Academic Exchange Quarterly     Winter    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  4

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Lifelong Learning: A Stratagem for New Teachers


Valeri R. Helterbran, Indiana University of Pennsylvania


Helterbran, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Professional Studies in Education Department in the College of Education and Educational Technology.



Educators have not fully defined the role of utilizing lifelong learning as a guiding principle. Furthermore, district-provided professional development is often deemed so inadequate that new teachers enter a profession where they, by necessity, must create their own professional growth opportunities. Novices are encouraged to examine their own lifelong learning quotient, initiate a dialog on the tenets of lifelong learning, and set a plan of action so that attitudes and skills associated with lifelong learning are furthered in themselves and inculcated in their students.                         



Lifelong learning is at the heart of practice for novice teachers. Teachers in their first few years of experience are particularly vulnerable to the challenges and pressures of developing effective teaching skills while attempting to contribute to the building and maintaining of a professional learning community. These factors are also important to those who are experienced in the classroom (Cain, 2001), but to the new teacher it may make the difference between staying in or leaving the profession (Ingersoll, 2002).  


If, indeed, an effective teacher is “the most important factor in producing consistently high levels of student achievement (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2004; Fullan, 1999; Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2001), it is incumbent upon those in the profession to explore ways to strengthen the existing practices in schools designed to inculcate new teachers into effective practice and the culture of the school. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education (2004), fewer than one percent of teachers experience a “comprehensive” induction, one that includes “a package of supports, development, and standards-based assessments provided to beginning teachers during at least their first two years of full-time professional teaching” (p. 11).  Novice teachers need high quality, sustained professional development at the beginning--and throughout--their careers. Unfortunately, only 12 to 27 percent of teachers in 2000 believed that the professional development provided by their districts actually improved their teaching (NCES, 2001).


If, then, existing venues for professional development are largely inadequate and are not serving the purposes for which they were intended, it behooves new teachers to actively and purposively seek to organize and involve themselves in self-directed growth endeavors to supplement district-designed offerings. This is an especially important factor if a novice is assigned to a more experienced mentor teacher who “may have been demoralized in the past, not only by seemingly endless educational changes, but by professional development perceived as irrelevant, ineffective, and unrelated to the rigors and responsibilities of everyday life in the classroom (Helterbran & Fennimore, 2004, p. 268).


It is time as a society and as a profession to reconsider the enduring principle of lifelong learning and decide how to establish it as an operational principle. Teachers must skillfully navigate the uncertain waters of today’s accountability movement, and, all the while, carve out a personally satisfying, growth-oriented place in the field of education. Lifelong learning is a way of instruction--and a way of life. Professional educators must revisit this foundational tenet and create a vision of lifelong learning as it informs day-to-day instruction. Doing so will provide novice teachers with optimism that the enormous task that lies ahead will be a more achievable and fruitful one. Coolahan (2002), in association with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), asserts, “If society’s concern is to improve quality in education and to foster creative, enterprising, innovative, self-reliant young people, with the capacity and motivation to go on as lifelong learners, then this will not happen unless the corps of teachers are themselves challenging, innovative and lifelong learners” (p. 14).


Novice teachers as lifelong learners will likely experience increased confidence and security, improved student motivation and satisfaction, and encouragement to contribute to the school’s overall learning climate (Southall, 2003). Taking responsibility for professional growth through a continual pattern of learning allows new teachers to tailor learnings to specific, self-selected needs, claim or reclaim responsibility for their own professional growth and assessment (Fenwick, 2004), and to contribute to their schools’ professional learning community. Developing as a lifelong learner provides novice teachers with a two-fold call to duty: 1) to strengthen and enrich their own knowledge and skills as educators, and 2) to impress upon their students the importance and value of learning across the lifespan.


Defining Lifelong Learning                                                                                                          The concept and actuality of lifelong learning has stirred interest and procured favor from antiquity to modern times. In some respects, one cannot stop oneself from being a lifelong learner (Fields, 2000) as we are constantly learning simply by the act of living and making our way through each day. However, there is little agreement as to what actually constitutes lifelong learning in a more structured or productive sense, what is of true value to learn, and how to prepare for a lifespan of learning.


In its simplest form that lifelong learning may be defined as a blend of the formal education of one’s youth coupled with a pastiche of self-directed formal or informal educative endeavors thereafter. In similar regard, a lifelong learner is one who typically exhibits a love of learning for its own sake, voluntary participates in learning activities, demonstrates the ability to be self-directive and reflective, and sustains engagement in learning enterprises--qualities that are expressed regardless of personal or social circumstances (Barth, 2005). With these meanings in mind, we can begin as a profession to examine the role of teachers as a piece of the puzzle in prioritizing its benefits to the profession and to educators as individuals. Learning itself could and should be a life affirming and enhancing process which contributes to the individual’s overall quality of life (Phoenix, 2002).



Role of Formal Education

Societies throughout history have debated the aims of education. Whereas there is little agreement as to what constitutes a proper or ideal education, it is safe to say that the purpose of schooling must exceed the increasing focus on a narrowly construed curriculum or a single, standardized test focused on reading and mathematics (Noddings, 2005). Immersed in an information and knowledge-based society, novice teachers in particular must come to recognize the link that binds many competing and conflicting needs--a renewed focus on lifelong learning in schools. In recent decades, the literature repeatedly suggests (Brookfield, 1986; Cross, 1981; Livneh & Livneh, 1988; Valentine, 1997) the notion that the more formal education an individual has, the greater the likelihood that he or she will be a lifelong learner. Furthermore, an individual’s capacity to meet societal and personal economic, social, and cultural challenges rests squarely on one’s formal education, regardless of what that may be, as well as one’s initiative to continue learning.


