The Double Helix of Learning and Work

Editors’ Note

The Double Helix of Learning and Work by Orio Giarini and Mircea Malitza is a report to the Club of Rome first published by UNESCO in 2003. It advances fundamental paradigm-changing ideas in the field of education. Drawing inspiration from the double helix structure of DNA, the authors seek to strengthen the relationship between education and employment in order to bring ‘The Knowledge Society’ within reach. This article contains the first chapter of the report. Successive chapters will be carried in subsequent issues of Cadmus.

Chapter 1
“I Learn, therefore I Change”


A new concept of lifelong education emerged by the end of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Over that period, human societies had tended to place education among their top priorities. The idea that good schooling was the underlying prerequisite of modern life, welfare, and normal social integration had never seemed more obvious. The widespread interest in education was exploited by political parties, which busily produced doctrines, solutions, and reform plans. In the developed countries, education benefited from extensive support and generous facilities, while the developing countries inaugurated campaigns against illiteracy and for the establishment of structured education systems.

Nevertheless, dissatisfaction about the performance of educational institutions has persisted from one generation to the next. Since Philip H. Coombs published The World Educational Crisis (1968), the catchword has been: all countries face a severe crisis in their education systems, and all countries have solemnly launched comprehensive reforms. Few people understood that the very idea of intermittent reform was wrong and that a good school needed to undergo continuous reform, adjusting itself to the needs of society and to the new promises of technology after having introduced proper mechanisms for change into its institutional setup.

It is difficult to expect that, all by itself, one of the most conservative structures of civil society should be able to develop a vocation for perpetual change. For centuries, people have perceived education as a fixed system through which “innocent” young people are processed in order to be returned to society after a decade or two, well-equipped with knowledge and skills that are necessary for a productive life. No matter how many efforts are made to humanize this process by imparting to it affective, moral, or aesthetic dimensions, deep down it has never changed.

Education is viewed as a system with an input and an output, and its effectiveness is measured by means of statistics, costs, infrastructure, and personnel. At its core lies a centuries-old set of subjects or disciplines in a curriculum that has a flow similar to that of etymology, like a river that gradually deepens and branches out. Ever since the days of ancient Greece, mathematics has been mathematics, music has been music, astronomy has been astronomy, and medicine has been medicine. Until recently, despite the dynamic evolution of the content, i.e., the syllabus, one thing has been clear: the river flows into the sea, and the school is a closed chapter for those who have left it.

Hence, the revolutionary importance of the newly emerging concept. Under several different names, such as permanent education, continuous education, recurrent education, it states the same thing. Education does not conclude with graduation or a doctoral paper, but it remains open-ended. The graduates of classical cycles return to take up new subjects. Since the 1990s, this idea has been embodied in the principle of lifelong education or lifelong learning. It points to what was suggested several decades ago, namely learning from “the cradle to the grave”.

Let us assume that adult thirst for knowledge has not been discouraged by the closed doors of the official educational or school system, which is considered to be formal because it is regulated by laws, ordered by professional fora, and recognized by means of official documents, i.e., diplomas. Adults, therefore, have had to resort to non-formal organizations that have come in a Variety of forms: so-called peoples’ universities, evening courses, and university-level special courses on arts, sports, religion, and foreign languages that entitled graduates to recognition through certificates or other such documents, however, at a lower level than that conferred by “official” diplomas. Such certificates have only acknowledged the fact that a given person has taken a certain course, without providing an additionally recognized right.

At the same time, the explosive development of the mass media, despite their pre-eminently commercial character and focus on entertainment, has been offering new sources of information and knowledge regarding such topics as history, economics, social science, and culture. That kind of acquired knowledge is not entitled even to the less authoritative recognition provided by a certificate of non-formal education. Everything that an individual can pick up from his or her family or kin group, from readings, or from watching television falls under the no less important category of informal education.

Lifelong education is a new and powerful concept that illustrates the changing relationship between the state and its citizens. It is not limited to individuals in a certain age group who have to go to school. Rather the entire population claims the same right, in regard to education, that it has acquired in regard to health care: lifetime access.

