Transforming formal education from a lifelong learning perspective

Rosa María Torres

Conference prepared for the
  International Conference on Learning Cities
           UIL-UNESCO and China's Ministry of Education,
           Beijing, China, 21-23 October 2013

(draft, in process)
Pawel Jonca

Lifelong Learning means Learning throughout Life

Many people confuse Lifelong Learning (LLL) with Out-of-School Learning (Informal Learning, Open Learning, etc.), leaving the school system out of it. Many think LLL as Adult Education or as Non-Formal Education, leaving children out of it. All these associations seem to ignore that Lifelong Learning means literally learning throughout life.

In the first place, LLL is a fact: all of us learn from birth to death, everywhere and from many sources: family, friends, play, observation, practice, experience, nature, school, work, reading, writing, solving problems, participating, etc.

LLL is also the paradigm proposed for education and learning policies and systems in the 21st century. It embraces and emphasizes two key concepts: LEARNING and LIFE.

- NOT getting access to
- NOT teaching
- NOT studying
- NOT approving

- NOT only adulthood.

Formal education and lifelong learning 
Formal education
is "institutionalised, intentional and planned through public organizations and recognised private bodies" ( UNESCO's
International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED, revised in 2011). The education ladder includes pre-school education, primary education, lower and upper secondary education, technical and vocational education, adult formal education, and higher education. 

Formal education is a very important part of the LLL experience. However, viewed in a LLL perspective, formal education occupies a rather small portion of learners' lives. Most of what we learn in life (and some of the most important, such as learning to speak) is the result of  informal learning: non-institutional learning that occurs in daily life, and where no actual or deliberate teaching is involved.

Millions of people worldwide get no or very little formal education; others make it through various school levels, get diplomas and higher education qualifications. All of them - the illiterate and the Ph.Ds - are lifelong learners. Without learning, survival and life would be impossible. Those who never go to school learn basically through informal learning and oral (non-written) interaction.

Life and lifelong learning

Life is getting longer. Life expectation has grown considerably throughout the world over the past two decades. Consequently, adult and older learners have multiplied - current population trends indicate they will continue to multiply in the coming years. New scientific knowledge confirms that aging implies cognitive deterioration but it also confirms that older adults are capable of learning almost anything. Now we also know that learning begins before birth, and that it takes place also while we sleep.

Schooling and lifelong learning

Formal education continues to expand downwards and upwards. Institutionalized initial/pre-school education grow in many countries, and even become part of compulsory education in a few countries; the age to start school is also lowered in some countries. On the other side, higher education continues to expand, adding degrees and titles. School life expectation and the number of years of schooling and/or of higher education graduates are taken as indicators to compare countries' educational status.

However, the real objective is not a competitive race for titles. The objective is learning, enhancing lifelong learning opportunities for all, creating learning societies.

Formal education and learning

Access to school, especially to primary education, has been the traditional focus of national governments and international agencies vis à vis "developing countries". Completion of primary education and other levels and cycles, was the next step. Actual learning has remained an elusive objective until very recently, and often continues to be confused with approving school tests. And yet, the core mission of education is learning. Teaching without learning is absurd and a waste of time. Learning remains a critical area of school systems worldwide. Ensuring learning within the  school system is thus a major challenge in itself.


OECD's PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test applied to 15 year-olds since the year 2000 assesses competencies in three key areas: reading, mathematics and science. Initially designed for OECD countries, over 70 countries have participated in PISA so far.

In recent times, OECD has also applied ‌the Survey of Adult Skills, a survey conducted in 33 countries as part of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies  (PIAAC). The survey was applied in 2012 to 16 to 65 year olds. It measured "Literacy, Numeracy and Problem Solving Skills in Technology-rich Environments". They are considered "information-processing skills", "key cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper." The questions could be answered via computer or with pen and paper. 5,000 individuals were interviewed at home in each participating country.

This is the first international survey on the subject, the first one digging into LLL from an adult (16-65) learning perspective. The first results were released in October 2013.

                                          PIAAC: Some results
PIAAC provides insights into how these "information-processing" skills are developed and used at work and at home. Below a concise summary of some of these results:

▸ LITERACY AND NUMERACY skills are low in most countries.

▸ INITIAL + CONTINUING OPPORTUNITIES There appears to be a combination of poor initial education and lack of opportunities to further improve skills.

▸ AGE In general, older adults have lower proficiency in the three domains than younger ones (the peak is around 30 years of age). This is especially true in relation to modern technology. The extent of the gap between generations varies considerably among countries.

▸ GENDER differences are there (men have higher scores in numeracy and problem solving in technology‑rich environments than women), but the gap is not large and is very small among younger adults.

▸ LANGUAGE is a major barrier affecting the immigrant population, especially in the literacy domain.

▸ ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL WELL BEING is positively related to higher skills levels.

▸ WORK has major influence on skills use and development.

