On learning to learn

Learning to learn is one of eight key competence areas to make the average European fit for the challenges of the much-trumpeted knowledge society and a flexible, innovative citizen worthy of the planet’s most dynamic, competitive and sustainable economy. How good to know!

Yet, allow me to whisper in this tiny little corner of the world wide web: before embracing our new, shiny, buzzy concept it might be wortwhile to consider—at least—three fundamental dilemmas.


The first dilemma gravitates around conceptual confusion.

There is, quite simply, no agreement on the meaning of learning to learn. The Union attempts to elegantly ignore that little glitch by descri­bing learning to learn as “the ability to organise, pursue and persist in one’s own learning.”{{01}}

But no matter how much policy-makers would like to (make us) believe that there is a universal understanding of learning to learn – there simply isn’t. Definitions and descriptions differ funda­mentally and significantly across research, policy and practice and include

  • the ability and willingness to adapt to novel tasks{{02}}
  • a complex mix of knowledge, skills, values, attitudes and dispositions{{03}}
  • a collection of good learning practices{{04}}
  • a developmental, fluid and multidimensional lifelong process{{05}}
  • a mixture of acquiring competences and developing qualities{{06}}

How these different approaches relate to or complement each other, remains confused and confus­ing. (And, unfortunately, it doesn’t help much that not even two scientists—or practitioners, for that matter—could agree on what the underlying notion of learning should really mean or be.)


The second dilemma gravitates around political confusion.

Our generation is possibly the first—and definitely not the last—to experience the limits of the antiquated learn first-work later logic that has now been officially stamped as obsolete by the EU.

On a silver platter

Learning – the solution for everything?

On a silver platter, we have been presented with the solution to our problems: “Learn more and longer and better, yes: learn lifelong and lifewide,” the Union roars, “and you will surely be well prepared for the fast-changing world and the insecurities of the future, including the high risk of unemployment{{07}}!”

It is sadly typical for our times of individualisation—and trust me, this is far less cynical than it seems at first sight—that the European Union believes it can get away with attempting to pomp­ously drop the responsibility for lifelong learning in the lap of each and every individual citizen.

Thanks, but no thanks. We may agree that formal education no longer fulfils its prescribed function of providing knowledge sufficient to last a life-time, but nobody has to fully comprehend Zygmunt Bauman’s ideas around liquid modernity and the privatisation of risk and ambivalence{{08}} to under­stand that this responsibility-shift is a dungbomb.


The third dilemma gravitates around philosophical confusion.

Knowledge society is about sharing | Photo by Ben Foertsch

The Knowledge Society is about sharing!
Photo by Ben Foertsch | youthphotos.eu

While literacy and knowledge have both spread immensely in the past centuries, in particular due to the impact of Gutenberg’s seminal invention of the printing press, industrialisation has also led to a narrowing understanding of learning as an instrument to equip (young) people with the knowledge deemed necessary for a successful work life – an idea now widely acknowledged to be failing.

And so, the Union would like to limit knowledge societies to a world in which lifelong learning merely guarantees “more flexibility in the labour force, allowing it to adapt more quickly to constant changes in an increasingly interconnected world.”{{09}} Quite consequently, learning continues to be treated as a functional process, not more than a commodity.

In a knowledge society that understands itself as “a space to co-create, share and use knowledge for the prosperity and well-being of all its people”{{10}}, however, lifelong learning is a deeply collective and mutually rewarding process not merely at the service of gathering yet more knowledge to remain a flexibly adaptive particle of the industrial—or academic—workforce.


So, why is it that a conceptually, politically and philosophically confused, confusing and contested approach as learning to learn has earned itself such noncritical prominence in educational research, practice and politics alike?

Shouldn’t policy-makers who pride themselves in being critical do more than quickly turn away, muttering half-hearted praise about the Union’s educational policies just because everyone else seems to be doing so?

Shouldn’t researchers who claim to engage in dialogue do more than turn a blind eye when politics shamelessly abuses the empty space left void by academics arguing about definitions of learning to learn?

Shoudn’t practitioners who claim to empower (young) people do more than embrace dubious concepts—in the hope that they will find the space to be critical from within—just because there is project funding to be had?

