I don’t want to learn

Even the strongest supporters of adult learning sometimes feel reluctant to learn. How can we make workplace learning and adult learning in general attractive again for learners? Gina Ebner shares her reflections.

Unwilling to learn.


Even the strongest supporters of adult learning sometimes feel reluctant to learn. How can we make workplace learning and adult learning in general attractive again for learners? Gina Ebner shares her reflections.


Originally, I wanted to write a reflection on the European Vocational Skills Week (EVSW) in Helsinki. Then I had a very strange experience during one of the events, and I thought I would share this with you.

A bit of background: I’ve been working in adult education for about 25 years now, and learning is part of my life. Most of it is non- and informal, which is great. I have a button from the Lifelong Learning Platform that says ‘I’m still learning’.

Back to the event during the EVSW: the discussion was about skills for the future (with a heavy emphasis on digitalisation, automation and artificial intelligence). At one point we were asked to indicate with our smartphones if we thought we had all the necessary skills for the future. I replied, as many others, that I had part/some of the skills. And then someone on the panel said, undoubtedly with the best of intentions, that we (and all those that indicated that they didn’t have the skills for the future) will have to do a lot of learning in order to be ready for the labour market of the future.

This is where my strange experience started. I had a direct and almost physical reaction to this sentence, namely I couldn’t breathe for a moment and my first thought was, ‘But I don’t want to learn’ and then ‘My future on the labour market is limited’ (I’m 55) and finally, ‘Who has the time’. I was somewhat horrified. This was the first time in my life that I didn’t want to learn (there were also instances when I didn’t want to go to school, but this is something completely different). My first analysis was that I had started to totter towards the tomb. That I was getting towards the age where people say that they don’t need to learn anymore – the people that we are trying to convince that learning is useful and fun.

In fact, this isn’t really true. I have just started a course on nature photography, which will last two years. I’m also considering another course about bats (I love bats). I have a long list of things that I would like to do (i.e. informal learning) and learn once I have the time: read Robert Musil, learn Russian, do some volunteer work (maybe with bats?), learn to speak Dutch and maybe start singing for the first time after my family told me, quite convincingly, that I couldn’t hold a tune for the life of me when I was six years old.

So why was my reaction so strong and immediate? After some more reflection, I came to the conclusion that it was the ‘must’ in the sentence. We must catch up. We must upskill and re-skill. We must have all the necessary skills. And I reacted with a loud (internal): ‘No, I don’t’. Like so many other people, I’m busy. Working, travelling, running errands, having to do irritating things like negotiating with insurance companies; trying to exercise; cooking healthy food; taking very reluctant cats to the vet. The list is endless, as soon as you’ve solved one thing, the next one pops up. This already leaves little time for the things that you love to do, such as meeting friends, going to the theatre or the cinema, etc. Where do I fit in the learning that I MUST do?

For me, learning was suddenly on the level of irritating things I have to do – Iinsurance, mortgage companies, tax declarations, working out. And there I was, suddenly understanding very clearly how so many people feel about learning. Lives are busy, don’t give us another task that we MUST do. And it’s even worse if you don’t see any benefits. Will I get a promotion? Will I be able to change to a better job? There are plenty of people who won’t get (immediate) benefits. No wonder they respond with a resounding NO.

Now I’ve rambled on about my experience, so here are my more rational reflections:

Let’s change the narrative on continuing vocational education and training, and adult education. Let’s stop telling people that they have to learn/train/upskill/reskill. At the workplace, let’s talk about the great opportunity that planned learning will bring and not that ‘we have to do a training’. In fact, let’s have more workplace learning during working hours to ease the pressure on the employees.

Let’s change our arguments to how much joy learning can bring; how many benefits there are, even if they are not financial; that it’s not a task, but an interesting and rewarding activity.

Let’s enjoy and promote all kinds of learning.

Learning can make you happy.

Gina Ebner is the Secretary-General of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) and also EPALE's Thematic Coordinator for Learner Support.

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