Posts Tagged ‘UNESCO’

Always learning

In an earlier post , I explored the use of the phrase ‘Always learning’ as a promotional tagline by Pearson. Pearson’s use of the phrase peaked in the early years of the 2010s at a time when the company, facing growing criticism for the length and aggressivity of its tentacles in US education (Ravitch, 2012; Sellar et al, 2016), was particularly keen to fashion ‘its image as a socially responsible edu-business’. Not coincidentally, ‘lifelong learning’, the big idea evoked by ‘Always learning’, saw a resurgence of interest around the same time, as the United Nations published their Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. The fourth of these was:

‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.’

This was an extension of the earlier (2000) UN Millennium Development Goal, which aimed for universal primary education. It had been recognised that this was not sufficient to break global cycles of poverty. For that, not only universal secondary education, but also post-secondary (lifelong) learning, were needed, too. The goal was criticised for being vague, over-ambitious and unrealisable, but it was so obviously a ‘good thing’ that it could do nobody any harm to be associated with it.

Lifelong learning, democracy and human capital

The idea of lifelong education may be vague, but its history can be traced back to at least Confucius who said that ‘life is limited, while learning is limitless’ (Guo-Dong, 1994). Plato advocated lifelong learning for the highest ranking members of society. Comenius promoted a more democratic version of lifelong learning, as did Condorcet during the French Revolution (Matheson & Matheson, 1996). More recent incarnations of the idea are often traced back to John Dewey (Fleming, 2011), who saw a close connection between education and democracy, and believed that learning should continue past school ‘irrespective of age’ (Dewey, 1916: 55). The UNESCO report (Faure, 1972), which did so much to establish the idea of lifelong learning in contemporary educational discourse, was very much in the democratic Dewey tradition.

In more recent discourse, the democratic veneer remains visible, but a human capital approach to lifelong learning is now clearly privileged (Fleming, 2011). Supported by international bodies like the OECD and the EU, current discourses prioritize the needs of the marketplace, and place the emphasis on learning as an individualized responsibility (Olssen, 2006). References abound to the rapidly changing nature of our contemporary world, especially the world of work, where only lifelong learning can offer the adaptability and flexibility needed for our occupational, political and ecological survival. Notions of a fuller life and self-actualization have not gone away, but interest is much more squarely centred on the part that lifelong learning can play in the development of human capital. A recent (2021) article from Pearson entitled ‘New research shows employers see lifelong learning as the ‘new normal’ as UK Government releases skills data’ https://plc.pearson.com/en-US/news/new-research-shows-employers-see-lifelong-learning-new-normal-uk-government-releases-skills is typical in this respect. In a similar vein, MOOC provider, FutureLearn (2022), has recently brought out a report into the ‘future of learning’ in which ‘lifelong learning’ is seen as ‘critical to upskilling the workforce of the future’.

Like so many other words I have looked at on this blog, ‘lifelong learning’ ‘has all the trappings of what might be termed a ‘good idea’ — it is bedecked with hurrah words and emotive terms, liberally dispersed by its proponents, and this gives it an air of conceptual solidity, together with making it more readily popular’ (Matheson & Matheson). Meaning little more than learning that is not confined to school, the best way of understanding the term is perhaps to look at what people actually do with it.

Lifelong learning and English language teaching

In the world of English language teaching, one of the early uses of the term ‘lifelong learning’ was in the title of a plenary IATEFL presentation, ‘Developing learner autonomy – preparing learners for lifelong learning’ (Dam, 2002). It was an interesting, but hardly contentious, lecture, arguing that (1) lifelong learning is necessary because schools can’t teach everything, (2) that learner autonomy is necessary for lifelong learning, so (3) our educational focus should be more on learning and less on teaching. Precisely what should be learnt in the long life of learning is left unspecified, and whether that learning should literally continue till death do us part remained equally unclear. Leni Dam was invoking the fashionable term of ‘lifelong learning’ to sell the idea of ‘learner autonomy’. But it really wasn’t needed: even month-long learning would be enough to justify the encouragement of learner autonomy.

There is, however, no disputing the potential of the term ‘lifelong learning’ in selling ideas. I recently came across the lovely phrase ‘premature ultimate’ (try googling it!) – ‘a concept or term that provokes such reverence and contains such connotative potency that its invocation tends to silence any further discussion on a matter’ (Brookfield, 1986). Great for selling, in other words, as on the website of the wonderfully named ‘Enjoy TEFL’ , ‘the Global Number 1 Accredited TEFL and Mindfulness Provider’, which manages to pack ‘lifelong learning’, ‘21st century’, ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ into just two lines. Their current promotion offers two free mindfulness courses when you buy a 120 / 180 hour TEFL course.

