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Why is Lifelong Learning important?

Date of Post:
November 6, 2018

The rhetoric of lifelong learning has become familiar throughout the developed world - broadly speaking it describes a cradle to grave approach to learning which according to Green, ���implies the distribution of learning opportunities throughout the lifetime�۪ (2000, p. 35). So the term is increasingly understood to encompass schooling as well as tertiary, higher and continuing education.
Why is lifelong learning important? Lifelong learning opportunities serve both economic and social purposes through enabling and supporting people to keep pace with and adapt to worldwide changes in society and the growth of the global economy. While this chapter is written from a largely UK perspective many of the central ideas reflect international concerns about the nature of lifelong learning. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2004, p. 1) suggests that the concept has four central features:
�ۢ Lifelong learning covers the whole life cycle and comprises all forms of formal and informal learning.
�ۢ The learner is central to the process.
�ۢ The motivation to learn is fundamental to lifelong learning and is fostered through ���learning to learn�۪.
�ۢ Personal goals for learning may change over time and will encompass all aspects of our lives.
The quality of people's lives may be enhanced through participating in lifelong learning. The concept of quality of life is difficult to define and can mean different things for different people in different settings and at different points in their lives.

As Schalock and Alonso (2002) remind us, the concept is not new but dates back to Grecian times when philosophers debated the nature of happiness and the ���good life�۪. In the 1980s and 1990s, as people with learning difficulties began to leave longstay hospitals to live in the community, more attention began to be paid on how to judge the quality of their lives. There have been many attempts, mainly in the US literature, to define exactly what is meant by quality of life. Schalock and Alonso (2002) conclude that both objective and subjective measures can be used derived from the following domains: physical and material well-being; personal development and self-determination; social inclusion and interpersonal relationships; emotional well-being.
The following extract from the Year 12 transition plan review of a student with learning difficulties throws up a number of fundamental questions about the nature of special provision and its relationship to quality of life and lifelong learning that forms the focus of this chapter:
Mrs Lewis:
I'm not the problem, it's his Dad. He can't let him walk to school. He's worried about him. He wraps them up in cotton wool to make him feel better.
Malcolm's probably not being stretched, this is the problem.
Deputy Head:
What will happen when Malcolm's 40?
The deputy headteacher's comments belie her exasperation and concerns about Malcolm's long-term future prospects and his quality of life while Malcolm's own frustration is powerfully contained in the only word he utters, ���Yeah!�۪ But before exploring Malcolm's situation in more depth I want to locate this particular instance in a broader discussion on quality of life and lifelong learning policy and implementation issues. In this chapter I argue that the concept of lifelong learning and its implications for the quality of life of young people and adults who experience difficulties in learning is not well understood.
Quality of life
While much of the literature on quality of life has been concerned with the measurement of the quality of the lives of adults with learning difficulties some authors such as Robertson (1998) and Holst (2000) have argued that the concept is more important as a sensitizing tool. Robertson sees the aim of education as enabling children and young people with learning difficulties to grow into adults who can make choices about their own lives without dictating what a good life might be, while Holst argues that it is important to avoid the ���tyranny of the normal�۪ by recognising that different people have different ideas about what constitutes the ���good life�۪. Quality of life can thus be conceptualised in different ways:
�ۢ as a means of measuring the quality of services
�ۢ as a way of increasing people's involvement and participation in shaping their own lives
�ۢ as a political tool to influence policy makers and service providers (Dee, Byers, Hayhoe, & Maudslay, 2002).
Research into the contribution of education to quality of life, however defined, is very limited and any writing that exists is largely limited to schooling and theoretical discussions of ideas rather than empirical enquiry (Hegarty, 1994; Schalock & Alonso, 2002). In addition writing in relation to adults and quality of life tends to focus on those with severe intellectual impairments. The needs of the wider group of adults, including those such as Malcolm who experienced difficulties in learning at school but who tend not to qualify for support from adult services, fall outside the focus of much of this literature.
