What is lifelong learning, and why does it matter?

This is the first in a series of four short articles on the topic of lifelong learning and how you can easily put together an actionable plan to help you achieve the goals that are most important to you.

You’ve probably heard the term “lifelong learning” before but might not be sure exactly what it means. Does it mean you have to go to school throughout your entire life? Does it only apply to career-related learning? Is it ever appropriate to “take a break” from learning, or should you be learning non-stop? Let’s take a closer look.

If you were to ask 10 people for their definitions of lifelong learning, it is likely you would get 10 different answers. Interestingly, there is no universally accepted definition of the term. However, many definitions do share common elements. Broadly speaking, lifelong learners are individuals who continue to expand upon their knowledge and skills throughout their lives in order to be able to do things they previously could not do – whether in the areas of employment, social/civic elements, or personal interests (London, 2011). So, lifelong learning does not only pertain to your career – it relates to any aspect of your life, at any point in your life.

Not surprisingly, people often equate learning with courses. But, does that mean lifelong learning is exclusively achieved through formal education? Certainly, when employers ask a job candidate if they are a lifelong learner, this can be another way of asking what formal learning the individual has completed. But, while formal courses are clearly a valuable part of lifelong learning, they definitely are not the only part. Each of us learns as we move through life – after all, if we didn’t, we would not be able to adapt to the many interesting and novel situations that the world presents to us. We learn from our own experiences, both good and bad. We learn from other people (mentors, friends and colleagues) who teach us informally. We learn from reading about and watching others – whether directly or indirectly. And, we learn through our own deep thought, reflection and analysis. Returning to the question of whether or not it is ever appropriate to “take a break” from learning, the short answer is “it depends”. While there is no need to constantly take formal courses, making a point of continually trying to learn from every situation is crucial, because it leads to long-term growth and satisfaction.

When you get into the habit of continuous learning, you will find that your success can start to spiral upwards. Not only will you be able to achieve the results you want more consistently, but you will also be able to reduce frustrating and time-consuming mistakes. Those benefits are extraordinarily valuable – whether for your current job, your longer-term career, or for your personal life. The best part is that while this might sound like a lot of work, it actually isn’t – it just requires the development of some simple new habits. In upcoming articles in this series, we’ll take a look at some very easy ways of planning and tracking your learning. By applying these habits, you’ll be on your way to becoming an accomplished lifelong learner!

Learn how Durham College’s Centre for Professional and Part-time Learning can help you achieve your lifelong learning goals.