A comment on Alan Tuckett’s “Making the case for lifelong learning”
It is a honor for me to be here to discuss the paper by Sir Alan Tuckett, besides being an opportunity to learn from and about PIAAC from you all at this Fifth International Conference. I brought no powerpoint for my presentation, and maybe I should apologize: the truth is that I did not expected sir Alan, to whom I consider a kind of socratic master, to use one and I decided to keep in line… but he has surrendered! However, I won’t apologize. I love tech, high and low, and I have been always an early adopter of PPTs and other virtual and real gadgets, but I am now a bit fed up, or simply more selective, and I am beginning to become an early powerpoint leaver. We shall speak more about early leavers in a moment. Anyway, please do not worry, because even if sir Alan and myself submit you to somewhat fuzzy opening addresses, I am sure that you will have techie ones for the rest of the conference.
There is no doubt to me that much of the political and academic focus on the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) derives from our interest in formal, initial education, i.e. in ordinary schooling, as it allows us to assess the final results of schooling for a generation (not just for an age class), if only we pay attention to young adults skills, or to the intergenerational evolution of educational outcomes, when we consider the whole of the working age population. This is, at least, what has happened in my country, Spain, when the results of PIAAC have been made public: that our discussion has been dominated, as always, by its eventual relation with past and present schooling outcomes.
It’s a merit of Alan Tuckett’s paper to make us think on the shortcomings of reducing adult learning to adult population working skills, but let me first delimit the reach of this observation, if only because I do not want to be included in the chorus of “anti-economicism” critics.
First, I don’t think that citizenship, personal development and other non-strictly economic educational goals may be opposed to education for an active economic life, that is, for work, for employability and for the understanding of economic life. In fact, this can be not only important components of real and active citizenship, but even its preconditions.
Second, it would be unfair to ignore the effort made by the OECD, even in such a successful quantitative, back-to-the-basics, ranking-prone enterprise like the PISA survey, to include different aspects before or beyond the 3Rs, or beyond language, mathematics and sciences, such as context variables and broader educational outcomes. Neither should we forget that inside the very OECD there are other research lines, much less centered around skills and much less based in quantitative measures, such as Schooling for Tomorrow, Innovative Learning Environments, Creative and Critical Thinking And some others, even if PISA and its likes have somewhat eclipsed everything else before the public opinion.
What is most important, however, one must admit that there is a widely extended anti-market and even anti-economics and anti-economy bias in the field of education and schooling, especially among public school teachers. So, one is often forced to defend the usefulness and even the legitimacy of PISA, TALIS, PIAAC or any other quantitative surveys before the teaching profession, as much as one has to warn against their sacralization by educational authorities or their shallow manipulation by the media.
It appears as obvious to me that this is not just the product of different or opposed opinions, values, ideologies or cultures, but also the stark expression of different and opposed interests; to say it plainly, it is part of a struggle for political influence as well as for economic resources. It is manifest that economic agents have an ideological life, but it should be equally clear that ideological agents also have an economic life, that is, economic interests and economic goals.
Once that has been said, I think we should go back to our topic and pay particular attention to the different role of learning along the life cycle, as sir Alan Tuckett asks us to do, but also to the different standpoints of collective actors around initial education and Life Long Learning, and to their sectional interests, so that it could happen that we have to push for a more important role of economic considerations in some cases and a lesser one in others. That’s exactly what I think, that initial education pays scarce attention to economic personal goals, while adult education often does the opposite. And that’s why I think that Alan Tuckett makes a point when signaling the bias of PIAAC towards labour oriented skills and towards the working age population.
Let me now concentrate my attention (as well as yours, if possible) in the final stages of life. When I say final, I do not mean terminal, but just final, let’s say the third third of a typical life. Not long ago each of these thirds had a unitary meaning: if you were not a full and capable adult, you had to be in your minor or in your old age. Now these major stages have diversified and fragmented, and just as we distinguish infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth and even young adulthood we must also identify three main substages of old age which I will call: ripe, third and fourth ages (just to conserve some of the conventional meanings, even if, as substages, they would be really sixth, etc., at least). If you are asking yourself how this classification can be related to the wider and useful one of Schuller and Watson, which Alan mentioned, the short answer could be that such age from 50 to 74 years would now be split in the ripe and the third ages.
Ripe age is the age of maturity. Maybe it is too an informal term, but I have found no better one to adjectivize as an age or an age group those who are otherwise called aging workers, travailleurs âgés, trabajadores maduros... You are probably at the top of your professional or working career, you have completed the reproduction cycle, you have pair your mortgage, etc., but at the same time, you can lose your employment; that is, you can fall from the tree at any moment, and fall forever, just like ripe fruits do.