However Park, Turnbull and Turnbull (2002) have drawn attention to the link between disability, poverty and the quality of life in families, a fact also noted by the UK government's recent report Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People (Cabinet Office, 2005). Park et al. define family quality of life as ���a) having their needs met, b) enjoying their life together as a family and c) having opportunities to pursue and achieve goals that are meaningful to them�۪ (2002, p. 153). Like Park et al. the UK report concludes that poverty can lead to disability but that disability can also lead to poverty and consequently a poor quality of life. ���Poor outcomes are both a cause and a consequence of disability�۪ (2005, p. 15). Having a low income, poor housing and a poor quality of life can lead to disadvantage and disability, while having a disability can lead to disadvantage.
In the next four sections I consider the characteristics of lifelong learning and their links to quality of life.
Learning across the life cycle
In the UK the numbers of young people remaining in education and training beyond the statutory school leaving age of 16 have risen to around 75 per cent over the last 25 years (OECD, 2004). Despite this the country has one of the lowest staying-on rates among the members of the OECD. Mirroring this trend, the numbers of young people with a range of learning difficulties participating in further education and training have also increased. The reasons for these increases are complex and must be seen in the light of seismic shifts in the labour market and the demands for a more highly skilled workforce alongside changes in how access to further and higher education is now regarded, no longer based on selection but expectation. The effects of these changes on young people with special educational needs have been particularly noticeable. For example in 1982 Walker found that employment rates among 18-year-olds with and without learning difficulties or disabilities were broadly similar (66 per cent). However, while the remainder without disabilities were in some form of education or training, those with learning difficulties or disabilities were at home or attending social services day centres. Twenty-five years on the DfES's longitudinal survey of post-school destinations for young people with special educational needs (Dewson, Aston, Bates, Ritchie, & Dyson, 2004) found that nearly half of the 17- and 18-year-olds were still at school or college while 28 per cent were in employment. Comparisons between studies of this nature are difficult because of differences in how the target groups are defined and the sampling strategies. Nevertheless what these two studies show quite clearly is the rise in the number of learners with special educational needs remaining in further education and training. Yet the worth and quality of much of this provision have been challenged. Young people participate in education and training programmes, often moving on from one to another, not as a means of progression to employment and perhaps a better quality of life but as a means of containment and because there is nothing else for them to do. To make matters worse the majority of this provision has been criticised as having low expectations of learners (ALI, 2004; Ofsted, 2004).
Equally there has been a growth in the overall numbers of adults who return to learning although again it is difficult to arrive at exact figures. In 2002/03 just over three-quarters of adults questioned had participated in some form of learning in the previous three years, although in this case adults were defined as aged between 16 and 69 (DfES, 2005). Those least likely to participate are those aged 50 or over, those with family responsibilities and those leaving school without qualifications. Insights into the quality of life of many of this third category comes from a recent longitudinal study by Bynner and Parsons (2005 ongoing). They are more likely to be single, male, depressed and have unacknowledged low levels of numeracy and literacy. On the other hand, some adults with more severe learning difficulties may be expected to join courses and classes by their carers or service providers because there is no alternative - they are in other words ���captured customers�۪ (Riddell, Wilson, & Baron, 1999).
The concept of lifelong learning emphasises the significance of opportunities for formal and informal learning in people's lives. While formal learning takes place in educational settings and generally leads to some form of qualification, informal learning occurs throughout our everyday lives at home, in the workplace or during leisure activities. Increasingly the boundaries between these different forms of learning are seen as blurred and permeable (Colley, Hodkinson, & Malcolm, 2004). The kind of formal learning that takes place at school or college can open up opportunities for incidental learning, for example, friends can help with learning to use a new mobile phone or how to handle the children. The skills required for informal activities such as surfing the net and getting to grips with new technology or learning to cook can be enhanced through formal courses.
