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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) 

On education in Finland ▸ Sobre la educación en Finlandia

(en proceso)

Fotos: Finska


 Visita de estudio en Finlandia | Finland study visit

» Conversando bajo la lluvia | Talking in the rain

» Timo y Giorgio

» Escuelas sin zapatos

» Finlandia: Tecnologías en escuelas y bibliotecas

» Dos malentendidos sobre la educación en Finlandia

» Confianza: Palabra clave en Finlandia

» Los estudiantes finlandeses no saben de Sudamérica

» El secreto finlandés es hacer todo al revés

» Yo estuve en "la escuela del futuro"

» El relajo del aprendizaje y la buena pedagogía

» Finlandia: La educación es asunto de educadores

» Una comida caliente al día para todos

» 10 ideas falsas sobre Finlandia y la educación | 10 false ideas on education in Finland

» Salas de profesores

» Un Powerpoint sobre Finlandia

» Hacer deberes en la biblioteca

» Finlandia pone en jaque las nociones sobre tiempo escolar

Finlandia: Moverse para aprender

» La biblioteca municipal de Poorvo

Bienestar de los estudiantes de 15 años en diez países (PISA)

¿Qué puede aprender Finlandia de Asia en educación?

"Creo que Paulo [Freire] habría disfrutado mucho conociendo escuelas, aulas y bibliotecas finlandesas", Entrevista con Oscar Macías Álvarez y Joaquín Asenjo de FormaciónIB y Red Iberoamericana de Docentes (diciembre 2017)

Las políticas educativas en Finlandia no están orientadas a sacar buena nota en PISA (entrevista a Pasi Sahlberg)

  "En el Ecuador, el modelo pedagógico no ha cambiado". Entrevista en Revista Plan V, Quito, febrero 2016.

▸  Glosario mínimo sobre la educación en Finlandia

▸  Sisu en Finlandia, Gambaru en Japón

10 issues in Finnish education ▸ 10 problemas en la educación finlandesa

Photo Tiina Kokko / Yle

Ver en español, abajo

Most of what we read about education in Finland is good news. However, it is difficult to believe that the Finnish education model is problem-free. Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg - author of Finnish Lessons - shared on Twitter (May 2013) his views on the Top 10 issues Finland's education faces today. I translated them into Spanish (see below). 

Issues Finnish education if facing now (by Pasi Sahlberg) - 2013
What are the issues Finnish education system is facing now? I'll tweet my Top 10 within the next 2 weeks starting now. Reactions welcome.

Issue 1: Finns have lost inspiring vision that would spark system-wide renewal. Students and teachers say change is necessary now!

Issue 2: Finnish teachers fear that there'll be more central control & standardized testing in the future. Many would consider another job.

Issue 3: Finnish kids say they don’t like school. But they like education. Old model of school is dead. What would wake up Finns to change?

Issue 4: 3000 16-year-olds don’t continue education after basic school. Some never study again. Some find school irrelevant for life. Sad.

Issue 5: Finland has invested heavily in technology in schools during the last 2 decades. It remains underused in many schools. What next?

Issue 6: ‘School shopping’ is becoming common in cities. Neighborhood schools are no more places for community action -> segregation.

Issue 7: Public funding for schools is decreasing. Local governments are in trouble – small schools disappear, inequality increases.

Issue 8: Pundits and politicians rather than experts and practitioners dominate public discussion in Finland; opinions before expertise.

Issue 9: Finnish school system has no engine for innovation. PD is thought to be enough. School-driven innovation is haphazard and rare.

Issue 10: Teachers feel their authority to manage student behavior is decreasing. Jobs are at risk due to unclear lines of authority.

Casi todo lo que leemos sobre la educación en Finlandia son buenas nuevas. No obstante, resulta difícil creer que el modelo educativo finlandés esté exento de problemas. El experto finlandés Pasi Sahlberg - autor de Lecciones Finlandesas - compartió en su cuenta de Twitter (mayo 2013) 10 desafíos que, a su juicio, enfrenta hoy la educación en Finlandia. Los he traducido aquí al español.

10 problemas de la educación finlandesa, hoy (por Pasi Sahlberg) - 2013

1. Los finlandeses han perdido una visión inspiradora capaz de desatar una renovación de todo el sistema. Estudiantes y profesores dicen que el cambio es necesario ¡ahora!

