Lifelong Learning: moving beyond Education for All

The Eternal Circle 7 - David Pyatt 

Keynote speech delivered at the Shanghai “International Forum on Lifelong Learning”
at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 (19-21 May 2010)

UNESCO, the Shanghai Municipal People’s Government, the Chinese Society of Educational Development Strategy (CSEDS) and the Chinese National Commission for UNESCO.

Included in the book
Conceptual evolution and policy developments in lifelong learning, UIL-UNESCO, 2011 (PDF)


Over the past two decades, the world has experienced profound changes. A rapid globalisation process has resulted in a highly connected world, with economic and political power more concentrated than ever. Many old structural problems have further deteriorated or become more evident to public awareness, while new ones have emerged. Technology has undergone impressive leaps, bringing with it new possibilities as well as new threats. All these developments have major consequences on people’s lives around the world, as well as on education and learning systems.

However, the education field continues to revolve around the traditional “education reform” mentality. More money and resources devoted to doing basically more of the same. Top-down policies and measures. “Improving the quality of education” instead of revisiting it. Quantities predominating over qualities. Education understood mainly or solely as school education. Access, retention and completion rates as main (school) education indicators. Tests aimed at evaluating how much information students are able to digest and retrieve. Weak attention to learning, easily confused with testing and school achievement. Overburdened curricula attempting to capture as much content as possible. And so on and so forth.

All this is apparent not only at the national but also at the international level. World platforms such as Education for All (EFA), coordinated by UNESCO, are not tuned with LIfelong Learning (LLL) the new emerging paradigm, adopted over the past few years by many countries in the North, especially in Europe, and promoted by many international agencies, UNESCO being one of them.

We focus here on the relationship between EFA and LLL, and argue in favour of revisiting EFA in order to better adjust it to the lifelong learning paradigm and to the changes experienced by the world since 1990, when EFA was initiated worldwide.

Education for All (EFA) – far from Lifelong Learning

The Education for All (EFA) world initiative was launched in 1990 (Jomtien, Thailand) and ratified in 2000 (Dakar, Senegal). In Dakar, a new deadline was established (2015) given the fact that the six EFA goals were not accomplished 2000 (Torres, 2000). The goals remained six but were slightly modified (Box 1).

Box 1
Education for All goals (1990-2000-2015)

Jomtien: 1990-2000
Dakar: 2000-2015
1. Expansion of early childhood care and development activities, including family and community interventions, especially for poor, disadvantaged and disabled children.
1. Expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
2. Universal access to, and completion of, primary education (or whatever higher level of education is considered as “basic”) by the year 2000.

2. Ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality.
3. Improvement in learning achievement such that an agreed percentage of an appropriate age cohort (e.g. 80% of 14 year olds) attains or surpasses a defined level of necessary learning achievement.
3. Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programmes.
4. Reduction in the adult illiteracy rate (the appropriate age cohort to be determined in each country) to, say, one-half its 1990 level by the year 2000, with sufficient emphasis on female literacy to significantly reduce the current disparity between the male and female illiteracy rates.
4. Achieving a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults.
5. Expansion of provision of basic education and training in other essential skills required by youth and adults, with programme effectiveness assessed in terms of  behavioural changes and impacts on health, employment and productivity.
5. Eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girls’ full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality.
6. Increased acquisition by individuals and families of the knowledge, skills and values required for better living and sound and sustainable development, made available through all educational channels including the mass media, other forms of modern and traditional communication, and social action, with effectiveness assessed in terms of behavioural change.
6. Improving all aspects of the quality of education and ensuring excellence of all so that recognised and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills.

Sources: WCEFA 2000a,b,c; EFA Forum 2000; UNESCO-EFA International Coordination ; Ten things you need to know about Education for All 

EFA goals replicate the conventional education mentality and do not facilitate a holistic understanding of education and of learning throughout life. This is because, among reasons,

EFA goals are a list. Each goal is treated and measured separately. The linkages between them are not apparent (eg, between child and adult education, school and out-of-school education, and so on). EFA’s traditional and ongoing focus on Goal 2 – children’s primary education – reflects and replicates the false historical “option” between child and adult education, and the neglect of early childhood care and education, despite well-known rhetoric on the subject. In fact, the EFA Development Index (EDI), created in 2003 to monitor EFA developments in countries, includes only four EFA goals, leaving out Goal 1 (early childhood care and education) and Goal 3 (youth/adult basic education).

