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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 17, 2007
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Lifelong learning skills and attributes: The perceptions of Australian secondary school teachers

Don Adams
University of Newcastle
Lifelong learning encompasses formal and informal learning aimed at personal fulfilment, active citizenship, flexibility of employability and social inclusion (European Commission, 2001). Policy is often framed on the importance of skills in the new economies. Knowledge, being the foundation of modern economies, means learning is the central factor for economic sustainability and growth. The rhetoric surrounding lifelong learning has seen a significant focus on post secondary education in the vocational and higher education sectors. Research into the school sector and how well it prepares students for lifelong learning in the Australian context has been virtually non-existent. The current Australian school curricula often embeds competencies for entry into the world of work (Mayer key competencies, Employability Skills), but the inclusion of lifelong learning competencies or skills appears to have been overlooked. This is despite the significant role that school education plays in preparation of school graduates for a lifetime of learning. Without a framework of those skills and attributes of lifelong learning, it is not possible to reliably measure if or how well the school curriculum addresses the development of lifelong learning skills and attributes. This recent study within the Australian secondary school context was conducted to attempt to identify a framework of skills and attributes (a conceptual model) of lifelong learners leaving school for the last time.

This paper details the outcomes of the study, where qualitative approaches were employed to explore the perceptions of 34 secondary school teachers, and from this data a conceptual model for lifelong learning is presented. This conceptual model may well help in answering the question "How well is the public secondary school system in an Australian context preparing students for a lifetime of learning" and provides much data, information and direction moving away from the rhetoric. It also allows a basis for further and much more extensive research within this area and may assist policy makers, administrators, curriculum developers and teachers in further advancing the effectiveness of school education within the context of lifelong learning.


The maximalist view of learning (Wain, 1993), with the 'cradle to grave' concept (2003, p.206), supported by Coffield's (1997) 'nought to ninety' concept (cited in Vorhaus, 2002), has an emphasis on a 'life' timeline of learning. Yet, it appears that lifelong learning (LLL) while a commonly employed phrase, which is tacit in its use depending on the user's context, meaning and background (Berglund, 2004) has no definitive meaning (Vorhaus, 2002; Watson, 2003). However, it is embraced at a policy level (Axford & Moyes, 2003) and even mission statements and agendas (Bagnall, 2000). This may be disheartening as the concept of lifelong education (LLE) was advanced as early as 1919 (Ireland, 1978), and by Faure (1972). In 1996, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) report Learning the Treasure Within chaired by Delors, which highlighted the importance of LLL and social stability (Watson, 2003), also indicates an evolving of the term from LLE to LLL.

Yet within the definitions, policies and reports there is limited debate, and lack of clarity as the skills required to be LL learners. Even though LLL is interpreted in different ways, there is general agreement that it is needs to survive in an environment of rapid changes in knowledge and technological development (Bryce, 2004). This general agreement is the foundation of this research. The key 'to survive' requires 'survival skills' which, in the position taken in this paper, are in effect lifelong learning skills. With the rapid changes of knowledge and technological development we see content crammed school curricula, but is the curricula attempting to develop these 'survival skills' (LLL skills) in school students?

Cornford (2002, p.357) outlined the need for learning-to-learn skills of cognitive and meta-cognitive learning strategies which he argues "has been neglected in analyses of issues surrounding LLL and in policy development". Cornford further states that after analysing the contents of the International Journal of Lifelong Education, he "could not find articles discussing the foundational learning to learn skills needed for effective LLL" (p.358). The Memorandum on Lifelong Learning (CotEC, 2000, p.32) is one of the few documents which raised the issue that "more information is needed on the way individual citizens learn in formal and non-formal settings, but also through activities like self-learning".

Even though the rhetoric surrounding lifelong learning is significant and definitions abound, little attempt has been made to try and identify the attributes and skills that an effective lifelong learning should exhibit, at the exit point of school. It is not the intention of this paper to try to simplify the complexity of a lifelong learner into a general set of skills and attributes or to ignore earlier developmental work in this area, but rather to begin to identify those skills and attributes that may be able to be more effectively developed while a student is attending school, within an Australian context.

Therefore, this paper presents the results of a study conducted within Australia which attempts to identify the skills and attributes which a school leaver should have to effectively continue on the path of lifelong learning. This research has been conducted to identify the perceptions that secondary school teachers have which relate to the acquired skills and attributes of a lifelong learner leaving the school gates for the last time. Therefore, the results of the study are limited to the perceptions of those school teachers who participated in the study.


