my perceptions. I can’t say these are grounded in actual data, but I hear or see terms like the “learning society” used much more in a European context than I tend to see it used in a U.S. context, with the idea that learning is a driver of social progress and that we need to be thinking about how learning is integrated and woven into society to improve society. But you think back to the efforts that do come from the U.S,. something like Dewey on Democracy and Education and the fundamental role education plays in society, that is obviously embedded in so many ways now in how we think about and pursue education in the United States. I think that also has infiltrated Europe as well.
Celisa Steele: [00:11:55] What I think is related to this is something I’ve heard you say before. Learning starts as a social good. We send all of our kids off to school, and we believe that that’s a social good. As the learner ages, it becomes almost more of this economic commodity. What is it that you’re going to do with what you learn? I think we’re seeing this in the current attack on liberal arts and this idea of “Oh, well, that philosophy degree isn’t going to help you on the job,” which may or may not be true. I think there’s a pretty strong argument that maybe it does help you on the job, but there’s much more of an emphasis on what can we do that is actually going to give you workplace skills?
Jeff Cobb: [00:12:39] And I just referenced Dewey. Even when he was talking about democracy and education, he really was focused on early life. The child, K-12 into higher education, as we would make those divisions. Now it needs to extend beyond that.
In some ways, that’s a tension in our work because we’re very focused on this idea of the learning business, and there is the business side of that, which most of the organizations we’re dealing with do have to sell what they’re creating. That doesn’t necessarily mean that what they sell needs to be treated as a commodity. It should not be treated as a commodity. I think there is still this aspect of what you’re doing and continuing education and professional development being a social good and taking that learning side of the equation in learning business as seriously, if not more seriously, than the business side of it.Jeff Cobb
But once learning/education becomes a business, as it typically is in the adult world. For children and up through higher education, there’s so much government funding across the U.S. and Europe around that. But, once you get into the adult world, very often, either the individual or the employer is having to pay for that. There is this commerce aspect to it that I think we need to be conscious of and be careful with.
Celisa Steele: [00:13:56] Most of the organizations that we work with do have that revenue imperative, but they also tend to have a mission focus as well. Whether or not they’re organized as a nonprofit or not, they tend to buy into the fact that what they’re doing, by educating and helping individuals learn, actually will improve those individuals. Then, in turn, those individuals will help improve society.
Jeff Cobb: [00:14:19] Ideally, that mission aspect should be there, regardless of whether you’re organized as a nonprofit or not. I think if you’re in the training and education business and serving that sector, to have, as part of how you operate, how you define your operations, that mission to be providing an essentially social good to the field, the sector, the industry that you are serving and to society more broadly as an extension of that.
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Lifelong and Learning
Celisa Steele [00:15:52] There’s a lot of disagreement—or, at least, discussion—around what lifelong learning is and where it should focus. All those different spectrums we were talking about and where along them you fall. But what we can say, if we just look at the term itself, is that we can say lifelong learning is lifelong, and it involves learning. So let’s just unpack those two terms a little bit.
Jeff Cobb: [00:16:16] Yes, that lifelong aspect, we heard hints of that in permanent learning, in recurrent learning, in Learning to Be, and in some of the reports and the organizations we were talking about earlier.
It’s a recognition that this is cradle to grave. You start this process of lifelong at the beginning of life, and you continue it to the end of life.Jeff Cobb
That’s why, when we talk about lifelong learning, we tend to be specific and say we focus on adults because that is a major and probably the most recognized area of lifelong learning. But, really, you’re forming habits from the minute you emerge into the world. Those learning habits need to carry you through a lifetime. Establishing lifelong learning as a practice and a habit early in life is extremely important.
Celisa Steele: [00:17:08] So it starts early on. It continues through your education. It even continues into retirement. We’ve spoken with Chris McLeod of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke University. So you have those OLLIs across the country. You have other organizations that really came about to serve retirees and help them continue to learn.
