Older does mean wiser with lifelong demand for learning

Studies show education helps to lower risk of Alzheimer’s and increases public health

Education no longer ends with secondary school, college or even a postgraduate degree.

Increasingly, people learn throughout their lives, both for pleasure and to move to jobs or learn new skills.

And life is getting longer.

Children born today can expect to beyond the age of 100.


Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, professors at London Business School, recently published The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity.

They say the three-stage approach to life – education, work, retirement – is now effectively obsolete.

Retirement age is rising, people no longer have a job for life and are likely to change careers, and we want to learn throughout our lives both for work, pleasure and physical and mental health.

We’ll also need to engage in learning to keep up to date with the fast pace of technological change, while lifelong education will be crucial for mitigating the worst effects of social inequality.

But, they say, society has yet to properly consider these questions.

Lifelong education gives us a sense of purpose.

A body of research is showing that education and intellectual stimulation can help to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, reduce crime, increase public health and wellbeing, create stronger families and reduce dependency on welfare.

A second chance

By any cold and hard-hearted financial assessment, an investment in lifelong learning reaps economic gains for the exchequer.

Although Ireland’s school completion rate has improved dramatically over the past decades, now standing at over 90 per cent, there are still tens of thousands of adults who were failed by the school system.

Even today, around a quarter of students will struggle within the narrow confines of our terminal Leaving Cert exam.

Adult and further education offers them a second chance.

Policy-makers are cottoning on to the value of lifelong learning, but there’s a risk that we get too caught up in the skills agenda and coerce or force people into courses that are not suitable for them.

At second-level, guidance counsellors repeatedly tell sixth-year students to choose a third-level course that interests them and, if that happens to be an area where there are good opportunities, that’s merely a bonus.

Many unemployed people, however, are presented with the option of a narrow range of courses or the loss of their dole payments.

So, why do we tell teenagers to pursue their dream and demand of adults that they meet the needs of employers?

Evidence from a two-year UK inquiry into lifelong learning, published in 2009, indicated that adult and further education works best when people engage with education based on what they are really interested in, rather than when it is driven by welfare sanctions.

UCD is one of several universities with a long history of providing courses to adults.

The sake of learning

The UCD Access and Lifelong Learning Centre offers courses taken without credit (mostly in the evenings); open learning courses where students can take a course for credit alongside the university’s students; access courses with guaranteed entry to arts, law, social science, science, engineering or agriculture; and entry to UCD as a full-time mature student.

The centre’s focus is not on particular skills, the jobs market or the needs of industry but on learning for the sake of learning, although they do support learners in helping to pursue more education or job opportunities.

I am a former employee of the centre, having taught adults on an evening course for a number of years on an interest-only course (I finished up in 2012).

Adult learners are a very diverse group.

Working with them taught me a huge amount about the different motivations people have for learning (out of interest, to develop a skill, to meet new people) and the different ways in which we learn (visual, physical, social and logical learners being just some of learning styles).

I discovered that students with visual or hearing impairments, physical disabilities, autism-spectrum disorders or dyslexia were not a problem to be overcome, but that they made for a better class as they had different life experiences and different ways of engaging with, and responding to, the world around them.

A class with different genders – whether male, female or non-binary – and a wide age range leads to better learning outcomes for those students.

Evidence shows that men – who have a lower participation rate in lifelong learning – are likely to be more vocationally oriented than women, while research carried out by the Men’s Shed movement shows that men may learn best working shoulder to shoulder, as opposed to sitting in groups.

Good teachers will take all of this into account and design a course that uses a variety of different mediums in their courses, including visual aids, sound clips, handouts, discussions, group work and solitary tasks.

At the core of this technique is an acknowledgement that not everyone is itching to get a job in an area where there are skills shortages.

Dr Bairbre Fleming is director of the UCD Access and Lifelong Learning Centre.

She thinks that the focus was on economics and jobs during the recession, but that there is a growing awareness that adult education is a public good.

“The purpose and value of unaccredited learning has been somewhat diminished or overlooked by policy rhetoric in recent years as higher education has become synonymous with accredited and formal learning,” she says.

“The focus on upskilling has subsumed the wider benefits of learning.”


Research conducted in 2008* added further weight to what we know about the wider benefits of learning and highlighted how education can affect virtually every aspect of our lives, but its wider benefits to society can be subtle and indirect.

Fleming and her colleague Dr Rhonda Wynne wanted to see how this applied in Ireland, so they carried out a research study of 720 students, asking about their motivations and their experience of adult learning.

“It confirmed the value of adult learning in people’s lives,” says Fleming.

“We were interested in understanding the nature of learning when there is no other agenda or reward except the learning experience itself.

“Students suggested all sorts of interesting reasons why they take class (see below). It reminds us that learning has many dimensions and not all outcomes have to be functional or economic.

“The participants in the study demonstrated that the concept of learning for learning is both reductive and irrelevant to some cohorts.”

I ask Fleming whether the focus on skills may also exclude older learners and put them at increased risk of social isolation and dementia.

She’s quick to correct me, pointing out that older people are not necessarily a group of people who need to be cared for and managed, but that they actually have a huge amount to offer society and that engaging them in lifelong learning unleashes their potential.

Our brains are not diminishing with age; they are getting stronger.

"The older we are, the wiser we become. Jack Mezirow (the late professor of adult and continuing education at Columbia University) talked about how older people can draw from that wisdom to develop coping strategies and ideas, ask good questions and figure things out. We get more resourceful as we age," says Fleming.

Niamh O'Reilly, chief executive of Aontas, the national adult learning organisation, says policy-makers may ask the question: why invest in courses where people don't get some kind of certificate or accreditation?

“It is bringing people into the system who may not have been since the age of 15. Those interest courses can be a gentle step into an accredited programme, so it is important to have guidance before, during and after the course itself.”

While it is vitally important – if not essential – to help people gain employment, it seems that a focus on skills alone is not the way to do it.

“The whole learning process and methodology of adult learning is about engagement, reflecting on the experience, being a co-creator of knowledge and a critical thinker not just in terms of their job but also in how society works,” says O’Reilly.

“This is a more effective way of helping people to achieve skills.”

* Feinstein, Budge, Vorhaus, & Duckworth, 2008, The social and personal benefits of learning: a summary of key research findings. London: Institute of Education, University of London

Survey: What does learning mean for learners?

The UCD adult education survey: what does learning mean for learners?

Some responses:

“The opportunity to continue to learn in a pleasant environment without an emphasis on exams; the opportunity to meet like-minded people and share views and ideas about subjects of mutual interest; the opportunity to listen to tutors who are experts in their respective fields but who are so willing and interested to share their knowledge.”

“Learning keeps the brain active and is so good for one’s general mental health. It also gives a sense of accomplishment.”

“Taking my brain out for a jog.”

“The evening lecturers suit me greatly because I work 9am-5pm. The fact that I can now have a conversation with my colleagues without feeling inferior. I am a lot more relaxed and much happier than I was.”

“A break from work and yet I have skills that I was able to use to make my work easier.”

“I love adult exchanges of information. Engaging in conversation on an adult level is very important to me as I have children. I love that I can pass on wonderful nuggets of information to the children that sparks an interest in them and carries on through their life and shapes their choices in the future.”

“Hearing articulate lecturers giving information on a subject of interest to me – I really enjoy the mental stimulation and the opening of new doors.”