▸ EFA goals are organised by age – early childhood (Goal 1), school age (Goal 2), youth and adults (Goals 3 and 4), in the Dakar list – without articulation between them. Learners’ segmentation according to age reflects the conventional education mentality that is behind the segmentation of education policies, goals and institutions. Focus on age contributes to losing sight of social learning organisations like the family and the community, and has institutionalised the false “option” between children’s education and adult education, whereby children and adults have to compete for their right to education, especially in circumstances of multiple needs and scarce resources such as those that characterise countries in the South (Torres, 2003). EFA Goal 6 formulated in Jomtien in 1990, which referred to family education and public information (“Increased acquisition by individuals and families of the knowledge, skills and values required for better living and sound and sustainable development…”) was eliminated in Dakar in 2000.

▸ EFA goals adhere to the conventional formal/non-formal dichotomy, leaving out informal learning, fundamental and expanding throughout the world given among others the expansion of life and of modern information and communication technologies (ICTs). The three-tier category (formal/non-formal/informal education) long used in the education field shows the centrality of formal education, with all other categories defined as non- or in-. In fact, the revised International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED 1997) does not include informal education, currently acknowledged as informal learning (incidental or random learning) given the absence of an organised education activity (Box 2).

▸ EFA goals continue to view literacy in isolation, as a separate area and goal, without acknowledging that literacy is a basic learning need of the population and thus part of basic education 

▸ EFA goals adopt “basic education” as the main organising concept – not lifelong learning. The Jomtien conference spoke of an “expanded vision of basic education”, an education aimed at “meeting the basic learning needs of the population”, in and out of the school system. However, the mission of education is not only meeting basic learning needs, but also expanding them and generating new learning needs along the process. (Torres, 2003). [1]

Box 2

Education: Formal and non-formal

: “Within the framework of ISCED, the term education is taken to comprise all deliberate and systematic activities designed to meet learning needs. This includes what in some countries is referred to as cultural activities or training. Whatever the name given to it, education is understood to involve organized and sustained communication designed to bring about learning. The key words in this formulation are to be understood as follows:
- COMMUNICATION: a relationship between two or more persons involving the transfer of information (messages, ideas, knowledge, strategies, etc.). Communication may be verbal or non-verbal, direct/face-to-face or indirect/remote, and may involve a wide variety of channels and media.
- LEARNING: any improvement in behaviour, information, knowledge, understanding, attitude, values or skills.
- ORGANIZED: planned in a pattern or sequence with explicit or implicit aims. It involves a providing agency (person or persons or body) that sets up the learning environment and a method of teaching through which the communication is organized. The method is typically someone who is engaged in communicating or releasing knowledge and skills with a view to bringing about learning, but it can also be indirect/inanimate e.g. a piece of computer software, a film, or tape, etc.
- SUSTAINED: intended to mean that the learning experience has the elements of duration and continuity. No minimum duration is stipulated, but appropriate minima will be stated in the operational manual.

education (or initial education or regular school and university education): “Education provided in the system of schools, colleges, universities and other formal educational institutions that normally constitutes a continuous ‘ladder’ of full-time education for children and young people, generally beginning at age five to seven and continuing up to 20 or 25 years old. In some countries, the upper parts of this ‘ladder’ are constituted by organized programmes of joint part-time employment and part-time participation in the regular school and university system: such programmes have come to be known as the ‘dual system’ or equivalent terms in these countries.

Non-formal education
: “Any organized and sustained educational activities that do not correspond exactly to the above definition of formal education. Non-formal education may therefore take place both within and outside educational institutions, and cater to persons of all ages. Depending on country contexts, it may cover educational programmes to impart adult literacy, basic education for out-of-school children, life-skills, work-skills, and general culture. Non-formal education programmes do not necessarily follow the ‘ladder’ system, and may have differing duration”.