Jeff Cobb: [00:17:33] We were talking about how to think about definitions of the term earlier. I think, for a lot of people, when they say “lifelong learning,” that’s what they’re talking about. It’s this late-life learning where your time is freed up because you’re now retired. You can pursue some interests that maybe you couldn’t pursue before. I think it’s notable that, at that point, a lot of people often turn back to the liberal arts, which, we were talking about earlier, don’t tend to get the respect that they did once upon a time. It would be nice if people were engaging with the liberal arts in one way or another throughout their careers. But that’s only one aspect of the life journey, and, by extension, it’s only one aspect of lifelong learning.
Lifelong Learning: An Umbrella Term
Celisa Steele: [00:18:17] So lifelong, cradle to grave. Our focus at Leading Learning and most of the organizations we work with is on adult lifelong learning. The other part of the term is “learning,” of course. For us, learning and lifelong learning—that’s an umbrella term. That contains, underneath it, continuing education and professional development. Sometimes we list all three out in a series. We know we say we focus on adult lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development, and that’s because some people tend to think of them as different things. So, for us, lifelong learning—umbrella term; the other two, CE and PD, fall underneath it.
Jeff Cobb: [00:18:57] I think it’s important to recognize that it is an umbrella term, and, also, I consider education to be a subset of learning. It’s a more structured, more formalized approach to learning. It’s typically what you’re going to do in a continuing education or professional development setting, something that is more formalized and structured. But human beings are learning creatures. We’re engineered to learn, even if we make no effort at it whatsoever. By the time we’re crawling around on the floor, we’re learning, we’re taking in sensations, and we’re processing information. It’s changing our behaviors and our knowledge, obviously. Learning is just a constant process of change.
A lot of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about lifelong learning is becoming more conscious and becoming more intentional about this native capacity that you have as a human being. Whether you’re doing that informally or whether you’re doing it formally in a continuing education and professional development-type setting, the more that you can refine those skills and become better and better as a learner, that, in itself, is a lifelong process as well. You’re learning to learn throughout life.
Malcolm Knowles: The Father of Andragogy
Celisa Steele: [00:20:23] It would be hard to talk about lifelong learning without, at least, mentioning Malcolm Knowles.
Jeff Cobb: [00:20:29] That’s right. We’re practically a Malcolm Knowles fan club, I think.
Celisa Steele: [00:20:32] I’m thinking, in particular, of The Adult Learner, which he published in 1973. As we’re recording, that was 50 years ago. I learned something recently. I had not realized the subtitle to The Adult Learner—that there’s a subtitle. Did you know that, Jeff?
Jeff Cobb: [00:20:50] I did not know that until I was reading your notes for this podcast, actually.
Celisa Steele: [00:20:53] The subtitle is A Neglected Species. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. I found that fascinating. That subtitle has since been dropped.
Jeff Cobb: [00:21:04] I guess I did know that was a subtitle originally, though I always forget it. But I didn’t know that it was no longer used with the book. I guess I just haven’t been paying enough attention to my recent editions of The Adult Learner. But probably that subtitle has been dropped—or I’m hopeful that maybe that subtitle has been dropped—because adult learning is just much more widely recognized and appreciated than it was at the time that Knowles wrote that book. Prior to Knowles, you had people like Dewey and Piaget who were very much focused on what happens in childhood learning, pedagogy, at that point but not so much focus on what’s happening with adult learners. Of course, Knowles coined this whole new term andragogy to talk about adult learning.
Celisa Steele: [00:21:55] See, etymology. We’re back to etymology.
Jeff Cobb: [00:21:57] There we go. It’s all polysemous.
A Renewed Focus on Lifelong Learning
Celisa Steele: [00:21:59] We have a lot of drivers for the new focus (or renewed focus) on lifelong learning that’s come about
We are changing jobs and even changing careers more frequently. We’re living longer. As part of living longer, we’re also working longer. We’re seeing technology evolve and change at an increasingly fast pace. All of those are, of course, driving the need and desire for lifelong learning.Celisa Steele
Jeff Cobb: [00:22:32] That’s having an impact. We were saying earlier, this idea of becoming more conscious and intentional about being a learner and about being a lifelong learner, and it appears that that is in fact happening, or it seems to be. There was a great report several years ago by the Pew Research Center that we actually did a podcast around. In that report, they found that 73 percent of adults consider themselves to be lifelong learners.