Young people and adults with learning difficulties require access to both formal and informal learning opportunities. Access becomes easier where there are close relationships between formal and informal settings so that learning in one context can support and build on learning in the other. In the case of Malcolm, weekend work with his uncle delivering tables and chairs offered many such informal opportunities, and, more importantly, Malcolm knew what he needed to learn at school to make him better at his job (Dee, 2002). Here then was a perfect opportunity to build on and support his learning at work in the formal setting of school, but no one took the time to listen to what he had to say.
Perhaps more fundamentally, when young people experience work in real-life settings (informal learning) they are expected to absorb the collective ways of knowing and being integral to a particular workplace through relying on observation and imitation as well as instruction. They are expected to become members of a ���community of practice�۪ (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Lave and Wenger suggest that learning is essentially a social and cultural activity. The knowledge that is shared in the workplace is not the property of a single individual as for example in the traditional school setting where knowledge is imparted by the teacher to the students. Instead they suggest knowledge is collectively accumulated and owned and that this collective knowledge is greater than the sum of individual knowledge. Young and Lucas (1999) suggest that experience alone is not enough, however, and that different types of learning are interdependent, for example, experience, reflection, developing new ideas, trying out ideas in practice. This means that learners will require structured, systematic support at school or college, as well as in the workplace, that enables them to reflect on and make sense of their experiences. People also become absorbed into the culture of a particular community through the relationships that they form with their colleagues and this may in turn transform how learners see themselves. Malcolm saw himself as ���one of the lads�۪ when he went out for a drink with his workmates after work. Yet at school he was perceived as vulnerable and at home as a dependent child. Such bonds with workmates are formed through casual exchanges, for example about the weather or discussing common interests and experiences. This sophisticated networking requires a high level of social skills, knowing when to stop as well as when to initiate an encounter, understanding the degree of detail on which to embark. So that as well as acquiring job-specific skills some people with learning difficulties will require support to develop the social skills needed to operate successfully in the workplace. Research has shown how people with learning difficulties can be taught the skills they require by engaging in casual exchanges in the workplace, which are essential to building relationships (Holmes & Fillary, 2000).
The relationship between formal and informal learning highlights the importance of the learning context and its influence on the nature of that learning. Young people with learning difficulties who attend special schools can often remain there until they are 19 or more (see Florian, Dee, Byers, & Maudslay, 2000; Florian, Maudslay, Dee, & Byers, 2000). One explanation for this delay could be special schools' mistrust of further education colleges, believing that ���we can do what they do at college better here�۪. However, opportunities for learning are created through and by the learning environment so the more diverse the environment and opportunities for social interaction, the richer the potential for learning. For instance, Maria who has profound and complex learning difficulties went to her local further education college each week for a music class. At first she could not tolerate the noise and bustle of the refectory so her support worker, Lynn, took her drink to her in the workshop. Over the course of several months Lynn gradually introduced new and more challenging contexts until Maria could cope with the refectory and she began to relate to some of the other students in the college. It is important to look beyond the confines of the formal learning environment, that is, the classroom or workshop (whether that is in school or college) to exploit what the community and other social settings have to offer, including the chance to widen the network of people with whom the learner has contact.
Centrality of the learner
The OECD's second dimension is the centrality of the learner in planning lifelong learning opportunities. At the heart of lifelong learning policies is the notion of a dialogue between individuals and service providers through which they explore the best route to achieving the learner's own goals and aspirations. This is sometimes described as personalised learning. This means working with the grain of people's own ideas to shape services rather than services shaping what and how individuals learn. Learners are seen as consumers of education selecting from the menu of learning opportunities on offer a programme to suit their needs. Leadbetter (2004) urges us to look beyond the consumerist model, however, to one in which the individual becomes connected to the collective, so that they are shaping and regenerating their own communities. This means enabling learners to express their aspirations, needs and preferences; providing greater choice and a ���vocabulary of experiences�۪ on which they can base their choices; assembling solutions around the learner not around the service providers; developing closer partnerships between, for instance, schools, colleges, work-based learning providers; providing advocacy where necessary; ensuring that funding methods follow individuals not services, in other words enabling learners to shape for themselves ���a good life�۪. This, Leadbetter believes, will lead to individuals becoming more committed to and responsible for the quality of services and community life. At the group level similar processes are used to regenerate communities through consulting on the changes that different, often disaffected, groups would like to see in their communities and then giving them the tools to do so, for example, young single mothers living on council estates; disaffected young men living in urban areas; elderly people living in rural communities.
