Older people and lifelong learning: choices and experiences

Project lead: Dr Alexandra Withnall

Research team

  • Dr Alexandra Withnall

  • Ms Vicki Thompson


January 2000 - July 2002


Dr Alexandra Withnall
Centre for Primary Health Care Studies
Warwucj Neducak /Scgiik
University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL

Tel: +44 247 657 3851
Email: A.Withnall@warwick.ac.uk


In recent years, a number of commentators have shown how various forms of change - economic, cultural, technological and demographic - have been used to promote the concept of lifelong learning as that which takes place from 'cradle to grave'. However, in practice, a range of different analyses have been moulded together to produce a persuasive discourse which has been influential in stressing the need for lifelong learning policies to support economic competitiveness. Indeed, a close analysis of a range of reports and major policy documents related to the development of lifelong learning in the UK reveals a strong priority accorded to vocational education and training.

Although there is some general rhetoric about the importance of developing a learning culture which would encourage personal independence, creativity and innovation and some emphasis on the family and community as sites for learning, a coherent philosophy of lifelong learning has not been developed. In particular, older people who are post-work are generally excluded from the debate.

As a result, we have little knowledge of how older people themselves define and understand learning and education in later life, of the value they place upon it and what outcomes learning might have in the context of their lives. At a broader level, there are questions to be asked concerning the implications for social and educational policies in general in respect of a stronger emphasis on learning in later life.

Aims and objectives

The aim of the study is to develop a new theoretical perspective on lifelong learning by emphasising the role of learning in the post-work period of life. The objectives are:

  • To formulate and to test a conceptual model of the causes of, and pathways to, involvement in learning activities, both formal and informal, in later life.

  • To assess any outcomes which involvement in learning activities, both formal and informal, may have for the quality of older people's lives.

  • To develop innovative research strategies which will integrate both older people and researchers themselves into the research process.

  • To inform and influence local and national lifelong learning policy formation, implementation and practice through systematic dissemination of research findings to both potential research users and relevant interest groups; and to involve them in the interpretation of the implication of findings at all stages.

Study design

The primary research focus will be on the collection of different types of qualitative data although it will also be necessary to collect some quantitative information concerning the background and circumstances of older learners. The identities of both researchers and researched will be incorporated into the ways in which findings are scripted, presented and disseminated through feedback to research subjects, checks on validity and invitations to comment at each stage.

Initially, a series of focus groups with older adults currently taking part in formally organised learning activities will be conducted in order to develop a model about the role of education and learning using a life course perspective. This will be tested through a detailed questionnaire-based survey to 100 older people, half of whom are known to be following a specific learning activity. In order to obtain a deeper understanding of the experience of learning and the meaning this has for older people's lives, a series of semi-structured interviews will be carried out with a sample of half the respondents using a fieldwork team of older people themselves. This will be supplemented further by a series of learning diaries to be completed anonymously and kept over a three month period. The diaries will be subjected to content analysis to illuminate how learning is viewed in the context of these older people's lives.

Policy implications

The study will contribute empirically derived data which will inform national and local policy debates about lifelong learning, particularly in respect of appropriate provision of learning opportunities for older people. This is especially important at a time when the most recent government initiatives indicate a growing realisation that access to learning opportunities may also offer wider non-economic benefits. It will also offer a distinctive perspective on an issue which is central to understanding social inclusion in later life and its links with quality of life. Through its methodology, the study will also raise awareness of innovative ways of involving older people themselves in gerontological research.