Lifelong learning – Teaching adults
Ing. Richard Selby MIET, MIEEE
Faculty of Economics and Management
Czech University of Life Sciences, Prague
This paper reviews the way in which people learn through life, and focuses on the needs of adult
learners. Comparisons are drawn between the different methods of educating and training adults,
including the advantages and disadvantages of various forms of distance learning.
Distance learning; Facilitators; Hofstede; In house training; Learning cycle; Maslow; Outsourced training;
Screenagers; University education; Virtual classroom; Vocational training colleges;
Throughout life, whether they are aware of it or not, people are continuously learning. Their motives for
learning alter as they grow older, and the techniques by which they acquire this new information also
change. Concentrating on Europe in particular, this paper will briefly review learning through the various
stages in human life, and will focus particularly on adult learners – why, and how they learn.
2. Learning throughout life
In the various stages of human life, people have different motives for learning. This is illustrated by
Maslow’s “Hierarchy of needs”, in which he postulated that an individual has a series of basic needs, and
that once the basic need is satisfied a person will then progress to the next higher need.
Fig 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs (illustration from Wikipedia)
Whilst recognizing that the majority of people never reach the level of “self actualization” (Maslow
estimated only 2% achieve it), there is a tendency to progress upwards through the hierarchy as one
becomes older, whilst never ignoring the needs of the levels below. Thus, for a baby, the needs are
largely “Physiological”, progressing upwards to reach “Esteem” by the time the teenage years are
An understanding of this is crucial, in order to understand why people learn. Breathing, eating, drinking
etc are instinctive or unconscious, but to progress to the need of safety (and beyond) requires some
learning. At this point the learning is unconscious, however, the higher in the hierarchy one reaches, so
the learning is more conscious. Thus, if the level of the hierarchy is also a function of age, so conscious
learning develops as one grows older. Although people never stop learning unconsciously, from
childhood and throughout life, a greater proportion of one’s learning becomes a conscious decision on
the part of the individual. A person either decides to learn something for himself, or is told or encouraged
to do so. Conscious learning may be either voluntary or compulsory.
2.1 Voluntary learning
This term implies a level of choice on the part of the individual. If a person decides to learn something for
himself, it is voluntary. It starts from early childhood, and continues into old age. A child may learn to play
the piano, for example. There is no compulsion about this – the child does it because it wants to, and
even at an early age is beginning to reach Maslow’s level of “Esteem”. As one grows into teenage years
and beyond, this need for esteem remains a constant goal, with examples of voluntary learning including
driving a car, learning an additional foreign language, learning to paint or gardening – all for the
individuals’ own satisfaction and enjoyment.
2.2 Compulsory learning
This term would be used when one has to learn something. Some organization or somebody has
decided or ordered that an individual must acquire certain learning. This begins in early childhood where
a child is taught how to behave, and continues during the school years, as the government have decided
to give all children the opportunity of a basic education, to ensure that a child can at least read, write and
perform elementary mathematical procedures. During adult life, this compulsory learning will often be
decided upon by a persons’ employer for commercial reasons, but may also be influenced by the
government who may wish to teach people how to behave, for example obey laws, follow new processes
or deal with the introduction of a new currency unit – such as the Euro. Compulsory learning has
spawned phrases such as “being sent to school” or “being sent on a course”. There is, however, a
crossover which occurs at a certain stage, where, for instance, a young person at University may choose
whether to stay on for another year, or leave and seek employment.
3. The changing process of learning throughout life
The learning process has been well documented. I have adapted classic Kolb’s learning cycle diagram
(Fig 2) from 1974 to indicate that the process is not just a “one-off” event, but carries on throughout life.
Kolb thought of it continuing as a spiral throughout life.
Fig 2: Concept of the learning cycle as a part of life-long learning
Throughout life the theory does not change, though the motivation and method of learning does. Thus,
how a child learns is not the same as how an adult learns. The differences can be seen if one considers
learning a language. A child will learn to speak the language of its parents without any formal instruction,
so by the time the child goes to school, it will already know how to talk. In the same way, a young child
will absorb any other language at the same time and acquire a second language just by “being there
Adapted from Kolb by the author
when it is spoken”. An adult who tries to learn the same second language will invariably tend do it
analytically, by considering the construction of the language: the tenses, cases and other parts of
Prof Geert Hofstede describes this , as being the difference between the learning of “Values” and
“Practices”. He postulates that the learning of values is quickly, and largely unconsciously, achieved by
being absorbed from the child’s environment, and that after puberty this changes to a different, conscious
way of learning.
It is by considering how people and their attitudes differ throughout life that an appropriate technique can
be chosen to facilitate the learning.
4. The provider of learning
Focusing on adult learners, there are limited options available – the learning can be facilitated in the
Public Sector, or in the Private Sector.
