It’s time to embrace not just the lifelong but the life-wide dimension of learning

To truly achieve sustainable development, writes Norman Jackson, we must embrace, consciously and fully, our experiences and what we learn and become through them.

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Humankind has always engaged in lifelong learning, but it has meant different things at different points in time. This will always be the case. In this period of rapid transformation, contemporary society obliges people to learn and to keep on learning throughout their lives. The world is complex, hyper-connected and increasingly turbulent. It is also fragile, and cannot be sustained if we carry on using it in the way we have.

The idea that lifelong learning can be harnessed in the service of preserving our presence on this fragile planet is gaining more traction among sustainability’s strategic planners. Remedies to the myriad threats to our survival can be found in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Education has its own goal – SDG 4 – which calls on countries to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ (UN, 2015). SDG 4 advocates a new role for education: to educate the world in ways that encourage behaviours that support sustainable development. 

The UNESCO Futures of Education initiative aims to rethink education, knowledge production and learning from a future-oriented perspective. The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) report for this initiative, Embracing a Culture of Lifelong Learning (UIL, 2020), proffers a future-focused vision that demands a major shift towards a culture of lifelong learning by 2050. It argues that the unprecedented challenges humanity faces require societies to embrace and support learning throughout life and for people to identify themselves as learners throughout their lives.

For this ambition to be realized, there needs to be significant changes on a global scale to the culture of education and educational practices. The future of education demands a culture of learning that is universal, that values learning in every aspect of life. This vision goes beyond promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all; it asserts that ‘the whole of life is learning, therefore education can have no endings’ (Lindeman, 1926).

Perhaps the time has come to develop and enrich the concept of lifelong learning in the service of humanity and the planet. We can do this by embracing consciously and fully the life-wide dimensions of the everyday. I believe that the act of making the life-wide dimension of learning explicit would make a significant contribution to the goal of a more holistic understanding of lifelong learning. Life-wide learning gives day-to-day practical expression and meaning to lifelong learning, for lifelong learning is the accumulation of all our life-wide experiences and what we have learned and become through them.

Life-wide learning adds detail and purpose to human development by recognizing that most people, no matter what their age or circumstance, simultaneously inhabit a number of different spaces, such as work or education, being a member of a family and a community, managing a home, caring for others, engaging in sport and other interests, and looking after their own physical, mental and spiritual well-being (Jackson, 2011). Opportunities to learn throughout one’s life continuously intermingle with the spaces and places where we engage in life-wide learning. Who we are now and who we will become are the consequences of this intermingling.

It is in the life-wide dimension of our lives – where we discover our purpose, our values and what we care about – that we learn what it is to be human. It is in this dimension that we also learn about the world in all its diversity and confusing complexity. We do this through the media we access or the experiences of others we know or through our own experience as we travel and encounter cultures that are different to our own. If we are to develop a way of life that is committed to sustaining the world, it is the life-wide dimension of learning that we must nurture.

Through Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) we can acquire the knowledge that will enable us to sustain our future. But we have to apply this knowledge to every part of our lives for the rest of our lives. This requires both agency and will.

It is precisely because every individual’s life-wide learning is a product of their historical and current interactions with their unique environments and circumstances that they are the person they are. This is what makes us different from machines – every one of us is one of a kind and that is to be celebrated. Life-wide learning is also the real meaning of personalized learning, and it provides a better foundation for understanding the scope and nature of lifelong learning as it is embodied, enacted and experienced by every person on planet.

I welcome your views on these ideas and the White Paper on which they are based, which can be found at:


Jackson, N. J. ed. 2011. Learning for a complex world: A lifewide concept of learning, development and achievement. [online] AuthorHouse Publishing. Available at: [Accessed 27 January 2021].

Lindeman E. C. 1926. The meaning of adult education. [online] New York, New Republic, Inc. Available at: [Accessed 27 January 2021].

UN (United Nations). 2015. Transforming our world. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development. [online] New York, UN. [Accessed 27 January 2021].

UIL (UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning). 2020. Embracing a culture of lifelong learning: Contribution to the Futures of Education initiative. Report: A transdisciplinary expert consultation. Hamburg, UIL.

Norman Jackson is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Surrey and founder of the Lifewide Education Community, a not-for-profit social enterprise promoting and supporting the idea and practice of life-wide learning, education and personal development. For more information, visit

2 thoughts on “It’s time to embrace not just the lifelong but the life-wide dimension of learning

  1. If ever there was a time to appreciate lifewide learning, now is it. As we are globally forced into lockdown, we have the time to reflect and review what truly matters to us and understand how even our seemingly insignificant acts of learning are constantly forming and sustaining us. Our personal wellbeing, and by extension the wellbeing (sustainability) of our environment can be enhanced and we can turn this pandemic into something positive for the future.

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