Lifelong Learning

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Title: Biographies of motivation for lifelong learning

Graeme Martin, School of Education, University of Birmingham, UK Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Glamorgan, 14-17 September 2005

Abstract: Research in motivation for learning (or achievement motivation) has flourished in the past 30 years. Social-cognitive theories dominate the field and have provided many insights but have been criticised for relying on a traditional methodological base, lacking of contextualisation and embeddedness in individual experience. In the current ‘learning age’ sustaining motivation for (often formal/academic) learning across the life span is increasingly expected but understanding persistence for such learning across life is not well understood. Much of the work in motivation for learning is quantitative, employing questionnaires, brief interviews or experimental manipulations. Longitudinal, qualitative research is sparse though a necessary counterpoint that can provide contextualised and alternative accounts of motivation through time and across culture. In turn insights from such accounts could better inform practical policy. This paper presents a case study applying the lifespan theory of control to an individuals’ learning biography.

Key Words: Biography; Lifelong Learning; Life Span Theory of Control; Motivation


‘Hardly any other research field in the domain of educational psychology has received so much attention in the past few years than motivation and its role in academic learning’ (Krapp, 2003).

Motivation, development and lifelong learning

Motivation is a fundamental process[1] shaping mind and behaviour, sustaining human action and culture, and is therefore essential to understanding the processes of persistence in learning[2]. Motivation is known to be expressed differently at different life ‘stages’ and to evolve over time (for a review see Smith, Rogers and Tomlinson, 2003). Life span theories of motivation exist (see Dweck and Heckhausen, 1998) mostly supported by experimental or psychometric studies that submerge the life of the individual in hopefully generalisable conclusions of group data (Elliot and Bempechat, 2002; Smith et al, 2003). Yet life-span theory in development ‘deals with the study of individual development (ontogenesis) from conception into old age. A core assumption…is that development is not completed at adulthood… [and] that ontogenesis extends across the entire life course and that lifelong adaptive processes are involved (Baltes, Lindenberger and Studinger, 1998, p. 1029, emphasis added). Furthermore, the objectives of lifespan theory are to account for the organisation of the overall structure and sequence of development; to show interconnections and to determine the opportunities and constraints (environmental and biological) which shape individual lives. Finally, it is hoped that such knowledge can help free people to live their lives as effectively as possible (ibid, p.1030). In the ‘age’ of lifelong learning then, developmental theories of motivation for learning across life are needed. This paper argues for an individualised, biographical approach to further theory development, whilst accepting that the individual in always in interaction with their particular ecology.

Motivation and learning are inextricably linked, motivation is a developmental process for adaptation and adaptation comes about through learning. Of course motivation and learning may not result in successful adaptation but rather a maladapted existence, for instance in the example of destructive addictions or the pursuit of unobtainable goals. In the discourses on lifelong learning[3] this could mean that our failure to benefit from the opportunities of education may leave us vulnerable to an impoverished life experience. Indeed research into student ‘drop out’ in the UK shows that the consequences of not...
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