Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Acknowledgment/Lifelong Learning

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What is lifelong learning?

Walking down the hallway in the school where I work, I was stopped by Hunter, a second grade student. Holding up three books he had just checked out of the school’s library titled Canada, Alaska, and New Zealand, he said, “I’m learning about geography.” “Oh, that’s great,” I said. “So your class is studying about other countries?” “No, I am just doing it myself,” was his reply. Hunter’s curiosity is a simple example of the lifelong learning process. He possesses characteristics that describe the lifelong learner. Hunter took it upon himself to seek out something that interests him and pursued the drive to act upon it by checking out the books in the library. His unprompted willingness to share his discoveries also exhibits qualities of a lifelong learner.

Definition and History of Lifelong Learning[edit]

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

—Chinese Proverb

Lifelong learning, a self-explanatory concept, is learning that starts at pre-birth and continues throughout life. Lifelong learning is a process in which people obtain meaning from interacting with their environment. This includes both the social and physical environment. Learning is a natural and ongoing process producing new or deeper understandings of concepts. (Virtue) To lock into these important concept educators need to look at characteristics that make a lifelong learner. Lifelong learners are built and what one learns builds on previous life experiences. A person with an obsession to a particular subject could be labeled what psychologists call a “trait curious” person. This person is "someone with a tendency to delve deeply into subjects that grab his attention, learning more about himself and the world in the process.” (Psychology Today, October 2006, Cultivating Curiosity by Elizabeth Svoboda. Page 57) The word “trait curious” person is synonymous with “lifelong learner”.

In M. K. Smith’s article on lifelong learning he elaborates on the history of lifelong learning by sharing his findings, “The idea of lifelong education was first fully articulated in this century by Basil Yeaxlee (1929) He along with Eduard Lindeman (1926) provided an intellectual basis for a comprehensive understanding of education as a continuing aspect of everyday life. In this they touched upon various continental traditions such as the French notion of education permanente and drew upon developments within adult education within Britain and North America.” (Smith) Today many educators promote lifelong learning by engaging students in activities to fulfill their curiosity and promote learning skills that will produce lifelong learning characteristics. (Virtue)

Characteristics of A Lifelong Learner[edit]

Life long learners possess a desire to learn. This characteristic follows the person throughout a lifetime. No matter what level in life they are in, they are searching for purposeful and meaningful activities to promote their need to learn. Characteristics of a lifelong learner include:

  • Intrinsically Motivated (World Bank)
  • Analytical Thinking Shills (World Bank)
  • Ability to Learn and Think Independently (World Bank)
  • Creativity (World Bank)
  • Problem Solving Skills (World Bank)
  • Communication (World Bank)
  • Teamwork (World Bank)
  • Thoughtful Reflection (Virtue)
  • Respectful Skepticism (Virtue)
  • Intellectual Curiosity (Virtue)
  • Adapting Alternate Perspectives (Virtue)

How Teachers Can Build Lifelong Learners[edit]

In a lifelong learning environment teachers focus on learning rather than teaching. The teacher serves as a facilitator and is a guide to the source of knowledge. Harry Wong in his book, “How to Be An Effective Teacher” states “that the fact the teacher does most of the work at school explains why there is so little learning in school. According to research only thirty five percent of the allocated time is devoted to learning.” Wong went on to emphasize “the reason teachers are so tired at the end of the school day is that they have been working. If I worked as hard as many teachers do, I’d be tired too. But have you noticed what happens at 3 o’clock when the students leave? “Yea, yea, yea!” Why are they so full of energy? Because they have been sitting in school all day doing nothing while the teacher is doing all the work. The person who does the work is the only one doing any learning!” (Wong)

Educators need to look for student’s interest and plan accordingly, with a purpose to engage the students. Wong emphasizes an important fact, “The role of a teacher is not to cover. The role of a teacher is to UNCOVER.” (Wong) Educators are trying to incorporate NCLB mandates into the classroom and are taking very little time to get to know their student’s interest. “Learning has nothing to do with what the teacher covers. Learning has to do with what the student accomplishes.” (Wong) Students take control of their individual learning and are motivated to want to learn more. The concept of lifelong learning relies on the idea that every person can become self-directing and will see the importance of excerising lifelong learning techniques and skills into their everyday lives. (Smith) David Elkind refers to assembly line learning in his book "The Hurried Child". Elkind says “the problem with the factory management system is that it pushes children too much and puts them into a uniform mold and children are being pushed to perform or produce for the sake of the teachers and administrators. There is a difference between skills and the ability to use those skills. When skills are learned in isolation the connection between them and their use is tenuous. Creative teachers prefer to employ various instructional techniques so that children can integrate subject matter into their lives. Educational theorists have long held that repetitive drill in basic skills not connected to comprehension or composition is the least efficient way to educate and in some instances is even counter productive.”(Elkind)

Lifelong Learners in the Preschool Classroom[edit]

Teaching is the art of assisting discovery.