“Education, for the purposes of ISCED, excludes communication that is not designed to bring about learning. It also excludes various forms of learning that are not organized. Thus, while all education involves learning, many forms of learning are not regarded as education. For example, incidental or random learning which occurs as a by-product of another event, such as something that crystallizes during the course of a meeting, is excluded because it is not organized i.e. does not result from a planned intervention designed to bring about learning.”

Source: UNESCO, Standard Classification of Education (ISCED 1997)  

From education to learning and from lifelong education to lifelong learning

The shift of focus from education to learning, and from lifelong education to lifelong learning, has been on the table at least since the 1970s.[2] However, and although learning has in fact become a much repeated word, with a multitude of labels[3], disregard for effective learning continues as well the long-entrenched confusion between education and learning.[4] It is generally assumed that learningis always the result of some sort of teaching, and that teaching results automatically in learning.

The Fifth International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA V), held in Hamburg in 1997, called for such transit, ending up with the Hamburg Declaration on Adult Learning.

However, few understood and adopted such change of focus in the 12 years between CONFINTEA V and CONFINTEA VI (Belém, Brazil, December 2009). (Torres, 2009) 

Lifelong Learning and the right to education

Lifelong learning is activated today as the key organising principle for education and training systems, and for the building of the “knowledge society”.

Lifelong learning acknowledges essentially two inter-related facts: (a) learning is lifelong (not confined to a particular period in life, “from the womb to the tomb”); and (b) learning is lifewide (not confined to school but taking place everywhere: home, community, playground, workplace, sports yard, mass media, through play, conversation, debate, reading, writing, teaching, problem solving, social participation, social service, travel, use of ICTs, and so on).

On the other hand, one can relate the “emphasis on learning” to two different dimensions:
- ensuring that education (formal or non-formal) results in effective learning
- ensuring relevant learning opportunities beyond the school system

Thus, the right to education can no longer be understood as the right to access the school system (and eventually complete a certain number of years of schooling). The right to education implies essentially the right to learn and to learn throughout life. The state has an obligation to ensure equal learning opportunities for all, within and beyond the school system, at all ages.

Lifelong learning can be related to various concepts:

· Learning throughout life
· Learning to live
· Life is the curriculum
· Learning to learn
· Learning families
· Learning communities
· Learning societies.

Advances in neuroscience research are contributing to a better understanding of learning, and of learning throughout life, at various ages and stages. The belief that learning occurs and can occur at any age is confirmed by such research, thus providing scientific support to the claim that school age should not be confused with learning age. Now we know that the brain is mature between the mid-20s and the 30s, and that the mature brain can focus better and is capable of deeper and more complex learning. Also, the adult brain is capable of learning new tasks and being shaped by new experiences. Cognitive decline with age is avoidable if the brain is kept active, curious, in a permanent state of learning. [5]

What Lifelong learning is NOT

Lifelong Learning is not only about adults – as many people and organisations continue to use it. Lifelong Learning is not equivalent to adult education or adult learning; it is lifelong, “from the womb to the tomb”, thus embracing children, youth and adults across the life span. Curiously, some countries in Latin American and the Caribbean that have adopted the Lifelong Learning terminology include it as an additional category or section within Ministries of Education or other ministries, as if it were separate from the rest (Torres, 2009). UNESCO itself has contributed to such confusions. The former UNESCO Institute for Education (UIE), based in Hamburg, traditionally devoted to adult education and responsible for organising the International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA), was renamed UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL). EFA goal 3 – “Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life-skills programmes” – is the only one labelled “lifelong learning” in UNESCO’s documents and website.

The LIfelong Learning paradigm has so had far little impact in countries in the South. Many countries, especially in Africa and Asia, are still struggling with access and the completion of children’s primary education and high adult illiteracy rates. Most of them struggle with quality issues at all levels of the education system. Generally, education continues to be associated with school education, and learning with school assessment. The picture of learning within and outside the school system is still distant and considered a luxury for many governments, social organisations and international agencies engaged with education in the South. International platforms such as EFA and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) contribute in fact to the reinforcement of such trends.

