The Conditions of Lifelong Learning

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In 1965, Robert Gagne famously wrote The Conditions of Learning (at least famously in the world of instructional design).

Among those conditions were nine events of instruction, which I have written about before in regards to information literacy instruction. Those instructional events are important in order for learning to take place, and I think could be equally applicable to lifelong learning.

What is lifelong learning? That’s a good question because there are many definitions of it. To me, lifelong learning is the ability and desire to learn continuously throughout the lifespan, whether formally or informally.

You would be hard-pressed to find a library that does not include lifelong learning in its mission statement. But how are libraries addressing lifelong learning? Passively or pedagogically?

Arguably, in order for a library to support lifelong learning, a pedagogical approach is necessary. In that respect, Gagne’s nine events of instruction could be applied to libraries for the purpose of nurturing and supporting lifelong learning.

Here’s how I would apply Gagne’s nine events of instruction to libraries in support of lifelong learning:

  1. Gain attention. Gaining attention also gains curiosity, and curiosity is what leads to a desire to learn. Libraries gain users’ attention and curiosity through marketing techniques such as displays, posters, signage, newsletters and advertising. When it comes to marketing as a way to gain attention for lifelong learning, look no further than public libraries for great ideas.
  2. Inform objectives. It’s important to give library users a sense of expectation about what the library’s sources and programs will teach. Book reviews, annotated resource guides, and detailed program and workshop descriptions are examples of ways to set up library users’ learning expectations.
  3. Stimulate prior knowledge. For lifelong learning to take place, library users need to be able to make connections between past learning experiences and new learning experiences. Stimulating prior knowledge is the most effective way to do this. For example, when the library offers readers advisory services, it is naturally stimulating a library user’s prior reading experiences to make suggestions about new reading experiences. This is often done in the realm of fiction. But there is no need to limit readers advisory to fiction. Libraries can also help users to connect and expand their personal (non-fiction) learning interests to library materials and classes and online resources. These kinds of connections can be made by fostering and promoting informal communities of practice (e.g. book clubs, hobby groups, workshop series).
  4. Present content. By virtue of what libraries are, presenting content comes naturally. However, if library users don’t know what the library has in terms of content, there will be many missed opportunities for lifelong learning. So libraries need to make sure that their library users are aware of the vast and rich resources that are available in their collections, whether in print or online, free or subscription-based. This all goes back to marketing. And technology has made marketing easier than ever. Social media is a library’s best friend.
  5. Provide learner guidance. Learner guidance can come in the form of reference and readers advisory services, workshops, library programs, library instruction, or just about any situation that requires interaction between a library staff member and a library user. In order to support the lifelong learning mission, libraries should view all interactions with library users as an opportunity for learner guidance. Maybe we should start referring to all library users as learners.
  6. Elicit performance. In order to learn, one must do. And that is an area where not all libraries are created equal. Between the technology society we live in and the increasing emphasis on digital and information literacy, supporting lifelong learning through lifelong doing should be a priority among libraries. So how do libraries elicit performance? Well, teaching workshops is a good start. Joining the maker activity movement is another way. When libraries sponsor maker activities, library users become library learners and doers. That’s what lifelong learning is all about.
  7. Provide feedback. Providing feedback goes hand-in-hand with eliciting performance. For example, library users who partake in maker activities will get feedback in a number of ways. Some maker activities, such as coding, have built-in feedback. Code incorrectly and you won’t get what you’re looking for. There’s also professional and peer feedback. Professional feedback might come from a librarian who is teaching research and evaluation skills. Peer feedback might come through informal communities of practice, such as book clubs, gaming clubs or other interest-centered groups. The library’s role in supporting lifelong learning should incorporate all those varieties of feedback.
  8. Assess performance. How do you know that you are really supporting lifelong learning? Libraries can assess performance of lifelong learning in creative ways. How many people are attending your programs? Are you getting positive feedback from library users? Does a workshop or display or resource guide directly correlate with increased circulation or usage of the materials promoted? What are library users creating in maker activities? The outcome of a maker activity, such as a digital story or a website or a wiki is very telling about the success of lifelong learning activities that the library is supporting.
  9. Enhance retention and transfer. Never let the library user leave empty-handed. That should be the mantra of lifelong learning when it comes to libraries. Whether it is a book that meets an information need, an article, a website, or even a handout following a program, a library user should leave the library with some extension of what they learned during their time in the library. They should be able to revisit or further explore their learning interests as a result of a trip to the library.

Much of what I laid out in terms of Gagne’s nine events of instruction as applied to libraries and lifelong learning is already found in many libraries out there. However, I think that the libraries that foster lifelong learning most effectively are public libraries. That’s probably a matter of survival.

School and academic libraries can learn a lot from public libraries in the arena of lifelong learning, especially now that lifelong learning is a central tenet of education. We want our students to grow up and develop into lifelong learners. And libraries play a major role in lifelong learning development. But in order for that to happen, students need to see the library as a place of learning (not just studying or hanging out). And that’s where marketing and displays and clubs and programs and maker activities come into play. Some school and academic libraries are already doing a great job with this, but many have far to go.

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