4.1 The public sector
The public sector in Europe is filled with schools, universities, colleges, academies and other institutions
providing education. By their very nature, schools focus on children, whilst universities and colleges
mainly on young adults (teenagers to late 20’s). In most European countries, colleges tend to be more
biased to providing vocational training , whereas universities focus more on providing academic
education. The teaching methodology has evolved in each country in its own way, and suits the
environment it is in – though is sometimes conservative in its consideration of change, and reluctant to
take on new ideas or methodologies. In institutions where students follow their careers to become
teachers and eventually professors, there is a danger that Universities and Colleges may become
isolated from the rest of society, so it is vital that these institutions encourage, develop and maintain links
with governments, businesses and communities in their region.
Universities provide an excellent foundation for many young people starting out on life’s journey, but are
not necessarily so well equipped to deliver education to adult learners. Universities tend to organise
themselves around semesters and teaching periods, whereas an adult learner is more likely to require
block teaching, at a time convenient to the purchaser of the programme. Universities have excellent
facilities, and are well placed to host conferences – which can help to build links with their surrounding
business environment – yet often it is the hotels and purpose-built conference centres which host the
more successful conferences.
4.2 The private sector
4.2.1 In-house training
Probably the most appropriate way of teaching new employees is through “in-house training”
programmes. If the company is large enough, there will be a training department, otherwise there will be
at least someone who is responsible for training, and for companies who operate an ISO9000 (or
equivalent) system, it is mandatory to implement a programme of continuously training their employees.
In its basic form, the in-house training might range from an initial briefing or familiarisation session for
new employees, to “on the job training” (OJT), where a new employee will work next to an existing
employee and learn the job by watching and helping, and beyond, to sending people on “attachments” to
other departments or branches – perhaps even abroad.
Some larger organisations might have their own in-house training college, which can be a convenient –
though costly – solution, providing exactly the right training required by the company, and at the right
time. The inherent danger of the in-house training college is, however, the possibility of becoming
incestuous - so focussed on the company that they do not realise that there might be new, or alternative
Hofstede, Geert H and Hofstede, Gert Jan, Cultures and organizations: software of the mind, pub. McGraw Hill 2005, ISBN: 0-07-
The word “College” is used here in its UK English sense, meaning “any place for specialised education after the age of 16 where
people study or train to get knowledge and/or skills” (Cambridge dictionary on-line)
solutions to the task in hand. “We’ve always done it this way” might be the answer to a challenge, without
seriously considering the possible advantages of changing a method.
In-house training is also considered to be less expensive than other options. For basic and on-the-job
training this may often be the case, however as a certificate has to be awarded to a successful
participant on some occasions, the cost of accreditation can be significant. In cases where the business
runs a private training college, the costs become more significant. The overheads of running the college
(building costs, salaries, administration, utilities etc) as well as the incidental expenses of travel and
accommodation for the participants need to be recovered in some way, and the complete value of such
an enterprise needs to be considered carefully.
4.2.2 Outsourced training
Outsourced training can provide a viable alternative for many companies. Currently most companies see
this as hiring a consultant or trainer/s to deliver the required course, although there are alternatives such
as distance learning (CD/VCD, video, books or internet) which can enable the participant to learn at
his/her own pace.
An external consultant or trainer can provide a fresh view of training for an organisation, and can
normally be flexible regarding timing of the training and venue. The method of training can range from a
one-to-one intensive programme for (for example) a new director, to a more formally organised course.
Often, the trainer will act as a facilitator – setting the scene so that the participators can discover things
for themselves in a “workshop” environment. Consultants or trainers are often familiar with the industry,
and are sometimes accredited to deliver awards to successful participants (eg: Microsoft accredited
The cost of outsourced training can appear high, when considered purely on a rate/hour basis, but when
compared to the actual cost of maintaining an in-house training college, plus the benefits of a fresh view
of the company from an “outsider”, the outcome can be rewarding.
5. Teaching and training techniques
I have personally delivered training and education to people from many different cultures and in many
different countries, and have been surprised by the different responses from people from different
countries. I have learned, by experience, that you need to tell (teach) something to people in some
countries, whereas in other countries you must facilitate the environment so that they learn for
themselves. I have learned that in some countries the student prefers to work in a group, whereas in
other countries they prefer to work alone.
This is explained by Hofstede, who writes that a child learns its basic values unconsciously, absorbing
attitudes from its surroundings. Thus, children brought up in different surroundings acquire different
values – for example, different perceptions of the role of a woman, of good and bad, and of what it
considers normal and abnormal. These attitudes become ingrained, and are unlikely to change in later
Thus, the way a person prefers to receive education differs according to its basic values. If the method of
learning is made a natural and pleasurable process, the learning is more likely to be received,
understood and retained. It is therefore important to discover the culture of a group of people before
delivering training to them.