There are also legitimate concerns vis-à-vis the Lifelong Learning paradigm as adopted and developed by countries in the North, mainly as a strategy for human resource development. Many fear that Lifelong Learning and its “focus on learning” may be a way to further neglect teaching and teachers, and to disengage governments from their commitment to ensure the right to education, by leaving learning in the hands of people, as their own individual responsibility. However, lifelong learning does not need to be reduced to an economic strategy; it does not imply abandoning teaching but rather strengthening it and acknowledging educators’ own learning needs; it does not have to be associated with individual learning, but as the possibility to combine social and personal learning in different contexts and moments; and it does not have to conflict with the right to education. On the contrary, the right to education expands beyond access and becomes the right to learn.

It is true that Lifelong Learning is an agenda proposed and adopted by countries in the North, whose contexts and perspectives differ considerably from those in the South. Thus there is the need to define Lifelong Learning from the perspective of the South, and of the diversity of situations and cultures characterising each region and country.

Lifelong Learning: Building learning families, learning communities and learning societies

Adopting Lifelong Learning as a paradigm is not just about introducing minor adjustments to education structures, systems and policies. It implies a major revolution of traditional education and learning cultures: 

▸ revisit the school-centred education culture that continues to view the school as the only education and learning system
▸ acknowledge and articulate the various learning systems, to ensure necessary coordination and synergy at both local and national level
▸ understand education/training, face-to-face/distance, formal/non-formal/informal as part of a continuum
▸ ensure effective learning within the school system, beyond tests measuring “school achievement”
▸ recognise previous knowledge and know-how as a key transectoral component of education and training policies
▸ rethink age as a central factor to organise education/training systems and opportunities
▸ abandon prejudices about age and learning, open up to new scientific evidence confirming that learning is an ageless endeavour
▸ accept literacy as a lifelong learning process rather than as a learning period
▸ go beyond the book as the single reading object that continues to define “reading habits”, and accept the wide variety that today characterises the reading world
▸ incorporate the screen as a new reading and writing device for all ages
▸ promote and support peer- and inter-generational learning at home, in school, at the community, at work, everywhere.
▸ envisage education and learning beyond classrooms and closed spaces, while ensuring outdoors learning, contact with nature, people, real-life situations
▸ combine all means and media available to make learning happen, through multimedia strategies
▸ acknowledge the importance not only of “modern” technologies but also of “traditional” ones massively available and still poorly utilised (radio, TV, blackboard, tape recorders, and others)
▸ take advantage of distance education/learning opportunities, through all available means, better if combined with face-to-face contact
▸ diversify policies and strategies to accommodate the specific needs and desires of specific communities, groups and individuals
▸ think education and learning not only in terms of isolated individuals who contribute to statistics, but also in social terms (groups, communities, networks, organisations)
▸ build learning families, with the help of specific policies and strategies aimed at enhancing the cultural and educational capital of the family as a whole
▸ build learning communities, in urban and rural areas, so that all members – children, young people, adults – are engaged in learning activities, and all local resources are utilised, with community and local development in mind
▸ work towards a culture of collaboration that promotes collective access to, and use of, resources, rather than “each one have one” (each school a library, each student a computer, each person a cell phone, and so on).

The real challenge is building a learning society – families, communities and societies that learn – a goal far more complex, democratic and egalitarian than building an information society.

Effectively adopting Lifelong Learning as a paradigm implies a major shift for education and learning cultures.