2. Los profesores finlandeses temen que haya más control centralizado y pruebas estandarizadas en el futuro. Muchos considerarían cambiar de trabajo.

3. Niños y niñas finlandesas dicen que no les gusta la escuela. Pero les gusta la educación. El viejo modelo de escuela está muerto. ¿Qué moverá a los finlandeses a cambiar?

4. 3.000 adolescentes de 16 años no continúan su educación más allá de la educación básica. Algunos no vuelven a estudiar nunca más. Algunos encuentran que la escuela es irrelevante para la vida. Triste.

5. Finlandia ha invertido fuertemente en tecnología para las escuelas durante las dos últimas décadas. Esta permanece subutilizada en muchas escuelas. ¿Qué sigue?

6.  Las "compras escolares" se están volviendo comunes en las ciudades. Las escuelas del barrio ya no son lugares para la acción comunitaria -> segregación.

7. El financiamiento público para las escuelas está decreciendo. Los gobiernos locales están en problemas: las escuelas pequeñas desaparecen, la inequidad aumenta.

8. "Comentaristas" (pundits) y políticos, antes que expertos y practicantes, dominan la discusión pública en Finlandia. Opiniones más que conocimiento y pericia.

9. El sistema escolar finlandés carece de motor para la innovación. Se asume que tener un Ph.D. basta. La innovación basada en la escuela es más bien esporádica y rara.

10. Los profesores sienten que está disminuyendo su autoridad para manejar el comportamiento de los estudiantes. Su trabajo está en riesgo debido a líneas de autoridad poco claras.

On Innovation and Change in Education

Rosa María Torres
Light bulb - Fubiz

"You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth."
Alexander Graham Bell

Innovation - leading to meaningful change - is imperative  

Innovation is about change towards improvement. The term innovation does not say anything about the nature, orientation, pertinence and depth of such change and of such improvement. Education - both in and out of school - requires major changes. An "expanded vision of basic education" was proposed in 1990 in Jomtien-Thailand when the Education for All global initiative was launched. The need for "a new vision of education" has been highlighted by the Incheon Declaration (2015) and the 2030 Agenda. Minor, superficial, isolated, scattered innovations may modify very little. Increasing access to the school system as we know it, and improving its results as measured by standardized tests, without meaningful changes in conventional teaching and learning mentalities and patterns, may only reinforce and amplify the old "banking education" model. What is needed at this point is not only more or better education, but a different education, teaching and learning model.

▸ Innovations are particularly important in periods of crisis 

Throughout the world, in "developed" and "developing" countries, there is dissatisfaction with education, training and learning systems. Innovative experiences contribute to generate critical awareness on the weaknesses of conventional education practices. They show new angles, possibilities, alternatives, ways out. They reveal that commitment, creativity and change are there and alive behind the apparent inertia and despite adverse conditions. In fact, the most inspiring educational innovations are usually found in the most difficult and disadvantaged circumstances - rural and remote areas, urban slums, small villages, poor neighborhoods, multilingual settings, learners with special needs, etc.

It is critical to transform the school system, the most widespread vehicle of systematic education  

While innovation occurs on a daily basis in schools and classrooms, change is slow and non-systemic. Innovation is often the initiative of enthusiastic, committed and subversive individuals and teams. Activating and accelerating change requires persistent and co-ordinated efforts from all sides: top-down and bottom-up, from inside the school and from the outside, from parents and students, universities, the media, mass organizations, political actors, private enterprise. Experience shows that innovations developed on the margins of the school system tend to be shortlived if they are unable to influence mainstream education. 

Out-of-school education also requires major changes 

The term education is generally understood as school education. On the other hand, innovation in education has often been associated with non-formal or out-of-school education, with NGO programmes rather than with government ones. However, most learning throughout life takes place out of the school system, in the family, the community, the workplace, the media, cultural activities, sports, contact with nature, use of the Internet and digital technologies, autonomous reading and writing, social and political participation, etc. Not all education labelled non-formal or run by ONGs is innovative. At the same time, there are many examples of powerful innovation taking place within school systems. Renovation is a need and a challenge for the education, training and learning field as a whole, governmental and non-governmental, formal, non-formal and informal, dealing with people of all ages - children, youth and adults.   