The term, lifelong, applies to education as well as to learning. The word, learning, was introduced over the past few decades, rather than education, to emphasize the primacy of the learning process, whereby the individual is supposed to play the leading role, while the notion of an educational system carries the connotation of external intervention. In such a vision, the teacher does not administer knowledge, values, and skills, but returns to maieutics – the Socratic method – as a means to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge by those who are interested in doing so.

The ministries of education still retain their names, there being no “ministries of learning”. The whole system that is being organized, financed, and maintained by the state is education-rather than learning-based, even though the latter should, in fact, be its basis of operation. Lifelong learning does exist, even if it is an individual responsibility. Each individual resorts to whatever methods may be available to maintain the continuous functioning of learning mechanisms.

The concept of lifelong learning, however, is no longer embraced by the societies of today, simply in the sense of informal and non-formal resources. It is permeating a new vision of education as a guiding and organizing principle. Its merit is to induce a unitary/unifying vision of all education or learning phases, from kindergarten to the doctorate, and on, for a sixty-year life span.

Lifelong learning has come into the limelight for the following simple reasons. The last few decades of the past century coincided with a spectacular explosion of human knowledge. (Here, knowledge is understood as any statement subject to universal verification and validation, a scientific theorem, or a technological recipe, blueprint, or know-how.) Science and technology provide the most accurate definition of knowledge. In a broader sense, knowledge is also acquaintance gained by experience and work, even if it is not theorized or formalized. A huge amount of practical knowledge has been transmitted from generation to generation and has been incorporated into skills to be applied.

Science and technology are the pillars of civilization, followed by universal practices such as trade and other economic activities. Cultures belong to a different sphere, that of beliefs, values, and particularities of language and history which account for their splendid variety.

It has been noted that a piece of knowledge is a perishable product. It is subject to a law similar to that applying to radioactive substance physics:the half-life principle. The school enclosure functions under a similar hypothesis: it equips persons with knowledge that is supposed to be relevant for the rest of their lives. But the existing system appears to be shaky once school leavers discover that everything they have acquired or learned is no longer valid after a lapse of ten years. A specialist in technology would normally consider that the “shelf life of a degree in engineering is about three years”. The halving time of some radioactive substances is hundreds of years, but in the case of knowledge, halving may take less than a decade. Either the inherent frailty of knowledge must be acknowledged, or a radical recycling procedure must be introduced. This last solution points to continuous or lifetime learning.

The second root of the concept is demographic. Life expectancy has increased in the developed countries beyond the age of 70. Young contingents are smaller. The whole of society is aging. The closed educational system was designed and developed for large cohorts of young people and for short active lives. As we write these lines, an 81-year-old Japanese minister is replacing a 71-year old one. The third age has started to look for ways of keeping busy, and it is demonstrating remarkable participatory impulses. Elderly people would like to keep abreast of the times, but the bastion of formal education stays closed.

The social dimension cannot be overlooked. Civil society, today, is vocal. There are numbers upon numbers of non-governmental organizations, movements for the protection of individual rights, for the emancipation of women, and for the inclusion of minorities. Not only do engineers find themselves disoriented when confronted with new technologies, but also those adults, who, when requested to give an opinion, discover that their schooling has not taught them how to communicate, to co-operate, to initiate a new project, or to found a business. Should the doors of the system to active life be thrown open, a greater concordance between theory and the actual throb of life and nature would be achieved as well as the promise of a more harmonious and less schizoid or stressful life. In fact, this last social argument supports and explains the wide attraction that lifelong education now enjoys.

The high-tech information society is, by its very nature, a changing society that is continuously requiring the mastering of new information and new techniques usable in occupational pursuits. We have, since the early 1960s, been talking about “life-long”, “permanent”, or “continuing” education which means that no matter how much formal education a person has been able to acquire at the beginning of his or her life, relearning and new learning has to take place continuously throughout the rest of this person’s life. Today, in some countries, the costs incurred by enterprises for the upgrading of the competencies of their personnel are of the same order of size as for the entire public system of education (Torsten Husén, “Education by the Year 2025”, 1999-2000).