—Harry Wong

If we as educators are going to build lifelong learners for the twenty first century the best place to start is in their early years. Preschool programs are becoming a must for this day and time. It is imperative to integrate learning into the lives of our youngest lifelong learners. During the early years children learn by intense interactions with their immediate environment referred to by some as active learning. Active learning environments are child friendly and depend on the use of natural and found materials. Active learning begins as young children manipulate objects, using their five senses to find out about the objects. This action gives the child something real to think about and talk to others about. Preschool children are very concrete thinkers. Abstract concepts begin to form through these types of concrete experiences with materials and people. Children do most of the work of active learning while the teacher gives the needed support. There are five ingredients for an active learning preschool environment. These include materials, manipulation, choice, language from the child, and adult support. Combine interactions with other children and purposeful, meaningful experiences and the preschooler will have ample opportunities for problem solving, another important characteristic of the life long learner. (Hohamann and Weikart) One of the most important aspects of initiating life long learning in the preschooler is to ignite the “fire for desire” to promote an intrinsic motivation to learn.

Results of Lifelong Learners[edit]

A lifelong learner is capable of making informed choices about their lives and their society. Harry Wong suggests that “there are two kinds of people: workers and leaders, each having distinctive characteristics and these characteristics will give a person certain results in life.” (Wong) Some of the examples Wong gives in recognizing a worker as opposed to a leader include: Workers manage by crisis. Leaders manage by leadership. Workers are full of excuses. Leaders have plans, goals, and vision. Workers dress like laborers. Leaders dress for success. Workers complain about other people, places and things. Leaders compliment people, places and things. Workers chitchat. Leaders pay attention. Workers talk about not getting respect. Leader’s success earns them respect. Workers are victims. Leaders have power and are in control. Victims are people who are suffering because they lack the proper control over their own lives. (Wong)


In conclusion one can see the importance of creating a learning environment where lifelong learners are built. Not only do people learn by doing but also they learn in groups and from one another. As educators by providing the necessary ingredients for a learning environment that promotes lifelong learning, we can produce not an assembly line type of student but a student with a desire to learn. Harry Wong leaves with us two important tidbits about initiating a desire to learn, “Teaching is the art of assisting discovery. You can teach a lesson for a day but if you teach curiosity, you teach for a lifetime.” (Wong)

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

What is another word synonymous with lifelong learning?
A. Stubborn
B. Troublemaker
C. Curious person
D. Slothful person

C. Curious person

Which is NOT an important ingredient in an active learning preschool classroom?
A. Worksheets
B. Choice
C. Adult support
D. Language from the child

A. Worksheets

Sally is a new preschool teacher and she wants her students engaged in experiences that will promote lifelong learning. What type of environment should she plan for her preschool class?
A. Passive
B. Active
C. Neutral
D. Negative

B. Active

Which is NOT a characteristic of a lifelong learner?
A. Curiosity
B. Creativity
C. Communication
D. Complacency

D. Complacency

Lifelong learning generates leaders that
A. Complain
B. Have goals, plans and a vision
C. Are negligent
D. Are victims

B. Have goals, plans and a vision

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal sample responses.

Considering the philosophies of lifelong learning, compare and discuss your thoughts on traditional classroom learning methods and an active learning environment promoting lifelong learning.

I have worked in a PreK classroom for ten years and have been able to conclude through my observations, that active learning is an essential element in the PreK environment. During the first few years of the operation of our county program, we were introduced to an active learning curriculum in which we implemented into our classrooms. Not only were the children exposed to science, literacy and math skills, they were learning lifelong skills such as problem solving, the ability to learn and think independently, and the ability to plan and follow through with those plans. Now partly because of the NCLB movement and teacher preference we are incorporating more of the traditional learning methods with worksheets, color sheets, and more worksheets. No regard for creativity. They are not focused very long and a lot of what they are exposed to is not meaningful and purposeful. Students are able to retain information longer if it has meaning to their everyday life. I think active learning environments that build lifelong learners are crucial to our student's learning and progress. —Charlotte Deskins

When I was in third, I was labeled a bad seed. I was secluded from my class mates I was given an agenda each day, 15 words to look up in the dictionary, define, rhyme, write each in a sentence. I was to read a book of my choice, I was given 50 math problems, assigned science workbook pages and told to complete each task by the end of the week. While one would feel overwhelmed and depressed, I enjoyed working this way. I actually requested this type of set up. I was able to better understand my learning style and my likes and dislikes in any given subject matter. I was able to go to my teacher and say, I loved this science topic, what else can I learn about it? By putting the ball in my court,my teacher was better able to teach me. I was able to say what I liked to learn, and what interested me. I was able to be interested in learning because I had a say in what and how I learned. I think empowering students to find what they love to think about will inspire them to be lifelong learners. If you tell them how easy it is to teach themselves, they will do it for ever. —Den Barnes


  • Elkind, David.(1981). The Hurried Child. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley
  • Hohmann, Mary and Weikart, David.(1995). Educating Young Children Ypsilanti, Michigan: High/Scope Press
  • Psychology Today Magazine, October 2006, Cultivating Curiosity by Elizabeth Svoboda. P.57.
  • Smith, M. K. (1996, 2001) 'Lifelong learning', the encyclopedia of informal education, Retrieved 9-16-2007.
  • Virtue, David Charles, Teaching and learning in middle grades, a personal perspective. (VIEWPOINT)(Essay). The Clearing House 80.5 (May-June 2007): 243(2). General OneFile. Gale. Old Dominion University Library. Retrieved 9-16-2007. Gale Documber:A166310006
  • Wong, Harry K. & Wong, Rosemary T.(1998). How To Be An Effective Teacher. California: Harry K. Wong Publications, Inc.