I am often asked about my Ph.D. “What is it in?” My first answer is always, “education,” and from there the conversation meanders, depending on the inquirer’s frame of reference.
More often than not, however, I find myself explaining that my so-called expertise is in lifelong education, in intentional learning across the informal experiences of our lives, rather than in the more traditional contexts of formal schooling. This usually makes sense to friends and colleagues familiar with religious education and faith formation. Together we recognize the potential for transformational learning in everyday life, in our households, our worship communities, and through purposeful engagement in the world.
For at least two decades educators have successfully embraced the important concept of “lifelong learning,” recognizing that learning is not confined to childhood or the classroom but takes place throughout life, in all its developmental stages, and in formal and informal settings. Lifelong learning not only describes the progressive acquisition of knowledge or development of skills over time, but also captures the truth that individuals are in the process of becoming throughout their lives. This more holistic and comprehensive understanding contributes to an appreciation of human development as a journey.
As educators our challenge is to teach in such a way that there is continuity between the present “lesson” and the learner’s past experience, such that what is learned in the moment builds momentum toward a future of integrated lifelong identity and purpose. When we lose sight of the horizon of development, even the most well-intentioned lesson plan can prove irrelevant or meaningless. As Christian educators, our appreciation of learning throughout the life cycle, from birth to grave, informs what we do to help the baptized develop a lifelong Christian identity as a follower of Christ.
Despite our confident embrace of lifelong learning, it remains challenging to convince faithful guardians of the academy, and advocates of standards-based education policies, that wisdom from the messy margins of interdisciplinary and informal learning is essential. In a metric-centered environment, informal learning is too often considered soft and optional, rather than valued as adaptive and contextual. We need both to thrive in an ever more connected, complex, challenging, and uncertain world.
This explains my delight when I discovered recent European scholarship (on the concept of lifewide education) that provides a sound theoretical framework to support the urgent need for holistic, integrated approaches to teaching and learning. Lifewide education recognizes that learning occurs simultaneously in multiple and varied places and situations throughout an individual’s life course.
Most people, no matter what their age or circumstances, simultaneously inhabit a variety of spaces and roles. We co-exist in work and education, as employee and friend, as a member of a family or a team, attending church and taking vacations, ultimately being responsible for our own mental, physical and spiritual well-being across multiple settings and diverse relationships.
According to lifewide education theory, individuals exercise internal authority or agency in the life spaces they occupy to create, with others, the meaning that is their lives. According to Barnett (2005), at the heart of lifewide learning is the deep moral purpose of fostering learners’ will or the spirit to be and to become. As a result, the trajectory of lifelong learning and the spaces of lifewide learning intersect, ultimately shaping individuals in their particular cultural contexts.
If we focus only on a lifelong approach to education, what we learn can become outdated or unhelpful. We need ways to test, prune, adapt, and contextualize what we know. Attending to lifewide experiences equips the learner to notice the choices that can be made in response to everyday challenges and opportunities, and to make decisions to participate in the process of meaning-making.
Metaphorically speaking, lifelong learning is like a long open road. Far off in the distance you can see the horizon, the road leading toward mountains and sky, representing the realization of a life focused ultimately on fulfillment and flourishing. But the road is long and symbolizes the gradual, contingent process of one’s identity development. To sustain a commitment to lifelong learning, teachers and learners fix their eyes on the horizon to follow a forward-moving developmental path.
But look at either side of the road. What do you see? What do you wonder? What could you see, if only you took the time? What is growing? What is dying? What has left the road and made a life in place? Who is with you? What is missing all together?
These questions come from naming and nurturing the peripheral vision of the person on the path toward lifelong identity development. And these questions are the lifewide questions. Lifelong learning calls teacher and learner to look ahead; lifewide pedagogy calls teacher and learner to look around.
In religious terms, think of the goals of lifelong learning as eschatology; that is, seeing and seeking the goals of fulfilling our baptismal covenant until we meet the God of our longing in resurrection and the reign of God. Then think of the goals of lifewide learning as incarnation; to bring our whole selves (made in the image of God) and the many contexts in which we live and move and have our being into the learning process and into the formation process of our Christian identity.
Lifelong learning gives us direction; lifewide learning provides our location. Lifewide learning embraces the unique context of the learner, breaks down walls between formal and informal learning, and ushers the whole person with her peripheral realities to move along the path toward development. The wise teacher and mentor optimizes learning at the lifewide/lifelong intersection by issuing an invitation to come and see, to learn and grow, to dare and fail, to hope and heal.
The journey to follow Christ is the greatest invitation of all time. It is both a lifelong journey and a lifewide experience of the presence of God in every dimension of our being at any moment. It is this invitation to ‘taste and see’ that pulls and powers us to take the steps from baptism toward resurrection.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2014, Vol. 26, No. 3, page 4-5