After Covid-19 job losses, lifelong learning is vital

To help the nation recover from job losses caused by Covid-19, the Prime Minister has renewed his commitment to lifelong learning. The recently announced Lifetime Skills Guarantee underlines the importance of lifelong learning, especially as a way of making people and industries resilient to change.

But many employees struggle to continually learn new skills, and many employers struggle to support them. So how can we, as an education sector, support the people and industries hit hardest by Covid-19 to overcome this struggle, become effective lifelong learners, and begin their recovery?


Employers value human skills

At Pearson, we’ve been researching the skills people need to stay employable in the face of change, and how to support those skills, to inform the development of a new online learning product we’re about to pilot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the skills that allow people to weather change are the so-called “human skills”. These include self-management, communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, all of which are hard to automate, making employees who can demonstrate them all the more valuable. They are also lacking in the current workforce: the UK Employer Skills Survey has found that a substantial proportion of skill-shortage vacancies can be attributed to applicants lacking skills like time management, critical thinking or customer handling.

Skills like these are best learned by doing: that is, through experiential learning. Compared to simply studying theory in class, experiential learning has been shown to promote deeper learning and to help motivate the learner.

It’s also the kind of learning today’s employers want to see. Research by Pearson and others show that employers value real-world experience highly, especially in early career development.


From research to real world

So far, so theoretical. What would learning look like in practice for modern employees, if it was based on this research?

It would need to be structured to promote experiential learning. David Kolb’s influential and research-based experiential learning model (published in his 1984 book Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development) provides inspiration for how to enact this type of learning. Kolb highlights the importance of concrete learning experiences followed by practical application and opportunities for reflection. These practical applications can occur in the classroom with simulated examples or in authentic, real world activities (more specifically referred to as “situated learning”).

The new online learning product we’re piloting puts these principles into practice. Learners start by reading theory, as in traditional models. They are then given options to engage with the theory in the form of grounded, real-life examples. Next, they work with a mentor – someone a few years more advanced in the same profession – to identify opportunities for situated learning. The mentor then provides specific, actionable feedback; and the learner reflects, not just on what they’ve learned, but on how they could demonstrate their skill development – in an interview, for example, or to a manager responsible for their development.

Being paired with a mentor who has experience in the profession means learners are getting a real work-like experience. Learners get to apply skills in practice, experience authentic tasks, and get the benefit of a mentor already using these skills in the given profession. This gives the learner a sense of what it’s like to work in that industry.

Overall, the result is a course that’s only about 25% traditional learning, and 75% applying that learning.

Throughout this process, the course explicitly communicates to learners why they are learning each new thing and how to apply it. This is because lifelong learning, itself, is a skillset that must be learned and practised, just like the knowledge and core competencies of a profession.

Among other things, lifelong learning requires a growth mindset (believing that you can improve and actively seeking opportunities to do so) and an intentional learning approach (being conscious of what you want to gain from each learning opportunity).

By practising thinking consciously about what they’re learning, why, and how, learners will begin to develop this all-important mindset.


Practising what we preach

Our early engagement with learners over this new product has been positive. They were surprised by the course’s emphasis on applying skills over learning theory and told us it compared favourably to previous experiences of online learning.

But like the research suggests, it’s important to apply what we’ve learned in a real-world setting. So next we want to work with higher education institutions to pilot the product. It’s an opportunity to build our joint understanding of experiential and situated learning and when these techniques are most effective. Are you in touch with alumni who may benefit from this pilot? It offers them a way to build the core skills we identify in the article and strengthen the experiential aspects of their CV. We are happy to share the findings of the pilot with you which would support any work you are already doing to help your students and alumni develop these kinds of skills.

If you’re interested in taking part in the pilot, contact

Richard Stagg is Director of Product Management, Higher Education Courseware UK, Pearson