The powerful elements of lifelong learning

Maurice de Greef

Learning enviromentIn most European countries the financial crisis still seems to be a problem for low skilled and illiterate citizens. Most of these citizens are more often confronted with unemployment and have difficulties in finding a job or good place in society (explained as a process of social inclusion). According to research of De Greef, Segers & Verté (2012) courses for lifelong learning can be a lever for a better place in society. Question is which important elements during the lifelong learning process should be included in order to make a learning environment for adults successful.

5 elements for adult learning

According to Pratt (1999) the learning context can be described as an environment in which 5 elements are important, to mention:




Supervisor or teacher


The learning environment can be seen as an environment, in which these five elements have an important role and can differ per learning context. According to the goals of the specific adult learning process each element can be less or more important. Sometimes a teacher has to transfer knowledge and then contents seems to be much more important, but on the other hand especially low skilled learners need a safe environment and then a “trustful” relationship between teacher and learners seems to be much more important than the knowledge itself. These days adult learning seems to be also much more important in order to find a (new) proper job. Therefore the perspective of HRD (Human Resource Development) seems interesting. This perspective argues the importance of transfer and transfer possibilities (Baldwin and Ford, 1988). More concrete a learner should have the possibility to use the learned knowledge, skills and attitude in interaction with the direct surrounding. Based on these insights one can refine the important elements of powerful learning into: learning contents and -activities (1), the direct surroundings (2), the learners (3), the teacher support (4) an- the transfer possibilities (5).

Flexible learning contents and -activities for different adult learners

It seems to be clear that contents and activities in learning processes should “suit” the learners. But still it is not possible to develop standardised learning materials for adult learners. Ofcourse for most teachers it would be wonderful if one has a “standardised package of exercises”, which can be used by each adult learner, but then the result of the learning process will probably not be as good enough as one hoped to be. Raemdonck (2006) argues the importance of self-directedness in learning. Especially adults seem to need the opportunity to direct their own learning processes in order to make it suitable for their situation and position. For example the educational question of a 46 years old male, who is unemployed, differs a lot from a 24 years old woman, who has to raise two little children. But in some cases these learners can be part of the same group. Then differentiation in learning contents and -activities is necessary. One should arrange an interesting learning process for each of the adult learners in the same group.

The use of transfer possibilities in interaction with the direct surroundings

According to De Greef, Segers & Verté (2012) the transfer possibilities are one of the most powerful influentials on the learning results for adult learners. According to their research transfer possibilities seems to be positively related to the increase of social inclusion of adult learners (De Greef, Segers & Verté, 2012). Therefore one can argue that transfer possibilities is an inevitable element of the learning environment for adults. For example if a foreigner has to learn a second language, he or she has to have the possibility to use that specific language in different situations in order to experience the surplus value of using that language. More concrete one can read subtitles of movies, can ask his or her way in a bigger city, or can read the timetable of the bus. In order to increase transfer possibilities the interaction with the direct surroundings is very important. More concrete relatives or friends can be helpful in the stimulation of using the new learned knowledge, skills and attitude and can offer “emotional support” if someone is scared to make failures in daily practice.

The strength of teacher support

According to Pratt (1999) a teacher has to be a kind of “chameleon”, due to the fact that his or her role differs per situation and per learner. More concrete first of all one expects him or her to be a kind of an expert. So he or she should transfer the knowledge to the learners. But on the other hand the relationship seems to be very important especially with learners who are more afraid of making mistakes. Therefore a teacher has to be a kind of “friend” and have to point out that one is allowed to make mistakes. Thirdly he or she has to stimulate the development of knowledge or skills by the learners themselves. More concrete the teacher has to ensure that a learner creates his or her own knowledge and skills, which are usable in daily practice. This daily practice seems to be very important in order to use the learned knowledge, skills and attitude. Therefore a teacher should connect to the daily practice of the learners. Finally the teacher has to empower most of his or her adult learners in order to increase their social inclusion and to ensure that learning contributes to a better life. For each individual learner the learning accent differs, some learners needs to have more knowledge, seems to need to have a “friend” or some have to increase their capacities of creating their own knowledge and skills, but on the other hand learners need to use learned knowledge, skills an attitude in daily practice or need to be empowered. It is the teacher who can be an important “chameleon” in order to stimulate the needed learning process by each of these learners.

Learning environment for adults: an interactive space

Of course the aforementioned five elements are inevitable elements for the learning environment, but still adult learning is situational learning. These elements are no static elements, which remains to be the same in each different learning environment. They differ per learner, teacher of learning process. The interactive process between these elements seems to be the key to success. If one is capable of using all these elements in the right time and place adult learning seems to be successful and can be the needed lever for a better place in society for low skilled and illiterate learners.


Baldwin, T. T. & Ford, K. J. (1988). Transfer of training: A review and directions for future research. Personnel Psychology, 1988 (41), 43.

De Greef, M., Segers, M. & Verté, D. (2012). Understanding the effects of training programs for vulnerable adults on social inclusion as part of continuing education. Studies in Continuing Education. DOI: 10.1080/0158037X.2012.664126.

Pratt, D. D. (1998). Five perspectives on teaching in adult and higher education. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company.

Raemdonck, I. (2006). Self-directedness in learning and career processes: A study in lower-qualified employees in Flanders. Gent: Universiteit van Gent.


European InfoNet Adult Education, 29.08.2014