The aim of this study was to provide an initial exploration into lifelong learning in the Government Senior Secondary school context, within the Hunter Valley Region of New South Wales (NSW), Australia. It will begin to develop a conceptual theoretical framework of lifelong learning, by exploring the perceptions that teachers hold of lifelong learning within senior secondary years. The perceptions are based on their observations of students and personal experiences.

Research questions

The research questions for the study were as follows.
  1. What student characteristics do teachers define and identify as the characteristics of an effective lifelong learner?
  2. Which characteristics of lifelong learning are prevalent among students according to the teacher perceptions?

Significance of the research

Lifelong learning encompasses formal and informal learning. Lifelong learning policy is framed on the importance of skills in the new economies, and knowledge, being the foundation of modern economies means learning is the central factor for economic sustainability and growth. It may be argued that the rhetoric surrounding lifelong learning has been focused on education sectors other than schools.

No research within the NSW school system has identified a theoretical framework or model for lifelong learning. Substantial work is required to overcome the lack of information available within the literature in this area. This investigative study provides a conceptual model that can be used as a basis for further investigation and discussion in relation to how effectively the NSW school curriculum prepares its graduates for a lifetime of learning.


All government senior secondary schools within the Hunter Valley region were invited to allow their teachers to participate. A total of 12 schools responded to the invitation. From these schools, 34 teachers across all Key Learning Areas (discipline areas) participated.

A qualitative approach using a maximum variation sampling technique (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994) was employed, and each participant interviewed individually. The results were interpreted using a grounded theory approach, to produce a conceptual model of the skills and attributes of the lifelong learners in question. The interviews were recorded on tape, transcribed and coded using the NVIVO (QSR, 2002) software program. From the coded data emergent themes where identified and then refined to produce a total of nine emergent characteristics.

At the onset of the interview, the participants were presented with the following definition of lifelong learning:

Lifelong learning is a birth to death process. It involves the continuous development, acquisition and application of knowledge, skills, values and wisdom across the lifespan (Ralph, 2000). This learning occurs in many structured and unstructured forms, for example in formal education and workplace learning, and often concentrates on skills acquisition, and upgrading for employability. A consistent focus within the definition of lifelong learning, though, is on the potential for learning (Vorhaus, 2002).
When this definition was understood, the teachers were asked to consider that as a school leaver leaves the school gate for the last time, he or she have a 'backpack' of knowledge, skills and attributes. Some of these knowledge and skills were related to how effectively they will pursue a lifetime of learning. The teachers were then asked the open-ended question, "What are these skills and attributes?"


The results, developed from the analysis of the qualitative data, are represented in the conceptual model shown in Figure 1. The model shows that central to the school leaver is having the ability to effectively engage in learning. This learner engagement is influenced by seven factors that contribute to effective lifelong learning. That is, the more effective a school leaver is in each of these factors, the more learner engagement will occur. The factors also can influence each other, for example the ability to organise could have a direct effect on the ability to research, although, this study did not attempt to analyse these influences. The seven factors are the ability to organise, communicate, research, set goals, act as change agents, deal with people and be literate in reading, writing and technology.

An overarching external influence is that of the person's disposition. This relates to a person's attitude and outlook on life and this disposition is heavily influenced by activities that occur outside the school-learning environment. Following is a detailed description of each component. For the purpose of this discussion, the school leaver is referred to as the lifelong learner.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Conceptual model of lifelong learning skills and attributes

Learning engagement

The foundation of this component is that the lifelong learner will be consciously aware of and understand the concept of learning, embracing and engaging in available learning processes. The learner understands that there is value in learning and appreciates the learning process. In a typical response, one Head Teacher of Personal Development Health and Physical Education stated "If we look at life long learning as an embracement, as an embracement of the concept of learning...", and later again emphasised "People can continue to develop knowledge, skills, values and wisdom, but I'm thinking is it a conscious embracement of that learning", and another said "They enjoy learning. And they enjoy knowledge. And they possibly appreciate knowledge. But they still enjoy learning. Expanding their horizons and expanding their knowledge. They are more interested in the world at large".

Lifelong learners will enjoy knowledge and learning and continue to develop intellectually - knowledge, skills, values and wisdom. They will want to learn and will think about and want to understand their learning experiences. They will engage in the learning process by understanding their own learning styles and be able to acknowledge the existence of other learning styles. An ability to adapt their learning to other situations, and a desire to have control over their own learning experiences is evident. They will be empowered by the learning process and will recognise the potential that everything they do is a learning experience. Finally and most importantly, through the understanding of the learning processes they will want to maximise their learning.


