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A Vision for the Future

Norman Longworth

A short guide to Lifelong Learning in cities, towns and regions for the impatient, the anxious, the curious and the perplexed




'Everyone will need to be educated to the level of semi-literacy of the average college graduate by the year 2000.   

This is the minimum survival level of the human race.'                    

Arthur C Clarke


‘The whole of Human History is a constant race between Education and Catastrophe’

HG Wells


'It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the survival of organisations and societies in an advanced technological world depends on the development of lifelong learning skills and attitudes as an essential part of their culture. The smarter company, the shrewder university, the better school, the more enlightened city, the more perceptive association - they are already exploring the challenges, implications and opportunities of creating and sustaining lifelong learning organisations for their own long term durability and self-respect'

Norman Longworth  ‘Submission to the UNESCO Commission on Education for the 21st Century’


Lifelong Learning, the Learning City and the Learning Region - A Vision for the Future

1. Lifelong Learning is suddenly big news. Why?

One reason is that the European Commission, advised by its member states, has nailed its educational colours to the lifelong learning mast. Its memorandum published shortly into the new millennium said

‘Lifelong learning is no longer just one aspect of education and training; it must become the guiding principle for provision and participation across the full continuum of learning contexts. The coming decade must see the implemention of this vision. All those living in Europe, without exception, should have equal opportunities to adjust to the demands of social and economic change and to participate actively in the shaping of Europe’s future.’

As a result governments in Europe have published strategies and papers as a demonstration of their commitment to transforming their systems from an Education and Training based model to one based on the need to encourage learning throughout life. And it isn’t only in Europe. Momentum is building up world-wide for new, different approaches to the challenges that will inevitably arise as the knowledge society takes root, and as nations, organisations, municipalities, communities and individuals become more complex and inclusive.

Not only that, at global level the major world organisations - from UNESCO to International Corporations, the OECD, National Governments - are developing plans to introduce Lifelong Learning within their spheres of influence. And at the municipal level – forward looking local authority administrations, business organisations and institutions of all kinds are beginning to home in on the lifelong learning opportunity.

This thing is big - it’s going to influence every one of us, our children and our childrens’ children over the next century. And we are just at the beginning of the process. It’s an exciting time.

2. So Lifelong Learning is something new then?

Not at all. Plato used the phrase ‘Dia Viou Paedeia’ 2000 years before Christ - for him it meant the obligation of every citizen to develop his or her own potential and participate in the activities of the city. The Chinese philosopher, Kuan Tzu, in the 3rd century BC said ‘When planning for a year - sow corn, when planning for a decade - plant trees, when planning for a lifetime - train and educate men’. While that may seem to be sexist, I think that he meant humankind. More recently Comenius, in the 16th century drew up a picture of the whole world as a school for mankind and floated the idea of learning as the most basic human instinct.

Arthur C Clarke, the famous Science Fiction writer defined the minimum survival level of the human race as ‘everyone being educated to the level of semi-literacy of the average university graduate by the year 2000.’ HG Wells defined the whole of human history as ‘a constant race between education and catastrophe’ - he thought the latter was winning - and as we look around us at some of the more horrific and horrible activities of some of our fellow creatures, who can say he was wrong.

But the difference today lies in the rapidly accelerating speed of change. No longer is a good basic education sufficient to nourish someone for life. The motive power of a knowledge society is the proliferation of new facts, new understandings, new insights and new procedures. To stay employed is to stay smart, and to stay in learning.

3. So give a few examples?

There are many indicators of change engendering a need for lifelong learning. As a race we are slowly but surely coming to terms with the fact that this planet is finite - that we cannot continue to exploit its mineral wealth, its food resources in land and sea, and change its natural life-sustaining ecosystems without threatening our very existence. And with an expected 3 billion new members of the human race in the next 50 years, learning to adapt, and learning to live with other peoples, has got to play a large part in the future for all of us.

Another example. In what we call the developed world we have moved into an entirely different sort of employment situation. In the middle of this century we have come to expect to be employed in one job for a lifetime - that is no longer true for the vast majority of us and is becoming even less true for future generations. The workers of tomorrow will have several different jobs, several different careers - they will have to be adaptable and flexible, nationally and internationally mobile and versatile, mentally, physically and geographically - they will constantly need to be trained and retrained to a much higher level than today, dipping in and out of education as necessary to renew their store of knowledge, skills and understandings. Indeed it is estimated that at least 40% of jobs in 2010 don’t yet exist.

A third indicator stems from the way in which the information, communications, news and broadcasting technologies have come together to revolutionise the way in which we receive information. The ability to receive packaged information so that we can assimilate it more easily is, at first glance, a good thing. But when the packaging is in the hands of a few powerful corporations, not all of them interested in a fair-minded and objective analysis, there is a great danger of being manipulated and brainwashed. It can happen as much in liberal democracies as in third world dictatorships, and, unless people are given the critical judgement skills to distinguish between good, bad and slanted news and information, how can they come to an informed opinion on the many great issues that will be put before them?