And this becomes more probable because of the effect of technological change in employment. I do not subscribe at all the idea that technology, automation, digitalization, robotization, etc. destroy employment… in aggregate terms, but we can be certain that it destroys jobs and, even if they are replaced sooner or later, or even sooner than later, by as many or even by more jobs (that is the net balance of history, at least up to now), most or many of these new jobs will be occupied by new entrants.
As a corollary, many mature or aging workers who have lost their former jobs will never get a new one, or they will be derived to much worse jobs. So that’s the ripe age, and age that begins, or an age group that is formed, when a certain portion of the active or potentially active population is no longer employed, whether they are unemployed, discouraged and become inactive, or early retired.
If we fixed the line at 50%, for instance, we should find that, in many European countries, such age group begins before 60, even at 50 something. And so here we have a problem of labor market, labor skills, labor policies, etc. both market general and age specific, that I assume is fully under the radar of the Survey of Academic Skills (SAS), PIAAC and other established instruments.
My academic work is mainly concentrated around schooling, and most people agree that a major problem, even the first one, is early school leaving (ESL). In an era of fast and furious technological change as the one we leave in, we are facing a growing problem of early labor leaving (ELL, let’s say). And it is not only as an acronym that such an ELL stands in a middle point between too much ESL and too little LLL.
We have in Spain the highest ESL rate in Europe, and maybe in the OECD, and even if we have not been able yet to agree on a way to correct it, we do know long ago that the smaller part of this dropping out is due to the combined effect of push and pull (the push of boring classrooms and the pull of becoming economically independent), but its bigger part is simply due to the impossibility to continue their upper or further education once they have been discharged in lower secondary (this is an specific trait of the Spanish educational system, which excludes a very high portion of pupils at the end lower secondary education and offers them no way to stay).
No doubt that there is also push and pull forces in the transition from active work to retirement: the push of hard or alienating working conditions and the push of leisure and maybe a good pension, but a bigger and growing proportion of aging workers who lose their job and then leave the labor market, they do it simply because there is no way back open to them. And this, of course, depends in part of their labor skills, old and new.
Let’s consider, also that ways of learning are not independent from age and generation. Information society, media ecosystem, digital environment… all of it is creating or empowering more variated and de-institutionalized ways of learning: networks, virtual communities, learning apps, simulations, extended and virtual reality, p2p, etc. Bur today’s aging workers yet belong to generations for whom legitimate and relevant learning meant school, schooling, teaching, education, much more than DIY or edupunk, autonomous or collaborative learning, etc.
Douglas Adams rightly said that any technology that existed before you are 15 is simply normal, part of the way the world works; if it was created when you are between 15 and 35 years, it is exciting and revolutionary, and maybe you can even make a career of it, but if it happens to be invented after that, it will be against the order of things. So, we may think that older people, ripe workers to begin with, need an approach to learning more schooly, that is, more strongly supported by teaching and education, by institutions and policies, than younger people do.
But then enters the third age, an age in which people have left economic activity (as conventionally defined), but not social, cultural and political life. They try to keep active in their wider families, their local or interests’ communities or their citizen constituencies; even more active that when they had to concentrate a substantial part of their time and energies to economic activity, that is, to their jobs.
The problem is that, not long ago, active participation in the extended family, the closer community and the wider society could be inspired and based on shared personal experience and received traditions, but nowadays and ever more it requires to understand and to manage new forms of information processing, and this includes our personal communications, our home management, cultural awareness, political participation, etc.; i.e., our whole ordinary life. Just as we had aging workers we also have aging citizens, not only in a biological sense but as people living a mismatch between their potential and desired citizenship and their limited or vanishing citizen skills.
Of course, one can survive without all of that in many ways, but a full life requires learning at the same pace that our environment changes; when we stop to do that, we begin to die. That’s why adult learning, adult education and adult skills surveys must reach far beyond labor skills.
This last point, rightly underscored by professor Tuckett, is maybe the easiest. Why should PIAAC study only the population up to age 65? Even if we target the working population, this cut in age may already miss the point and falls short, as far as there is, there has long been and there will always be a portion of the population (professionals, managers, self-employed… but also poor workers who stay economically active further than the usual retirement age). Besides, this early cut contradicts the recommendations of many experts, think tanks and national and international economic organizations, the OECD included, on delaying retirement age beyond its actual 65 years benchmark.
It should be needless to say that this benchmark falls even shorter when we consider the span of an active –not just economically active– life. At the end of the day, SAS is or pretends to be about adult skills, while PIAAC is or pretends to be about adult competencies. How long, up to which age should we then survey (and explore, and promote) adult competencies? My answer is this: as long as an adult is able to fill a questionnaire.