▸ FORMAL EDUCATION On average, adults with tertiary‑level qualifications have a 36 score‑point advantage – the equivalent of 5 years of schooling – over adults who have not completed upper secondary education. However,  levels and qualifications are not necessarily linked to skills proficiency.
Source: OECD Interactive Charts  OECD Skills Outlook 2013

Literacy and numeracy continue to be the most important and critical skills (all ages)

For the purpose of the Survey of Adult Skills, PIAAC defines Literacy and Numeracy as follows:

Literacy is the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts, to participate in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential. Literacy encompasses a range of skills from the decoding of written words and sentences to the comprehension, interpretation and evaluation of complex texts. It does not, however, involve the production of text.

Numeracy is the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a wide range of situations in adult life. To this end, numeracy involves managing a situation or solving a problem in a real context by responding to mathematical content represented in multiple ways.
Source: OECD Interactive Charts

Historically, literacy and numeracy are at the heart of the school system and of the mission of primary education in particular. Reading, writing and dealing with mathematical problems, continue to be at the top of any list of "21st century skills". However, literacy and numeracy skills continue to be problematic for a large part of the schooled population, be it children, youth or adults, in both "developed" and "developing" countries.

This is what PISA and PIAAC reveal, as well as many other research and evaluation reports throughout the world. Formal education is doing a poor job in this field. This is not new. The situation has been identified and exposed for a long time now.
▸ After completing 4 years of primary school, 130 million children worldwide cannot read and write (Education for All - EFA Report 2012)

▸ "In most countries, there are significant proportions of adults who score at lower levels of proficiency on the literacy and numeracy scales" (...) "Even among adults with computer skills, most scored at the lowest level of the problem solving in technology‑rich environments scale."
(PIAAC 2013)
(See: Rosa María Torres, El fracaso alfabetizador de la escuela | ¿Renuncia a un mundo alfabetizado?)

What does it mean transforming formal education from a LLL perspective?

Among others:

■ A unitary, articulated formal education system  
In many countries, the formal education system is segmented in two or more systems - education and higher education, or initial/preschool education, education, and higher education - in charge of different government bodies (Family, Social Wellbeing, Education, Technical Education, Training, Higher Education, etc.). with little or no co-ordination between them. A major challenge is thus viewing and organizing formal education as a continuum, as a teaching and learning system articulated in all dimensions: administrative and normative issues, curriculum, pedagogy, learning spaces, teacher education, etc. 

■ Placing learning at the centre
Moving from access to learning,
from student to learner,
from studying to learning,
from approving to learning,
from education for all to learning for all,
from lifelong education to lifelong learning.

■ Acknowledging learners’ and teachers' previous knowledge and experience
Acknowledging learners' (children, youth, adults) and teachers’ previous and out-of-school information, knowledge and experience and adopting it as a key pedagogical principle at all levels.

■ Rethinking TIME for education and learning purposes 
The school system is always in a rush, trying to add and cover as much content as possible, with the "next level" as the desirable and visible horizon. A LLL perspective of learning allows moving back and forth, seing beyond the next level and back to the previous level, and outside the school system. Learning requires time.
(See: Rosa María Torres, ¿Más de lo mismo? Un sistema escolar que se estira | Repensar los tiempos escolares)

■ Rethinking SPACE for education and learning purposes 
The school system is one of many education and learning systems. Learning is ubiquitous. Rather than trying to assume total responsibility and control over learning, counting with families as the only "outside partners", school systems and teachers have a critical role in visualizing community and out-of-school learning realities and possibilities, and identifying the role of the community as a learning community.
(See: Rosa María Torres, Comunidad de Aprendizaje: Educación, territorio y aprendizaje comunitario)

■ Rethinking AGE within the right to education and to learning (education and learning for ALL)
Radically rethinking the traditional vision of AGE for schooling, education and learning purposes.
- Learning does not begin with the first day of school. Learning begins at birth (and even before birth). Early childhood is the most important learning period and experience in the life of any individual. When children get to school they are competent speakers of their language, they have learned and know many things. This knowledge must not be denied but rather be assumed as the starting point for the school experience.
- Revisiting concepts such as 'school age' and 'over-age'.
- Promoting (rather than inhibiting) peer-to-peer learning and inter-generational learning.
- Acknowledging adult education as part of the right to education and of the learning continuum.
- Children's right to education must include the right to educated parents.
(See: Rosa María Torres, Pre-niños (los cimientos invisibles) | Children's right to basic education | Educar a los niños o a los adultos: falso dilema | Los niños como educadores de adultos | Kazi, el sin gracia | Kazi, The Graceless | Child learning and adult learning revisited)

■ Connecting school and out-of-school learning systems
Connecting the school system to the multiple learning systems operating out of school: home, community, media, play, work, religion, social and civic participation, etc.

■ Education centres and community learning centres and learning communities
Thinking education centres as community learning centres and learning communities (inter-generational, family-centred, learning-oriented).


A LLL perspective of literacy acquisition, use and development

When and where do we learn to read and write? Where do we read and write? Where do we develop our reading and writing skills?

