Lifelong Learning and the Local Public Officer: Some Critical Reflections

This keynote was delivered during the Learning Forum at the UCLG Congress in Daejeon, South Korea on October 11th, 2022. 

Prof. Dae Joong, President of the National Institute for Lifelong Learning, South Korea

About 15 years ago, I worked as a policy advisor to the Minister of Education for a year and a half.  I then worked as a professor at the Seoul National University for over ten years. In 2021, I took office in the National Institute for Lifelong Education as a president. From my work experience in the public domain, I have an insight that the public officer’s work can be divided into two categories. One is that most of the daily grind of civil servants is face-to-face and non-face-to-face contact with citizens. Another is that civil servants work on various documents with computers. Though it is a simplistic classification, both categories involve dealing with information and knowledge—the former consists of listening to and collecting data from citizens and disseminating information and knowledge to citizens. The latter is the searching, retrieving, organizing, producing, and distributing of information and knowledge.

Knowledge and information connect humans to humans in terms of teaching and learning. Everyone is in the midst of a flood of knowledge and information. Handling knowledge and information in everyday life usually takes place informally. In the field of adult and lifelong education, it is often called informal learning. Most of the learning occurs in informal situations for adults over 30 who have completed school.

We experienced the power of informal learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. When most schools and universities closed and introduced a distance mode of education, teachers and students learned how to teach and learn online without formal training in many cases. Trial and error, tips from various sources, and “just-do-it-first without worrying” made us live in a new environment. Most schools and universities digitally opened in late March or early April. Similar things also happened in workplaces.

As a university teacher and researcher on adult and lifelong education, I would argue that public officers are engaged in teaching and learning in their everyday work. Perhaps many of you think that an officer’s job has nothing to do with teaching and learning. Because we often think that teaching and learning occur in school. Some of you may be studying for a master’s or doctoral degree. Think about it. There are similarities between how you listen to and discuss with professors or fellow students at school and how you listen to and discuss with citizens at work. There are also similarities between working on documents at work and writing a final paper for the class.

In Korea, schools and universities responded to the pandemic rapidly. However, the digital transformation in adult learning and education has been very slow. A recent national survey shows the lifelong learning participation rate of Korean adults fell by 10% in Korea. Why was there a difference between the quick response of the school sector and the slow response of the adult education and learning sector? The reason was maybe the different levels of change pressure, that is, the urgency of solving the problem.

Indeed, it is the most critical condition of learning in adulthood. We are eager to learn to solve problems in our daily life tasks. Learning in adulthood differs from learning in childhood or adolescence, as life tasks are different. So the characteristics of learning differ. It is said that there are four characteristics of learning in adulthood:

  • First, adults enter a learning situation with much life experience. We accumulate experience day by day. Experience is our resource for learning. American scholar Eduard Lindeman once wrote that experience is the adult learner’s living textbook. We learn from current and past experiences.
  • Second, adults are self-directed in the learning process. When we were younger, we were dependent beings. Growth means we become independent and self-directing. When others impose their will on us without an agreement in deciding what to learn, how to learn, and when to learn, we often reject or resist it. The self-directing nature is apparent when evaluating the learning outcome. Adults assess the learning outcome based on their purpose of learning. We do not want to be judged by the other’s criteria.
  • Third, learning in adulthood tends to focus on problems and tasks we encounter in life. We are ready to learn to conduct our social roles. Life in adulthood is complex as we have multiple personas simultaneously. We are workers, partners, parents, and members of various communities. When we encounter problems in doing our roles and tasks, we are naturally motivated to learn to solve them. Sometimes we attend a class and course. We often search databases or ask colleagues for information, knowledge, and wisdom. In this sense, we tend to learn to apply it immediately to our life.
  • Fourth, adults are motivated internally. While the student in the formal school setting is motivated by external rewards such as grades and promotion, the adult in everyday situations often learns to seek self-actualization. We want to know why we are doing this and that right now. We want to understand the meaning of oneself and one’s life in the complex world. Through learning, we want to become fully developed beings.

Those characteristics show the deep relation between learning and life in adulthood. The concept of lifelong learning is gaining more popularity nowadays than adult learning and education. Ageing society and rapid changes in diverse social milieu demand learning throughout life. I think we can understand lifelong learning in three dimensions concerning the relation between learning and life as a public officer.

  • The first dimension is acquisition. Things from life mediate our learning. Our primary objective of learning is acquiring what we need, whether it is information, skill, know-how, or profound knowledge. And these learning needs are rooted in the life situation of local and regional government officials. Reskilling and up-skilling are very important as the digital transformation of the workplace and society is accelerating. In the past, we have digitized documents and information we are dealing with in the everyday work environment. Our entire work environment is now digitized as we are just a part of this massive transformation. What we never heard about a few years ago became life-changing buzzwords such as artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, cloud computing, metaverse, etc. Change in life demands a new phase of learning as acquisition.
  • The second dimension is participation. Through learning, we can participate in organizations and communities. As individual human beings, the first community we met was family, a primary relationship with a mother. As we grow older, we become members of various organizations and communities. Public officers rotate departments frequently, so they need to adapt constantly. At the core of this adaptation is to become a full member of the new department. The role of the old members, often the higher ranking officer, is critical in the participation process. It is needed to train the higher ranking officer as a good guide for the younger and lower ranking officer. I believe it can reduce mental health issues, including burnout among the officers. Every public officer is a member of a team, not an atomized responsibility-bearer. We need to see the new member as the one who is learning to become a full participant in the team. Establishing peer-to-peer relations in the organization is crucial.
  • The third dimension is creation. Out of our learning, we renew ourselves and the landscape of life itself. We pursue the meaning of our life through learning. Working life is the most important source of meaning to everybody. So when planning the training program for the officer, we need to think beyond the content. We may consider what the trainees want to be in their lives and what they want to make their workplace different. Let us see the training program as an opportunity to reflect the meaning of officers’ work and work environment from their perspective. Those officers who carry meaning in their everyday work can create better service for their cities and regions.

I heard UCLG is looking for learning possibilities for local governments. I hope my small talk about adult and lifelong learning provided some thought points and especially inspired those who plan learning programs for government officers.


Dr. Dae Joong Kang is the president of the National Institute for Lifelong Education (NILE) in South Korea. He is also a professor in the Department of Education at Seoul National University. He received his Ph.D. in Adult Education from the University of Georgia, USA. Dr. Kang contributed a chapter to the Asian Development Bank’s book, Powering a Learning Society During an Age of Disruption (2021, Springer). His other English books are Life and Learning of Korean Artists and Craftsmen: Rhizoactivity (2015, Routledge) and Linkages of VPL: Validation of Prior Learning as a Multi-targeted Approach for Maximising Learning Opportunities for All (2014, European Centre for Valuation of Prior Learning).


See also:


Estrategia de prevención social de la violencia – PAZOS

Este recurso de aprendizaje tiene como objetivo principal documentar la estrategia PAZOS: Paz y Oportunidades, implementada en la ciudad de Palmira, Colombia. La estrategia aborda la complejidad de la violencia urbana y la construcción de paz con un enfoque integral...

read more