Knowledge Society

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A global revolution in science and technology after the end of World War II brought modernization and optimism regarding social advancement. This ideal was shared across the system borders of the whole cold war world. Education was explored as a tool for economic growth and social advancement. The idea of a society following the principles of lifelong learning and a competence-based style of learning was coming into the focus .

Progress through Education

It were the UNESCO education experts who linked in 1972 the role of education with social modernization and growth. At the “International Commission on the Development of Education” they recognized in their report "Learning to Be" education as a strategic field for social progress: “progress in education accompanies economic progress and, consequently, evolution in production techniques”. [1]

Since technology is essential for solving many of the problems in our modern society, the report concludes that scientific thinking should be an integral part of the educational curriculum on all levels - something that the old system based on Taylorism and standardized qualification for working on workbenches could not fulfill.

"One implication of the scientific and technological era is that knowledge is being continually modified and innovations renewed. It is therefore widely agreed that education should devote less effort to distributing and storing knowledge (although we should be careful not to exaggerate this) and more mastering methods of acquiring it (learning to learn).”[2]

In this time scientist worked on approaches for acquiring knowledge and developed the idea of key competencies. For example Dieter Mertens shifts the focus on a holistic understanding of education.[3]

  • Education helps individuals to shape their personalities
  • Education is necessary for securing (material) existence
  • Education provides orientation for societal behavior.

In this context, growing empirical research and systematic examination led to an idea which we still follow today and which is the focus of Competendo's educational approach:

  • A transversal model of competences with focus on applicability of knowledge skills and attitudes.
  • A definition of learning as lifelong, taking place as well beyond schools or vocational education.

Lifelong learning in the 21st century means now using any possible source to learn and combining these sources with the goal of competency development. The applicability of knowledge, skills and attitude come more to the front: the mastering of topical fields loses its importance symmetrically.

Learning as a Personal Competency

Such an open definition of learning implies that the learner is partially overtaking the role of a (self-)teacher. This ability to define what kind of learning might be relevant, the ability to draw conclusions out of observed behavior, and the skill to shape appropriate learning conditions is often paraphrased as the idea of '‘learning to learn.'’ Under the perspective of competency based learning all educational efforts seek to strengthen a learner’s so called self-competence: The main principle should be to centre educational activity on the learner, to allow him greater and greater freedom, as he matures, to decide for himself what he wants to learn, and how and where he wants to learn it and take his training.[4]

Toward active citizens

What goes for the individual is also crucial for that individual’s social role. Competency based learning equips people with the skills, knowledge and attitudes to help them to interact and to involve themselves intentionally in social processes. In civic education, we often use the term empowerment as feeling, gaining, sharing und using individual and group power. Participation on a higher quality level in politics, civil society and state requires certain civic competences. In the economic system, these social competences also become more important the more the tertiary (service-oriented) sector in our economies increases. It is not wrong to say in a general way:

For mastering the challenges of social modernization people need to develop the attitude of a self-responsible learner and follow the idea of lifelong learning. As a consequence one of the widely recognized frameworks for competence definition – developed by OECD - asks broadly : “What skills and competences are needed for individuals to lead successful and responsible lives in a society that can successfully face the challenges of the present and future?" [5]

Implications for the Role of Teachers

When we understand facilitation as the way or ‘art’ of shaping spaces, where all these conscious and unconscious processes, learning in schools and from life are brought together with the aim of helping participants to make sense of it and understand its relevance, this has consequences for trainings. In a way, lifelong learning is declaring every aspect of life a potential source for knowledge: even when a person feels that they learn nothing, but in fact do learn something (so called “informal learning”).

Therefore the person who is, in traditional education, a teacher or ‘edutainer’ in front of a group, becomes more and more a coach, an assistant and learning process manager. This goes hand in hand with the following paradigms:

New paradigms of lifelong learning

  • Resource orientation instead of deficit orientation
  • Shaping cooperative and collaborative learning environments
  • Emphasis on the applicability of the learning outcome
  • Consciously building connections between different kind of learnings
  • Mobilizing empathy for the needs of learners, accepting their positions and trying to understand them
  • Training the competence of systemic thinking and of reflective (self-) observation

Non-formal Learning as Catalysator of the Knowledge Society

In 1972 the Faure Commission recommended to “create special adult-education institutions or integrate out-of –school activities to assist adults to function better as citizens, producers, consumers and parents.” This was seen as a more flexible way for the population to “leave and rejoin the educational circuit as it suits them.” [6]. In their 2015 recommendations on adult learning UNESCO catches this up again: "Member states should promote "flexible and seamless learning pathways between formal and non-formal education and training"[7].

The importance of lifelong learning grew as it was implemented by the educational avant-garde. In fact new institutions and teaching approaches were set up to reflect the specific learning needs of adults. One innovative force was non-formal youth education which included a lot of process-oriented approaches (market for encounters, experiential learning, group dynamics tools, etc.). During that time methods like coaching, mentoring, and moderation skills found their way into other education fields such as management trainings. Even in a conservative branch like the military there were experimentations with role games and different simulations. However, the role of non-formal and informal ways of learning are still not perceived in their relevance by educational experts and policymakers. Unlike the UNESCO commission they often lack a bigger picture of learning by emphasizing only on the formal pillars of an educational system and ignoring the specific qualities of non-formal education.

Strengthened Collaboration within the Educational Sector

The challenge for the next decades is to put the idea of lifelong learning consequently into practice by building more cooperation between educational providers, building qualification paths that consequently ground on competencies and bridging the learning opportunities in society, at work and in traditional education better. As the Lifelong Learning Platform as a roof organization of educational actors in Europe puts it in their manifesto: Educational institutions should be encouraged to open their doors, adapt to learning diversity, and build sustainable partnerships to allow individuals to build their own learning pathways.[8]

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Network Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email:


  1. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: E. Faure, F. Herrera, A.-R. Kaddoura, H. Lopes, A. V. Petrovsky, M. Rahnema, F. C. Ward: Learning to be - The world of education today and tomorrow; 1972
  2. UNESCO; p. xxx
  3. Mertens, Dieter (1974): [ MittAB_Mertens.pdf Schlüsselqualifikationen- Thesen zur Schulung für eine moderne Gesellschaft; Mitteilungen aus der Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung.]
  4. UNESCO; p.255
  5. OECD: Definition and Selection of Competencies
  6. UNESCO; p.189
  7. UNESCO: Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education
  8. Lifelong learning Platform: Manifesto: Building the future of learning in Europe

Faure Commission

"Education should devote less effort to distribu­ting and storing knowledge (although we should be careful not to exaggerate this) and more to mastering methods of acquiring it (learning to learn)."
UNESCO (1972)  

Lifelong Learning Manifesto

"Lifelong learning is a structuring element of the knowledge society and contributes to support social cohesion and active citizenship, personal development and well-being, as well as Europe’s efforts towards a smart, inclusive and sustainable competitiveness."
Lifelong Learning Platform (2015)



M. Haberl, J. Teynor, M. Prahl, N. Zimmermann

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