The Changing Face of Education: The Need for Lifelong Learning
I have been thinking a lot about lifelong learning this week for a number of reasons. In this short blog I jot down a few thoughts about the learning of the future.
On Tuesday evening Tim Edwards, a governing board member of Innovate UK spoke at Bedales about the issues to the future and entrepreneurship which focuses on answering the questions the next generation will have to face. For example, as life expectancies increase dramatically the average working life will be 60-70 years, rather than the current 40 years. The skills people learn in their education in their teens and twenties are not going to be applicable over a 70 year career. This might mean that the current model of education in which people do intensive training early on in their life before embarking on their career, and then take top-up courses to stay up-to-date when required may cease to be fit for purpose. The extent of the changes may be too dramatic simply to take another weekend intensive course to allow an older employee to 'get with the times'. Does this mean that learning should be spread more evenly throughout adult life?
Yesterday, I took twenty-five Oxbridge hopefuls to the Oxford and Cambridge Student Conference at Epsom Race Course which encouraged me to reflect further on what skills universities are trying to teach students, and whether or not these are sufficient to allow people to adapt and progress as technology develops during their working lifetime. All universities try to teach transferable skills, some more overtly than others, but very few can agree which skills are the most important in contemporary society, and no-one really knows which transferable skills are going to be required in 2090 when tomorrow's students could be coming to the end of their careers. As technology develops, the rate of development increases exponentially; each new door opened with one innovation, leads to new opportunities, ideas, and solutions. How can universities, even world class institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, prepare students for a world that none of us can dream of yet?
Finally, last night I went to my Award Ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford for my CertHE in Philosophy. This is one of the many courses offered by the Department of Continuing Education at Oxford, which has a 120 year long history of providing opportunities for adult learners to undertake serious academic study in order to enrich their lives in any number of ways. For example, to learn a new discipline they are interested in, or to take their undergraduate studies back up again years later, to change pathways in their academic and/or work life, or to gain an academic qualification to progress in their chosen career path. It was inspiring to hear the speeches about the Department's values in terms of providing an inclusive, intellectually stimulating, and independent learning experience for students.
I took on the CertHE program in September 2014 as a way of enriching and directing my reading, and as a way of developing my intellectual problem-solving skills. I had always enjoyed a challenge and grappling with philosophical issues gave me a hobby which was productive and stimulating. It also gave me a break from the breadth and, let's face it, chaotic environment of a school, as I got that deep focus when I was engaged in my studies. It has given me a taste of lifelong learning, and I'll never go back now. Learning new things is not only great fun, I have also met people with similar interests to me, and I enjoy the experience of being able to coherently explain concepts which I previously could not have pronounced. The Department of Continuing Education at Oxford is a beacon for successful adult learning, but it cannot meet the growing tide approaching, as more and more is needed in terms of continuing education and academic study throughout adult life.
So, in the future working life is going be significantly longer, and technology will improve exponentially as new automations are developed. This leaves us with two possible solutions to the problem:
Rearrange the way in which individuals are being taught, so that the bulk of their formal education takes place later, in their thirties or forties, when they need the particular bit.
Provide more opportunities for genuinely useful CPD throughout peoples' careers so that they stay on top of the changes in their careers over a 60-70 year period.
To me, Solution 1 seems to be a bit of a cop-out, this is just what we are already doing; adding in more sessions for staff ad hoc, further dismantling the coherency of the institution. The advantage of this is that there can be continual updating of the intensive CPD sessions throughout our long-lived 70 year careers. Given that we don't know the future, and what the skills of 'globalised citizens really are, how can we really plan for it.' Let's get on and make adjustments as we go. However, spending 60-70 years in one career does seem rather a long time; no matter how interesting one's job is they are likely to want to do something else at some point. And this should be okay. Career changes are becoming more and more acceptable in society, so the lifelong learning which we have access to should take account of the need for genuine change over the course of the extended working lives of the future.
Solution 2 requires a radical re-think of what education needs on balance. By the time an individual is on their lifelong learning pathway, it needs to be flexible enough such that they can continue to change and develop according to their changing interests. The 'education upfront' model does not work as well in some careers as other, and in those cases this model should be more appealing. Five year into my teaching career, and I now want to reflect actively in T&L, and evaluate the impact of what I have done. I was not ready for this as a GTP: I needed to grow up and develop academically a little more. So the 'education upfront' pathway into teaching, a PGCE and, potentially, an MEd, was not the right option for me at the time when I just wanted to get into the classroom and learn on the job. This did not mean that I was not encouraged to reflect or read the literature, just that the emphasis was practical, and it is at this point in my career that I want to study the literature at post-graduate level.
So what is necessary in order to offer this kind of lifelong learning experience?
Firstly, it needs to be possible for people to take accredited courses which fit around their working lives so that they can continually update their skills and knowledge. These should be funded so that experienced colleagues are not unable to keep up with fresh graduates in terms of subject knowledge for financial reasons. These courses should also be relevant, and offer a tangible benefit to the person attending; not just a professional consultant restating things people already know. There needs to be active learning involved at ever stage of professional development.
Secondly, it needs to be possible for people to take sabbatical leave in order to take on full-time studies which will enrich their career. This should be possible in a wider range of working environments and should be actively encouraged by companies, as well as financially supported by the government.
Thirdly, there should be recognition of validity of wishing to change careers over the course of a lifetime, and, consequently, it should be possible to go back to university for second, or even third, time in order to change pathways. At the moment individuals can only take out one student loan for undergraduate studies from the government, but over longer working lives this needs to become possible to do every 30 years so that people can start in a completely new career if they wish to.
Fourthly, we need to ensure that there are pathways into careers which are not 'education upfront', and which allow people to do the job while taking on the academic study as and when is required as they progress in their career: the 'education throughout' pathway. This has the added benefit of ensuring that employees understand their commitment to continually updating their knowledge and skills, as this is the kind of program they signed up for in the first place.
We do not know that people will need to be trained for to work in 2090; but we are preparing current students in schools to work until the end of this century. Whichever model for lifelong learning we choose, pretending that we do enough in Britain at the moment, is just burying one's head in the sand. We do not.