Commission of the European Communities. 2000. A Memorandum on Lifelong Learning. Brussels: Commission Staff Working Paper.
Dave, R.H. (dir.).1976. Foundations of Lifelong Education. Hamburg: UIE-UNESCO.
Delors, J. et. al. 1996. Learning: The Treasure Within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century. Paris: UNESCO.
EFA Forum. 2000. The Dakar Framework for Action, World Education Forum (Dakar, 26-28 April, 2000). Paris: UNESCO.
  Faure, E. 1973. Learning to Be. Paris: UNESCO.
Torres, R.M. 2000. One decade of ‘Education for All’: The challenge ahead. Buenos Aires: IIPE-UNESCO.
Torres, R.M. 2001a. “Lifelong Learning in the North, Education for All in the South?”, in: Proceeding, International Conference on Lifelong Learning: Global Perspective in Education (Beijing, 1-3 July 2001). Beijing: BAES.
Torres, R.M. 2001b.  “What happened at the World Education Forum?”, in: Adult Education and Development, N° 55. Bonn: IIZ-DVV, 2001.
Torres, R.M. 2001c. Learning Community: Re-thinking Education for Local Development and for Learning. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Learning Communities, Barcelona Forum, Barcelona, 5-6 October, 2001.
Torres, Rosa Maria. 2003. Lifelong Learning: A new momentum and a new opportunity for Adult Basic Learning and Education (ABLE) in the South. A study commissioned by the Swedish International Development Agency. Stockholm: Sida, 2003; Bonn: IIZ-DVV, 2003.
Torres, Rosa Maria. 2009. From literacy to lifelong learning: Trends, issues and challenges of youth and adult education in Latin America and the Caribbean. Regional report prepared for the Sixth International Conference on Adult Education, Belém, Brazil, 19-22 May, 2009. Commissioned by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) with the financial support of CREFAL
UIE-UNESCO. 1997b. CONFINTEA V documents. The Hamburg Declaration on Adult Learning, Hamburg, 1997.
UIL-UNESCO. 2009. 6th International Conference on Adult Education, Living and Learning for a Viable Future: The Power of Adult Learning (Belém, 1-4 December 2009) 
UNESCO. 1997. Standard Classification of Education (ISCED 1997) 
UNESCO. 2000a. World Education Report 2000. The right to education: Towards education for all throughout life. Paris.
UNESCO. 2000b. Final Report. World Education Forum (Dakar, 26-28 April 2000). Paris.
UNESCO. 2000c. The Dakar Framework for Action “Education for All: Meeting Our Collective Commitments”, World Education Forum (Dakar, 26-28 April 2000). Paris.
WCEFA (World Conference on Education for All/Inter-Agency Commission). 1990a. Meeting Basic Learning Needs: A Vision for the 1990s, Background Document, World Conference on Education for All. New York.
WCEFA. 1990b. World Declaration on Education for All and Framework for Action to Meet Basic Learning Needs (Jomtien, Thailand, 5-9 March 1990). New York-Paris.
WCEFA. 1990c. Final Report, World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand, 5-9 March 1990). New York: UNICEF.

[1] The term basic education is understood in diverse ways. Officially, according to UNESCO’s International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED 1997), basic education comprises primary education and lower secondary education. In Jomtien (2000), basic education was defined as “education aimed at meeting the basic learning needs” of all, in and out of school (WCEFA 1990). For the OECD-DAC and standard aid classifications basic education includes early childhood education, primary education, and basic life skills for youths and adults, including literacy (Glossary, EFA Global Monitoring Report 2010).[2] See: Faure 1973; Dave 1976; Delors et. al. 1996; Commission of the European Commission 2000. [3] A few such denominations: distance learning, online learning, active learning, blended learning, distributed learning, synchronous learning, self-paced learning, self-directed learning, cooperative learning, collaborative learning, social learning, open learning, informal learning, lifelong learning, invisible learning, iLearning, fLearning, etc.
[4] Translation problems further reveal and exacerbate the lack of distinction between the two concepts. A few examples: a) the Delors report entitled “Learning, the Treasure within” (1996) was translated into Spanish as “La educación encierra un tesoro”;  b) the “Hamburg Declaration on Adult Learning” (1997) was translated into Spanish as “Declaración de Hamburgo sobre la Educación de Adultos”: c) the 1st World Forum on Lifelong Learning organized by a Lifelong Learning Committee (Paris, October 2008) was translated into Spanish as Foro Mundial para la Educación y la Formación a lo largo de la vida and into French as Forum Mondial pour l'Education et la Formation Tout au Long de la Vie
See for example:* Dave Snowden’s Cognitive Edge
* UCL -Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience 
- Ability to concentrate improves during adolescence  (2010)
* Plos Biology: Axonal Dynamics of Excitatory and Inhibitory Neurons in Somatosensory Cortex (2010) 
* The Rockefeller University Newswire: New research shows how experience shapes the brain’s circuitry (2010)

* Neurociencias 

This text is included in a book organized by UIL-UNESCO with the seminar proceedings. See: Jin Yang and Raúl Valdés-Cotera (eds.), Conceptual evolution and policy developments in lifelong learning, UIL, Hamburg, 2011.

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