These are just three of the many reasons why we could call this Century, the ‘Learning Century’ - because, unless it becomes just that, the alternative is more and more unhappiness, social disorder, deprivation, poverty and a breakdown of civilised and democratic structures.

4. How do you persuade people to make the effort? Education isn’t the most popular word in many peoples’ vocabularies.

That’s true and that’s why this is going to take time. We need 2020 vision. Lifelong Learning has profound implications for all parts of the system - not just the education systems in the schools, colleges and universities, but also the social, political, economic and cultural systems we have built up in our societies. It could be well argued that the age of Education and Training is dead and that the future focus has to be converted into a new era of Learning in which Education has to be brought to all people in the way in which they receive it best. Integral to it, not separated from it. Learning has to become fun, enjoyable, a pleasurable thing to do - whether it is for work, for leisure or for life it has to become a part of our lives in much the same way as shopping or banking or playing games.

But in order for that to happen the Learning providers at all levels have to start focusing on the needs of people as learners - finding out why, when, what, where and how people prefer to learn, discovering new learning methods, identifying the basic skills which people need in order to learn better - learning to learn, developing our potential, handling information, developing thinking skills - individually, in groups and in families - using the modern education delivery technologies and tools to provide new learning for renewed people wherever they want to receive it.

5. Are the Education Providers ready for this?

There are pockets of good practice around - some schools for example are transforming their curriculum into a skills-development activity and installing continuous education and personal skills updating programmes for their teachers so that they can respond better to their own learning needs and those of children. They are even making international links to stimulate global understanding and tolerance. Some universities are widening their intakes and modifying their courses to become responsive to the needs of a much more poly-accessible educational world from industry and the community around.

But, perhaps surprisingly, the greatest breakthroughs have come in Industry education departments, and we can all learn from this. Especially in the large international industries, there is a much greater take-up of the tools and techniques of the new technologies and a much greater democratisation of the learning process. This is because modern companies have realised that their strength and their future lies in the performance of their people, and that the development of individual skills and values is the most important thing they can do to survive in a very competitive world. Most major car manufacturers, for example, have taken a deliberate step to ‘empower’ their workforce, to put decision-making in the hands of those do the work. This creates a whole new set of learning and skill needs among adults, which perhaps would have been better incorporated into schoolroom practice.

However, it has to be said too, that for the majority of education providers there is still a long way to go. They are providing an industrial age education for a post-industrial, knowledge age environment. The emphasis is still on information and memorisation rather than knowledge, high-order skills, understanding and values - teaching what to think and commit to memory, rather than how to think, how to communicate and how to discriminate between good, bad and indifferent. Often this is not their fault. Government imposed curricula and examination systems emphasise such easily assessed processes regardless of the real need. Values, tolerance, skills and internationalism take a back seat to the political need to persuade parents that education is safely inflexible in their hands. In an age in which information doubles every 5 years and then feeds upon itself to produce yet more new knowledge, this is a nonsense.

6. But isn’t it Government which tells education organisations, particularly the schools, what to do?

Government has financial levers and uses them to get its own way. That’s why there is a need for mind-set change (if the first part of the word can be located) in all parts of the system. Government has an important part to play in understanding and creating the conditions for a true Lifelong Learning Society so that both the nation and the people prosper economically and mentally.

There is a very strong correlation between the economic health of a nation and the learning health of its citizens. But it must base its actions on research and understanding of the true need for everyone, rather than ill-considered political dogma or prejudices nurtured in an elitist past. If, for example, we use a failure-oriented examination system, that is one which creates failure in some in order to celebrate success in others, we can expect to take the consequences of coping with the actions of those who fail. Sure, successful learning must be celebrated and rewarded, but let’s make it possible for everybody, or as many as possible, to participate in the fun of success.

Unfortunately Governments are a little like dinosaurs. It takes a long time, years even, for the message to reach the brain and then for the brain to re-act in the most sensible way. This is why some of the more forward-thinking governments are outsourcing decision-making powers to regional and municipal authorities, where the needs of communities can also be taken into account. Some are even devolving powers to the institutions themselves, though of course they still retain curriculum and examination control, and starve the educators of the mental means to play a more creative role in line with the future needs of students.

7. So does Local and Regional Government also have a part to play?

It certainly does, and it should be an increasingly important one in the future. Governments can pontificate, International Governmental Organisations can prescribe and Universities can produce research papers for other researchers to read, but the place where the lifelong learning revolution is going to happen is in the regions, cities, towns and villages of every nation. This is where the action takes place and where the skills, talents, knowledge and values of real people are developed. It is also why many regions, towns and cities are now moving rapidly towards becoming ‘Learning Cities, Towns and Regions.’