The concept of individualised planning and person-centred services are increasingly familiar to those working in the field of learning difficulty: individual transition plans; learning plans, health care plans, person-centred plans, direct payments, are all predicated on the idea that provision is designed to match needs and that the learner controls the agenda whether directly or through advocates (Wehmeyer, 2002). Person-centred planning has become the linchpin of service development for adults with learning difficulties in the UK (DoH, 2000) but putting the ideas into practice is beset with problems, as the example of Malcolm demonstrates. Dee (2002), Laragy (2004), Mansell and Beadle-Brown (2004), and Routledge and Gitsham (2004) all suggest that the person's voice and/or that of their families is often lost in the bureaucracy of planning processes and overridden by the taken-for-granted assumptions of professionals. Laragy argues that young people and their families are not equipped with the skills and information that they need to negotiate with services during the transition planning process, while both Mansell and Beadle-Brown as well as Routledge and Gitcham suggest that person-centred planning has become a bureaucratic hoop that has little to do with the person's own dreams and ambitions and the services and support that they receive. Producing plans in this manner has become part of the accountability culture so eloquently described by O'Neill (2002) who suggests that rather than making professionals accountable to their clients, these systems merely make them accountable to central regulators. Instead, there needs to be a shift away from measuring quality by the number of plans completed to the inherent quality of the plans and to developing the skills of staff responsible for implementing the policy.
Debates about access and participation in planning personalised learning also need to address the kind of structural barriers highlighted by Hughes, Russell and Patterson (2005), who suggest that the concept of real choice (and in this context what to learn, how to learn, when to learn and why) that accompanies notions of personalised learning is one that remains closed to many people with learning difficulties. Barriers include practical difficulties such as transport arrangements, access to leisure and other community facilities, and communication as well as attitudinal barriers. Interestingly, they also note the importance of temporal barriers, that is, the failure of society to recognise that some people require longer to achieve certain tasks whether that is in learning to cross the road or achieving a particular qualification. To this I would add emotional or affective barriers, since the concept of choice also implies changes in people's lives. Changes to routines or relationships built up over many years can appear threatening to the person themselves and to others in their lives. In Malcolm's situation his father's failure to acknowledge Malcolm's growing autonomy and his need to separate from the family was a source of considerable stress for everyone. Negotiating plans for the future becomes an even more sensitive and difficult process for all involved.
Learning to learn
Having the motivation to learn and learning how to learn constitutes the OECD's third characteristic of lifelong learning. Attitudes to learning are formed early in a child's life. This has profound implications for schooling. Leadbetter (2004) believes that motivation and commitment in learners flow from taking responsibility for planning and shaping their own learning opportunities. But like many young men of his age Malcolm could not wait to leave school. He could not see the relationship between schooling and what he wanted to do with his life. Staff at Malcolm's school were unaware of his ambition to become a van driver's mate and his concerns about his problems in reading maps and giving directions. Had his teachers listened to him they could have designed his school curriculum to support him in his ambitions and there is a chance that he might have begun to see the point of school and learning.
In order to prepare young people for lifelong learning, Scardamalia and Bereiter (1991) propose that schooling needs to be flexible, creative, support problem-solving, develop technological literacy and information-finding skills. Teachers and learners are both seen as learners in a joint enterprise, working together in what Daniels (2000) describes as ���knowledge building organisations�۪. This has implications for teaching methods and approaches, which Kershner (2000) proposes should foster communication and language development, make explicit links between learning that takes place within and outside school or college and promote choice and risk-taking. But as Byers (1998) has pointed out, much special education provision is characterised by routine and consistency and many learners are not supported in becoming active learners.