Innovation is not necessarily related to, or dependent on, technologies  

The extraordinary expansion and advantages of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have led many people to associate educational innovation with technologies. The image of "the world as a huge classroom" is strongly associated to the utopia of a connected world where every individual has access not only to information but to knowledge. Realities show the limits of such fascination and overconfidence on ICTs as guardians of educational democratization and change. Let us remember that half of the world population has no access to the internet. On the other hand, research and experience are already showing that incorporating digital devices and the Internet in schools and classrooms does not necessarily change curricular or pedagogical practices. Acesss to does not ensure effective use of. Access to the Internet is not enough; the speed and quality of Internet connections is a new critical component of the digital gap. Broad band remains a luxury in most countries in the South. And yet, social and pedagogical innovation continue to take place in those contexts that have limited or no contact with the digital world.
Innovation is not only about the future, it may be also about the past

People think of innovation as something that is in the future, something that has never been tried before, and awaits to be discovered or imitated from others. However, important innovations may also be in the past. Many countries can tell about wonderful education experiences, often rooted in local cultures and ideas, that made a difference in the national context and that were left behind in the name of modernity. Many of them remain alive as proud memory and also as inspiration for meaningful current policies and practices. In education, and in many other fields, not everything related to the past is bad or outdated, and not everything related to an imagined future is bright and good.
Innovation is nourished by collaboration, not competition 

People tend to associate innovation with isolated individuals or institutions rather than with groups and teams. However, innovation flourishes
where there is collaboration rather than competition. Learning to collaborate is a key challenge for school systems, mostly dedicated to cultivate competition, forcing students to compete with each other in the name of "excellence". In highly competitive and individualistic societies, learning to collaborate is also a challenge at the workplace, in social and political life. In an increasingly competitive world and with an increasingly competitive Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), chances of technological and social innovation become slimmer.

Innovators get better with age 

Contrary to popular belief, the capacity to innovate and the quality of the innovation become better with age. Research shows that "the age of eventual Nobel Prize winners when making a discovery, and of inventors when making a significant breakthrough, averaged around 38 in 2000, an increase of about six years since 1900." "A 55-year-old and even a 65-year-old have significantly more innovation potential than a 25-year-old." Reasons for this include: 1. It is necessary to learn the patterns before daring and being able to break them. 2. The capacity to learn from mistakes is essential for innovating and it grows with age. 3. Gray hair gives more confidence and better capacity to convince others. The Finnish school model considers that a teacher is better equipped for good teaching after ten years of practice. All this contradicts "common sense" and regular practices in school systems worldwide, where "old" teachers are often forced to retire when many of them are in the best years of their careers.

Innovations are of very different kinds and scopes  

Innovations may have an eminently transforming or an eminently preserving nature, and may vary greatly in scope and impact. Some innovations challenge the conventional  education model in important aspects ("disruptive", "radical", "alterative", "transformative", "paradigmatic", are some of the terms used); others focus on marginal modifications. Some innovations produce the illusion of change, while replicating conventional teaching-learning practices (this is often the case of innovations that rely on technologies as main motors of change). Many are the result of exceptional situations and processes and are thus hardly replicable in other contexts. Many operate in well-controlled micro conditions and are thus hard to scale-up. Most innovations do not transcend the micro and the local level. Few reach the required depth, consistency and persistence to become true educational alternatives. 

Innovations are never totally innovative  

Experiences considered "innovative" may have one or more innovative components, while other aspects remain unchanged. Continuity and discontinuity, tradition and innovation, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, education carries the double mission of preserving tradition and promoting change, learning about the past while preparing for the future. Very often innovations in education are related to administration, organization and infrastructure, which are the easiest to for top-down initiative and control; curricular and pedagogical innovations are hard to sustain since they require educators' will, motivation and competencies. In this terrain, attention is usually given to instructional materials; less attention is given to critical dimensions such as changes in role/behavior, knowledge production, dissemination and use, understanding, internalization of values, etc. Influencing the real curriculum and changing the teaching culture (stereotypes, ideologies, styles, practices) have proven the most difficult and challenging.
The starting point for innovation is critical awareness and analysis of practice

Innovation implies seeing the obvious with new eyes, or putting into practice what is already known. Innovation is often about old ideas being resuscitated, rejuvenated, placed in new contexts or applied to new issues, or about new combinations of the same ideas, or about new components integrated into old ones. While external inputs and stimuli are important, change takes place when it involves ownership, understanding, reflection and critical analysis of one's own practice. 