The K-12 and higher education system is not a monolithic entity, separate and apart from society; it must integrate with other elements of society and impress upon students that learning requires a concerted effort to learn on the part of the learner (Cain, 2001). This speaks volumes to new teachers, as a common perception exists among many novices that it is they, not the students, that are chiefly responsible for the work involved in the learning process. Attitudes toward learning being a shared experience and responsibility (McCombs, 2003) are essential to creating the impetus for lifelong learning. Confusion and frustration on the students’ part are often a natural part of learning. Yet teachers, particularly those in the United States, are quick to rescue students and typically present full information so that students are able solve problems (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999) without actually doing a great deal of critical thinking or fact-finding on their own; therefore, opportunities to teach students how to learn or to solve problems based on relationships, assumptions, or a deeper understanding of the concepts or content is thwarted or lost altogether.           


Beginning teachers have a role to play in encouraging and teaching self-directed learning skills and attitudes by establishing a learning environment that is motivating, recognizing of individual learner differences, and favorable to an effective facilitator-learner relationship (Scott, Murray, Mertens, & Dustin, 1996). As with individuals and organizations, the need to change and grow, coupled with the ability to respond effectively to this need, drives and shapes the philosophy and direction of the process of individual and collective lifelong learning.


Insights and Recommendations

Formal schooling plays a pivotal role in the theoretical framework of lifelong learning. In order for this to occur, theory and daily practice must meet and the gap between them bridged. Considering the lack of clarity as to what the essential things to learn are, one can certainly empathize with the dilemma novice teachers experience in organizing instruction as they begin their professional careers in teaching.  Although it is unlikely that any one method, philosophy, or strategy will serve as a solution to all that troubles the profession, educators do have considerable influence and control over their destinies and those of their students. In order for novice teachers to maximize personal and professional efficacy and areas over which they have a certain sphere of command, they should consider three basic areas in infusing the basic principles of lifelong learning into their teaching:  


1) Examine one’s own lifelong learning quotient: Novice teachers should, first and foremost, ask themselves: What is my lifelong learning quotient?; Am I instructing my students in a manner that promotes lifelong learning?; or, Am I making my subject matter interesting, applicable, and connected to other disciplines and the world around us? Examining one’s own involvement and commitment to continual learning is an important first step and reminiscent of Jeffersonian ideals (Carpenter, 2004). Teachers need to have a deep understanding of self and the nature of one’s work (Coolahan, 2002). However, without a groundswell of likeminded educators and a school community that views the concept of lifelong learning as foundational and models the characteristics of lifelong learning, the crush of external demands may dishearten the most enthusiastic new teacher.


2 Initiate dialogs: Discussion on the topic of lifelong learning in schools has been conspicuously neglected among many educators in recent years. Lifelong learning is often used gratuitously in vision or mission statements with little if any follow-up action. Novice teachers, fueled with fresh thinking and enthusiasm may be in the ideal position to prompt dialoging to assess the role of teaching for lifelong learning and how making advances in this area can alleviate some of the difficulties imposed by outside forces in this age of accountability. What can teachers do to promote and encourage lifelong learning? What options for self-direction in the pursuit of learning can be encouraged in the classroom? How can teachers use lifelong learning as a framework to support and accomplish the daunting task of teaching state standards more effectively? These exemplify the types of questions that may be considered in opening a dialog regarding lifelong learning.


At the district level, in Lafourche Parish Public Schools in Thibodaux, Louisiana, for example, the induction program seeks to immerse novices in a lifelong learning culture. This process involves not only initial training and support, but provision for ongoing support group meetings whose purpose is to promote dialog by discussing concerns and areas of need in professional growth (Wong, 2002)--in short, planned opportunities for teachers to problem-solve, reflect on teaching responsibilities, and identify opportunities and strategies to hone their practice. There is no substitute for individual and collaborative reflection for both novice and experienced teachers in their endeavors to coordinate and align efforts to succeed in the classroom.


3) Set a plan of action: Setting a plan of action may generate more questions than answers and will undoubtedly vary from teacher to teacher. However, based on what is known about effective teaching and the learning process, and through personal insight, beginning teachers can devise a plan to strengthen existing practices or to research new ones. The content of a plan of action may include making efforts to involve students actively in the learning process, designing instructional activities to be inquiry-based motivated by a goal of critical thinking, and allowing students a voice in the learning process when and where appropriate. Many other professional growth needs can be addressed in this fashion, too. A specific example involves Alberta, Canada’s requirement that its teachers create and maintain what they call a “professional growth plan.”  Reviewed annually by supervisory personnel, these plans are used exclusively to further teacher learning and professional growth; they do not serve in an evaluative capacity (Fenwick, 2004).



Using lifelong learning as a guiding principle to shape and support the experience of novice teachers is by no means a panacea to all of the inherent instructional and individual growth needs of the profession. However, it can be valuable in encouraging reflection and conversation to ascertain how new teachers exemplify and practice a love of learning and how it can be used to strengthen instruction and one’s personal capacity. With the greater majority of teachers not believing that district-provided professional development strengthens their teaching, yet recognizing the need to grow and learn, it is apparent that teachers must take an active hand in their own professional futures in this regard.


The aspirations of building professional learning communities and developing effective teaching skills by and large may be dependent on the actions of individual teachers, notably new teachers, as they seek to find their own pathways to grow and learn throughout their careers. Through patterns of introspection, dialoging, and acting on self-designed action plans, there is renewed confidence that new teachers can set in motion strategies of continual growth to help assure teaching excellence, and improved student achievement.



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