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Lifelong Learning: A Dream: Malcolm Knowles

Perspectives on Educational Change
Compiled and Edited by Dee Dickinson

Malcolm Knowles, Ph.D.


There is a dream I have had for a long time-a lifelong learning center in every community. I just dreamed it once again. The calendar on my bedroom wall showed that it was January 1, 2001 A.D., and the surroundings in my dream place me in Anyplace, U.S.A. (Later dreams put me down in villages and cities all over the world.)

I saw people of all ages going into and coming out of the center, which had lettering over its door: "Main Street Lifelong Learning Center." This suggested to me that there were similar centers in other parts of the town -- perhaps within walking distance of every citizen. I joined a family group consisting of a four-year-old boy, a fourteen-year-old girl, a mother and father in their mid-thirties, and a grandmother in her late sixties, and I entered with them.

We were greeted by a receptionist who referred each individual to a small office in a wing of the building labeled "Learning Skill Assessment Laboratory." I chose to accompany (invisibly) the four-year-old boy. When he entered the little office he was greeted by a charming young lady who invited him to sit by her and she explained that the purpose of their meeting was to help him get ready to take charge of his own learning with the support of the staff of the Center. She gave him a few assessment exercises designed to determine the levels of his skills in planning and carrying out learning projects and gave him a form showing his ratings on eight skill dimensions (his "Learning Skill Profile"). She congratulated him on having achieved the appropriate level of skill for four-year-olds in all dimensions, and referred him to a helper who served as educational diagnostician in another office down the hall.

While we were waiting in the lounge area for an educational diagnostician to become available I was able to check out with the other members of the family what their experience had been and learned that each of them showed some weakness in one or two learning skills and had been given corrective exercises to work on at home. They were given the following learning skills inventory:


  1. The ability to develop and be in touch with curiosities. Perhaps another way to describe this skill would be "the ability to engage in divergent thinking."

  2. The ability to perceive one's self objectively and accept feedback about one's performance non-defensively

  3. The ability to diagnose one's learning needs in the light of models of competencies required for performing life roles.

  4. The ability to formulate learning objectives in terms that describe performance outcomes.

  5. The ability to identify human, material, and experiential resources for accomplishing various kinds of learning objectives.

  6. The ability to design a plan of strategies for making use of appropriate learning resources effectively.

  7. The ability to carry out a learning plan systematically and sequentially. This skill is the beginning of the ability to engage in convergent thinking.

  8. The ability to collect evidence of the accomplishment of learning objectives and have it validated through performance.

The educational diagnostician, another charming young lady, greeted our four-year-old boy warmly and started asking him questions about what he would like to be able to do when he was five years old. I could see that she was being guided in her questioning by a list of "competencies for performing life roles" lying on her desk (and reprinted here). As she talked with him it became clear that he had aspirations "to get ready for school," to "get along better with the kids," and to "have a little more fun." She then gave him a few simple exercises to perform to assess his level of knowledge and skill for performing the roles of learner, friend, and leisure-time user. She noted the results of the exercises on a form and gave it to him to take to the next helper, an educational planning consultant, in another wing of the building.

While we were waiting in the lounge area I had a chance to check out with the other family members what had happened to them. The fourteen-year-old girl had identified some competencies for the role of learner (i.e. being a self, friend, citizen, and family member) that she wanted to work on. The mother was most concerned with improving her competencies in the role of family member, worker, and leisure-time user; the father, in the roles of worker and leisure-time user; and the grandmother, in the roles of learner (she felt that she had sort of "stagnated" in this regard) and leisure-time user (she wanted to learn to play the piano).






Reading, writing, computing, perceiving, conceptualizing, imagining, inquiring, aspiring, diagnosing, planning, getting help, evaluating.

Being a Self (with a unique self-identity)

Self-analyzing, sensing, goal-building, objectivizing, value-clarifying, expressing, accepting, being authentic.


Loving, empathizing, listening, collaborating, sharing, helping, giving constructive feedback, supporting.


Caring, participating, leading, decision making, acting, being sensitive to one's conscience, discussing, having perspective (historical and cultural), being a global citizen.

Family Member

Maintaining health, planning, managing, helping, sharing, buying, saving, loving, taking responsibility.


