For more than two decades, educators have embraced the important concept of “lifelong learning,” recognizing that learning is not confined to childhood or the classroom but takes place throughout life, in all its developmental stages, and in formal and informal settings. Lifelong learning not only describes the progressive acquisition of knowledge or development of skills over time but also captures the truth that individuals are in the process of be-coming throughout their lives.
This more holistic and comprehensive understanding contributes to an appreciation of human development as a journey. As educators, our challenge is to teach in such a way that there is continuity between the present “lesson” and learners’ past experience, such that what is learned in the moment builds momentum toward a future of integrated lifelong identity and purpose.
When we lose sight of the horizon of development, even the most well-intentioned lesson plan can prove irrelevant or meaningless. As Christian educators, our appreciation of learning throughout the life cycle, from birth to grave, informs what we do to help the baptized develop a lifelong Christian identity as a follower of Christ.
Much more recently, the concept of lifewide education was introduced in Europe, and I suggest it has tremendous value to the Christian educator. Lifewide education recognizes that learning occurs in multiple contexts.
Most people, no matter what their age or circumstances, simultaneously inhabit a variety of spaces and roles, like work or education, being a member of a family or a team, attending church and taking vacations, ultimately being responsible for their own mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. As a result, the trajectory of lifelong learning and the spaces of lifewide learning intersect, shaping the individuals we become.
If we focus only on a lifelong approach to education, things we learn can become outdated or unhelpful. We need ways to test, prune, adapt, and contextualize what we know. Attending to lifewide experiences equips the learner to notice the choices that can be made in response to everyday challenges and opportunities, and to make decisions to participate in the process of meaning-making.
Metaphorically speaking, think of lifelong learning as a long open road. Far off in the distance you can see the horizon, the road leading toward a mountains and sky, representing the realization of a life focused ultimately on fulfillment and flourishing. But the road is long and symbolizes the gradual, contingent process of one’s identity development. To sustain a commitment to lifelong learning, teachers and learners fix their eyes on the horizon to follow a forward-moving developmental path.
But look at either side of the road. What do you see? What do you wonder? What could you see, if only you took the time? What is growing? What is dying? What has left the road and made a life in place? Who is with you? What is missing all together?
These questions come from naming and nurturing the peripheral vision of the person on the path toward lifelong identity development. And these questions are the lifewide questions. Lifelong learning calls teacher and learner to look up; lifewide pedagogy calls teacher and learner to look around.
In religious terms, think of the goals of lifelong learning as eschatology; that is, seeing and seeking the goals of fulfilling our baptismal covenant until we meet the God of our longing in resurrection and the reign of God.
Then think of the goals of lifewide learning as incarnation; to bring our whole selves (made in the image of God) and the many contexts in which we live and move and have our being into the learning process and into the formation process of our Christian identity.
Ideally, holistic education is whole-person development that has both lifelong and lifewide dimensions. But how do we do it? How do we achieve this intersection in our teaching, learning, and mentoring? I argue that the best way to think about this intersection of lifelong and lifewide is to recognize it as an epic moment embedded within an individual’s epic life story; a time when the immediate event animates the lifelong process of identity development. As educators we must cultivate the art of narrative invitation.
We are are hard-wired for epic journeys by a loving and inviting God. Epic language and epic stories are a defining characteristic of human cultures. Storytelling is a timeless form of sharing knowledge and empowering the listener to take up the knowledge, to carry it into a journey that seeks ever more knowledge toward the ultimate goal of transforming self and world.
Today, there is evidence everywhere we turn for the statement in Ecclesiastes, “We have eternity written on our hearts.” Even the creators of Facebook, in changing the terminology of the “wall” to a “timeline,” has learned that invitation and storytelling are more fitting for the 700 million humans they long to engage.
The most-recent ad campaign for the iPad Air, an inessential but expensive product from Apple, features a simple question that doesn’t even mention technology, “What will your verse be?” Commercials for plumbing materials to food products invite the viewer to “follow the story.”
Lifelong learning gives us direction; lifewide learning provides our location. Lifewide learning embraces the unique context of the learner, breaks down walls between formal and informal learning, and ushers the whole person with her peripheral realities to move along the path toward development. The wise teacher and mentor optimizes learning at the lifewide/lifelong intersection by issuing an invitation of epic meaning; an invitation to come and see, to learn and grow, to dare and fail, to hope and heal.
The journey to follow Christ is the greatest invitation. It is both a lifelong journey and a lifewide experience of the presence of God in every dimension of our being at any moment. We can live at this intersection in any and every moment of our lives if we can embrace it as our epic moment. As St. Paul says, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
It is this hope, the invitation to “taste and see,” that pulls and powers us to take the steps from baptism toward resurrection.
Lisa Kimball (@kimball_lisa) is director of the Center for the Ministry of Teaching and professor of Christian formation and congregational development at Virginia Theological Seminary. This article is a follow up to her and Tricia Lyon’s keynote addresses at the 2014 Forma Tapestry Conference.