Linking ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘21st century skills’ is standard practice. The Lifelong Learning Programme 2007 – 2013 of the EU had rather vague objectives, but the desirable skills that were listed were largely indistinguishable from other lists of C21 skills / global skill / soft skills: communication competencies, digital competencies, social and emotional skills, and so on (Kaplan, 2016). Coupling the two concepts means that anything loosely connected with the latter can be promoted by association with the former. Two examples. Creativity and lifelong learning are associated in an article by Daniel Xerri (2017) that seeks to ‘mobilise students’ creative thinking’ and to show ‘how the English language classroom can serve as an incubator for an awareness of the need to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education, and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. Xerri is certainly interested in using ‘creativity’ tasks to promote awareness of the first part of the UN’s SDG, but the ‘lifelong learning’ bit is not explored at all. In contrast, Reinders et al (2022) explore in some depth what they mean by ‘lifelong learning’, but the bottom line is the promotion of the use of digital tools in language learning. ‘Lifelong learning’ (or ‘lifewide learning[1]’, as they call it) is just one reason for advocating the use of digital technologies.

Competing with ‘Enjoy TEFL’ for the prize of the crudest invocation of ‘lifelong learning’ is Darren Nicholls, a product manager for Pearson. A promo for some new Pearson proficiency tests describes them as ‘web-based tests [that] first stream students into the appropriate class and then monitor their progress over an extended period of time. Both tests are hosted on a new platform, Test Hub, which supports lifelong learning by bringing together all proficiency assessments under one roof’. Lifelong learning would seem to mean digital homework.

Lifelong learning and CPD

I have often heard myself (and many others) saying that a good teacher is one who never stops learning. It’s the kind of wisdom of online memes. Once you stop learning you start dying, Albert Einstein didn’t actually say, but let’s not worry about attributional details. ‘Enjoy TEFL’ tries to sell its courses by appealing to the same sentiment, and they are not alone. The blurb for an IATEFL Poland webinar says ‘Being networked is of key importance to all professionally active people in the process of lifelong learning …’ A joint LTSIG and TDSIG conference in Istanbul in 2012 waxed lyrical: ‘This is an age of lifelong learning, or ‘perpetual beta’, of learning anywhere, any place, any time’. Professional development is a lifelong obligation and, for those who are super-keen, JALT (the Japanese Association of Language Teachers) has a ‘Lifelong Language Learning Special Interest Group’ which organises events and a regular newsletter.

All well and good, you may be thinking, but pause a moment to think about the way in which the discourse of lifelong learning ‘orientates education to the enterprise society where the learner (or the teacher as learner) becomes an entrepreneur of him / herself’ (Olssen, 2006). Never mind that increasing numbers of teachers are on zero-hours contracts or fail to take home the minimum wage, a commitment to lifelong professional development is expected. Where better place to start than next week’s IATEFL conference, with its free, daily mindfulness workshops? If you’re based in the UK and working at one of the many language schools that pays the minimum wage, you’ll only need to clock up about 100 hours of teaching to afford it.

References

Brookfield, S. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey – Bass

Dam, L. (2002) Developing learner autonomy – preparing learners for lifelong learning. In Pulverness, A. (Ed.) IATEFL 2002 York Conference Selections. Whitstable, Kent: IATEFL

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan.

Faure, E. (1972) Learning to be: The world of education today and tomorrow. Paris: UNESCO.

Fleming, T. (2011) Models of Lifelong Learning: An Overview. In M. London (Ed.). Oxford Handbook of Lifelong Learning (pp. 29-39). New York: Oxford University Press.

FutureLearn (2022) The Future of Learning Report 2022. London: FutureLearn https://www.futurelearn.com/info/thefutureoflearning

Guo-Dong, X. (1994) Lifelong education in China: new policies and activities. International Review of Education, 40, (3-5)

Jackson, N. J. (Ed.) (2011) Learning for a complex world: A lifewide concept of learning, development and achievement. AuthorHouse Publishing. Available at: https://www.lifewideeducation.uk/learning-for-a-complex-world.html

Kaplan, A. (2016) Lifelong Learning: Conclusions From A Literature Review. International Online Journal of Primary Education, 5 (2): pp. 43 – 50

Matheson, D. & Matheson, C. (1996) Lifelong Learning and Lifelong Education: a critique. Research in Post‐Compulsory Education, 1 (2): pp. 219-236, DOI: 10.1080/1359674960010207

Olssen, M. (2006) Understanding the mechanisms of neoliberal control: lifelong learning, flexibility and knowledge capitalism. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 25 (3): pp. 213-230.

