Lifelong learning – Teaching students how to learn

Given the ever-changing technological innovations and changing needs of the workplace, one may wonder what kind of competencies will be required in the workplace a hundred years from now. How do universities in Africa prepare learners for future work?

While universities may reform their curricula to remain relevant, curricular reforms may be necessary but not sufficient to address the notion of relevance. The concept of lifelong learning holds the key to the question of preparing learners not only to acquire the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes, but to remain curious and lifetime learners.

It is a truism that even the best universities in the world cannot accurately predict the skills that will be needed in the workplace 10 years from now, let alone 100 years, hence the importance of teaching university students how to learn, something also referred to as metacognition.

Meaning of lifelong learning

Lifelong learning refers to holistic learning for life and work. It comprises a number of pillars of learning including: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, learning to be, learning to earn, and learning how to learn.

Learning how to learn is what universities in Africa need to teach, for this will ensure that when learners are confronted with unique and complex problems, they have the capability to learn, unlearn and re-learn how to address complex problems, as pointed out by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock.

To remain relevant, African universities need to promote lifelong learning that takes place in formal university settings, as well as informal and non-formal learning settings. Thus, learning is a necessity for everyone and should occur throughout life. This is important for enriching personal lives, fostering economic growth, maintaining social cohesion, and environmental sustainability. Hence, the critical role of universities in promoting learning for a lifetime.

The aim of lifelong learning is to equip the learner with the necessary foundation and motivation to continue learning throughout life – from the cradle to the grave. In fact, leading universities in the world including Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Cape Town, and my own university, Texas A&M, are committed to promoting and sustaining learning for a lifetime among their graduates.

Lifelong learning in Africa, like any other region of the world, needs to be examined from multiple dimensions and contexts, including horizontally – in the home, local community, economic environment and the mass media – and vertically – between different levels of learning such as preschool, kindergarten, elementary, secondary, tertiary, workplace, and college levels.

Lifelong learning is a concept that links the most fundamental aspects of learning to specific life contexts. It is founded on the notion that people learn in different ways. Universities are endowed with the human, technological and financial resources necessary to promote and sustain lifelong learning.

Shirley Walters, a leading adult learning and lifelong learning scholar in Africa, noted that lifelong learning is a multi-dimensional concept that can be used to organise all education and training throughout life to nurture individuals’ and societies’ core skills and competencies. It includes learning behaviours, gaining of knowledge, understanding of attitudes and values required for personal growth, spiritual, social and economic well-being, democratic citizenship, cultural identity and employability.

Thus, the only way that universities can remain relevant is by offering a holistic education for life and work. However, we still need to ask the critical question: what is the meaning of education and its relevance now and a hundred years from now?

Meaning of education

To appreciate the meaning of and significance of lifelong learning in the 21st century and beyond, we must address the deeper meaning of education. From a philosophical perspective, Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire noted that education is the inter-subjective process of becoming critically aware of one’s reality in a way that leads to effective action upon it.

Two renowned Kenyan university professors and philosophers of education, Raphael Njoroge and Gerard Bennaars, correctly noted that education plays a liberating role and creates an individual awareness. University education in this case does not only have a liberating task but also a socialising one, involving the transmission of knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes.

Njoroge and Bennaars further pointed out that education is a complex and multidimensional concept and an inter-subjective process of learning which aims to make learners self-reliant in society. Education personalises the learner and has the concept of an individual as self.

Therefore, we need to view university students as unique beings and individuals having a single, concrete existence. And as conscious beings capable of thought, they possess both intellectual and rational consciousness that involves reflection and action – praxis. As students, they are always in the process of becoming through lifelong learning.

Education is also a form of enablement. University students as self-reliant conscious human beings learn through formal, informal and non-formal settings and they are able to develop fully and become productive members of society. When these transformations occur, we can authoritatively state that universities are relevant to society.

The need for education as defined here and when applied to lifelong learning, cannot be reduced to a single imperative, such as an economic imperative or social imperative because it fails to address the normative, creative and dialogical dimensions of education.

Relevance of continuous learning

Lifelong learning and its relevance to the contemporary African society should be examined from a holistic perspective to include social, economic, political, environmental, and human capital outcomes of learning.

Lifelong learning in contemporary African society is being seen increasingly as a necessary economic imperative for university graduates to be able to compete in an increasingly globalised world, driven by technology and knowledge economies.

Empirical evidence shows that lifelong learning, learning communities and learning cities have transformative power and have the potential to be powerful determinants of sustainable development.

As people in Africa take advantage of the learning opportunities facilitated by universities, they are likely to better cope with changes occurring in society and in the workplace, and make use of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes gained through continued learning. The economic imperative of lifelong learning, for instance, is in line with the learning to know, learning to do and learning to earn, and makes universities relevant to society.

Lifelong learning also has social imperatives. It increases citizen participation and promotes socio-economic transition and democratisation. In the African context, lifelong learning is also a driver of political stability and social inclusion. It is a powerful way to promote democracy and protect against political instability.

Overall, lifelong learning can be seen as having the transformative potential to promote actively engaged citizens capable of questioning decisions taken by their leaders and solving problems at family, community, regional, national and international levels.

Fredrick Muyia Nafukho is professor of educational administration and human resource development and associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Education and Human Development, Texas A&M University, United States. He can be reached at