Time to dance | Photo by Pedro Simoes

Time to dance? | Photo by Pedro Simoes

Shouldn’t we all, much rather, be honest and admit that such limited understandings insult much of what we know and believe about learning – our intellect as much as our intuition?

Shouldn’t we all, much rather, laugh at and dance around such shortsighted concepts and—in one happy triangle—empower (young) people to think, to think critically, to question, to discover when their thinking is about to be abused, to think freely and act for change?{{11}}

Time to re-think
learning to learn…
Don’t you think?

[[01]]Education and Culture DG (2007) Key Competences for Lifelong Learning – A European Framework. Luxembourg: European Communities.[[01]]
[[02]]Hautamäki, Jarkko (2002) Assessing learning to learn: a framework. Helsinki: National Board of Education.[[02]]
[[03]]Hoskins, Bryony and Crick, Ruth (2008) Learning to learn and civic competences: different currencies or two sides of the same coin? Ispra: CRELL.[[03]]
[[04]]James, Mary et al (2007) Improving learning how to learn. London: Routledge.[[04]]
[[05]]Candy, Philip (1990) How people learn to learn. In Smith, Robert (ed) Learning to learn across the life span. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.[[05]]
[[06]]Chisholm, Lynne (2006) On defining learning to learn. Ispra: CRELL.[[06]]
[[07]]On October 30, 2009, Eurostat has reported the youth unemployment rate at 20.2% in the European Union, up from 15.8% in September 2008.[[07]]
[[08]]Bauman, Zygmunt (2006) Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity.[[08]]
[[09]]No, I am not making this up – I don’t have to: it’s as surreal as it gets.[[09]]
[[10]]Source: Glossary of Key Terms | Digital Strategy Government New Zealand[[10]]
[[11]]Thought so.[[11]]





4 responses to “On learning to learn”

  1. Andreas Karsten Avatar

    Quite possibly, I should have added a disclaimer and acknowledgement to the article, namely that I am involved in several projects around learning to learn – including the L2L project of UNIQUE.

    All these projects have given me space and time to think critically about learning to learn, and all of them do take the time and reflection necessary to re-think learning to learn. If I ever had an issue with any of these projects, I would voice my criticism within those frameworks first, and not here on this blog.

    My issue is not with any small nonformal L2L project, but much rather with the general approach towards and around L2L by mainstream educational research and practice and politics – schools and universities, programmes and structures, policy papers and frameworks.

    So if you read this and are involved in a small nonformal L2L project – I am pretty certain that you have already given your own answer to the final question of my rant.

  2. Andreas Karsten Avatar

    Stephen Downes makes a relevant distinction between learning being treated too often as remembering, on the one hand, and learning as knowing – where interest and context have to be equally important.

    Which makes for another way of looking at my criticism of the institutional framing of learning to learn: learning is largely treated as stuff to remember – and because whatever we remember in our years of formal schooling will be outdated by the time we retire, we are now invited to make sure ourselves that we remember more and new stuff all life long.

  3. David Berlo Avatar
    David Berlo

    “Most of what we have called formal education has been intended to imprint on the human mind all of the information we might need for a lifetime. Today…education needs to be geared toward the handling of data rather than the accumulation of data.”

    Quote from 1975 by David Barlo, who also invented the S-M-C-R communication model

  4. Quality Study (2008) Avatar

    From Fennes, Helmut and Otten, Hendrik (2008): Quality in non-formal education and training in the field of European youth work. Available online at salto-youth.net

    The European Union defines eight key competences for lifelong learning and provides a general definition of competence in the context of “Education and Training 2010”.


    it is indispensable to study the Commission’s and the Council’s action programme on Lifelong Learning and the relevant papers – including the reasoning for the integration of key competences in this political context.


    Arguments for the promotion of business and economic development, the labour market and employment prevail. The Commission itself set this course by giving reasons for the need of lifelong learning first and foremost in the context of the Lisbon strategy and, most importantly, in the “Education & Training 2010” work programme.

    The shifting of the main focus from present knowledge transfer to transferable competences is intentional; the tendency of placing an economic value on knowledge is proceeding.

    All mentions of key competences and lifelong learning being necessary for social cohesion and active citizenship are deduced from this priority of economic orientation.

    (emphasis added)