Lifelong learners exhibit effective written and verbal communication skills. They are able to communicate information, ideas and concepts to the world - family, peers, colleagues and others in all situations such as formal learning environments, workplaces, family and recreational situations. They have a well developed capacity to relate to other people, to understand the needs of other people and to be able to communicate their own expectations to others. An example of a typical response relating to communication was stated by a Hospitality teacher. "Communication. Now that should be near the top of the list. They should have strong oral and writing skills and be able to apply these skills in a range of situations- work, family and in sport"

Additionally, they have developed the abilities to listen and ask questions. They are prepared to listen and construct meaningful questions to achieve understanding.

Goal setters

The lifelong learner has the ability to establish visions and directions and set goals to achieve these visions and directions. These goals may be career, personal or life goals and learning goals. As these goals are often interrelated, the lifelong learner will understand the relationships between these different goals

The established goals of the lifelong learner should be measurable and specific, however alternative goals need to be able to be identified should if for some reason the original goal cannot be achieved. In this case, the lifelong learner understands that goals should not be rigid.

Additionally, lifelong learners are able to continually focus on their goals. When the time comes where the goals have been achieved, they have the ability to set further career, life and learning goals. A Deputy Principal made the following comment, "A school leaver should be able to set their own goals, high goals, and be able to change goals. These goals, whatever their nature, for example career goals, should be able to be achieved in a structured manner, that is, step by step and each step reflected upon."


The lifelong learner needs to have strong basic literacy and numeracy skills, and understand the importance of literacy and numeracy in life. They need to have the ability to be able to read and write effectively, and to have effective essay writing skills. Additionally, they will possess effective technological literacy. In practice, when lifelong learners are talking about something, they will have the skills to read and write about what they are talking about. They will be able to use arithmetic processes effectively and possess an attitude that they will want to be able to continually develop their literacy and numeracy skills. Most of the teachers involved in the study stated that strong literacy and numeracy skills were an essential component for LLL. Similarly, computer and technology skills were equally important.


Lifelong learners have the skills to be able to identify what information they need, where information can be found, and to source and gather information. This information may be written, oral or visual. They have the ability to extract from the information exactly what they need, and when they are not able to find the required information, they are able to seek the help of others to find it.

One Head Teacher emphasised the view held by most other respondents, "... research skills, being able to find information, to source information, to find people who can source information for you, you know, you are not going to know everything, so the skill of being able to source information is a huge one."

Once the information is obtained, they have they skill of being able to analyse, interpret, evaluate and synthesize the information, being able to break it down and deconstruct it and identify the essential elements for application. This process highlights the need for effective critical thinking skills. Once the information is applied they then have the ability to evaluate the information.

This component, in the case of lifelong learners, is often related to their personal situation, where they are self-exploratory. The lifelong learners need to be able to self reflect, identify and analyse the skills, knowledge and attitudes they possess personally, consider their own successes, knowing where they are currently, analyse where their future goals are and the pathway of steps required to achieve these goals.


Lifelong learners need to have developed a set of organisational skills in their personal, learning and working environments. These skills include planning, time management, problem solving, decision-making and reviewing processes.

Lifelong learners should have the ability to plan what they need to do, taking into account the steps that may be required. They need to be able to manage their time effectively, using the available time purposefully, striking balances between commitments and have the capability to be on time.

The lifelong learner is able to find, identify and understand a problem, understand what could be done next in a problem, consider the possible courses and implications of action and effectively make decisions relating of the problem.

Finally, the lifelong learner is able to prioritise and organise information and to be able to adopt quality processes in organisational aspects. One science teacher made the following comment of interest, "I think that all of the skills of problem solving and time management are important skills to have. Also decision making is important. I am not sure if we prepare the school students well enough in these areas, particularly time management since we are so time poor these days. We don't do enough here for the kids."

People people

Lifelong learners have developed social and people skills effectively. They are caring and sociable people, who focus on interpersonal relationships and build those relationships. They are able to understand other people and forgive when necessary. They have successful interpersonal relationships with others, and can identify what is socially acceptable

The lifelong learner has the ability to work collaboratively and cooperatively with others for a specific purpose, as a team member. This was emphasised through the study and a typical comment was from an Art teacher who stated, "Teamwork; they should have team skills and be comfortable working with a team". He or she is a good listener who encourages others and provides positive reinforcement, can put ideas forward and present challenges to others in a non-threatening manner, such as debating, and is able to compromise. He or she also engages in the learning process with others.

Change agents

Lifelong learners must have the capacity to embrace change. They need the ability to be able to adjust and adapt to change. These changes are in goals, family, community, education, work, technology and personal situational change. They need to have the flexibility to adjust and change or switch directions and readapt when changes to take place.