Celisa Steele: [00:23:00] It’s interesting that they also divvied up what type of lifelong learner are you. Seventy-four percent of adults that they surveyed were what Pew calls “personal learners,” meaning that they had participated in at least one activity in the past year that would advance their knowledge about something that personally interests them—my etymology and my interest in languages. That was one category. Personal learners: 74 percent of adults were personal learners. And then 63 percent of those who were working (or 36 percent of all adults) were what Pew termed “professional learners,” meaning they had taken a course or gotten training in the last year to help them improve job skills or expertise connected to whatever they do for a living, to earn money.
Jeff Cobb: [00:23:52] And that’s the group—that 36 percent of adults—that really constitutes the broader market for probably most of our listeners here who are in that continuing education, professional development, and adult lifelong learning market. Though I think there’s also probably a significant number of listeners who may be in that personal learning space, helping to support that personal learning space. I would say even those who are focused on the professional space might take note of that desire for personal learning and think about are there ways that you could supplement and complement whatever you offer right now in terms of your catalog of experiences that offer some of those personal aspects since we know the demand is out there for it? I’ll also note that there was a 2017 Economist special report, and we’ve done a blog post on this, which basically declared that “Lifelong learning is now an imperative.”
Celisa Steele: [00:24:47] It was “becoming.”
Jeff Cobb: [00:24:47] It was “becoming an imperative.”
Celisa Steele: [00:24:48] I think that was their title.
Jeff Cobb: [00:24:49] That’s right. It was “becoming an imperative.” Because our comment at the time was, “Really?” We felt like it had become an imperative well before that and that there was plenty of evidence for it. But it was good to see a venerable, old institution like The Economist magazine declare, and particularly since they tend to be an international publication, too, spanning not just Europe and the U.S. but the globe, for them to say, “This is becoming an imperative.” That puts lifelong learning on the map in a way that it, really, probably hadn’t been up until that point.
Celisa Steele: [00:25:23] Now, of course, The Economist report and the Pew report are pre-pandemic—they are a few years old. And so I think, even more recently, we’ve seen that lifelong learning, the need for it, and the options for it have grown. We had the pandemic that pushed so many organizations online, which created more online learning opportunities. There was work from home, and people had the need to build skills in areas that they didn’t have before. By working from home, maybe they had a little bit more freedom and flexibility to take advantage of some of the online learning that was out there. We had the Great Resignation, which, of course, sent people leaving one job and then looking for the next, probably, as part of that, also thinking through, “Okay, what skills or knowledge do I need to help me find a good, new job down the road?”
Jeff Cobb: [00:26:20] I think it’s interesting that, in many ways, the growth in awareness of and demand for lifelong learning has been consecutive with the growth of online learning and the ability to access more and more types of learning experiences than ever before. As we’ve already said, we’re always learning all the time. That’s always been the case. That has not really changed about human beings. But, suddenly, there’s this massive new set of options that are out there for people. They’re both a product of and a driver for some of the change that we’re talking about—the pace of change and the evolution of what’s happening in the workspace. As you said, because of the pandemic, boy, that just blew open the doors. If there was any doubt before that point that online learning was firmly established and that lifelong learning—particularly in terms of adaptability, flexibility, a more formal, conscious, intentional type of learning—has to take place and has to be an integrated part of people’s lives, the pandemic just drove those two points home in a way that it’s hard to imagine anything else really doing at that scale.
Why Lifelong Learning Matters for Learning Businesses
Celisa Steele: [00:27:44] So, Jeff, we’ve taken a little detour through history. We’ve talked about some of these different areas of focus that different groups and individuals have brought to this concept of lifelong learning. But all of this begs the bigger question of why do we care? Why does this matter?
