CDTL    Publications     Mailing List     About Brief



As the importance of life-long learrning grows, not only are more people desiring to study beyond basic formal education, but education providers also have to provide high quality courses that are made as accessible as possible. This issue of CDTL Brief examines some of the issues surrounding Continuing Education/Distance Learning.

March 2002, Vol. 5 No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Life-long Learning: What Does It Mean for Us?
Mr Dennis Sale
Section Head, Educational & Staff Development Department
Singapore Polytechnic

With the emergence of the so-called knowledge-based economy and ‘learning society’ (Dunne, 1999), the term ‘life-long learning’ is now rivalling ‘thinking’ and ‘quality’ as educational buzzwords. But what does life-long learning really entail and what are the implications for us as teaching professionals? In this short paper, I will first make explicit the concept of life-long learning. Second, I will outline three significant change areas that are inevitably linked to the promotion of life-long learning and offer my reflections on possible developments. Finally, I will caution that the reality of many life-long learning initiatives may not reflect the idealism desired by many proponents.

Getting to Grips with the Concept of Life-long Learning

There is nothing particularly original about life-long learning as an educational aim. Whether we intend it or not, we also cannot get away from the fact that we will continue to learn during the course of our lives. Learning is an inevitable aspect of the human condition and its response to change. The nature, rate and form of such learning is variable and open to qualitative valuations of worth.

However, recent conceptions of life-long learning transcend such ‘naturalistic’ learning, seeing it more in terms of a systematic and value-driven process necessitated by the demands of modern society. For example, Smith and Spurling (1999:43) define life-long learning in terms of:

…people learning consistently through life. The ascent is on continuity, intention and unfolding strategy in personal learning. Besides these are the four principles of personal commitment, social commitment, respect for others’ learning and respect for the truth.

The value-driven nature of life-long learning is starkly captured by Longworth and Davies (1996:9) when they argue that:

Human beings and organizations on this planet have three major choices.

  • They can choose the path of hopelessness or complacency, believing that they have no influence or nothing to contribute, or that there is nothing to change.
  • They can take the path of fundamentalism, paranoid nationalism or xenophobia and help create intolerance, hatred, war, homelessness and disorder.
  • Or they can invest in the road to lifelong learning and take control over their own destiny, combining the skills of learning with the power of knowledge and the joy of being human and alive.

It can be seen, then, that life-long learning is a multi-faceted concept. At the level of the individual, the focus is on embracing planned learning as a life-long adventure and developing the appropriate skills and dispositions to facilitate this process. At the societal and global level, it implies major systemic changes in culture, social organisation and relationships.

Change Areas

1. A curriculum shift towards real-world learning, underpinned by core generic competencies and dispositions

A curriculum model that largely promotes the rote memorisation of subject knowledge content is now clearly analogous to an educational Jurassic Park. The recognition that meaningful learning is best attained when the emphasis is on real-world activity underpinned by good thinking is now firmly established, even in the field of neuroscience. As Jensen (1997:99) points out: “The more we make school learning like real life, the more the brain, with its rich capabilities, will sort it out.”

In this context, I suggest the follow core competencies and dispositions as fundamental in the development of a life-long learning culture:

  • Competence in all essential communication skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening)
  • Competence in basic numeracy and computation
  • Competence in using different types of thinking in a systematic manner (e.g. ability to generate possibilities, analyse systems, evaluate options and monitor and review one’s own thinking)
  • Competence in the use of IT (information technology) applications
  • Competence in handling information efficiently
  • Competence in self-management
  • Disposition to persevere under pressure
  • Disposition to be open minded and honestly critical

2. The pedagogically sound use of IT to provide variety, access and flexibility to the learning process

IT will bring variety, access and flexibility to learning as well as revolutionise present learning arrangements and timetabling structures. However, IT will not necessarily develop the kinds of thinking essential to the learning demands of modern society. As Melchior (1997:91) points out: “One pervasive myth is that the technologies themselves teach important complex skills...They need to be identified, taught, modeled, and reinforced by capable teachers.”

Furthermore, in terms of providing opportunities for the development of important dispositions to support life-long learning, we have no reason to see these as naturally emerging from recent developments in IT. On the one hand, it can be argued that new technologies provide rich and stimulating learning opportunities, which will increase the motivation and will to learn. On the other hand, it can be equally argued that such technologies, in trying to make learning fun and entertaining, undermine persistence and the ability to do the mundane and tedious. Unfortunately, the ability to do the mundane and tedious, when necessary, is an important ingredient in being a successful life-long learner.

3. Active, collaborative and diverse models of instruction

We have certainly moved a long way towards understanding the nature of learning and the various ways in which different forms of instruction can contribute to the learning process. As Marzano (1992:2) highlights: “Over the past 3 decades, we have amassed enough research and theory about learning to derive a truly learning based model of instruction.”

It is now clearly established that learning is most effective when enacted in an active and collaborative context and where that learning is perceived as meaningful, challenging and of practical value to learners. Given the integration of pedagogy and information technologies and the increasing desire of learners for flexibility and access, the teaching-learning situation becomes one of myriad diversity. Teachers will play multiple roles as they seek to use their professional competencies to help different groups of learners engage in multiple learning events to meet their desired goals.


Life-long learning is rightly a priority educational aim. In the present context, it also provides a focus for many wider social and global concerns that many see as existential threats to human organisation.

As postmodernism invariably and starkly demonstrates, there are no rules of human evolution. The fragmentation of countries into ethnic subdivisions shows that a regression into feudalism is no less feasible than a future world of connected harmony. For instance, although the Concorde made supersonic travel possible some thirty years ago, we have seen little developments in mass air travel since. It may be that the so-called learning revolution will simply result in some of us becoming high-flying life-long learners, while many others will continue to struggle with core competencies and with greater frustrations than yesteryear. We may be living in a high-tech digital world; but psychologically, are we also still living in caves?


Dunne, E. (1999). The Learning Society. London: Kogan Page.

Jensen, E. (1997). Completing the Puzzle: The Brain Compatible Approach to Learning. Del Mar, CA: The Brain Store Inc.

Longworth, N. & Davies, W.K. (1996). Lifelong Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Marzano, R.J. (1992). A Different Kind of Classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Melchior, T.; et al. (1997). ‘New Technologies’. In Costa, A. & Liebmann, R.M (Eds.) Supporting the Spirit of Learning: When Process is Content. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

Smith, J. & Spurling, A. (1999). Lifelong Learning: Riding the Tiger. London & New York: Cassell.

 First Look articles

Search in
Email the Editor
Inside this issue
Distance and Distributed Learning in Continuing Education: Notes from the Front Lines
Continuing Education through the Online Graduate Programme at the University of Calgary
Life-long Learning: What Does It Mean for Us?
Continuous Education/Distance Learning: GSMS Graduate Diploma Programmes
Continuing Education in Dentistry
Learning to Go the Distance: A Decade of Expanding Opportunities for Distance Learning in Thailand