Promoting learning as a lifelong journey

By Eugene Clark
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 23, 2017
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Albert Einstein observed that: "Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death." With the aging of populations in many countries, it is important that societies devote more resources and give greater attention to the education of the elderly. Indeed, it is estimated that most people today will spend approximately a third of their lives in retirement.


Unfortunately, the education budgets of most countries are dominated by spending for primary, secondary and tertiary education. Too often neglected are the population groups at the extremes – early childhood education and education for the elderly.

Benefits of educating the elderly

Educating the elderly is morally the right thing to do in recognition of the respect and sacrifices that the elderly have made to society. Provided with education, the elderly are far more likely to be a benefit to rather than a burden on society. In countries like China, with its previous one-child policy and rapidly aging population, education of the elderly means that they will be able to stay in the workplace for longer and contribute in many ways to the overall wellbeing of society.

More than economics, especially important in educating the elderly is the inter-generational dialogue. This dialogue builds "social capital" in the form of agreed values, norms and beliefs that make a society stronger and help nurture and support younger generations. Educating the elderly also helps them to remain young. As entrepreneur Henry Ford noted: "Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young."

What type of education

Education for the elderly must be fit for purpose and tailored to the specific context. What we teach, to whom we teach and how we teach must take into account the needs and interests of the particular adults in mind. This may include a focus on personal issues such as health, nutrition, recreation and leisure type courses.

Other courses will be more formal and have a vocational focus, such as cooking, home maintenance, plumbing, use of computers, learning various applications, or coding. Other seniors may want to start their own business. For example Colonel Sanders of KFC did not start KFC until he was 65. Grandma Moses did not take up painting till she was 70.

Adult learning

Socrates indicated that the unexamined life is not worth living. He also advocated participation in such activities as music and dancing as important elements of a "full" life. Yet, it has been disappointing that there has been so little scholarship conducted by disciplinary experts about teaching and learning in particular to the elderly. At the same time, there have been significant advances in science, technology, psychology, and other fields with exciting new theories of multiple ways of learning and knowing, better ways of achieving and evidencing learning outcomes.

Those involved in educating the elderly should also familiarize themselves with and apply principles of adult learning. Adult learning theory, termed Andragogy, focuses on self-directed learning in adult education. Andragogy is defined as "the art and science of helping adults learn" and is contrasted with pedagogy, "the art and science of helping children learn."

It was a famous Roman Lawyer, Quintilian who argued in "Institutio Oratoria" almost 2000 years ago, that how students feel about their learning has a major impact on how effectively they learn. In modern times, Raymond Wiodowski in "Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults," offers a framework for culturally responsive teaching that embraces, from a motivational perspective, the diversity and complexity of today's adult learner.

The framework focuses on four intersecting motivational conditions that are essential for enhancing adults' motivation to learn. They are: 1. Establishing inclusion: creating a learning atmosphere in which learners and teachers feel respected and connected to one another; 2. Developing attitude: creating a favorable disposition toward the learning experience through personal relevance and choice; 3. Enhancing Meaning: creating challenging, thoughtful learning experiences that include learners' perspectives and values; and 4. Engendering competence: Creating an understanding that learners are effective in learning something they value.

Technology and new culture of learning

The Internet specifically and technology generally has had a profound impact upon traditional models of teaching and learning. So far however, the exact nature of that impact and how we can continue to improve has relied more on anecdote than evidence.

One reality of the internet and e-commerce is that it changes most aspects of life and almost everything we do, including the way people learn. Rapidly disappearing is the traditional model of the lecturer at the front of the room imparting knowledge by way of talking to students who passively take notes. Today, information is readily available to all and elderly students expect to participate actively in their own learning. Rather than being the "sage on the stage," the lecturer to the elderly is more of a facilitator and coach – the "guide on the side."

Private sector

In many countries the expansion of education, including to the elderly, is being led by the private sector. In China, for example, the online education market, aided by China's excellent IT infrastructure is growing rapidly. However, there remains a shortage of business models that enable this to be done on a sustainable basis and profitability for most companies has so far been limited.

Non-profit groups

In addition to governments and the private sector, there is a significant role to be played as well by various organizations such as the well-known and successful University of the Third Age which promote learning of all types for seniors, especially peer-to-peer learning. One of the largest and most active of these organizations is in fact in China.


So, as we stress the importance of education for an Information Age, let us not forget about our elderly, for they are a great resource for bridging our past, understanding our present and ensuring a better future for generations to come.

Eugene Clark is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of


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