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Riding the ‘LEARN’

An Account of the Journey of The World’s First Lifelong Learning Train


Professor Norman Longworth
European Lifelong Learning Initiative


‘If you want to build ships, don’t try to call people collecting wood, preparing tools, delegating tasks and planning work

But teach them to yearn for the far distance and the endless ocean....’

St Exupery


Riding the ‘LEARN’ - An Account of the Journey of The World’s First Lifelong Learning Train

It was August 1995, the reluctant sun shining languorously over Dipoli as it was wont to do in August, somnolent mosquitoes hovering in their trillions over the shimmering lake outside the hotel as they too were wont to do. A lunchtime hiatus in the first planning meeting of the Year of Lifelong Learning conference. In the hotel bar, two men laughed neurotically into the liquid froth of their beers. ‘It couldn’t work’ said Taisto, silently hoping to be contradicted. ‘What a stupid idea!’ answered I, with that enigmatic kind of smile calculated to simultaneously confirm and deny hope. Both looked at each other. Thus was conceived the world’s first Lifelong Learning train, and given a gestation period of nine months to hit an unsuspecting world.

It is June 1996. 10 carriages of the ‘LEARN’ - so named because the word train is banned from the Lifelong Learning lexicon, the destination being the learner - emerge hesitantly from the capacious womb of Helsinki railway station to begin a ten-hour odyssey to the Arctic Circle town of Rovaniemi. The Nordic Gods of the weather have not been kind. An angry sky threatens to make the experience a wet and windy one, and already the first droplets of the day are splashing on the speed-gathering windows. Comfortably entrenched on board, more than two hundred and fifty learning explorers, each nursing various degrees of hangover - the previous evening saw the conference Gala Dinner stretch into a long night - watch city turn into suburb into tree-clad, ice-sculpted countryside.

It is the flagship event of the flagship conference. 1996 - The European Year of Lifelong Learning, a time for renewal and change in a whole continent, an invitation to innovation and a search for new horizons extending into a dimly-seen future. This is voyage to discover, nay to experience, the very meaning of learning. In Rover Carriage 1, the conference organisers gird their loins. From there the LEARN guardian, a hagstrom, hag-ridden frllow,  reveals the what, the where, the when, the who and the how of the day in sepulchral, public address system tones. Discussion, debate, deliberation, decision-making and determination are the main ingredients of the travelling agenda and active participation by every passenger the ticket to its success.

Situated at each end of the LEARN, Rover Carriage 1 and Dipoli Carriage 10 are specially designed ‘meeting-room’ carriages, comfortable armchairs surrounding baize-covered tables which might have been used to sign the armistice of 1918. Indeed they are almost the exact image of that carriage in the ‘clairière’ near to Compiègne where Weygang, Foch et al forced the signature of that historic document. Here the ‘trainstorming’ sessions - essentially loud-speaking brainstorming with railway-like noise - take place. Here Longworth and Davies are kings for the day, reigning like benevolent despots, encouraging, stimulating, persuading, cajoling, pleading - converting erstwhile empty space into ‘factories - learning ideas for the production of.’ Six times, each in the space of one and a half hours, unsuspecting people will produce more than 150 ideas for creating learning organisations in learning societies, and equally unsuspecting volunteer scribes will scribble them down rapidly, and remarkably readably, onto large sheets of paper. By the end of each trainstorm, the two carriages resemble a billboard advertising competition after a hurricane. Sheets of ideas - sensible and incomprehensible, feasible and crazy, perceptive and ineffectual, balanced and lunatic, wise and wild - are glued to the front and back of the carriage, stuck to the windows, laid on the floor and strewn on the table, while eager groups of delegates both expand and refine them into practical and achievable meaning for their own organisations and for their own learning purposes.       

Two hours from Helsinki and the LEARN continues to make that distinctive, monotonous, hypnotic staccato which is the trademark of all real railway journeys - da-da-da-DAH, da-da-da-DAH, learn-ing-to-LEARN, learn-ing-for-LIFE. Every now and then, cameos from Hieronymus Bosch - wandering human strings of the dispossessed and dislocated, faces stricken, gazes blank, shuffling along the corridors hands on the shoulder in front like the survivors in the Poseidon Adventure, looking for the next port, seeking enlightenment from chaos.

It lies in the centre of the ‘LEARN’. The world’s first internet carriage, boldly proclaimed on its external surface to the trees and lakes of Finland, and sponsored by Telecom Finland. Here is the electronic essence of the journey. Computers inviting all, especially the computer illiterate, to strip themselves of their technological inhibitions, surf the net and communicate with the world. Here is role reversal in true Lifelong Learning style - children, some as young as 9 years old, as learning enablers for adults; accessibility to everyone, including the patronisingly-named ‘accompanying persons’; an ambience of learning togetherness to match the best of community colleges. It is popular and well attended by those for whom it is intended. Messages are carefully composed and sent on their electronic way, home pages are constructed for others to read, information sources reveal their secrets and the smiles of children and adults alike demonstrate beyond all doubt that true, enjoyable learning has taken place.

