“There are few educators who would disagree with the principle that lifelong learning is a good thing but the important questions are about the types of learning that the concept promotes, the life that it encourages us to lead, who benefits from this and the nature of the society that it upholds.” (as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014 p. 20/21)
This quote didn’t initially resonate with me, so I followed it to its source, Crowther’s “Really Useful Knowledge or Merely Useful Lifelong Learning?, a chapter in the Second International Handbook of Lifelong Learning, and I read as much as the free preview on Google Books would let me (2012)!
I am a lifelong learner at heart. I have always enjoyed education in most of its forms and have sought it out in many formats and for many reasons. Very rarely have I felt like I need to seek out learning to find or keep my place in the labour market. Learning is a joy and has occasionally been a sanity saver for me.
What I learned from this quote, and its source, is that not everyone sees lifelong learning the same way. It was really more of a reminder for me; I work with unemployed individuals and often their association with furthering their education or learning something new to get a job is with fear. Fear of not being able to support themselves and their families, and that if they don’t constantly learn new things and become unemployed – it is their own fault.
When an ideal such as lifelong learning is used to place the blame of being un or underemployed squarely back on the shoulders of those that are living it, and greater issues of society are ignored as a result, adult learning can become a place of desperation instead of inspiration.
I first felt somewhat disillusioned about teaching after spending some time with this quote. Am I merely a puppet?
I realized, after spending some time bouncing these ideas around, that teaching can be so much more than helping people learn a new skill or concept. It can help people to regain or find for the first time a joy in learning and a reason to do it for themselves. If a student is in a course or workshop and they are coming from a place of fear, they will lack the necessary confidence to succeed. If they have been led to believe that they are redundant or not good enough in their industry and that their unemployment is their own fault they will be bringing shame and self-loathing to the classroom, and possibly anger as well. Good teaching can help those students to reassociate learning with success, wonder, and optimism.
The key insight that I have as a result of reflecting on this quote is that while I pursue life long learning because of very positive reasons, that is not the case for everyone. I need to remember to consider critically the reasons that adults engage in learning activities throughout their lives and to be vocal about policies that I feel unfairly place the burden of major social issues on the shoulders of the adult learner.
I think that, as an instructor, I should also work to help my students examine the reasons why they feel the need to engage in learning activities. This could be a part of building the big picture of a course or workshop; activities that are designed to connect the concepts of the workshop to students’ lives in order to find relevancy and engage prior knowledge could also encourage them to critically reflect on why they are choosing to be there.
Going forward I will have better understanding of where some resistance might be coming from in my workshops; when adults are motivated to initiate learning activities because of fear, the creation of the necessary discomfort to stimulate learning will likely not go well. It will be important for me to help students find the confidence to push through that discomfort and I will need to find new or adjust my existing strategies in order to support stressed and fearful learners.
Crowther, J. (2012). ‘Really useful knowledge’ or ‘merely useful’ lifelong learning? In Aspin, D., Chapman, J., Evans, K., & Bagnall, R. (Eds.), Second International Handbook of Lifelong Learning: Part 1 and Part 2. (pp. 801 – 811) New York: Springer.
Merriam, S. B. & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.