Naturally connected: lifelong learning and wellness
by Guy Ewing
How can adult learning support wellness? An important part of being
well is knowing that one has opportunities to continue to learn and
grow throughout life. So a commitment to individual and social wellness
entails a commitment to lifelong learning.
Here in Ontario, adult education programs do not add up to opportunities
for lifelong learning. They were not designed through a policy that
makes education continuously available to adults, to be accessed
as needs and opportunities arise. Instead, they were designed with
their own internal logic, as complete learning programs in their
own right: literacy programs teach you to read and write; English-as-a-second-language
programs teach you English; adult high school programs give you a
high school diploma; community college programs give you a trade.
It has been possible to move from one program to another, but the
transition can be difficult. In recent years, it has become more
difficult as funding cutbacks and accountability measures have created
pressures for programs to concentrate on their higher-level students.
Students who are already at a higher level will be more likely to
succeed, minimizing the investment of time per student and maximizing
results. They are less costly and generate better statistics. Focusing
on these students may seem to make sense from a program perspective,
but creates problems from a system perspective because this focus
makes it difficult for students to move from one program to another.
As each program reduces programming at its bottom end, it raises
its entrance requirements. This is a particular problem for adult
students who start at a beginning level.
The problem of moving from one program to another could be fixed
with better funding and accountability mechanisms, ones that focus
on learners’ needs rather than on the Treasury Board’s
bottom line. Of course, that would only be the beginning of the creation
of lifelong learning opportunities for adults in Ontario. It would
build bridges between programs, improving a system that has been
described as “an archipelago without bridges.” But building
bridges is not enough. The whole notion of adult education as a group
of islands is limiting. Why should adult education be an archipelago
when it can be the mainland?
A system of separate, complete adult education programs reflects
a view of adult education as repair work. In this view, adults get
a chance to learn something that they did not learn as children.
The deficient part is identified, and programming is provided to
fix this deficient part.
A program to fix something has a definite end in mind. Once the
problem is fixed, the program has served its purpose. I call this
an end-point learning approach to adult education.
Lifelong learning, on the other hand, does not have a predetermined
end point. This way of describing adult education assumes that learning
can continue for various lengths of time, to be determined by circumstances
and the adult learner’s objectives and ways of learning. Lifelong
learning means continuous access to learning opportunities that are
responsive to a variety of learning needs.
Lifelong learning is not repair work. It is access to learning opportunities
that can develop in response to the changing needs and objectives
of the adult population. It is learning that does not have to be
arranged into separate programs, but that can exist on a continuum,
From a policy perspective, a government that supports end-point
learning makes one-time investments in individual learners whose
education is considered to need fixing. A government that supports
lifelong learning invests in an environment for adult learning that
provides continuous access. The expected outcome in end-point learning,
the return on the government’s investment, is that particular
individuals will reach particular end-points in their learning. The
expected outcome in lifelong learning is that a broad range of learning
opportunities will continue to be available for those who want them.
End-point learning is attractive to governments who think about
the return on their investment in adult education as a monetary return.
The government can specify end-points that will benefit the economy,
such as making students qualified for skilled jobs, or end-points
that will minimize government expenditures, such as giving people
with disabilities skills to live independently, with less government
support. These are worthy end-points, which benefit people as well
as seeming to provide a better bottom line for government. But, in
this approach, students whose objectives do not match those of government
will have to find ways of adjusting to one of the island programs.
An English-as-a-second-language (ESL) learner who did not receive
much education in his or her first country may have to attend an
adult literacy program meant for native speakers in order to improve
his or her written language. The end point of ESL programs has been
specified as learning English, not upgrading one’s basic education.
Basic education programs for ESL students do not exist because ESL
basic upgrading has not been specified. So the ESL learner swims
to one of the islands and joins a program that is not designed for
his/her specific needs. Similarly, an adult who wants to learn about
health, but who will need help reading any written material used
in the course, must join a continuing education course in a board
of education night school. The student already attends an adult literacy
program, but the adult literacy program is not funded to teach general
interest courses, only to teach basic literacy and numeracy skills.
If these students are lucky, the instructors in the programs they
have joined will be flexible enough to accommodate their special
needs. If they are unlucky, their learning will be blocked. This
has personal, social, and possibly even monetary costs (associated
with trying to accommodate programs to students for whom they were
A lifelong learning approach would allow programs to be established
in response to the changing needs and objectives of the adult population.
If basic upgrading courses for ESL students or health courses for
adult basic literacy learners are being requested, it will be possible
to create these courses. The people in charge of creating and teaching
courses for adults will not have to ask whether requested courses
fit onto one of the islands. There will be no islands, only a mainland.
It will be possible to establish courses anywhere, without consulting
a list of acceptable end points.
Such an approach would create spaces for adult learning, and the
sense of wellness that comes from knowing that continuous learning
and growth are possible. Of course, in a society that takes wellness
seriously, lifelong learning opportunities would not be the only
source of a sense of wellness. Other kinds of opportunities, including
access to housing, recreation and services would also create this
sense. All of these kinds of opportunities could be based on the
premise that government should provide social leadership, not just
Are we up to the challenge? It is encouraging that the Ontario government
is undergoing an adult education review. It is also encouraging to
read article after article in the popular press arguing that we need
to move away from a strictly medical approach to more holistic approaches
to health. Recognizing that health involves the whole person cannot
but help us to recognize that learning is more than repair work.
Just as health care should be about more than fixing ailments in
our various organs, learning should be about more than repairing
perceived deficits. It should be about whole lives.