The key question is the following: why does this universally recognized, embraced, and proclaimed concept not work? The question is not about the effectiveness of the vast rhetorical exercise in its favour. What is being evoked is the fact that one rarely encounters a 40-, 50, or 60-year old person who returns to a university saying, “I want to go on”, and who finds a welcoming open door. The system is not prepared for such an eventuality. Should this person be sent to the same college from which he or she graduated? But this person has different interests now which do not fit into the educational sphere of that college. Should the university authorities recommend new textbooks, select bibliographies, extensive courses so that the person might keep in touch with contemporary knowledge? But he or she only needs clarifications, specific applications of that vast amount of knowledge in his or her field of interest, with a meaningful impact on his or her social roles. All this person can receive is a short summer course, designed with the best of intentions by some well-meaning professors, sometimes in collaboration with industry.

When asked about their involvement in lifelong education, universities will briefly mention such ad hoc courses that entitle one not to a diploma, but to a mere certificate. They do not offer an orderly learning system; they do not include the applicant into a coherent programme; and they show no interest in what he has formally learned. Why is that? Because higher education curricula stop short of any extension, they do not have open valences to future possible programmes. Programmes are invariably terminal.

This reality draws attention to an element without which the concept remains inapplicable: the curriculum has to be open at the end, while now it is fatally closed. It has to continue into the fourth stage (the other three being clearly defined: basic, secondary, and tertiary). That is, the stage of active life, when life’s actor has full and mature possession of his or her capacity to learn alone (goal choice, course choice, choice of the best time frame), assisted by tutors, and enjoying the educational facilities of the school (libraries, laboratories, and other logistical paraphernalia).

As for official recognition, the concept of lifelong education has broken all records. The European Union countries introduced it into the Treaty of Amsterdam. The year, 1996, was declared the “European Year of Lifelong Education”. The entire education and training programme of the Communication Commission (Towards a Europe of Knowledge) for 2000-2006 is centered on the subject of lifelong learning. Following the major series of reports that introduced the concept, the recent UNESCO Delors Report (1998) ranks it first among the principles that are most likely to guide the future of education.

Despite significant conceptual progress, the situation in the field remains confused and unsatisfactory. According to the EURYDICE Survey of March 2000 (European Commission, 2000) “as in the case of other desirable social goals, there is a difference between the ideal and the reality, theory and practice, and promises and results”.

Is the current situation a result of the difficulty in formulating a precise definition of lifelong education, a fact that has been pointed out by many analysts? All major concepts that influence political activity – i.e., democracy, liberty, welfare – are fuzzy. There is no clear boundary, no precise beginning and end. But this fuzziness does not impede either the broad use of such concepts or their incorporation into legislation and common law.

The present state of the implementation of the concept is that of a huge basket of experiences, in which all attempts, otherwise praiseworthy, to embrace all new forms of learning pertaining to each and every social category and age are thrown in.

It is to be noted, however, that the assembled experiences have been conceived either outside the classical system or in addition to it. If they stay outside, there will be plenty of goodwill and understanding. Jonasson’s (1988) report is quite clear. Four categories of learners (some young students, some aged students, graduates, and those seeking employment diversification in new fields) make up heterogeneous groups that require a different, more clear-cut system. The objections of the advocates of the existing educational system, with its traditional and acknowledged discipline, rigour, and academic ethos, arise when a single lifelong education system is brought into question. Pressing the matter to the root of that resistance, one finds an element that has been badly neglected so far: the pressing need for a single methodology, for one homogeneous system, based on a new perspective on knowledge, which still appears to be dominated by the archaic schema of disciplines and their curricula. How can continuous lifelong education be introduced when the traditional curricula are designed for a discontinuous and closed education?

Interdisciplinarity has been another cardinal idea of the past few decades. It has been the same guiding light for scientific research as lifelong learning has been for education. As in the case of education, what has blocked its coming to fruition has come from the same source: the watertight separation of disciplines or fields of knowledge.

It is only by breaking that deadlock and overcoming the contemporary impasse and confusion that it will become possible to give free rein to one of the most interesting ideas of our time.

* All content being used from the book The Double Helix of Learning and Work – a Report to the Club of Rome – by Orio Giarini and Mircea Malitza, published in 2003, is copyrighted to UNESCO. The full book is available online for download at

Pages: 1 2 3 4