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Participating in lifelong learning brings purpose to life’s later years

Individuals can continue to learn throughout their lives — beyond a traditional K-12 or college education — often bringing benefits to both the individual and the community.

Image By: Max Homstad

With the summer coming to an end, emails, flyers and posters promoting ‘back-to-school’ sales seem to be everywhere. 

These ads feature students ranging from kindergarten to college, capturing the long period in which young people are enrolled in formal education in America — but rarely would they depict an older man or woman smiling with their new Jansport backpack.

Despite society’s image of a stereotypical student, learning has no age limit — it is a lifelong experience.

Fred Ross will celebrate his 85th birthday next month and is as excited as ever to learn, sharing that access to lifelong learning programming has contributed to his happiness as he grows older.

“‘What do you do when you retire?’” he asked himself. “You have these wonderful years when you can still contribute to society and you can still continue to grow. Learning is something that can go on forever and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Lifelong learning, which is an individual’s interest and ability to learn throughout their life cycle, has been around in some form for about a century, according to Professor Alan Knox, an expert in adult and continuing studies.

The value of lifelong learning is simple: “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” he said.

Throughout individuals’ later years, continued learning is something that potentially offers a chance for personal growth and gives people’s lives purpose, according to Carol Ryff, who studies aspects of humans’ lives that contribute to their psychological well-being, like finding ways to live a meaningful life.

The number of years of formal education someone has had ties to both one’s physical and psychological well-being.

People who are more educated tend to have higher mental well-being. Likewise, people with less education are more likely to have health problems earlier in life and don’t live as long.  

This research highlights a correlation, not a direct cause and effect relationship, Ryff clarified.

She’s curious how education, in particular the kind that occurs outside of formal institutions, can help people lead better lives.

“How does education help us be good citizens? As we journey across adulthood, how does education help us continue to make the most of our talents and capacities, to grow and develop?” she asked. 

Research is not far enough along to address whether or not the same psychological and physical health benefits correlate with informal education, but the association strictly to formal education is not perfect, Ryff explained. 

Since there are some people with limited formal education in good health, it’s possible this may be partly related to their informal educational activity.

Learning Can Take Many Forms

Most adult learning is informal, Knox said, and emphasized that people can get a valuable education from participating in a variety of activities outside of a classroom and it is important to look beyond formal education.

Formal education is classroom-based, provided by trained teachers and usually results in a grade or degree. On the other hand, an informal education is any learning that occurs outside this setting — in one’s interactions with others, through books, in a place of worship or a community organization.

While the level of formal education is one of the biggest predictors of whether or not an individual will participate in other types of learning activities throughout their life, Knox said that people who were left out of formal education early in life are prime candidates for continued studies.

“I live with the assumption that the capacity for learning exists in everyone. But it maybe gets developed to less of a degree in some people than others,” Ryff said. “If that’s true, then it’s even more important for people to have continuing opportunities for education [formally or informally].”

Current research on lifelong learning is not a matter of whether or not individuals can learn throughout their life, but how and where this learning occurs.  

“In terms of the ability of adults at all stages of the life cycle to be able to learn, that doesn’t have to be argued,” Knox said.

Seventy-three percent of American adults consider themselves lifelong learners, according to a 2016 study by Pew Research Center.

Ross is looking forward to another semester at Madison’s Participatory Learning and Teaching Organization, which provides a space for adults — typically 50 and over — to explore various topics through member-led discussion groups, lectures, travel and social activities, where he’s been a member for over 20 years.

“The impetus for me [to join PLATO], and I suspect for a lot of people, is the idea that learning is a journey and it’s not something you just do when you’re young — it’s something that you do throughout your life,” he said.

Recently, two extensions onto lifelong learning have developed.

The first, life-wide learning, argues that learning applies to all aspects of one’s life. It offers a more comprehensive view of activities in which adults might take part in outside of a traditional classroom or workplace and how they contribute to one’s informal education.

Michael Stevens, PLATO’s current president, suggested that lifelong learning programming, like what is provided at PLATO, offers a chance for greater life enrichment in comparison to formal education that centers on preparing students for life as a working professional.

“It’s a chance to embrace learning for its own sake,” Stevens said.

The second extension, life-deep learning, suggests that learning is more than just covering content that can be applied for an exam or a task at work. Instead, it focuses on the ability to use acquired knowledge and apply it in real life, potentially making a difference in one’s environment.

Stevens added that he knows numerous people whose experiences in PLATO courses inspired them to volunteer in the community.

Lifelong Learning in Madison

Beyond organizations like PLATO, Madison Senior Center or various senior living homes that can provide programming and support to Wisconsin’s senior citizens, it’s also the law that Wisconsin’s older residents be allowed to audit courses at UW-System schools for free. 

