Lifelong learning is not a choice but a certainty


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tot kwaliteitsvol onderwijs en bevorder levenslang leren voor iedereen

From the first beat of the heart until the last, our brain is continuously processing information. Our brain is always on, even when our body is in the mystical pause called sleep. The interaction between the information from the outside world and the processes in our brains shape and reshape our thoughts and actions. From birth until death, we learn. Lifelong learning is not a choice but a certainty.

Education should help us to learn the right things, to make the best of our presence on this planet. The goal of education should be to share valuable knowledge and skills throughout the local and global community. This shared knowledge and these shared skills should have meaning, or else, education is by definition meaningless.

In a classroom with students and a teacher, everyone is learning, the student and the teacher. When at a birthday party a 70-year old grandmother and her 5-year old grandson are playing and chatting, both learn. Both are teachers, in the eyes of the other. Education is more than school, university, books, and homework. It is a complex infrastructure of information where valuable knowledge and skills are transferred. In this complex infrastructure the practice is just as relevant as the theory, and friends are just as important as the teacher.

From the perspective sketched above I will share my views on Sustainable Development Goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” For the Netherlands this means that a high quality educational infrastructure should be accessible for everyone. The UN has included ten targets to concretise the goal. For reasons of space I cannot mention all these targets, and for this column the main focus is on how we can create a quality educational infrastructure in the Netherlands. I will skip the targets about gender equality in education, access to primary and secondary education, literacy, and numeracy. Not because those topics are not important or are perfectly addressed in the Netherlands, but because I believe that we are already on the right track.

My vision is that together we should stimulate each other’s lifelong learning. Curiosity drives this learning, discipline makes it a reality, and through this learning skills are continuously improved and shared. We live in the era of information, where having knowledge is important, but having the skill to find the right knowledge at the right time is even more important. The golden skills we all need are to ‘learn to teach’ and to ‘teach to learn’. In this way we can stimulate each other to climb the mountain of sustainable development.

I divide lifelong learning in two levels: the first at school and the second after school. Much has been said about regular education at school, university, and educational institutions. In my opinion it is quite simple. It is all about interaction between professional teachers and motivated students. Teachers manage large groups, differentiate, motivate, connect, correct, and teach at the same time. Teaching is an expertise, a profession with many trade-offs, and many criticizers. Good teaching skills include selective listening, through which useful feedback is taken on board, and nonsense is countered or ignored. Autonomy is essential, for the teacher and also for the student. The level of autonomy should be based on the level of professionality. It is clear that for a young child autonomy and professionality are at a whole other level than for a university student. The advice is to continuously find a new balance between autonomy and supervision, based on the professionality showed by the individual and the group. Dynamic policy can be helpful, as it distinguishes between frontrunners who deserve more autonomy and the ones lagging behind who need more supervision. It should be clear that discrimination based on race, gender, or belief is wrong, but discrimination between good and bad practices is essential for development. Diversity gives us many teaching skills. To go forward we should spread the best and get rid of the worst.

A challenge for the current Dutch educational system is that many teachers often become quite isolated, mainly due to time, structure, and culture. Regular quality interaction with colleagues, students, parents, and other relevant networks to share failures and successes are essential for teacher learning. In our continuously developing society the teaching professional should be free to go with a trend or to intentionally stick to business as usual. With the bigger picture in mind the teacher should choose which dose of knowledge and skills are to be shared with the students. Topics such as global citizenship and sustainability will, as a result, become better integrated throughout the curriculum.

The second level, education after school, is a bit more complex. As mentioned before, the human brain is always on and lifelong learning is a certainty. People create their view of the world by sharing their thoughts with the people they are connected to. In this era of information, we are fed with a lot of free information. This free information is very often at the cost of good journalism and proper information. The jungle of information is filtered by our interests, skills, social networks, and (social) media algorithms. This filtering is creating information clusters, where people learn different or even opposite ‘truths’. This information gap can create severe misunderstanding and even dissimilation between societal groups. Examples are the Republicans and Democrats in the US, but also the left and right wing in the Netherlands.

A solution for the second problem is the creation of a high quality and trusted information network that individuals would actually use. Universities and (former) journalists could play a fundamental role in forming such a network. In the past, people went to church to get socially informed. In the present, people should have the opportunity to become member of the university (= not student). As a member they could go to lectures, talks and discussions about all the questions we face. It could be the place where we give meaning to the daily news, our existence, and our common future.

In conclusion, in order to reach Sustainable Development Goal 4, we should create a higher quality and inclusive information infrastructure. In schools we should give teachers more autonomy and time. This is needed to improve the exchange of knowledge, skills, successes, and failures of teachers with the relevant network. Dynamic policy where good teaching skills are shared and bad skills are removed could support development. For the time after school a new high quality, inclusive, and trusted information sharing infrastructure has to be created. Universities and journalists could come together to create the core of this infrastructure. Citizens could become members of the university to reflect on daily life. Trusted experts can guide us all through the growing jungle of information.

Last but not least, if we teach the past…

… why don’t we teach about our desired future?

Mart Lubben

Mart Lubben

Bioloog (specialisatie duurzame ontwikkelingen)
Masterstudent Industrial ecology (Leiden University & TU Delft)
Docent biologie
Woordvoerder Groene Generatie NL