Changes across the life span
Finally, the OECD considers that lifelong learning policies should recognise the changing and multiple objectives that individuals have for learning throughout their adult lives. In practice the objectives of lifelong learning tend to vary at a national level. Purposes range from those that are largely economic where lifelong learning seeks to enhance an individual's contribution to the economy through, for example, basic education or work-based training or retraining (human capital), to those where the principle aim is individual development and enhanced quality of life such as learning to use new technologies, through to those where the main purpose is to achieve greater social equality and cohesion (social justice and social capital), for example, community-based projects. Taylor (2005) suggests that, in the UK, the rhetoric of citizenship and social cohesion has in fact masked the real economic focus of most lifelong learning initiatives. For example, the government has invested considerable sums of money in promoting adult basic skills to the exclusion of other aspects of adult education. Others argue (OECD, 2003) that it is difficult to separate out these different purposes and that enhanced employability can help to create greater social cohesion and equality, and therefore a better quality of life and greater social inclusion.
Which policies are more likely to create barriers to participation in lifelong learning which in turn can lead to social exclusion, particularly of people with learning difficulties? The answer lies in where the thrust of these policies is located and how they are interpreted. Bates and Davis (2004) are clear that policies that promote social capital which they describe as ���social networks and norms of trust and reciprocity�۪ (p. 196), that invest in building networks and communities, and that support individual participation in those communities are more likely to be more socially inclusive of people with learning difficulties. They are optimistic about the general shift of focus and quality of mainstream opportunities, and the participation in these by people with learning difficulties. Examples include a renewed focus on volunteering, non-vocational adult classes, and supported employment schemes. Even so, Hammond (2004) in her analysis of the impact of lifelong learning opportunities on the mental health and emotional resilience of a group of 145 adults concluded that participation only makes a difference when programmes match the individual's own interests, strengths and needs.
Riddell, Baron and Wilson (2001) are more pessimistic, arguing that while mainstream lifelong learning policies in the UK are generally driven by the desire to increase human capital, much provision for adults with learning difficulties emphasises independent living and social and life skills. They argue that people with learning disabilities are excluded from mainstream lifelong learning and are bound by the social relationships that are formed within the special provision. Any work-related training that is available tends to emphasise the social benefits of the experience of training rather than the expectation that it will lead to a job. Instead, both Riddell et al. (2001) and Armstrong (2003) suggest that much post-school education and training open to people with learning difficulties acts as a subtle means of social control by containing rather than educating them. People are placed on programmes in settings to suit the convenience of services, regardless of individual interests or preferences. This is exacerbated in the UK where adults with learning difficulties can be placed on basic skills programmes to help organisations meet government targets and hence obtain funding. Whatever position is adopted it is clear that policies that foster the collective through building social capital and citizenship are more likely to be beneficial in terms of social inclusion than those policies that focus solely on the marketplace and learners as consumers of training and education for employment.
In this first section I have described some of the challenges that exist in creating a lifelong learning society that is inclusive of all learners, that enhances the quality of their lives and that recognises the diversity of society. Now we examine in more detail how Malcolm's chances of living a fulfilled and happy adult life could have been enhanced through his schooling.
The long-term outlook for the quality of Malcolm's adult life was not good. Malcolm was in the upper secondary department of a special school for children with learning difficulties (Dee, 2002). He lived on a large council estate (or social housing) with his father who was agoraphobic and consequently unemployed, his mother, the mainstay of the family, and his younger brother with whom he argued constantly. Using Park et al.'s (2002) five family quality of life domains, Malcolm's family could be described as experiencing difficulties in all five: health, productivity, physical environment (they were waiting to be rehoused), emotional wellbeing and family interaction. But Malcolm came from a large extended family and at weekends he helped his uncle to deliver chairs and tables. Like many young people with learning difficulties, his transition to post-16 provision had been deferred and he was likely to experience what Dewson et al. refer to as ���a largely non-productive process of ���churning�۝ and stagnation�۪ (2004, p. 144). So how could Malcolm be supported to have a better life at 40? What needs to be done?
