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Animated Edition - Spring 2003
Returning to learning - lifelong learning
At the age of forty-eight Alysoun Tomkins enrolled at a university and undertook study at Master's Level, describing it as 'one of the most enriching and rewarding periods of my life'. Since graduating Alysoun has reflected on the experience to ascertain what made it so
At the interview for my MA course I was asked if I would prefer to study at M.Phil Level - 'Why was I wanting to undertake a Master's course?' The answer was simple: as it was 27 years since I had been a student, I wanted a taught course and I needed to be shown how to structure my learning.

As Course Leader for the Professional Diploma in Community Dance Studies (PDCDS) course at Laban, which accepts only mature students, I am always intrigued as to why people would often make career and financial sacrifices to return to learning. When I ask PDCDS applicants why they want to come to Laban, they usually inform me that dance was what they always wanted to do but they were persuaded to follow a 'proper' career and to keep dance as a hobby. However at the end of the course, the learning experience they have received has given them far more than a new profession.

Education and learning do not cease when we leave an educational institution at 16, 18 or 21 years. Learning is lifelong and not a concept created by politicians, but, in order to acknowledge that learning and utilise it, one may need to return to a structured learning environment.

If one takes the view that life is a classroom and all experiences can be learnt from, then there is nothing new about lifelong learning, except that it may be random, unstructured and sometimes undervalued. Often the paper qualification you hold will open more doors than the experience you have had. Opportunities to study may, for a variety of reasons, have been previously denied or the purpose of study not been appreciated at a particular time.

In countries where the population is living longer, governments are realising that there is an untapped source of human knowledge and skills, so have devised policies to nurture, develop and train people in order that they may benefit both themselves and their nation.

In the UK the government advocates that learning is the key to prosperity for both individuals and the nation. They propose that investment in 'human capital' is the foundation for success in the global economy in that individuals will acquire knowledge and skills. They add that the fostering of an enquiring mind and the emphasizing of creativity and imagination are essential to the future success of the country. These are echoed in the policies of Japan and other Asia Pacific economies although they are played out in specific historical and cultural contexts. All these governments are prepared to allocate increased budget support for the promotion of lifelong learning opportunities in order for all citizens to achieve and enjoy an active, happy and meaningful life.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as the European Parliament and the Nordic Council of Ministers have all focused on a variety of themes pertinent to lifelong learning. These include:

  • an emerging awareness of the importance of the notions of the knowledge economy and the learning society

  • accepting the need for a new philosophy of education and training, with institutions of all kinds formal and informal, traditional and alternative, public and private - having new roles and responsibilities for learning

  • providing government incentives for individuals, employers, and the range of social partners with a commitment to learning, to invest in lifelong learning

  • ensuring that emphasis on lifelong learning does not reinforce existing patterns of privilege and widen the existing gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged on the basis of access to education.

The similarities of global lifelong learning policies are:

  • prosperity and economic development

  • use of government funds to support learning programmes

  • fostering of an enquiring mind, creativity, imagination and critical thinking

  • personal growth

  • achieve and enjoy an active, happy and meaningful life.

Do these global lifelong policies reflect why I returned to learning? Do I feel more worthy and able to contribute to the prosperity and economic development of the nation? Perhaps, but to me it was more concerned with personal and professional issues. After working in dance for 28 years and raising a family I felt that my batteries needed re-charging. I also needed time to reflect on and make sense of all the experiences I had received. The two years of study fed me, introduced me to new ideas and allowed me to discuss and debate issues with like-minded colleagues. What I did not expect were the more personal rewards I received. I learnt to value my work, my knowledge and skills, which I grew to realise I had not valued before. This faith in myself led to an increase in my confidence not just professionally but in all aspects of my life.

Observing the growth of the students I work with, I see very similar developments. As mature students returning to a formal educational setting they often do not appreciate what they are bringing to the course, indeed they are often anxious about what they perceive to be their shortcomings, undervaluing their own experiences, skills and knowledge. At the end of the course when they express what they feel they have achieved from returning to learning, the themes are the same: a vast learning curve, a growth in confidence, an increased social circle, a sense of achievement.

Returning to learning through community dance
Not all learners return to formalised educational settings. Within community dance there are many opportunities for adults to return to learning within a non-formal setting.

The aims of community dance can be varied but may be selected from these categories:

  • physical

  • intellectual

  • emotional

  • social

  • spiritual.

In 1998/99 these particular community dance aims were tested by myself through ethnographic research with groups of older (40 years to 80+) dancers in the UK to analyse particular benefits, which they felt they gained by learning through their dancing. The results identified these key areas:

  • dance can provide not only physical activity but a growing confidence in an individual which allows them to regain some of their strength and flexibility

  • by working with others in a dance activity the individual's creative, memory, imaginative, problem solving capacities can all be explored and utilised

  • dance can give a sense of well being, calmness, happiness and joy. It may allow a release of negativity and tension allowing an awareness of emotions, which can be worked through and supported where dance becomes a cathartic experience. This often only occurs when an individual becomes totally integrated within the group, feeling a part of that group, connecting with others

  • socialising, through dancing, helps retain cognitive, emotional and bodily skills thus enabling one to function fully as a human

  • connecting the physical body with the inner emotions or connecting with other people can lead to a connection with the outer world which is either represented by the universe or other human beings. For some this means less identification with the self whereas for others they learn to value the self more.

Returning to learning, therefore, whether it is in a formalised educational institution or a non-formalised setting can produce the same outcomes. The individual not only develops intellectually but also emotionally, socially, and spiritually. In my own experience, and for graduating PDCDS students, that development did not cease at the end of the period of learning: indeed, the end of the course is the start of a continuing growth.

Alysoun Tomkins is course leader at Laban and can be contacted by


Blunkett, D. 2001

Chapman, J. & Aspin, D. 1997 Schools as Centres for Lifelong Learning for All.

Sawano, Y. 1997 Lifelong learning: An Instrument for Improving School Education in Japan?

Tomkins, A. 1999 Like Owning a Treasure: An Ethnographic Investigation into the Meanings and Values of Dance for a Community Dance Group. Un-published MA dissertation. University of Surrey.

Tomkins, A 2002 'When I am an old woman I shall.' Jenny Joseph c1960 An Ethnography of the Lilian Bayliss Over 60's Performance Group Dancelines. NRCD

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Animated: Spring 2003