Career planning, using technical skills, accepting supervision, giving supervision, getting along with people, cooperating, planning, delegating, managing.

Leisure-time user

Knowing resources, appreciating the arts and humanities, performing, playing, relaxing, reflecting, planning, risking.


I accompanied our four-year-old boy into the office of the educational consultant, who gave me the impression of being a kindly retired school teacher. After some get-acquainted talk with the boy, he looked at the forms filled out by the learning skills assessor and the educational diagnostician. After further discussion it was agreed that the learning project the boy would like to start with was "getting ready for school" and that his first objective was "Finding out what school is like." The consultant pulled a form headed "Learning Plan" from his desk and they began filling it out together. The form had five columns, the first one headed "What Are You Going to Learn?" (Learning Objectives), in which they wrote "To find out what school is like." The second column was headed "How Are You Going To Learn It?" (Resources and Strategies), and in this one they wrote "Talk to three first graders and three kindergartners"; "Visit Miss Smith's first grade class for two days," (which the consultant arranged); and "Have my sister read Johnny Starts to School to me" (a copy of which the consultant gave the boy). The third column, headed "Target Date," had the notation "Christmas." The fourth column, headed "Evidence of Accomplishment", had the notation, "Give an oral report (tell) to my sister, mother, father, and grandmother." The fifth column, headed "Verification of Evidence," had the notation, "They agree that I have the picture." The consultant thanked the boy for his cooperation and gave him a card with the date on it for a return visit after Christmas to plan his next learning project.

I met the rest of the family in the lounge area and they proudly showed me their learning plans. The sister's plan called for her to strengthen her interpersonal relations skills, and she was scheduled to enroll in a teen-age human relations training group at the Y.W.C.A. for three months. The mother's plan called for her to start learning about career planning by participating in a career-planning workshop at the community college. The father's plan had as its first objective, "To develop knowledge and skill in computer programming," and he was to be linked up with a volunteer tutor who was a member of a local computer networking group. And, sure enough, the grandmother had been enrolled in a beginners' piano class at the local conservatory.

When I awoke from this dream I realized that my personal dream-giver had graced me with a bare snapshot of a vision of a transformative model of education for the future-a conceptualization of a community as a system of learning resources; truly, a learning community in which continuing learning throughout life is a basic organizing principle for the whole enterprise. As I let my mind wander I could visualize a community in which every individual, every organization, and every institution was perceived as a resource for learning.

I could visualize this system of resources being managed by a coordinating body representative of the various categories of individuals, organizations, and institutions. But the heart of this system-the entity that made it work-was the network of community learning centers. They were the depositories of information about all of the learning resources in the community (in electronic data banks). They housed the specialists-learning skills assessors, educational diagnosticians, educational planning consultants-and support staffs that linked all citizens of the community of all ages to appropriate learning resources and gave them the skills and support necessary to use them effectively for lifelong learning.

This dream that I have had for so long is becoming a reality as new kinds of community learning centers are being developed in every part of our country and other countries as well. These are the new forms of education that are emerging from a society in the process of transformation. They are themselves "learning systems" that are capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation-truly responsive to a learning society!

About: Malcolm S. Knowles

Dr. Malcolm Knowles concluded his book Andragogy in Action by noting that "We are nearing the end of the era of our edifice complex and its basic belief that respectable learning takes place only in buildings and on campuses. Adults are beginning to demand that their learning take place at a time, place, and pace convenient to them. In fact, I feel confident that most educational services by the end of this century (if not decade) will be delivered electronically . . . . Our great challenge now is to find ways to maintain the human touch as we learn to use the media in new ways."

His quest for finding these new ways has led to his development of a self-directed, andragogical model of learning and of the conception of community learning centers as new kinds of educational facilities where lifelong learning can take place. Indeed intergenerational learning is a common element in many of the programs where his dreams are materializing, and which are encouraging self-directed learning at all ages.

In 1960 he developed a new graduate program in adult education at Boston University, and during the next fourteen years he applied the principles of adult learning in his laboratory. He put much of what developed in his book The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy.

Dr. Knowles is Professor Emeritus of Adult and Community College Education at North Carolina State University. Since his retirement from North Carolina State University in 1979, he has been an active consultant to business and industry, government agencies, educational institutions, religious institutions, and volunteer groups throughout the world.

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