In recent years it has become apparent that younger people wish to learn in different ways – including at
different times of day. Young people are generally more familiar with the fast-changing world of
technology than their parents. They understand its capabilities, and apply them in ways their parents
never imagined. If they have a problem (with coursework, perhaps), they will more naturally phone, SMS
or send an internet message to a classmate, rather than read a book – whatever the time of day. They
will find out the answer themselves, working in a virtual group. This generation is becoming known as the
“Screenagers”. This should encourage the whole training community to develop alternative teaching
methods and design (and accredit) more flexible programmes, in order to satisfy the needs of this
6. Selection of appropriate teaching and training method
The need for training one’s employees may become apparent from an analysis of the internal and
external environment in which a company operates. The environment, in which modern business
operates, changes in some cases by the minute, thus it is essential that a constant watch is kept on both
the internal and external environments, to avoid being left behind. Weaknesses observed internally may
be nullified by training, and opportunities may be grasped in the same way. The training needs (training
requirements) must be clearly identified, and compared to the benefits anticipated, before deciding to
There are many business considerations influencing the most appropriate method of teaching and/or
training. Businesses exist primarily to make profits for its owners, therefore the cost of training is of
significant importance. Apart from the actual cost of the training, there are other considerations which
add to the cost, including:
The employee will be away from “normal” work whilst attending training, so a replacement may
have to be nominated.
The employee may have to travel to attend the training course – thus travel costs,
accommodation, and subsistence payments will be incurred.
Possible additional telephone and internet costs
From the company’s point of view, the decision is usually a commercial one – to impart specific
information to a specific person as quickly and effectively as possible, whilst making the best use of the
training budget. The employee’s point of view might be different, in that (s)he will often want to develop
themselves as much as possible, and be more inclined to request a longer course, and at a different
6.1.1 Long programmes
A company committed to long-term staff development may be prepared to sponsor an employee on a
part-time programme at a university – possibly a PhD, LLM or other postgraduate degree. This can be
very costly in financial terms, however there are particular benefits. An employee will generally be
pleased to attend such a programme, seeing it as a way to develop themselves personally and obtain a
further formal qualification, or as being a “reward” for exemplary service. A company will normally
perceive it to be a way of building a more qualified workforce, and of ensuring the loyalty of the
6.1.2 Short courses
Short courses are ideal for companies operating on limited training budgets, where the requirement often
is to provide the maximum training to as many people as possible. To satisfy this, companies usually turn
to the private sector to provide customised training. This can be delivered on, or near to, the company’s
premises to reduce the costs of travel and of paying for a training venue, but from the lecturer or trainers
point of view, this is not always such a good idea, as participants can be easily interrupted and drawn
from their training to attend to some pressing emergency. Frequently, however, it is cost which prevails,
and the option of training off-site is often not considered.
6.1.3 Distance learning
Distance learning has changed tremendously in recent years. In the past it was confined to studying from
a book, or from a pack of specially designed course notes together with a number of questions for the
student to answer. These were returned by post to a nominated, suitably qualified person for marking
and comments. In this way a student can work his way towards an examination leading to a qualification.
This method had benefits for the student (employee) and the purchaser of training (employer), in that the
student would be able to stay at work, and follow the course in his own time. A “carrot and stick”
philosophy was sometimes used, with the employer offering a reward in return for successfully
completing a course of studies, otherwise demanding repayment of the course fees.
Modern technology has changed this. Providing suitable equipment is available, a student can study –
and have an exam marked - just with the aid of a computer and cd. This methodology is the next
evolutionary step from the method of sending a course pack through the post. Although this might not
seem very different, a well designed course can be put onto a cd, random questions asked, and the
student will receive feedback and remarks in real time. This suits people who are learning with the aid of
a computer, but who do not have access to a good, cheap internet connection.
Excellent internet access presents a new dimension. There are a number examples of virtual classrooms
where simulations include the participant having a virtual seat in a virtual room, being able to “raise a
hand” to ask a question, as well as being able to chat to the neighbours without interrupting the lecture.
In some cases these systems are being used for the simple reason that it is possible. Normal lecturing
has to be considerably adapted for this environment, and I have received comments from one operator
that the course actually takes longer to teach. There are, however, some systems which are presenting
encouraging results. The missing element is eye-contact, which is so important to being able to deliver
an effective presentation, and along with that, body language. Technology does exist to enable a
presenter to be viewed in real time, but with the disadvantages of poor quality video, and no possibility
for the lecturer to see the participant. At the time of writing (March 2007) much work still has to be done.
Lectures presented internationally raise problems with timing. A lecture delivered in the USA during the
morning is available in Europe towards the end of the afternoon, and participation from Europe is
therefore low. Some presenters’ organisations archive their lectures, but without the possibility of a
question and answer session. Some presenters display their email address, or give access to a blog, and
with this information it is sometimes possible to raise a question.
People are constantly learning throughout life. Teaching or training may be a part of a long-term
development programme, or by way of short courses to meet a specific need. The methods of teaching
change over time to match their changing attitudes and needs. What was appropriate 40 years ago, may
not be appropriate today. Much work is currently being done with distance learning, however there will
continue to be a place for face-to-face training and workshops, designed to enable people to learn
together, and to share experiences.
Richard Selby I.Eng, MIET, MIEEE
Faculty of Economics and Management
Czech University of Life Sciences
165 21 Prague 6
+420 224 382 261
Maltacom training college