8. Learning Cities? Learning Towns? Learning Regions?

Yes – this is the 21st century model. They are communities in which business and industry, schools, colleges, universities, professional organisations and local government cooperate closely in order to transform them into physically, economically, culturally and mentally pleasant places to live. A true Learning City might be one:

  • Which pro-actively encourages everyone, without exception, to continuously develop their potential


  • Which provides the necessary support services and structures to enable them to do so according to their personal learning styles – counsellors, psychologists, mentors etc;
  • where learning is an enjoyable and rewarding activity and is celebrated and recognised as such frequently;


  • which energises all its resources, especially its human resources, talents, skills and knowledge from all parts of the community, and makes them available to all in a spirit of active citizenship;
  • which looks outwards to the rest of the world and encourages its citizens to do likewise;


  • which uses modern communications technology to link people internally and externally;
  • which encourages its citizens to develop personal learning plans to develop their knowledge and skills;


  • which mobilises special interest groups - birdwatchers, botanists, scouts, guides, church groups and the many informal organisations in which people congregate - in the monitoring and preservation of a sustainable environment;

That’s an ambitious set of tasks for a city and region. But already some dynamic cities and regions world-wide – Liverpool, Southampton and others in the UK, Espoo in Finland, Goteborg in Sweden, Adelaide and Victoria in Australia, Beijing in China - are responding to the challenge and taking the first steps towards becoming ‘Cities and Regions of Learning.’ It is not impossible to imagine, soon into the new millennium, a new world of linked Learning Cities in which knowledge and expertise and talent are shared with each other through electronic links between 3rd age citizens, schoolchildren in their studies, universities in their research activities, companies for trade, hospitals for medical assistance and knowledge. And that has already happened in the European Commission’s PALLACE project, and the proliferating international schools and college networks.

9. Has this anything to do with the Stakeholder Society we hear so much about? 

The concept of the Learning City goes further than the Stakeholder Society. Certainly there are similarities and many of the features of one are also features of the other. Empowerment of the workforce of a company for example, and the idea that citizens should play a large part in the development of their own community. The stakeholder society, quite rightly, gives rights and decision making powers to individuals. But a Learning City is also a model for genuine cooperation and partnership between dissimilar organisations for their mutual benefit. It recognises that rights entail responsibilities - the responsibility of making efforts to understand the problems of others and to help to solve them.

For example, take the Woodberry Down School/IBM Basinghall Street schools-industry twinning scheme in the late 1970s (sadly, both organisations exist no longer). The close cooperation programme between the two organisations led to the skills, knowledge and talents of more than 50 highly qualified professionals being made available to enhance the education of staff and children at the school. Since this was a two-way cooperation the educational skills and knowledge and the facilities of the school were made available to the company. Both organisations gained immeasurably from the 30 joint projects and the interaction between two dissimilar organisations. Energy flowed creatively.

This could also happen in a stakeholder society, but it might not be an essential feature of it. What both need though is inspired leadership by example from Local and National Government, and a large programme for creating leadership skills in all sections of the community.

10. So Lifelong Learning is really about developing Learning Cities, Towns and Regions?

Not just that - that is a means to an end. Lifelong Learning is principally about people and the way in which they can develop their own human potential. In some cases people have been so scarred by their learning experiences that they have been put off it for life. It was Einstein who proposed that none of us, not even himself, ever use more than one-third of the capacity of our brains. Experimentation with brain-damaged people has shown how the deficit can be made up by other non-damaged parts of the brain. We are all capable of learning and we are all capable of enjoying learning. But many people put limitations on themselves. Good Lifelong Learning practice takes away those limitations and provides the new tools, techniques and motivations to learn.

Quite apart from the new economic necessity for everyone to learn throughout life in order to survive at something above a basic level, Lifelong Learning aims to create, or recreate, the habit and the joy of learning. The Ford Company, for example, makes available a sum of money for each employee every year to take a course in something - as long as it has nothing to do with the job or the company. Now the Ford Company isn’t daft or even altruistic. It is in fact a very successful company as a result of these apparently strange practices of giving money away. It recognises that, by creating the habit of learning in all its employees it is building the foundation of its success in the marketplace. The new working practice of empowering workers means that they have to make decisions right down the line - and they have to make the right decisions. That’s where the value of learning comes in.   

11. Sounds like a lot of empowering everywhere. And a lot of new learners once it catches on. How are you going to satisfy all these new learners?

That's partly where the new technologies are useful. They're not very well-developed at present and resistance is high in schools, universities and elsewhere. But there is a promising future and they are becoming ever more sophisticated in what they can do to help learning. The internet is just one example of a powerful new resource for learning.

