The ability to learn and adapt quickly is a much-needed one in a dynamic and fast-changing modern world. The advent of globalisation and the knowledge economy means that people have to constantly work on their skills to keep up with changing dynamics, at both personal and professional levels.

It’s through this need for continuous learning that the notion of a learning society comes into play. Where lifelong learning holds that learning is an essential aspect, whether in school or daily life, the learning society has emerged as a philosophy that holds that education is far more than what is found in traditional educational institutions – positioning it as vital to the economic development of a nation.

A learning society can be described in many ways, but at its core is a community that embraces and promotes a learning culture among its people and between all sectors of the community. In this sense, lifelong learning is more than just providing access and opportunities to people; like sustainable development, it is a notion that values learning for its effect and its own sake. Such a society also values people for who they are and what they do and is achievable when learning systems are re-examined and designed to make them a part of every individual’s life.

Early History

The concept of a learning society has its roots in the work of philosophers such as Donald Schön who came up with the idea that in a modern state, change is constant. For a society within that state to adapt, it needed to learn constantly. Further work by Robert Maynard Hutchins extended into the business environment, where he argued that educational institutions couldn’t be expected to keep up with the dynamic nature of the business environment.

Schön’s contribution was among the most defining in this area, exploring how social movements, governments and companies were learning systems that could be enhanced. He made the case of a business entity as a perfect example of a learning system, especially when it evolves from organising around products towards integration around business systems.

Hutchins, in a 1968 publication, posits that a learning society is a necessity given (in his view) that education systems couldn’t keep up with the demands placed on them. For him, learning was vital for change, similar to how the ancient city of Athens had a learning culture that was core to the city’s existence.

Other contributors included Torsten Husén, who argued for societies to embrace knowledge and information at the core of their activities, and Roger Boshier, who spoke of an integrated education model that allowed individuals to participate throughout their lifetimes. Boshier appreciated social and economic change, and his perspective of a learning society also included its democratic possibilities.

Aspects of A Learning Society

The important point underscored by these contributors is that learning is an activity and not something bound to a traditional institutional setting. In this regard, a learning society has social purpose, context and character, and exists both outside and inside the formal education system. It also has the following elements:

  • Futuristic: The learning society depends on advancements in technology, seen in the way the Internet has enabled education to move beyond conventional boundaries.
  • Reflexive: Learning societies embrace lifelong learning and ensure it is adaptable to changing dynamics while also flexible enough to meet the individual needs of the society’s members.
  • Global Market: This element requires that learning is commoditised so that participants in the learning process can pick and choose the education that fits their needs. The role of technology shines brightly in this aspect.
  • Societal: Lifelong learning, core to the learning society, is a contributor to a country’s economic growth and promotes democratic participation by its citizens.

The topic of a learning society is one that elicits discussion and debate around the world. Domen Zavrl, a businessman with extensive international business experience, maintains an active interest in the topic.