Educational change requires working at both macro and micro levels 

The term innovation is usually associated with local actors and initiatives and with on-the-ground experiences. The term reform, on the contrary, is associated with large-scale, top-down initiatives, coming from governments and/or international agencies. Educational development and change require both bottom-up and top-down efforts. Sustained and effective change is systemic and this requires complementary and coordinated interventions at both levels. If the school is the focus of change, students, teachers and parents must be placed at the center of the process. Trusting teachers, empowering them, investing in their professional autonomy and status, are essential conditions to ensure building school change from the ground up.

Innovation must be based on realistic grounds  

Perennial, ambitious or radical reform projects often succumb to reality, leaving in their wake skepticism and increasing resistance to change. Many times, changes proposed are too complex or not feasible under concrete conditions and proposed timetables. Typically, teachers are expected to change long-entrenched teaching models and styles with little explanation and short in-service training courses; group work and participatory methods are prescribed regardless of overcrowded classrooms, overloaded curricula or lack of the minimal physical conditions; parental and community involvement in the school is promoted in the absence of any tradition of such involvement and of information, communication or capacity-building efforts. A thorough diagnosis of the starting point and of actual conditions - including resistance to the changes proposed (often confused with "resistance to change" in general), especially when they are not properly communicated and understood - is essential for effective reform implementation.

The innovation process takes time 

Developing, consolidating, institutionalizing and expanding an innovation takes time. Based on lessons from concrete experiences, some authors recommend an initial period of three to five years, and others even a decade or more, before starting an expansion and dissemination process. The fact is that it is easy to initiate innovation but it is hard to sustain and institutionalize it. Many innovative initiatives die before they can even walk by themselves. The field of educational innovation is full of tombs, an indication of the complexities involved and of the haste and simplistic approaches adopted by policy makers and administrators. Survival beyond a limited period of time becomes an indicator of success in itself.

Consolidating and expanding innovation requires a careful strategy  

Systemic does not mean simultaneous: change requires a progressive experimentation and implementation strategy that foresees the different stages and components, the necessary conditions, capacities, resources, support and evaluation to be provided along the way. Understanding, ownership and full involvement of those engaged in the innovation process are conditions for its success. Resistance of some sort must be expected, and a strategy devised to deal with it from the beginning rather than letting it come as a surprise. It is also important to bear in mind that, while initial steps may be encouraging, innovation does not follow a linear evolution: reversion or stagnation is common, as revealed by reports on innovations and reforms that went back into the "old" ways.

Innovation can capture educators' enthusiasm provided that certain conditions are met  

The much-repeated "resistance" of teachers to change has less to do with teachers' characteristics than with what is required of them and under what conditions. Experience has taught teachers that "change" is routine rhetoric in education, something that comes in waves and always from the top. If desired change does not occur within a given (usually short) period of time, it is the teachers who are blamed, not the architects of the plan. Changing teachers' role is not something that can be imposed from the outside and taught through brief lectures or courses. No change in school culture should be expected if it continues to be an external push, and if teachers continue to be viewed as mere implementors.

Innovation is not primarily about money

Often, the possibility of promoting change is perceived primarily as a financial issue. However, abundant international experience, research and evaluation show that higher spending in education is not necessarily related to improved teaching or improved learning. The most important, sustainable and promising change in education has to do with mentalities, with values and attitudes towards education, towards teaching and learning, and towards learners. Ultimately, it is the will to change, at all levels, from central bureaucracies to school classrooms, that makes change foreseeable and possible.

Innovation is not about saying but about doing 

Educational rhetoric has been characterized by ambitious goals and grandiloquent words. Trends towards homogenization and "global education reform" have resulted in a well-known set of words: equity, quality, improvement, decentralization, school autonomy, teacher professionalization, assessment, evaluation, standardized testing, 'merit pay', parental and community involvement, cost-sharing, partnerships, consensus-building, focus on learning, participatory approaches, learner-centered methodologies, learner-friendly schools, technology in education, 1 to 1 models, and, of course, innovation.

There is a big gap between words and facts. Often, programmes are considered innovative because they say they are innovative; education reform proposals are confused with actual reform processes and results; curriculum reform is often considered a document; access to modern technologies and to the Internet is confused with actual and effective use, and taken as equivalent to innovation and change; etcetera. Real innovation and change must be perceivable, not intended.