Ravitch, D. (2012) The United States of Pearson? http://dianeravitch.net/2012/05/07/the-united-states-of-pearson-2/

Reinders, H., Dudeney, G., & Lamb, M. (2022) Using Technology to Motivate Learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sellar, S., Hogan, A. & Lingard, B. (2016) Always Learning. Education International https://www.ei-ie.org/en/item/21091:always-learning

Xerri, D. (2017) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. In Maley, A. & Peachey, N. (Eds.) Integrating global issues in the creative English language classroom: With reference to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. London: British Council, pp. 49 – 56


[1] ‘Lifewide learning’ is not a term made up by Reinders et al. The idea has been around for over 20 years, piggy-backing on lifelong learning, and referring to the fact that learning takes place in a variety of different environments and situations. For more information, see Jackson (2011). And, if you really have nothing better to do, check out ‘lifedeep learning’. I thought, at first, it was a joke, but it’s been written about in all seriousness.

The pandemic has affected all learners, but the more vulnerable the learner, the harder they have been hit. The evidence is very clear that Covid and the response of authorities to it has, in the words of UNESCO , ‘increased inequalities and exacerbated a pre-existing education crisis’. Learning poverty (a term coined by UNESCO and the World Bank), which refers to the ability to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10, is just one way of looking at these inequalities. Before the pandemic, 53% of children in low and middle income countries (and 9% in high income countries) were living in learning poverty. According to the World Bank (Azevedo et al., 2021), the pandemic will amplify this crisis with the figure rising to somewhere between 63% and 70%. The fear is that the recovery from Covid may be ‘similarly inequitable and that the effects of COVID-19 will be long-lasting’ (ibid.).

Inequity was not, of course, the only problem that educational systems faced before the pandemic. Since the turn of the millennium, it has been common to talk about ‘reimagining education’, and use of this phrase peaked in the summer of 2020. Leading the discoursal charge was Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the OECD, who saw the pandemic as ‘a great moment’ for education, since ‘the current wave of school closures offers an opportunity for experimentation and for envisioning new models of education’. Schleicher’s reimagining involves a closely intertwined privatization (by ending state monopolies) and digitalization of education (see this post for more details). Other reimaginings are usually very similar. Yong Zhao, for example, does not share Schleicher’s enthusiasm for standardized tests, but he sees an entrepreneurial, technology-driven, market-oriented approach as the way forward. He outlined this, pre-pandemic, in his book An Education Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste (Zhao et al., 2019), and then picked up on the pandemic (Zhao, 2020) to reiterate his ideas and, no doubt, to sell his book – all ‘in the spirit’, he writes, ‘of never wasting a good crisis’.

It was Churchill who first said ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’, but it is often attributed to Emanuel Rahm, Obama’s Chief of Staff, who said the same thing in reference to the financial crisis of 2009. As we have seen in the last two years, crises can be good opportunities to push through policy changes. Viktor Orbán provides a good example. Crises can also be a way to make a financial killing, a practice known as ‘disaster capitalism’ (Loewenstein, 2017). Sometimes, it’s possible to change policy and turn a tidy profit at the same time. One example from the recent past shows us the way.

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, education was massively disrupted in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Arne Duncan, who became Obama’s Secretary for Education a few years after Katrina, had this to say about the disaster: “Let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘We have to do better.’” The reform that followed, inspired by Milton Friedman, involved replacing New Orleans’ public school system with privately run charter schools. The change took place with ‘military speed and precision’, compared to the ‘glacial pace’ with which levees and the electricity grid were repaired (Klein, 2007: 5). Nearly 5000 unionized teachers were fired, although some of the younger ones were rehired on reduced salaries. Most of the city’s poorer residents were still in exile when the changes took place: the impact on the most vulnerable students was entirely predictable. ‘The social and economic situation always bleeds into the school, said one researcher into the impact of the catastrophe.

Disaster capitalism may, then, be a useful lens through which to view the current situation (Moore et al., 2021). Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary for Education, stated that the pandemic was an opportunity to ‘look very seriously at the fact that K-12 education for too long has been very static and very stuck in one method of delivering and making instruction available’ (Ferrari, 2020). What DeVos, who was famous for having described public education as a ‘dead end’, meant by this was privatization and digitalization, and privatization through digitalization. Although the pandemic is far from over, we can already begin to ask: has the crisis been wasted?

Turning from the US to Europe, a fascinating report by Zancajo et al (2022) examines the educational policy responses to Covid in a number of European countries. The first point to note is that the recovery plans of these countries is not fundamentally any different from pre-pandemic educational policy. The Covid-19 pandemic has simply ‘served as a catalyst to accelerate preexisting digitization policies in education systems’. Individual states are supported by the European Commission’s Digital Education Action Plan 2021–2027 (European Commission, 2021) which lists three main priorities: making use of technology, the development of digital skills for teachers and learners, and the increased use of data to improve education. The focus of attention of education policy in the national recovery plans of individual EU countries is almost completely monopolized by digitalization. Covid has not led to any reimagining of education: it has simple been ‘a path accelerator contributing to strengthening policy instruments and solutions that were already on the agenda (Zancajo et al., 2022). Less overtly obvious than digitalization has been the creeping privatization that occurs when a greater proportion of national education budgets is spent on technology provided by private companies.