Malcolm's experiences are examined through ideas located in two different but overlapping traditions: those of psychology and sociology. These terms are used in a general sense and in ways in which they have come to be understood within the disability movement and special education.
Ideas located within the psychological tradition are broadly interested in reasons behind human behaviour. Social psychologists have gone further by studying how external factors can influence and interact with internal processes. They have forged links with sociology. The field of special education has been strongly influenced by psychology and social psychology both in terms of the organisation of provision and in developing new strategies and ways of working with individuals.
The sociological tradition has had a profound influence, particularly on the development of the disability movement. Sociologists are interested in how deep structures in society shape and predetermine our lives, allowing some groups to be privileged over others through virtue of their gender, class, ethnicity or disability. Their ideas have influenced the social model of disability and to a lesser extent the inclusion movement in which disability is seen as socially constructed and where individuals are disabled by their environment (Oliver, 1990). More recently, and drawing on postmodernist thinking, some disability scholars have argued for an explanation that moves beyond structuralist explanations that focus on the collective experiences of disabled people to a post-structuralist perspective that takes account of personal experiences and that sees the experience of impairment as an integral part of individual identity and make-up (Allan, 1999; Shakespeare & Watson, 2001; Crow, 2003). Shakespeare and Watson (2001), while recognising the political role that structuralist models have played in arguing for changes within society, believe that postmodernist ideas are more helpful in providing a theoretical basis for the study of disability. On the whole most of these debates have centred on the experiences of people with physical and sensory impairments. Armstrong's (2003) critique of special education policy and practice using the stories of adults with learning difficulties represents one of the few attempts to engage with the experiences of those with learning difficulties
In Malcolm's case three important and interrelated issues emerge: his influence on the decision-making process; his relationship with his family; the nature of the professional support that was offered. Each of these issues is discussed from the perspective of these two traditions, although in practice ideas from both traditions have combined to assist our understanding of special education. Each has played a powerful and significant role in understanding and guiding the development of provision for young people and adults with learning difficulties and/or disabilities.
First, why was Malcolm's perspective disregarded in the planning process and how could he have been supported in playing a more proactive role in shaping the curriculum to enable him to realise his dreams and ambitions and his vision of a ���good life�۪? From a sociological standpoint Malcolm was disadvantaged by the special education system itself. Armstrong (2003), drawing on structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers such as Foucault and Giroux, argues that society sustains and reproduces the concept of ���otherness�۪ and the subordination of people with learning difficulties through the systems and structures of special education, to suit its own purposes. The professionals who work within these systems sustain this otherness through failing to acknowledge the viewpoints of adults with learning difficulties, instead continuing to make assumptions about what is best and making decisions on their behalf. These systems conspire to maintain people on particular programmes and routes in an approach that Rusteimer (2000) terms ���educational and vocational positioning�۪.
On the other hand, many professionals act from the best of motives. Malcolm's teachers were fully aware that local opportunities were limited and that once Malcolm left school he would probably only have two years of further education college before having to find a job, which with his low levels of attainment could prove difficult. In addition, his family were poor and faced numerous financial and social problems. To maintain Malcolm in his small and protective special school and to delay his school leaving seemed the best option.
While sociologists tend to look to society for answers, those working within psychological traditions tend to focus on the individual and their interactions with their environment. So would Malcolm have been better prepared for his adult life if he had participated in a programme of self determination? Self-determination has been defined by Field, Martin, Miller, Ward, and Wehmeyer (1998) as
a combination of skills, knowledge and beliefs that enables a person to engage in goal-directed, sel