Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning is another concept that is often bandied about along with “knowledge economy” and “information age.” In this week, we will review definitions of the concept, examine how it is embraced and developed in Australian social policy, and consider critical perspectives.

Learning objectives: Billett
1. What is lifelong learning, and how is it different than lifelong education?
2. How is learning done in educational settings different than learning done outside of them?
3. What are some of the ways in which the needs of learners conflicts with the need of educational institutions?

Learning objectives: Chapman et al
1. How is Australian social policy embracing and fostering lifelong learning?
2. What are the main challenges to encouraging lifelong learning in social policy?

Learning objectives: Olssen
1. Theory of governmentality: What is it? Who developed it?
2. What is “neoliberal flexibilization”?
3. How is lifelong learning a “technology of power”?
4. How can lifelong learning be safeguarded from “neoliberal appropriation?”

Stephen Billett (2010) The perils of confusing lifelong learning with lifelong education, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 29:4, 401-413,

Judith Chapman, Janet Gaff, Ron Toomey, David Aspin (2005) Policy on lifelong learning in Australia, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 24:2, 99-122, D

Mark Olssen (2006) Understanding the mechanisms of neoliberal control: lifelong learning, flexibility and knowledge capitalism, International Journal of Lifelong Education

SL wrote: 13/. Billett (2010) argues for a clear distinction between learning and teaching, saying much learning happens outside of educational institutions, criticising those who unquestioningly assume the value of a taught course. As an educator of adults, how relevant to you is the learning that your students do outside of your course, your classroom or your teaching institution?

RHW responded: I'm also wondering if age/experience has to do with outside educaitonal institutional experiences and how these can influence a classroom - so many times a mature aged student has really brought so much to the classroom that one can't find in the books of theory. Practice is so important yet so less likely to valued as theory at university anyway. (week three readings touch on this a bit).

My reply: Age and experience has a great deal to with approaches towards lifelong learning and lifelong education. The inisghts of developmental psychology are certainly useful in that regard.

In summary form the following is acknowledged:

In general one can witness in mature-aged education greater levels of mutuality of responsibility between student and teacher, activities based on real needs and self-corcordant goals of the participants [1], higher levels participation, self-direction, teacher’s role as resource and facilitator, learner’s experiences form the basis of learning, the need for an more open and democratic environment [2], and issues related to fluidity and crystallized intelligence [3], and future-time orientation [4].

Due to motivational differences that arise from their social and cognitive developmental stages the distinction between lifelong learning and lifelong education is probably going to be less significant from the perspective of the learner.


1] Sheldon, K. M. (2009). Changes in goal-striving across the life span: Do people learn to select more self-concordant goals as they age?. In M. C. Smith (Ed.), Handbook of research on adult learning and development (pp. 553–569). New York: Routledge.

2] Burns, R. (1995). Theories of adult education. In The adult learner at work: A comprehensive guide to the context, psychology and methods of learning for the workplace (pp. 225–253). Chatswood, NSW, Australia: Business & Professional Publishing.

3] Carroll, J.B. (1993). Human cognitive abilities: A survey of factor-analytic studies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

4] Simons, J., Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., & Lacante, M. (2004). Placing motivation and future time perspective theory in a temporal perspective. Educational psychology review, 16(2), 121–139.

JA asked: Discussion point/Question 1): In the work from Billet (2010) there is the suggestion that lifelong learning is different to lifelong education. What are our thoughts on this categorisation? Is there any risk that using this separation could devalue ‘learning’ as it could be potentially seen as ‘non-education’?

My response: The distinction by Billet between lifelearning and lifelong education on an initial level seems quite correct. As noted, "we are all and have to be lifelong learners", which certainly seems to concur with most people's autodidactic activities and experiences. Indeed, something that perhaps could have been emphasied is that the necessity for lifelong learning is significantly greater in contemporary times with rates of technological change and accelerated cultural diversity.

The distinction is well recognised by other theorists of adult and lifelong learning, for example, Candy and Crebert:

"Nowadays, it is widely - if not universally - acknowledged that formal education occupies only a small proportion of the learning continuum, that most people complete their formal education early in their lives in a relatively short period, and that most learning experiences take place outside the educational institution."

However, it is more than the just the distinction that Billet is noting - a core proposition which comes from it is "tensions arising between the kinds of provisions that aimed to promote and support particular kinds of learning ... most likely to be strongest when key institutions intensity their efforst to control and regulate individual's learning". Billet combines the distinction with this issue "... the project of promoting and suipporting adults' lifelong learning and recommendation is cast through an educational institutional perspective that uses throughout an emphasis on educational practises and processed, rather than one focussed on learning, thereby misrepresenting lifelong learning and narrowing its purview and purposes".

Whilst Billet rightly questions whether the misalignment is intentional or unintentional, the key issue is that the confusion leads to education institutions "offering a systems approach to meet the needs of learners across the lifespan... [with] a return to models that haave been shown to be unhelpful..". Billet concludes ".. by only focussing on and having as a starting point as a provision of lifelong education, lifelong learning is being msrepresented, misinformed, and skewed".

What is being described here - and it's a little surprising that it's not directly referenced - is a classic example of the system-lifeworld distinction elaborated by Habermas. Lifelong learning is what people will do as members of a society in a cultural lifeworld which helps establish public opinion and personality. However that context also includes a social system which has institutionl aims and objectives and uses particular media (money and power). Cultural lifelong learning experiences are, through such media inclinations, becoming systematised, to the satisfaction of institutional needs.