Creeping privatization has been especially noticeable in British universities, which, for years, have been focusing on the most profitable ‘revenue streams’ and on cutting the costs of academic labour. The pandemic has been used by some (Leicester and Manchester, for example) as a justification for further restructuring, cost-cutting and the development of new digitally-driven business models (Nehring, 2021). In schools, the private technology providers were able to jump in quickly because the public sector was unprepared, and, in so doing, position themselves as essential services. The lack of preparedness of the public sector is not, of course, unsurprising, since it has been underfunded for so long. Underfund – create a crisis – privatize the solution: such has long been the ‘Shock Doctrine’ game plan of disaster capitalists. Naomi Klein has observed that where we have ended up in post-Covid education is probably where we would have ended up anyway: Covid accelerated the process by ten years.

Williamson and Hogan (2020) describe the current situation in the following terms:

The pivot to online learning and ‘emergency remote teaching’ has positioned educational technology (edtech) as an integral component of education globally, bringing private sector and commercial organisations into the centre of essential educational services. […] A global education industry of private and commercial organisations has played a significant role in educational provision during the Covid-19 crisis, working at local, national and international scales to insert edtech into educational systems and practices. It has often set the agenda, offered technical solutions for government departments of education to follow, and is actively pursuing long-term reforms whereby private technology companies would be embedded in public education systems during the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and beyond it in new models of hybrid teaching and learning. […] Supported by multilateral policy influencing organisations and national government departments, these companies have integrated schools, teachers and students into their global cloud systems and online education platforms, raising the prospect of longterm dependencies of public education institutions on private technology infrastructures.

And where is educational equity in all this? Even the OECD is worried – more assessment is needed to identify learning losses, they say! A pandemic tale from California will give us a clue. When schools shut down, 50% of low-income California students lacked the necessary technology to access distance learning (Gutentag, 2020). Big Tech came riding to the rescue: donations from companies like HP, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google made it possible for chromebooks and wifi hotspots to be made available for every student, and California legislators and corporations could congratulate themselves on closing the ‘digital divide’ (ibid.). To compensate for increased problems of homelessness, poverty, hunger, and discrimination, the most vulnerable students now have a laptop or tablet, with which they can generate data to be monetized by the tech vendors (Feathers, 2022).

References

Azevedo, J. P. W., Rogers, F. H., Ahlgren, S. E., Cloutier, M-H., Chakroun, B., Chang, G-C., Mizunoya, S., Reuge,N. J., Brossard, M., & Bergmann, J. L. (2021) The State of the Global Education Crisis : A Path to Recovery (English). Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/416991638768297704/pdf/The-State-of-the-Global-Education-Crisis-A-Path-to-Recovery.pdf

European Commission. (2021) Digital education action plan 2021-2027. Resetting Education, Brussels

Feathers, T. (2022) This Private Equity Firm Is Amassing Companies That Collect Data on America’s Children. January 11th, 2022 The Markup https://themarkup.org/machine-learning/2022/01/11/this-private-equity-firm-is-amassing-companies-that-collect-data-on-americas-children

Ferrari, K. (2020) Disaster Capitalism Is Coming for Public Education. Jacobin 14 May 2020 https://jacobinmag.com/2020/05/public-education-schools-covid-coronavirus-charter-teachers

Gutentag, A. (2020) The Virtual Education Shock Doctrine. The Bellows https://www.thebellows.org/the-virtual-education-shock-doctrine/

Klein, N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine. New York: Metropolitan Books

Loewenstein, A. (2017) Disaster Capitalism. London: Verso Books

Moore, S. D. M., Jayme, B. D., Black, J. (2021) Disaster capitalism, rampant edtech opportunism, and the advancement of online learning in the era of COVID19. Critical Education, 12(2), 1-21.

Nehring, D. (2021) Is COVID-19 Enabling Academic Disaster Capitalism? Social Science Space 21 July 2021 https://www.socialsciencespace.com/2021/07/is-covid-19-enabling-academic-disaster-capitalism/

Williamson, B., & Hogan, A. (2020). Commercialisation and privatisation in/of education in the context of Covid-19. Education International, Brussels.

Zancajo, A., Verger, A. & Bolea, P. (2022) Digitalization and beyond: the effects of Covid-19 on post-pandemic educational policy and delivery in Europe, Policy and Society, puab016, https://doi.org/10.1093/polsoc/puab016

Zhao, Y. (2020) COVID-19 as a catalyst for educational change. Prospects 49: 29–33. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11125-020-09477-y

Zhao, Y., Emler, T. E., Snethen, A. & Yin, D. (2019) An Education Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste. New York: Teachers College Press