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Education is like a steeplechase: learning is like a marathon

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steeple chase

“And they’re ready, they’re under starters orders and their off!  There they go, racing down the straight and oh dear, “Dyslexic Johnny” and “Mum-got-up-late-again” have fallen at the first fence whilst Clever Catherine has cleared the first second and third fence with ease, and as we watch the field is thinning, we come to the hurdle sponsored by the Russell Group, and oh its disaster for “Working-Class-Kid” and “My-Teacher-Was-Sick” who fail the jump.  But now as we go into the home straight its “Clever Catherine” by a nose from “Geeky Girl” and its over “Clever Catherine” who led from the first has won the school learner’s cup!”

With apologies to any racing commentators for my poor analogy, but this is what formal school education has apparently become.  The target-based culture, where so many percent of children have to achieve an imposed level by a certain school year has branded more of them failures making education more like a horse race where children are set to jump hurdles.

The prize for their efforts being sometimes a degree from a good university and a more secure job. The problem is that overall there are many casualties along the way and few winners.  And, blunt as it may seem, racehorses are good for little else except racing and children who learn to pass exams well, often don’t learn how to learn.  There is a growing gap between what and how we teach children and what they need to know for their life in the 21st century.

We need a culture of lifelong learning where adult education and continuing learning are as much part of the culture as Facebook and Twitter.  The problem is Facebook and social media are like performance art, blink and you have missed them, learning has to be for life.  Ghandi, ever the wise man taking the long view was supposed to have written one of the most profound commentaries on how we should we live and learn:

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever”

The statement is both paradoxical and beautiful. Pack as much into a day as if it were to be your last, but take every opportunity to gather learning to you and make a treasure of it.

So what is lifelong learning ?

Lifelong learning is a focus on process as much as what we learn. Returning to the steeplechase analogy at the start of this article, it is about shifting our focus from the winner to the course.  That is, we have to keep watching the race until every runner has come home.  No one turns from the finish line of the Great North Run when the winner crosses the line. People wait for hours and applaud everyone from the elite to the barely moving as they cross the line.  Everyone is a winner and has worked hard to reach the finish, sometimes against impossible odds. One recent Great North Run athlete, Claire Lomas who, paralysed from the chest down, completed the course over 5 days in a specially adapted walking suit.  So should it be in education.

Lifelong learning then is a process where we learn how to learn for ourselves and along the journey gain a love of learning everything and anything which may be useful to us.  To become all we are capable of.  Now for some people that process is largely within school and formal education but for many more it is our experiences later in life which define us.  Mature students, The Workers Education Association; U3A and adult education can all help us become mature self-directed learners and most of all perhaps to challenge anyone who dares to say “I have passed my exams, that is me finished” because learning never does.

But to make lifelong learning a reality it means we have to rethink our system.  Currently it is organised like a competitive race where the object is getting to the end first without heed to anything else.  What we need is a system which challenges learners to develop intellectual stamina and to become explorers.  In such a system teachers move from being instructors to facilitators of learning.  Perhaps as an example of a start we should think about offering opportunities for mature students to study alongside sixth formers what a wonderful cross over that would be – a true song of innocence and experience.

We don’t live in Utopia, so what would the benefits be for society as a whole and to the economy in particular? Well certainly, new young workers would have the skills that employers complain that even the most academic of them lack and if they didn’t have them they could gain them with their learning attitude.  Secondly, adults who had missed out in the education race would have the opportunity to construct and finish their own personal learning journey throughout life.  Lifelong learning isn’t costly it is cheap, after all:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime”


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