Innovative experiences cannot be transplanted  

Education and learning are highly dependant on the actors engaged and on the contexts in which they develop. Historical, political, economic, social, cultural, linguistic and other dimensions shape education realities. In a way, each experience is unique. What is innovative in one place may be perfectly conventional in another; what is feasible and what works in a certain context may be rejected or prove ineffective in a different one. There is no "what works/what does not work" in general. Accepting this and acknowledging diversity would avoid the usual temptation to "model" successful experiences and try to replicate them with little or no regard for the particular context and conditions that enable, and ultimately explain, them. 

Innovative experiences may inspire or challenge similar attempts elsewhere but cannot be adopted - and sometimes even adapted - successfully from one context to another. Innovation is about search, exploration and experimentation, not about importing ready-to-use 'one size fits all' models.

Little is still known about educational change   

The nature of educational change is complex and as yet not fully understood. Little is still known on how innovations are initiated, developed, disseminated and institutionalized. "Success stories" and "best practices" tend to be described superficially and included in boxes in national and international reports. We lack information about cultures and contexts, dynamics and contradictions involved in the process. Educational and pedagogical change worldwide would benefit enormously from thorough contextual and in situ studies (not mere accounts), analyses (not mere descriptions) and debate (not just information sharing) on successful and sustainable innovative practices.

To learn more

On Learning Anytime, Anywhere

Jaume Piensa

Rosa María Torres
"Learning Anytime, Anywhere"
session held at the World Summit on Innovation in Education (WISE 2011)
Doha, Qatar, 1-3 Nov. 2011

The format adopted for the debates required no presentations by the speakers but individual questions posed by the Chair of the session and questions coming from the audience and through Twitter. This format favors flexibility and dynamism, but it also limits a more contextualized and holistic understanding of the speakers' viewpoints and backgrounds.

The text below is a reconstruction of my intervention.

Four people participated in this #WISED34 debate:

▸ Graham Brown-Martin, Chair (Learning Without Frontiers, UK) @GrahamBM
▸ François Taddei (Centre for Research and Interdisciplinarity at Paris Descartes University, France) @FrancoisTaddei
▸ Rosa-María Torres del Castillo (Fronesis, Ecuador) @rosamariatorres
▸ Ruth Wallace (Centre for Social Partnerships in Lifelong Learning, Charles Darwin University, Northern Territory, Australia) @RuthwallaceNT

What is Lifelong Learning (LLL)

Most people continue to associate LLL with adult education or to use it as equivalent to lifelong education or continuing education. The term, however, is selfdescriptive and should provide no room for confusion: Lifelong Learning means learning throughout life, "from cradle to grave." This is a fact of life in the first place: learning is a continuum, lifelong and lifewide. Adopting LLL as a principle for policy formulation implies introducing major changes to the conventional education and training paradigms.

Awareness on LLL challenges the school-centered mentality. It looks beyond the school system and acknowledges the other learning systems where we learn throughout life: home, community, media, play, work, arts, sports, social participation, the Internet and the virtual world, etc.

LLL also challenges the traditional focus on education and on teaching. Learning is the main concern, in and out of school. The main failure of the school system is precisely that there is lots of teaching but little learning taking place.

▸ Rosa María Torres, Lifelong Learning in the South: Critical Issues and Opportunities for Adult Education, Sida Studies 11, Sida, Stockholm, 2004.

What do international agencies understand as LLL? 

Most of the agencies that use this term continue to associate LLL with adults and adult education, rather than with a life-cycle perspective.

In OECD countries, and specifically in Europe, LLL emerged as an education and training strategy to ensure the necessary "human resources" for economic development.

Beyond definitions and glossaries, it is important to look at the content of policies and programmes labelled LLL. In the case of the European Commission, for example, in spite of the rhetoric on informal learning, four out of the five benchmarks established in the LLL Programme 2000-2010 (see below) were related to formal education, from early childhood to higher education. "The decreasing levels of low-achieving 15-year olds in reading and falling levels of adult participation in learning are among the largest concerns."

The goals were not met, as acknowledged by the
evaluation released in Sep. 2011. Not only "developing" countries (the global South) but also "developed" ones (the global North) have problems to accomplish agreed education and learning agendas.