Jeff Cobb: [00:28:00] Does there have to be a reason? It’s fun to take detours and talk about lifelong learning. Why not? But you’re right. Why does this matter? I think we probably have a relatively pragmatic audience listening to the podcast. Certainly, a key reason for our listeners is simply that understanding your position and just that landscape and your position in that landscape as a provider of adult lifelong learning is the key to actually being the effective learning business that we’re assuming you aim to be.
Celisa Steele: [00:28:37] I also think that there could be some fruitful discussion and reflection to come out of thinking back to these different tugs on what the term should be, where the emphasis should be on lifelong learning, and, really, as a learning business or as you yourself, as an individual lifelong learner, thinking through, “Okay, what do I think? Where do I feel like we should focus? Where do we land on these various spectrums?”
Jeff Cobb: [00:29:03] We’ve discussed before that there’s probably a significant percentage of our audience that doesn’t really embrace the term “lifelong learning” or recognize themselves as being in lifelong learning. For some reason, there’s this strange bifurcation between lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development. I’ve met plenty of people who will say they’re in continuing education and professional development and do not think of themselves as being in lifelong learning. I think it’s worthwhile to question that, to back up and say, “Why is that? Is there perhaps a benefit to our organization, a benefit to our learners if we are actually thinking of ourselves as engaged in supporting and facilitating lifelong learning, with continuing education and professional development being an approach to that, obviously?” But it may open up other possibilities in other ways that you can impact the world that you’re trying to serve.
Celisa Steele: [00:30:01] I think no matter where you land, individually or as a learning business, in terms of what you think that focus for lifelong learning should be or where your focus is, I think no matter where you land, it’s pretty clear to look out there and go, “Okay, the lifelong learning landscape is fragmented.” We have much more consolidated systems that serve those young learners. But, by the time you leave college in the U.S., how you go about learning is largely left up to you.
Jeff Cobb: [00:30:33] We often talk about this third sector of education. Even that—that’s narrower than lifelong learning more broadly—but even to talk about this more formalized continuing education, professional development, adult education-type sector, people don’t tend to put a label on that and think about that in the same way that they do K-12 education or higher education. I think there’s just a real opportunity to do that. And, as part of doing that, to start to get rid of some of that fragmentation and get more of a sense of integration across these different sectors of education and more recognition that there is this umbrella of learning that arches over all of them. We talked about learning as an umbrella term at the beginning of the podcast. We’re back to it again. I think that’s just a very important shift in perspective that we need going forward.
Celisa Steele: [00:31:35] There’s the benefit of recognizing the umbrella. I think there’s also a benefit in helping learners make sense of the fragmentation. I think we all know that we have limited time and energy. And so, as a learner, if I’m having to spend all of my time even figuring out which options, what it is I need to learn, or where to go to learn that, that can eat into the time that I actually have to focus on learning any new information, skill, or knowledge. If you can be that guide, if you can help make sense of the fragmentation, make a clear path through this fragmented market, that’s going to help your learning business stand out. It’s going to make you much more valuable to the learner. And, as we’ve been saying too, therefore much more valuable in terms of the role that you’re able to play in society more broadly.
Jeff Cobb: [00:32:23] That, really, to me, feels like the biggest opportunity for anybody who’s listening to this podcast, who is involved in the learning business, is to be that guide, to be that ally through whatever portion of that lifelong learning journey that you’re helping your particular stakeholders with. If they’re looking to you as that, as that guide, as that ally, facilitator, curator, whatever terms you want to use for it, but, as you said, you’re helping them make sense. You’re helping to get rid of that fragmentation that characterizes what life experience is and what professional experience is for so many people these days. If you’re doing that as a learning business, you’re going to have tremendous success.
Lifelong learning drives learning businesses. Taking the time to consider what lifelong learning is and what it can be is an illuminating exercise in better understanding why your learning business does what it does and the broad human goals that it supports.Jeff Cobb
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