They are able to positively take on challenges when presented with them, and to think creatively and laterally. When taking on change they will keep an open mind and they are interested in new ideas, experiences and people. They need to be prepared to discuss, interact, take notice of what other people think, and also to think outside the square. A Head Teacher of Computing studies made this comment of interest.

... to use the cliché, change is the only constant in change, the world we live in is getting out of control with change. What is around today is changed tomorrow. This is the issue, people need to learn more to keep up with change. They need to have a positive outlook to change and be willing to embrace it as best they can. They need to be flexible and understanding of change.


The lifelong learner demonstrates specific personal attributes which contribute to his or her capacity as a lifelong learner. Initially, a positive attitude towards life, work and learning is essential. A positive attitude towards learning and knowing there are many things that can be learnt. Lifelong learners will understand the value to themselves personally of learning; have a positive attitude towards work which will enable them to reach life and career goals, and also a positive attitude towards themselves. The lifelong learner needs to have good self-esteem and an attitude of self-awareness.

They need to have a level of self confidence, confidence in their own abilities, confidence to talk to people, be self assured and a confidence that they are able to achieve and overcome obstacles presented to them on their journey. They will accept challenge to what they believe in.

To achieve positive attitudes, self esteem, self awareness and self confidence the lifelong learner needs to exhibit a level of maturity, being mature in his or her outlook and thinking, and to undertake the lifelong learning process in a mature manner. A lifelong leaner is self-disciplined and self-reliant exhibiting that he or she is independent and in control. Maturity is also related to the values and values systems that an individual lifelong learner possesses, value systems about life, careers, family and education.

The lifelong learner must also be motivated to achieve success and achievement. This motivation includes a passion for learning and achievement. The motivation occurs through both intrinsic motivation, as well as extrinsic motivation and is significantly affected by the learning environment situations that they have experienced in life, and these factors have particular implications for teachers, schools and family during the earlier developmental phases of learning, that is, schooling.

Lifelong learners have a nature of determination with a focus of commitment to achieve. They will be consistent in the desire to better themselves and to achieve their personal best. They have an 'I can' attitude and will want to do more and more. They are prepared to take risks along the way, and will not be afraid of failure, as this is part of life. The focus of commitment to achieve develops a characteristic of being competitive in life. One teacher who had 30 years teaching experience summarised many of these points by saying,

they have got focus. They have got ...um... they think beyond where they actually live. They've got ambition. But I don't necessarily mean monetary ambition. I mean they've got an ambition in life.


This paper has presented the findings of a study into the skills and attributes that lifelong learners should possess when leaving the school gates for the last time. These findings have been based on interviews with a range of secondary school teachers and are solely based on their perceptions.

The findings present a conceptual model, and while not a definitive model, it does provide useful insight into how the teachers of these schools perceive what skills and attributes a school leaver should have, in terms of lifelong learning. It became quite clear during this study that significantly more research needs to be undertaken, if a more definitive model is to be developed.

While many may debate the helpfulness of a model of this nature, it can be established that effective lifelong learners do indeed exhibit some forms of attributes and skills. Taking this into account, it should be possible to identify these skills and attributes. This is what this study has attempted to do. This study did not attempt to establish the level of these skills and attributes, but rather only to identify what they may be.

Through further research, if the levels of these skills and attributes can be identified - remembering the focus here is on school leavers - these levels can then be mapped against the school curricula to determine if these curricula are in fact preparing school students for a lifetime of learning. It is assumed that these levels will change throughout life. Throughout this study, one constant message came through from the participating teachers which was that the school curricula is not preparing school leavers effectively for a lifetime of learning. This message in itself demonstrates the importance of research of this nature, and to highlight the point this paper now concludes with the following question asked during an interview with a Deputy Principal and his answer.

Question: In all your experience, could you ever estimate the percentage of students who walked out the school gate for the last time and you were able to say - there goes a group of lifelong learners - what percentage would you estimate?

Answer: I'd say probably very small, I would say probably, I was thinking 10% but that is probably a bit low. I'd say probably 15% to 20%.


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Author: Dr Don Adams is a lecturer in Vocational Education and Training (VET) at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He has had extensive experience in VET teacher education. His PhD is in the area of Leadership in VET. His research interests are VET in Schools, Lifelong Learning and VET leadership. Email: donald.adams@newcastle.edu.au

Please cite as: Adams, D. (2007). Lifelong learning skills and attributes: The perceptions of Australian secondary school teachers . Issues In Educational Research, 17(2), 149-160. http://www.iier.org.au/iier17/adams.html

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