The answer is: FROM BIRTH and EVERYWHERE.
- When children reach school, they have valid knowledge about reading and writing, they have developed their own hypotheses about their use by seing others read or write and by seing reading and writing materials around them.
- The school system is not the only one in charge of teaching and developing literacy skills. Moreover, within the school system, literacy education is embedded in the entire curriculum, not just in one particular subject.

Finland is a fine example in this regard: the whole society places great importance on reading and enjoys reading. Reading is a national hobby. Reading and writing are given great emphasis in the school curriculum. Families use libraries over the weekend; libraries are spread everywhere. Newspaper subscription is one of the highest in the world.

Given that literacy is often the main reason for school repetition in early grades, a wider vision of literacy acquisition would allow to understand it not as an objective for the first or two first grades but at least for the whole of basic education.
(See: Rosa María Torres, El absurdo de la repetición escolar)

Literacy, and reading specifically, require LLL policies and strategies, prior to and far beyond the school system, not tied to any particular Ministry (typically, Education and/or Culture), making use of all available and potential resources, from the local to the national level.

A schooled society is not necessarily an educated society. An educated society is a learning society. Proficient reading and writing are essential to an educated and a learning society.  
(See: Rosa María Torres, Escolarizado no es lo mismo que educado).

A LLL perspective of teacher education 

Teachers’ school biography and family background are key elements in teacher quality. Teacher education does not start with professional education. Quality formal education requires quality teachers, but quality teachers are educated in quality schools. School reform is thus a requisite for quality teacher education.
(See: Rosa María Torres, Los maestros son exalumnos | Talleres de lectura para maestros)

A LLL perspective of skills development

PIAAC confirms that "actual skills often differ from what formal education qualifications suggest".
▸ "Italy or the United States rank much higher internationally in the share of adults with tertiary degrees than in the level of literacy or numeracy proficiency".

▸ "On average, Japanese and Ducth high school graduates easily outperform university graduates in some other countries".
▸ "In many countries, there are large proportions of the population that have no experience with, or lack the basic skills needed to use ICTs for many everyday tasks".  (PIAAC 2013)
Answers to the question: Where are skills developed, used and eventually lost? include formal, non-formal and informal learning, and especially the role of home, school and work.

A LLL perspective of school "dropout" 

School "dropout" is generally not a personal decision but rather a sign of system disfunction. It is not a sudden fact, but a process. A process that starts in the early grades of primary school and even before, in early childhood and pre-school education. The school system gives students and their families permanent signs that things are going fine or wrong. Problems are viewed as "learning problems", "learners' problems", "individual problems", rarely as "teaching problems" and "system problems". Policies and programmes often see their mission as "reducing school failure" rather than "ensuring school success". Failure becomes the expected outcome, much more than success, especially if students come from poor and disadvantaged contexts. Nothing is more successful than success. If children are trusted, if high expectations are deposited in them, they will succeed. From the start. This is the best way to "prevent failure" and "reduce dropout".
(See: Preventing Dropout Effort Starts in Kindergarten, MindShift, Dec. 1, 2010).

A LLL perspective of family cultural environment and inter-generational learning

All studies and evaluations of school learning achievement conclude on the critical role of out-of-school factors and especially of the family, not only its socio-economic but also its cultural status and background. Literate/educated mothers and fathers, and a culturally rich and stimulating family environment, make a big difference in children's learning and performance in school. And yet, disregarding all scientific and empirical evidence, adult education continues to be treated with ad-hoc remedial policies, often reduced to adult literacy. A LLL perspective would imply an inter-generational approach to children's and adults' learning, address the family as a whole - family literacy, family education, family cultural development.
(See: Rosa María Torres, Niños que trabajan y estudian: Centro del Muchacho Trabajador, Ecuador)

A LLL perspective of "human talent"

Increasingly, the notion of "human talent" gets to be associated with formal education and, specifically, with higher education, science and technology. However: a) every person has talent(s), b) human talent is developed since early childhood, c) there is no necessary correlation between talent and titles. A LLL perspective of human talent development takes all this into account, for investment and pedagogical purposes.

Transforming formal education from a LLL perspective: a major 21st century challenge

Given the importance of the school system as a systematic teaching and learning system for children, youth and adults, one that is spread throughout the world and that is critical to fulfilling the right to education, transforming formal education from a LLL perspective is essential to make LLL an effective new education and learning paradigm, to organize learning communities, and to build learning societies.

This implies an authentic revolution, not just introducing innovations, reforming or "improving the quality of education". It requires scientific knowledge but also people's wisdom and lots of common sense. Political will - top-down and bottom-up - is essential, but so are creativity and imagination!

Març Rabal

Related texts in this blog (English)
Rosa María Torres, On LifeLong Learning Sobre Aprendizaje a lo Largo de la Vida (compilation)
Rosa María Torres, Sobre Lectura y EscrituraOn Reading and Writing  (compilation)
Rosa María Torres and Manzoor Ahmed, Reaching the Unreached: Non-Formal Approaches and Universal Primary Education (dossier)
Rosa María Torres, Lifelong Learning in the South: Critical issues and opportunities for adult education, Sida Studies No 2, Stockholm, 2004 (book, PDF) 

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