The Challenge and Imperative of Lifelong Learning

Recently, I moved apartments. To be honest, it was a rather stressful process, but there was some reassurance and relief in methodically packing things into boxes and then unpacking them in the new apartment. Life is a bit like that: we find reassurance in putting things into little boxes and moving on – it seems to make life more manageable, structured, and certain. But, of course, life is not neatly compartmentalized. Indeed, it is totally misleading, and potentially disappointing and dangerous, to believe that life is simply a series of boxes that can be filled, sealed, and then opened at some time in the future when we think we will need what is inside.

Take, for example, the ways in which we have traditionally compartmentalized the process of learning. We have differentiated between formal learning (where we attend a college, take a course, or participate in a workplace training program) and informal learning (where we learn by ourselves outside a formal institutional structure). We have then come to see colleges as special “places of learning” and the period that that we spend there as a special “time for learning.” The learning experience is placed in a box, labelled with a specific place and a specific time. We think that the contents of the box will be useful sometime in the future, although we are not quite sure when.

And the box analogy has even entered into the way in which we understand the process of learning itself. Many people think of learning in terms of instructors putting “things” (knowledge and new ideas) into the minds (“empty boxes”) of their students. In this understanding, students are the passive receptors of new knowledge. They hold on to it and bring it out in the future when it is needed – usually at examinations. In this model, successful students accumulate as much knowledge as possible. Good students are those who are excellent at packing their boxes and skilled at rummaging through them and retrieving the relevant items at the appropriate time.

However, this is a very flawed and old-fashioned understanding of why we learn, of what makes a successful learner, and for that matter of a good instructor. Our contemporary understanding of successful learning is based on reconsiderations of the learning process and of the world in which we live.

  • Learning is Active: Learning is an active process in which the student does not simply deal with acquiring new knowledge. Learners must engage multiple aspects of the process: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating new understanding. Learners construct their own knowledge, arriving at new and useful understandings that allow them to make better sense of their worlds. They can only do this by themselves. The good instructor is only there to help, support, and motivate.
  • Learning is Continuous: Learning is an ongoing. We never stop, and can never stop learning. Sometimes we are more focused and conscious of the learning process (when we are sitting in the classroom), but new understandings are created all the time – in the office and our social lives. Put another way, learning takes place in all aspects of our lives.
  • Learning Half-lives: Some things change slowly, but knowledge about most subjects has expanded exponentially. Academics sometimes use the “half-life” analogy, taken from radioactive isotopes. In knowledge terms, the half-life of a subject is the length of time that it takes for 50 percent of the knowledge about that subject to change. Half-lives are difficult to determine and all estimates are approximate, but in many areas of psychology the current half-life is estimated to be about 7.5 years. That means: (a) in 7.5 years, half of what you learned in your psychology classes will no longer be useful or usable; and (b) if you are a practicing psychologist, half of what you are currently doing must have been learned (by you) in the last 7.5 years. For businesses subjects, the half-life is thought to be about 5 years.

Because of the way that I understand the learning process, and because of the realities of knowledge expansion, I never try to fill the minds of students with what I know. Instead, I share my knowledge with them so that they can use, refine, and expand that knowledge to become part of their own unique and personal knowledge. I challenge and encourage students to see themselves as active and continuous learners, who are prepared and motivated for lifelong learning.

This is my personal philosophy of educational and the core value of my teaching practice; it is how I interact with my own students. The good news for all students – whether or not htey work with me – is that this is also how Empire State College, UNYP, and their teaching faculties understand learning. We all share a common institutional truth: A good college is not one where you learn; a good college is where you learn how to learn. We also share a common instructional reality: A good instructor is not somebody who gives you knowledge; a good instructor is someone who helps you generate your own knowledge.

Knowledge is no longer a commodity that can be packaged without a use-before date. Colleges are no longer places where knowledge is acquired. People no longer spend a few years in institutions of formal learning and then never have to learn any more. As citizens in communities, employees in organizations, and professionals in communities of practice, we have to accept that learning is continuous.

So how can students and graduates best respond to the challenges and imperative of lifelong learning?

  • Learn to Learn: Adopt an active and personal approach to learning. Remembering is important, but understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating new understandings are more important. Educators call this deep learning and compare it with surface learning. Surface learners learn to pass exams; they will have forgotten almost everything a couple of months after the exam. Deep learners learn for life and for living.
  • Learn in all Life Situations: Recognize that new life-situations are learning experiences. When you have an internship, for example, do the work and do it well. But more than that, see the internship as an opportunity to learn about the organization – its culture, power structures, politics, and decision-making approaches. When you visit a new country, enjoy yourself, but also make a point of learning the language, studying the national culture characteristics, and observing the social structures.
  • Commit to Professional Development: The professional and business world is acutely aware of changing knowledge. In order to deal with the half-life of knowledge, you will have to constantly upgrade your skills and competencies. Most companies offer mandated programs for this, as do organizations that issue professional certificates (e.g. accounting, finance, or psychology). Take advantage of these new learning experiences, but also have your own professional development plan to stay ahead and stay informed with the changing world that surrounds you.
  • Look at Graduate School: As you develop an understanding of your business or professional sector, consider an advanced degree. I always advise students not to enter graduate school after graduation, but to wait for a few years until they have developed experience, understanding, and insight. For those who are well prepared, graduate school provides an excellent way of surfing the crest of the new knowledge wave.
  • Lifelong Learning and the Whole Person: It is understandable that students want to know more about their chosen field of interest. It is understandable that they want to put energy and enthusiasm into studies that will be useful in their futures and careers. But living is more than work and career. Lifelong learning should also be directed at non-work and non-career areas – the involvements and interests that make us human, whole, and satisfied. Actively plan to study something new; something that has significance for you.

It is challenging to see life as an ongoing learning experience that does not end when you pass the exam or when you graduate. It is challenging, but it is also exciting and engaging. Life is not a series of little boxes that we pack and unpack, nor is it conveniently segmented, partitioned, or compartmentalized. Learning, and making better sense of the world, begins today and continues tomorrow. It is a good idea to start preparing for that reality now and not rely on the contents of those little boxes of the past that we have stored away.


Dorsett, R., Lui, S., & Weale, M. (2010). Economic benefits of lifelong learning. Research Paper #13. London, UK: Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies.

Jenkins, A., Vignoles, A., Wolf, A., & Galindo-Rueda, F. (2002). The determinants and effects of lifelong learning. Centre for the Economics of Education. London, UK: London School of Economics.

Love, D. (2011). Lifelong learning: Characteristics, skills, and activities for a business college curriculumJournal of Education for Business86(3), 155-162.

Neimeyer, G. J., Taylor, J. M., Rozensky, R. H., & Cox, D. R. (2014). The diminishing durability of knowledge in professional psychology: A second look at specializationsProfessional Psychology: Research and Practice, 45(2), 92-98.

Smidt, H., & Sursock, A. (2011). Engaging in lifelong learning: Shaping inclusive and responsive university strategies. Brussels, Belgium: European University Association.

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