European Union: Lifelong Learning benchmarks for 2010

1. EU average rate of early school leavers to be no more than 10%;
2. Total number of graduates in mathematics, science and technology in the EU to increase by at least 15% (achieved in 2004), with a decreased gender imbalance in these fields;
3. At least 85% of 22-year-olds to have completed upper secondary education;
4. Percentage of 15-year-olds who are low-achieving in reading to have decreased by at least 20% compared to the year 2000;
5. Average participation in lifelong learning to be at least 12.5% of the adult working age population (age group of 25–64 year).

European Commission: Interim Evaluation of the Lifelong Learning Programme (Sep.18, 2011)
European Report on the Future of Learning by Tony Bates (Nov. 11, 2011)

Poverty, creativity and innovation 

There is lots of talk about innovation, creativity and problem-solving as qualities and skills of the 21st century. Currently, innovation in education tends to be strongly associated with modern technologies -- as if there was no innovation before the emergence of ICTs! Visions of innovation are rather futuristic and sophisticated, requiring specialists, experts, etc.

However, the most creative and innovative people in the world are the poor. They are born problem-solvers. Otherwise, they would not be able to survive. Surprisingly, we do not see this mentioned. If we want to learn about innovation and creativity, we should get out there, observe and live with the poor for a while.

The challenge is how to make schools and other learning institutions places where the poor can enhance - rather than inhibit - their innovativeness, creativity and problem-solving skills and expand them to other domains beyond survival and daily life.

▸ Rosa María Torres, On Innovation and Education

Testing does not necessarily reflect learning

ests and testing are not necessarily the best ways to capture learning. Additionally, standardized tests deny diversity, assume the classical "one-size-fits-all" approach.

(Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, proposed by OECD and for OECD countries, do not match the realities, needs and aspirations of most young people in the South. Often, these and other tests tell us what our children and youth don´t know rather than what they know and are able to do.

"Developing countries" are very diverse and face very different realities than "developed countries", also heterogeneous. If PISA tests were prepared in non-OECD countries, reflecting our cultures and realities, how would 15-year-olds in OECD  countries do in such tests? Underprivileged children and youth develop strong survival skills - essential for life and increasingly important in today's world - that wealthy children and youth often do not need to develop, at least at an early age.

The "global banking education model"

Paulo Freire characterized the conventional school system as "banking education": learners who are considered to know nothing and teachers who think they know everything, and who deposit knowledge in their heads like checks in a bank.

That banking education model has now become global, among others thanks to the expansion of ICTs. Global teachers located in the North and eager learners located in the South, mere consumers of information and knowledge produced elsewhere and whose only knowledge credited is "local wisdom".

Since it decided to become a "Knowledge Bank", the World Bank acts as a global teacher offering ready-to-use knowledge and strategies for "development". All we have to do in the South is get trained and assimilate that information.

The global banking model is such because it reproduces the traditional teaching model at a global scale - the world as a global classroom is a usual metaphor - but also because it is incarnated by a bank and its international partners.

▸ Rosa María Torres, About "good practice" in international co-operation in education

Neuroscience and pro-age education and learning

Over the past years, neuroscience is contributing key new knowledge on topics we had only vague ideas of. A better understanding on how the brain works, at different ages and in different circumstances, shows the need to review many conventional stereotypes on education and learning.

Now we are confirming that all ages are good to learn, and that each age has its own cognitive possibilities and limitations.

Within a LLL framework, and based on ongoing results from neuroscience research, I am developing the concept of "pro-age education and learning": let us allow each person - children, young people, adults, the elderly - to learn according to their age, rather than fighting against their age.

Unfortunately, neuroscience research and results are not reaching the population at large, not even teacher education institutions, policy makers, journalists, etc. 

Rosa María Torres, Child learning and adult learning revisited 

The Basarwa in Botswana

I would like to tell you a story from Botswana. While working there with the Ministry of Education, back in the 1990s, I heard about an indigenous group called the Basarwa. They were well known because they rejected schooling. I got interested in understanding why. The explanation was simple: the Basarwa have seen or heard that schools punish children. In their culture, children's punishment does not exist. Adults relate to children through dialogue, not through fear. Parents love, take care and respect their children. Basarwa parents may be unschooled, but they are wise.

Rosa María Torres, Children of the Basarwa Niños Basarwa

Related texts
Rosa María Torres, Over two decades of 'Education for All' ▸ Más de dos décadas de 'Educación para Todos'


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