By a Wisconsin State Legislature mandate, senior citizens are allowed to audit non-participation based courses for for no charge as long as there is space in the class.

The original 1973 mandate extended the offer to anyone over the age of 65, though the most recent mandate, last updated in 2000, restricts access to Wisconsin residents but lowered the age to 60 and older.

“I think a lot of the people [take courses] not only for their own interest but knowing that learning new things can be helpful to them later on and keep the mind going,” said Anne Niendorf, who advises senior guest auditors. 

Whether an individual is motivated to learn about something of personal interest, bond with their children or grandchildren by taking a similar course, or for personal enrichment more generally, Niendorf said auditing is a good way for retired people to keep busy.

PLATO and the Department of Continuing Studies, part of which is senior guest auditing, work together to offer multiple resources for lifelong learning to senior citizens in the community.  

If for some reason an individual doesn’t qualify to be a senior guest auditor, Niendorf says she often refers them to PLATO. Likewise, many PLATO members also audit courses at UW.

PLATO is based in Madison and created by members, for members. Participants are both the teachers and the students and there is no set course curriculum — it just depends on what subjects members are interested in teaching or taking.

“We’ve always put an emphasis on what [someone] gets out of PLATO and the degree to which they want to participate is very much driven by the individual,” Stevens said. “It’s driven by [their] inclinations about their particular state in life and their ability to do what they find meaningful.”

Ross’s favorite part of PLATO are small group discussions because of the chance it provides to challenge and be challenged on different subjects. In these discussions, he feels there’s a chance to accept what you don’t know and learn from what others who have different lives and work experiences bring to the conversation. 

“Even though we get older and we’ve learned a lot in our journey through life, there’s an awful lot we don’t know,” he said. “What I have found are the people who really respond strongly to PLATO are the people who say, ‘Gee, I didn’t know that.’”

While Ross most appreciates the intellectual opportunities at PLATO, the organization also provides social opportunities and assists seniors in building a new social network outside of their professional lives — one aspect that particularly appealed to Stevens.

“Suddenly, when one retires, unless one goes consciously out of the way, those kinds of [professional] connections can fall apart. In my experience, PLATO allowed me to build new networks and new connections with people,” he explained.

Similarly, auditing courses allows senior guests to stay connected to the Madison community through their involvement on campus, Niendorf said.

The variety of settings in which learning occurs — whether a discussion, lecture, social interaction or something else — can all grant educational value.

“Learning is learning,” Knox said.

Similar opportunities for interaction and discussion occurs in programming at Oakwood Village University Woods, a senior community that aims to support lifelong learning, where he has been a resident for the last four years, he added.

Over the course of 30 years, PLATO has expanded from offering its 50 members two courses a semester to serving nearly 1,300 members with 50 courses to choose from. Likewise, UW’s senior guest auditing started almost 50 years ago with only four auditors compared to Fall 2019 in which there are already 1,100 enrolled.

Both Niendorf and Stevens mentioned that they try to make their programming as accessible as possible, whether that’s maintaining a volunteer-based organization to keep costs low for members as PLATO does, or providing additional resources and assistance to seniors trying to navigate enrolling through the online system, which Niendorf explained is a focus of hers.

“For all the enjoyment that they can get [out of auditing], I don’t want any student to be bogged down by any of the steps they need to get there,” she said.

Everyone Can Be a Lifelong Learner

Three-quarters of adults are personal learners, meaning they’ve participated in at least one of a variety of activities — attending meetings, taking courses, reading — to further their knowledge about something that personally interests them, according to the same 2016 Pew study.

“I think it’s a good thing for people to spread their interests [beyond their profession],” Stevens said. “It’s healthy and challenges their ideas, both which is good for the individual but I think it makes them better citizens.”

In this sense, continued education not only benefits the individual’s mental and physical health, but also can benefit their community more broadly.

Of these adults, 80 percent said their motive was to learn something that would help make their life more interesting and full and 64 percent said they wanted to learn something that would allow them to help others more effectively.

By 2035, older people will outnumber children for the first time in US history, according to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau, bringing to head the question of whether social institutions can keep up with an aging society.

“Does life continue to be meaningful and purposeful for people who are living into their eighties, nineties, and even past a hundred?” Ryff asked.

Some are worried that aging presents people with a “role-less role,” meaning their role in society is not having one. When someone retires, they lose their role as a working professional. When their children grow up, they lose their role as an active parent. 

In order for people to live longer while maintaining meaning in their lives, they need to have roles and opportunities, according to Ryff.

“One of the roles we can always have in our lives, if we so choose, is the role of a learner — to just be committed to learning all our lives,” Ryff said.  “And I think the world would probably be a better place if everyone was deeply committed to continued learning in whatever direction interests them.”

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