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Lifelong learning has become an imperative for people living in the 21st century. This CDTL Brief on Lifelong Learning discusses various issues on the subject and why it is a necessity for self-preservation and survival.

August 2005, Vol. 8, No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Lifelong Learning: Continuous 'Nourishment' for the Mind
Professor Matthew Gwee
Department of Pharmacology & Medical Education Unit
Associate Director, CDTL

Lifelong Learning is not a New Concept

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.
Henry Ford

The notion that learning should be lifelong is not new. According to Henry Ford, continuous learning, and not the real age of a person, is necessary to "keep [the] mind young". However, the need for lifelong learning has gained much greater prominence in more recent years. This article will highlight some insights and issues on lifelong learning.

What do We Mean by Learning?

Learning begins when a newborn baby starts to cry and takes his first breath of life. Suckling at the mother's breast is clearly one of the first things a baby learns as he begins his feeding frenzy. The baby's learning progresses as his tender brain continues to receive stimulation daily through sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. All these inputs are assimilated, processed and embedded in the baby's brain as experiences that trigger the learning process (e.g. acquiring knowledge from the immediate surroundings, including recognition of his/her parents), the acquiring of psychomotor skills (e.g. clasping the hand presented to the baby) and some simple attributes common to infants (e.g. crying for attention).

Learning is a Natural Instinct

As the baby progresses through life, most of his learning occurs naturally. Indeed, nature has endowed mankind with the capacity to learn quickly as a primordial instinct for survival. In the early phase of human life, learning is fun, spontaneous, imaginative and often creative. There is freedom and joy to learn from every opportunity presented to a child, especially through play with other children, family members and toys.

Learning by Design

Most human learning does not occur by design. The classroom is unique because it is a designed educational experience. (Davis, Alexander & Yelon, 1974)

As a child begins pre-school and moves on to college, his freedom to learn becomes increasingly curtailed because of the need to learn in a formal classroom setting with prescribed course goals. In the later stages, there is just too little time and hence a lack of motivation to learn anything else other than what is required to pass the various examinations of a formal education system. However, the award of prized college diplomas or degrees so important for the various phases in life are, indeed, rewards for one's conformity to the education system.

Learning Beyond the College Doors

The hardest conviction to get into the mind of a beginner is that the education upon which he is engaged is not a college course, not a medical course, but a life course, for which the work of a few years under teachers is but a preparation.
Sir William Osler

For many individuals, the college diploma or degree often marks the end of almost 20 years of formal education leading to two options: firstly, with freedom from set course goals and fear of failing examinations, there are various opportunities to learn again. Secondly, the college qualification may lead students to an erroneous belief that there is now a lesser need to be actively engaged in learning.

Today, we live in the digital era of information explosion with rapid advances in sciences and technology that impact our working environment and our daily lives. A college education is no longer enough to equip a person for a career for life as scientific knowledge grows exponentially (Bandaranayake, 2001). This trend is clearly recognised in some professions (e.g. medical, legal, engineering) which compel their practitioners to undertake continuing education and professional development programmes throughout their careers (i.e. continuous learning, upgrading and updating of their knowledge, skills and key attributes to ensure their continued professional competency).

Learning for a Lifetime of Employment, Empowerment and Enjoyment

There are three main reasons ('the three Es') identified by Knassel, Meed and Rossetti (2000) on why lifelong learning is so important, namely:

  1. Employment ('Economy'): Continuous quality learning will greatly enhance one's employability in today's global economy. Organisations now put a premium on self-directed learners who align their interests with the all-important mission of creating learning organisations in businesses, industry or governments to ensure their own competitiveness and survival. As the President of National University of Singapore, Professor Shih Choon Fong aptly said:

    In the old economy, university education generally prepared a student for a career for life. In the new economy, we must prepare a student for a life of careers. This means a graduate must possess more than the skills for a certain profession. But more importantly, a graduate must have the habits and enthusiasm for lifelong learning, which include discovering, creating and applying new knowledge all through his life.1

  2. Empowerment: Engaging actively in lifelong learning also enables a person to develop his skills and abilities to the fullest and consequently, contribute more to his organisation, hence deriving greater personal satisfaction and control over one's career development within an organisation. In Singapore, several senior civil servants as well as government and business leaders from humble family backgrounds are model examples of empowerment through continuous learning. Another example of learning for empowerment is making education accessible to the illiterate or disadvantaged communities to help them become more independent and self-reliant.

  3. Enjoyment: Pleasure and fun can be derived from learning anything, be it learning to dance, read, or even seriously studying scientific theories and concepts. The joy of learning is easily observed among children at play, and is especially evident when a child eagerly and repeatedly demonstrates something he has just learned. When learning is associated with fun, it is more easily internalised and more likely to motivate further learning in an individual.


To create an appetite for learning in individuals that will sustain them for life.2

Each time we see, hear, smell, touch or taste something, the experience is processed and embedded in our minds and it becomes something from which we can construct our own meaning and understanding. As we progress through life, we need to heighten our experiences to develop our potential to the fullest. We must commit ourselves to a lifetime of learning that will ensure not only our own economic well being and that of our organisations and our society, but also that of our minds will be continuously 'nourished' and stay young. Our national aspiration to promote "thinking schools and learning nation"3 is indeed Singapore's commitment to lifelong learning.


Bandaranayake, B. (2001). 'Study Skills' in A Practical Guide for Medical Teachers. Dent, J.A. & Harden, R.M. (Eds.). New York: Churchill Livingstone.

Davis, R.H., Alexander, L.T. & Yelon, S.L. (1974). Learning System Design: An Approach to the Improvement of Instruction. New York: McGraw-Hill Co.

Knassel, E., Meed, J. & Rosetti, A. (2000). Learn for Your Life: A Blueprint for Continuous Learning. Financial Times, London: Prentice Hall, Pearson Education.


1 Speech by the President of NUS, Professor Shih Choon Fong. 'A Vibrant First World University' at Commencement 2000, 19 September, at the University Cultural Centre. (Last accessed: 22 August 2005).

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2 The mission statement of the Campaign for Learning—a national charity created with the sole purpose of championing the cause for lifelong learning in the U.K. (Last accessed: 22 August 2005).

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3 Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong (then the Prime Minister) first announced the Ministry of Education’s vision of ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation’ (TSLN) in 1997. (Last accessed: 22 August 2005).

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