Three hours into the learning journey and our first civic welcome at Tampere, Finland’s fourth city. Here the intrepid explorers are given a fleeting opportunity to escape from captivity, to listen to dignified speeches from the city mayor, to be serenaded by the resident close-harmony group, to take advantage of photo- and other calls and to stretch legs unaccustomed to freedom of movement. Here too, by courtesy of the Tampere city authorities, are loaded onto the ‘LEARN’ the succour, in the form of packed lunches, which will sustain body, soul and mind into the unknown regions beyond the city. But all too quickly the whistle blows, the platform empties and the wheels turn northwards ever northwards towards the Land of the Midnight Sun. Everyone is once more aboard. No-one has taken the opportunity to make a dash for freedom in Tampere. It is, after all, raining.

After a couple of hours to partake of a learning lunch activities restart. Groups, by now bonded strongly into learning partnerships, go about their afternoon commissions - some to trainstorm, some to discussion groups and others to OPH carriage 9 and Rover Carriage 2, where yet more computers can be found. This is the domain of Markkula MP - the kingdom of the ‘Personal Learning Plan’. Here also is software cunningly designed to guide wandering learners through the myriad pathways of  their inner minds and to stimulate their desire to construct their own learning future. Errant or lost pioneers of the unknown are gently led back onto the more secure tracks where the right structures exist to satisfy their latent desires for knowledge and where mentors can help them appease the Gods of Learning. Not only is this done by software, but it is also achieved more prosaically, and sometimes more successfully, through the excellent booklets provided free of charge by the United Kingdom Campaign for Learning. Needless to say, every traveller who has experienced this session, and that includes most of them, has emerged more aware of the processes involved in preparing both themselves and others for a more organised learning future. There is no truth in the rumour that people without personal learning plans are not allowed off the LEARN and will forever join the souls of the damned travelling back and forth between Helsinki and Rovaniemi until they develop one.

It is now four in the afternoon and time for another Civic Welcome, this time in the pretty town of Oulu, Finland’s most northerly city. The brave Lifelong Learning pioneers have yet another opportunity to escape but none of them take it. Instead they pour out onto the platform to hear the speeches, listen to the songs, take a few photographs and breathe the pure air. The LEARN puffs noisily alongside waiting for their return, and welcomes them back on board within the half-hour allowed - unfortunately no occasion is given to explore the town as a learning opportunity, but then Finnish railways have to run on time and it is a single track from here into the wild North.

The now-flagging trail-blazers are still eager for action and so it is to the final sessions that they wend their well-trodden, weary ways. The discussion groups take place in the Espoo and Nokia Carriages. Here the full conference is exposed for exactly what it is - ie a stimulating display of Lifelong Learning ideas - from the new workplace of the 1990s to proposed Learning Communities of the 21st Century; from examples and Case Studies of Learning Organisations in Industry, schools and Higher Education to the development of national strategies in a European future; from the need for understanding and managing change to the new skills, competencies and values needed for life and work in a Lifelong Learning society. Here is where the strategies, projects and networks for each sector of community in the new learning Europe are discussed and designed. Here is where the alliances of the future are forged.

And so to the last hours of the LEARN, before it arrives in Rovaniemi Station. To the FREELEARN, in which anything goes. The exhausted take the opportunity to rest from the labours of the day, the indefatigable discuss its highlights in small groups or strengthen new friendships and liaisons. Others go dancing in the specially designed disco carriage, or slake their thirst in the ever-crowded bar. The noise level in both is several decibels above the end of the Heathrow runway at Concorde lift-off. A wandering Dutch troubadour offers raucous songs, and songsheets, and everyone who can hear joins in. It is bedlam - and fun - and yet more learning.

8 pm - it is Rovaniemi Station. The courageous path-finders of the LEARN - the world’s first Lifelong Learning train - are welcomed by a troupe of young people dancing on the platform to disco music, before being whisked off in buses to their hotels. It is fitting. Learning is fun after all - even when you are part of a captive audience. We have travelled, we have worked, we have learned and we have taken great delight from it. What a stupid idea it was! It couldn’t possibly work.....


(The LEARN - the world’s first Lifelong Learning train comprised the 3rd day of the 4-day European Year of Lifelong Learning Conference which took place in Espoo and Rovaniemi, Finland 17-20 June 1996.

The European Year of Lifelong Learning conference was organised on behalf of the European Commission.by ELLInet Finland in conjunction with the European Lifelong Learning Initiative