Learning lives: learning, identity and agency in the life course

  • Goodson, Ivor (PI)
  • Biesta, Gert J.J. (CoPI)
  • Hodkinson, Phil (CoPI)
  • Macleod, Flora (CoPI)

Project Details


Learning Lives was the first large-scale longitudinal study of its kind into the learning biographies of 150 adults aged between 25 and 65+. Through interviews, observation and documentation and by using a life-history approach, the project traced and reconstructed the learning biographies of a wide range of different adults in different contexts and stages of their lives, both retrospectively and over a 30-month 'real time' period. The life-history study was complemented by a longitudinal survey study over the same period. 
The Economic and Social Research Council provided funding of £1,077,000.

The main ambition of the project was to investigate what learning ‘means’ and ‘does’ in the lives of adults. The research team used a broad conception of learning, which included learning in the context of formal education and work settings and learning in and from everyday life.

Whereas biographical and life-history methods have been utilised in researching adult and lifelong learning, the Learning Lives project was exceptional because of its scale, length, longitudinal ‘real time’ design, and because it combined analysis of interview data with analysis of quantitative longitudinal data.

The research focused on the significance and impact of life-course transitions upon learning, identity and agency. Key transitions include migration (travellers, international and intra-national migrants, asylum seekers), life, family and community transitions (individual, community and family support), age/stage transitions (careers guidance; adult education) and work transitions (redundancy; work based learning and trade union education).

The project objectives were:

to deepen understanding of the complexities of learning in the life course, with a special focus on the relationships between learning, identity and agency
to identify, implement and evaluate learning, teaching and guidance strategies for sustained positive impact upon learning opportunities, dispositions and practices and upon the empowerment of adults.

Research team:
> Professor Ivor Goodson, University of Brighton
> Professor Gert Biesta, University of Stirling
> Professor John Field, University of Stirling
> Professor Phil Hodkinson, University of Leeds
> Dr Flora Macleod, University of Exeter
> Teaching & Learning Research Programme

Key findings

The project has generated detailed evidence of the ubiquity and variety of learning in adults’ lives. Much learning is tacit; major life changing events often trigger learning, just as learning can lead to significant changes in people’s lives, adults have widely differing dispositions towards learning.

For many, learning is merely a factor of life, for others the sense of being a learner is an important part of their identity. In some cases this learner identity is focused around formal education but always with substantial informal learning related to it. Learning is sometimes valued for the outcomes it brings, but people often value the process of engagement in learning for its own sake.

The project generated detailed evidence of ways in which adults learn from their lives. The life-history methodology helped to explore the significance of narrative and narration in such learning processes, something the authors have captured in the idea of ‘narrative learning’.

The research identified, implemented and evaluated learning, teaching and guidance strategies for sustained positive impact upon learning opportunities, dispositions and practices and upon the empowerment of adults.

Impact on the academic research community
> We have consulted researchers from the UK and abroad on questions of methodology and design
> The European Society for Research on the Education of Adults gave the project a central place at their 2007 conference in Roskilde, Denmark
> Several researchers from abroad have visited us to learn more about the project
> Our work is quoted in academic presentations/publications.

Impact on policy
> John Field has advised the OECD on the development of its programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competences
> John Field was appointed to the Commission of Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, and has been leading its work on wellbeing across the life course, which drew on analysis conducted in Learning Lives.
> Phil Hodkinson provided a submission to the Inquiry.
> John Field has been seconded to the Government Office for Science as science coordinator for the Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing, which is taking a life course approach to its subject.
> The Scottish Funding Council sought advice from John Field on learner dispositions and decisions, as part of its report on learner choice (2007).
> Ruth Hawthorne and Geoff Ford participated in the Government Review of Information, Advice and Guidance for Adults, and made contributions to the Age and Employment Network and the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling.

Impact on participants and the wider community
> Many of the interviewees have indicated that participation in the project has had a significant positive impact on their lives.
> The Learning Life film was first shown at the annual meeting of the Scottish Trade Union Congress (April 2008). The film had four further showings on Information TV (SKY 167) in June 2008. The film is available on the post-project website and the film and about five hours of footage will be available for further dissemination (including teaching and CPD).


Selected publications

Goodson, I. F, Biesta, G, Tedder, M, & Adair, N. (2010) Narrative Learning. London and New York: Routledge.

Biesta, Gert (2008) Learning Lives: Learning, Identity and Agency in the Life-course: Full Research Report ESRC End of Award Report, RES-139-25-0111. Swindon: ESRC

Biesta, G. (2006) What’s the point of lifelong learning if lifelong learning has no point? On the democratic deficit of policies for lifelong learning. European Educational Research Journal, 5 (3-4) 169-180.

Biesta, G. & Tedder, M. (2007) Agency and learning in the life-course: towards an ecological perspective, Studies in the Education of Adults – Special Issue, 29 (2) 132-149.

Biesta, G. (2007) Why ‘what works’ won’t work. Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit of educational research, Educational Theory, 57 (1) 1-22.

Goodson,I. (2006) The reformer knows best: destroying the teacher’s vocation, Forum, 48 (3) 257-263.

Goodson, I. (2006) The rise of life narrative, Teacher Education Quarterly, 22 (4) 7-21.

Goodson, I. (2007) All the lonely people: the struggle for private meaning and public purpose in education, Critical Studies in Education, 48 (1) 131-148.

Transcripts of participants’ interviews were deposited at the UK Data Archive. The Learning Lives dataset will become a unique historical document about adult learning in the twentieth and early twenty-first century.

Project film
WebsEdge TV produced a short film on the project, called The Learning Life. The film shows the challenges faced by adult learners when trying to access learning opportunities and then use their new skills in productive and meaningful work.
Effective start/end date1/01/0331/12/08


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