In part there is some sense in systematisation of lifelong learning as lifelong education. It does provide an institutionalisation and formalisation of learning standards and content according to at least nominal democratic requirements; skills and knowledges that aid productivity, for instance, rather than becoming a historian of trivial urban legends (this is, obviously, an extreme example). Nevertheless, the systematic colonisation of lifeworld processes distorts the formation of cultural values and personalities, and as a result the production of meaning must remain, to a degree, independent of the system media.

Additional References

Habermas, J. The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume Two: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, Beacon Press 1987 [FP 1981]

Candy, P.C. & Crebert, R.G. Teaching now for learning later: The transfer of learning skills from the academy to the workplace. Paper presented at the 8th Australasian and Language Conference,
Brisbane. 1990

SL commented:

So if I'm understanding what you're saying correctly Lev, the benefit or 'sense' of a degree of "systematisation of lifelong learning" is that it helps standardise content and learning "according to at least nominal democratic requirements; skills and knowledges that aid productivity"? I suppose that this implies that lifelong learning should be tied somewhat to societal (democratic?) needs. The challenging part of that for me is that my conception of lifelong learning is that is it is primarily a personal activity (though usually happening in a social context), hence why I found Billett's article so agreeable. In this way the lifeworld-system distinction you offer is helpful.

Revisiting the original question, Is there any risk that using this separation could devalue ‘learning’ as it could be potentially seen as ‘non-education’? one of the issues I observe is that those operating in the education system are not always so successful in engaging students where their learning is occurring. The more structure and inflexibility there is in the system, the less capable teachers and lecturers often are at recognising, understanding and responding to the learning that is happening and supporting that. Looking at it from the policy 'angle' as per this unit, policy outcomes and processes that put external demands on educators (types of standardised testing for example) often have the effect of reducing flexibility and have a negative impact on the learning that might happen.

My response:

Raising the matter of democracy is an interesting one; as some supportive critics of Habermas system/lifeworld model have pointed out system steering media is wealth and power, whereas markets and democracy represent particular implementations of those steering media which represent at least a partial implementation of a communicative interface between the system and the lifeworld. There is a tension between the two implementations of course, which re-emphases the need for democratic input in educational policy that is orientated towards those personal development aspects initiated from motivations in lifelong learning.

As you also mention the distinction between education and learning can and does lead towards the former unable to recognise that its very foundation is the latter. Lifelong education will simply not exist unless there is the need and motivation for lifelong learning. The practical implementation, as you mention, often comes with negative impacts on learning.

SL asked: 2/. The kind of environment (or labour market) that Olssen describes, where the individual worker needs to keep up-skilling to remain employable and to keep their tenure, to be flexible and to be able to be ‘mobile’ between departments or employers (or between nations) is something I experience working in the VET sector. But he argues that lifelong learning is enabling this “individualisation of responsibility for education” and “downgrading of social rights”. Do you see lifelong learning as a cause of this like Olssen, or instead do you see lifelong learning as a product of the economic environment, an effect, a solution, or something else?

My response: This is not an 'or' situation, but rather an iterative 'and' situation. Olssen's analysis, utilising the genealogical methodology of Foucault, looks at the interrelationships of sources of power in a fairly restricted manner; Foucault's "aim is not to ascertain the legitimacy of state power, or the management of states, but to understand the nature of government rationalities linked to specific technologies in terms of how collective power is exercised over individuals... for Foucault power is not an entity, but a relationship of forces".

This relationship of forces is evident in competing interests of the various participants and their context. In reference to lifelong learning (and especially lifelong education) this forces and their expression of power is fairly evident; the changing technological and social context means that employers want workers who are more productive, the workers want to have the skills and knowledges necessary for good wages and conditions, the government wants to see educational institutions that satisfy the objectives in a steering-performance way, and individuals - independent of these concerns - may simply wish to engage in lifelong learning in subjects of their own volition for its own sake.

Olssen take up this perspective in reviewing the application of lifelong learning in human capital theory. especially in regard to the German Ordoliberalism and American neoliberalism. This review does (as has been mentioned before) make the error that classical political economy was not concerned with labour productivity issues ("an active factor of production"), but more pertinently, claims that the 'technology' of lifelong learning 'enables both the individualisation of responsibility of education or learning, and on the other it enables the abolition of welfare obligations of states. In this sense, the technology of lifelong learning enable a downgrading of social rights".

This is, to use Popper's terminology, a "bold conjecture" and such claims require strong grounding, which not really provided. Instead an alternative vision of learning for democracy is offered which would include a "move away from a concern with quantitative addition of cognitive and metacognitive skills with qualitative transformation of the subject through their active engagement in the democratic process..." that "... embody and express principles that transcend the ation-state and the free development of all peoples". It would be interesting to consider the author's reaction to a result of 'active engagement' that came to the conclusion that 'cognitive and metacognitive skills' were actually desired and considered useful.

There is certainly a useful project from Foucault insofar that a mapping of power relationships would be worthwhile to illustrate the balance of forces and the subtle imposition of collective power structures on the individual in learning and educational choices, but the reading offered does not really initiate this path or the normative foundations. Indeed, it may be an issue with Foucault as a whole who, as mentioned, is ambiguous at best on questions concerning the legitimacy of power or its distribution. As Nancy Fraser cleverly put it Foucault offers "empirical insights and normative confusions".