But there are other tools and techniques in the Open Learning firmament, for example using a mixture of sound, text, vision, graphics, motion picture to stimulate the take-up of ideas, imagination, facts and insights. And the use of collaborative teaching and learning techniques nationally and internationally through interaction by email. This session is a prize example of how that can be wisely used. Technology is therefore one of the keys to Lifelong Learning and the trick is to develop ever-more creative use of these links both within and between communities.

For example, the Lifelong Learning University of the future will use modern open and distance Learning technologies to provide services for Continuing Education in Industry and Government Offices, support for teachers in schools, extension courses for adults wherever they may be - in the shopping centres, the pubs, the home. They will use all the media at their disposal - television, local radio, satellite, cable, ISDN networks and the internet - to make learning the number one activity in each community. They will interact internationally to open up both learning opportunities and minds, and make research more applicable to those on whose behalf it is carried out.

Another example. Schools will make an extensive use of networks.

  • Teachers will develop and teach collaboratively common curricula between schools in the community and internationally. Children will learn collaboratively with children from other cultures, regions, countries;


  • Children will access databases and stimulating people to enliven and enhance their learning. For example in environmental studies;           
  • Children and teachers will participate in joint project work with community organisations and industry;


  • Schools will build up their own geographical, historical and biological databases and share them with others;
  • Language teaching will be given a new dimension through interpersonal contacts.


And they will use sophisticated open learning software to give them the skills, concepts and knowledge which allows them to cope with the more complex society they will inhabit. These are not threats to teachers - they are the tools of their future trade.

Business and Industry will profit from such networks, developing their own wealth-creating contacts between communities for the community, and receiving from the community aware, committed and open-minded employees with an in-built habit of learning.

12. So Lifelong Learning is all about technology then?

Oops no!. Sorry if you got that impression. Sure, the possibilities to use learning technologies creatively are endless, and the opportunities to liberate minds and mindsets are abundant in all parts of education and training. But technology is simply one of the tools of the new 21st century teacher. Active learning includes a variety of other tools and techniques such as quizzes and audits, surveys, studies and development exercises, brainstorming sessions, role-playing exercises, case studies and visits.

And let’s not forget the importance of values and attitudes. They are as important as Lifelong Learning skills and knowledge. Ask anyone over 30 what they remember about their schooldays. Very few will mention subjects and classrooms. Most will remember the extra-curricular events, the games, the plays, the choirs, the camping holidays, the playground activities where values and attitudes were created. A love of music, consideration for others, a talent for acting - these are acquired from participation in activities rather than taught by others.

But values goes further than people. There are organisational values - a company develops a set of values about the worth of its people and invests in their development accordingly; a school, college or university develops a set of values which may, or may not, go beyond its statutory responsibility to provide a basic knowledge of the standard curriculum. Each is an investment in a lifelong learning future for both the individual and the organisation. A well-governed nation promotes certain values as an investment in social cohesion and economic progress. This too is an exercise in survival in a competitive world. A Learning Community, whether it is a city, a town or a region tries to inculcate into its citizens the values of co-operation and harmonious living.

And all of this will contribute at last to the development of the potential in every one of us. This is what is meant by Lifelong Learning. But it won't happen this year or next year, or even by 2020. This is a process which will take at least 50 years and, in some countries, much longer. We have the means to make it happen. Do we have the will the vision or the bottle make the 21st Century really 'The Learning Century?'     

13. So Lifelong Learning is here to stay?

You can say that again, and again, and again. The alternative doesn’t really bear thinking about. Cities that do not respond to the need for educational, social, political, environmental and cultural change will be the losers in a brave new world we don’t even begin to understand yet. But we cannot stop here. Such a short paper cannot begin to deal with the many aspects of Lifelong Learning affecting all our futures. Hopefully we now know why the transformation into a Learning Community has to take place. The what, the where, the when, the who and the how is another, more complex set of questions.


About the author


Norman Longworth is the former holder of the IBM/UNESCO Chair in Education and Information Technology and Visiting Professor to Napier University Edinburgh, ESC Toulouse and the University of Stirling. In the past he has worked in schools, in Industry and in Universities. He is a former President of the European Lifelong Learning Initiative and is currently Vice-President of the World Initiative on Lifelong Learning. He is also a Lifelong Learning Consultant to the European Commission Socrates Programme and other organisations. His expertise lies particularly in the development of learning cities and regions, having lectured on the subject in more than 20 countries. He is the author of several books on Lifelong Learning, including 'Lifelong Learning' (1996), 'Learning Cities for a Learning Century' (1999) and Lifelong Learning in Action – Transforming 21st Century Education’(2003) (all Kogan Page (now Taylor and Francis), and ‘Learning Cities, Learning Regions, Learning Communities – Lifelong Learning and Local Government’ (2006), (Taylor and Francis)