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In preparation for judging the RSA Student Design Awards Learning for Life brief, which challenges higher education students to ‘design an exciting new way to support, encourage or stimulate learning throughout people’s lives in the future’, I wanted to pin down what I’ve learnt about lifelong learning.

Since September last year I’ve been piloting a new concept in adult education which we’ve called a Learning Marathon, so named because it’s designed for people who are working to integrate learning alongside their work. I wanted to respond to the lack of adult education offers which are both affordable and genuinely compelling. The Learning Marathon focusses on peer-to-peer and self-led learning approaches in order to negate the need for expensive tuition and facilitate an exchange of skills and experience. The film below gives a glimpse of the experience of participating.

The RSA Student Design Awards Learning for Life brief, sponsored by the Cabinet Office’s Policy Lab and the Government Office for Science’s Foresight Projects team, frames the challenge of lifelong learning in much the same way we’ve viewed our own experiment: ‘as people live for longer and new jobs emerge, we will need to continue to learn throughout our lives if we are to seize them’. In other words lifelong learning is becoming a necessity, not just a nice to have. Worrying as the infrastructure is barely in place for those with the money and motivation, let alone for those without.

The future of learning is inextricably linked to the #FutureofWork debate, but I see it as a bigger question. Learning encompasses work, the economy - and then some. The future of learning is the future of human development, the future of personal growth, of motivation, of self-actualisation, and of our sense of purpose. It is the future of the whole person - not just their market value.

Nesta has predicted that 2017 will see adult education moving from the bottom to the top of the policy agenda. Even if this turns out to be true, and we see ministers and policy makers talking about low adult skills threatening the productivity of our economy, if we don’t acknowledge the systemic nature of a challenge that is as much about social exclusion and wellbeing as it is about the skills agenda - we won’t build inclusive solutions.

So what has piloting the Learning Marathon taught me? Here are three principles for designing lifelong learning solutions and interventions.

1. Shoot for motivation first, accountability second

One of our participants observed that whilst the Marathon might not trump the accountability that she felt for her professional work, being surrounded by enthusiastic peers had established an infectious momentum that was helping her take strides toward her development goals. This kind of enthusiasm is hard to continually muster on your own and being surrounded by it helps you look within and find your own motivation. Accountability might be a buzz word, but internal motivation results in more agency and more momentum.

In coaching practice the coaches are trained not to take on responsibility for the coachee’s outcome because it ‘robs’ the coachee of the opportunity to shoulder the responsibility themselves. It might feel good in the short-term because the coach feels more useful and the coachee feels relieved of the burden, but clearly this is not helpful for the coachee in the long-term.

The same principle can be applied to learning. If the experience creates a temporary accountability to the process, or the people making it happen, then there is likely to be less scope for developing motivation and accountability to self; ingredients which will sustain a lifetime of learning.

2. There is great value in setting less expectations

It sounds counter-intuitive. We should be clear where we’re going and what we’re aiming for, right?

One of the biggest challenges of the Marathon pilot has been resisting when asked to set a clear bar for achievement. I realise I risk implying that there was no guidance and no instructions and that we threw twelve peers into a vacuum and told them to learn. But we did avoid setting a specific expectation for where participants should be at the end of the their journey. In this respect we are closer to a business accelerator than a learning programme. In the same way that an accelerator takes teams working on different challenges, with different capacity and capability, we take individuals, and the primary goal is that they learn to solve their own problems with the resources that they have available to them. One size does not fit all. This comparable ambiguity conveys an important message: that you are likely to flounder at times, but by doing so you encounter an invaluable kind of learning, developing self-mastery, creativity and problem solving.

Real peer-to-peer learning has the same effect. When I say ‘real’ I refer to groups where peers deliver the programme both as teachers and learners, and are fully responsible for the group and themselves. It’s disorientating at first. Who do I ask my question to? How do I know if what I’ve done is right? But this reorganising of assumptions and reprogramming of thinking holds in it developmental potential of the kind that can’t be handed to you on a plate.

3. Adults need unconditional support too

It has been the best kind of surprising to see the extent to which the dynamics of a peer-to-peer group lead to honesty and sharing. I think this is because the nature of competition is different. There is no teacher or authority figure to reinforce it. Which is not to say that educators deliberately enforce competition, but perhaps it can’t be helped. They are an ‘other’ - an important one - and the gatekeeper of the outcome for the participant - therefore whatever feedback they give to any individual sets the bar for others to make comparisons with. This is incredibly useful in many educational settings, but equally removing this dynamic opens up a space for those people to connect in quite a different way. Within the Learning Marathon this safety to expose oneself allowed several participants the opportunity to explore mental health challenges alongside their learning. In part this was possible because of the non-judgemental atmosphere, but also because of the freedom for the participants to customise the learning and take it in the direction that they needed.

"I didn't feel like I wanted to apologise for anything I'd done and that was a big moment. I also felt comfortable with the complexity and multi-faceted nature of my project and able to stand up and talk about it." 2016/17 participant

The Young Foundation ran a collaborative project to explore peer-to-peer learning as a potential route to engaging young people not in education, employment or training. They found it to be effective precisely because the usual teacher/pupil hierarchy is removed. This allows individuals who have knowingly rejected that hierarchy - or simply find it doesn’t work for them - to participate. Peer-to-peer learning lends itself to an culture of unconditional support, and in turn this makes for a space that embraces vulnerability, diversity and new relationships. There is huge scope to explore this property in the lifelong learning space as well.


In conclusion, all three principles are at their core about finding sustainable and personal motivation to learn. But it would be naive not to acknowledge how big a challenge this is for those who don’t already identify as learners. When you consider that 80% of Coursera learners already have college degrees, you start to see that these monumental efforts to make learning accessible and available for all do not necessarily create more demand for learning. You can lead a horse to online, bite-size, modular video content pieces, but you cannot make it learn.

So if we want to create inclusive lifelong learning opportunities then we need to avoid the assumption that it is the cost of learning alone that is prohibitive. The word learning is a beautiful thing for some, but for others it means rejection, failure and boredom. We chose the analogy of a marathon because we liked that it requires hard work but is not exclusive to a particular group within society. But even so, the idea of a Learning Marathon may be terrifying for some people.

It has highlighted for me the importance of branding, packaging and voice in the learning sector. It’s time for something fresh, and this is what I’ll be looking for when reviewing the Learning for Life RSA Student Design Award submissions. I’m hoping to see solutions that go beyond a response to industry skills gaps to look at how we can encourage demand for a global lifelong learning movement.

  • Apply now for the next Learning Marathon, kicking off in May 2017.

  • Come to our Showcase event on 21st March to celebrate the culmination of the latest Marathon and meet the participants.

  • Find out more about the RSA Student Design Awards, which challenges emerging designers to tackle real-world social, environmental and economic issues through design thinking.

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