The age of the eternal student;Platform;Opinion

25th June 1999 at 01:00
Lifelong learning is not optional - the changing world of work has created a 'knowledge economy', says Helen Wilkinson

IN the 21st century, those with the humility to be pupils for life will be the true winners of the information age. Linear careers and the old hierarchies have collapsed. Qualifications acquired in the flush of youth no longer carry the cachet they once did. Technological progress and the demands of the knowledge economy mean that yesterday's qualifications are all too often obsolete tomorrow.

The emphasis is on individuals - their unique capacities, their unique intelligences, their expertise, their cultural capital. The knowledge economy requires self-starters who are self-motivating and self-reliant, and willing to take responsibility for their own learning and personal development.

Partly because of these shifts, the hierarchical model is increasingly obsolete. A more interactive, democratic model of learning is required. So whereas in the past education consisted of lectures and classes taught from on high, information and knowledge handed down like golden nuggets, now education must be an interactive process. The emphasis is on creating opportunities for individuals to learn, to access information quickly and efficiently, to teach themselves and to manage their educational journey through life.

For older generations - including many teachers and educationists, themselves schooled in the old command and control techniques -such an approach seems threatening. But it is the way our education system must adapt if it is to keep relevant to the values and aspirations of the new generation.

But the education revolution is much deeper than this. Once, education gave you a start in life. It was the platform from which you thrived or failed as adults. It was fundamentally age-based in design. But that pattern has broken down. Demographic change combined with a revolution in the world of work means that individuals must now prepare for several careers through the course of the life cycle.

The consequence of successive careers is that education is now for life. We are all going to become lifelong learners whether we like it or not. The eternal student is the natural corollary of our more individualised, flexible workplace environment and the old must now expect to take their place alongside the young as they too go back to school.

In short, learning will increasingly become part of the fabric of our daily lives. Today's pupils may be predominantly young, but the need to keep upgrading skills and retooling for our rapidly changing world of work means that tomorrow's pupils will be much more diverse and this too will stimulate the demand for changes in the way we deliver education.

Other changes will accompany greater diversity. The gap between our education system and the community will need to close. Learning will increasingly need to take place in our workplaces, as well as our schools, with an emphasis on practical and solution based learning.

The norm will be 360-degree appraisals - of managers and educators as well as employees and pupils - in which colleagues in positions above, below or alongside the individual in the workplace hierarchy all contribute to the assessment. The much-vaunted EQ - emotional intelligence - will be as highly valued as IQ. Workplaces will increasingly become the sites of learning as well as earning. Innovative and far-sighted companies, such as The Body Shop and Rover Group Ltd, have been the pioneers, with educational courses, sabbaticals, and time off for training.

But the boundaries between earning and learning will break down in other ways. The switch to a mass further and higher education system and the introduction of student loans and fees means that young people will be weighed down with debts, and are likely to combine further education with part-time work, and so take longer to acquire degrees and will move into the full-time employment market later.

For women, historically penalised for taking time out of the labour market, the knowledge economy is creating new opportunities. Employers' time-frames have shifted. Time out of the labour market need no longer have the such a decisive impact on a career. Instead, time out might provide an opportunity to learn, a period of self-reflection, the opportunity to change direction or, most importantly, to gain new skills.

Just as important, some of the most far-sighted employers are beginning to see the job of parenting as an invaluable form of job training, particularly in time-management techniques, especially for men. One human resources director at Volvo Car UK Ltd has said that, faced with two equally qualified male candidates, he would undoubtedly choose the man who had taken parental leave.

Young people today are at the cutting edge of this revolution and they intuitively know what policy-makers, educationists and teachers are beginning to realise. They understand that qualifications earned today will have little resonance tomorrow unless they continue to learn. Not only is their approach to work more negotiating, they also expect to learn new skills continually.

Partly because of this, fixed jobs have less appeal than project-based work, which provides variety, builds expertise and increases marketable and transferable skills. The higher educated in particular look warmly on workplaces which create opportunities to learn, and to thrive.

At the moment, the focus of debate is still mainly on measurable, quantifiable national standards, goals to be measured and compared with, rather than on cultivating the capacities of people to learn. But debates that were once on the margins are beginning to move into the mainstream.

Whether we are old or young, employed or unemployed, teachers, policy-makers, educationists or consumers of the education system, we all intuitively know that tomorrow's worker is also an eternal pupil.

Helen Wilkinson is a research associate with the Families and Work Institute, and a member of the National WorkLife Forum sponsored by BT. She can be reached via e-mail at

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