Three perspectives on active citizenship in lifelong and life-wide education research - EPALE - European Commission (2022)

Nick Zepke gives an overview of current research on active citizenship, outlining historical and current views on lifelong and life-wide learning.


The idea that learning is for life is not new. Neither is the view that learning to be active citizens is an important aspect of learning for life. For example, the two concepts were linked as a national necessity in England as far back as 1919 (Field, 2001). In the 1960s and 1970s the label ‘lifelong education’ continued to include the notion that active citizens working collectively could help develop humane communities and individuals in times of social change. During the 1990s lifelong education changed to ‘lifelong learning’. The revised term is linked to individual activity in a rapidly changing economy where active citizenship is participation in the community to create wealth, rather than to collective action to improve society (Bagnall, 2010). Active citizenship in both its collective social and individual economic guises was assumed to occur in formal, non-formal and informal settings with a focus on intentional learning. Unintentional, hidden, small scale, or incidental learning was not explicitly included. To create awareness of incidental learning, ‘life-wide learning’ was born (Jackson, 2011).

This article asks ‘what distinct research perspectives on active citizenship in lifelong and life-wide education research can we recognize?’ It begins by briefly outlining historical and current views on lifelong and life-wide learning. Both, I argue, embed the idea of active citizenship so that diverse understandings of active citizenship emerge. I discuss the views on active citizenship of Barnett and Coate (2005), Bagnall (2010), Hargreaves (2011) and Zepke (2013) in order to offer a composite framework comprising three perspectives on active citizenship. I label them according to their dominant orientations: a democratic action orientation, a human capital orientation and a social capital orientation.

While these views have different ideological and political assumptions, they are not entirely discrete. Lifelong/lifewide learners may identify with all of them or just one. The article will conclude with a discussion of how these perspectives could play out in the future.

Active citizenship in lifelong and life-wide learning

To appreciate the changing roles assigned to active citizenship within the education/learning for life movement, it is useful to canvass the changing profiles of lifelong education and learning over time. It is generally agreed that there is a substantial conceptual difference between the terms lifelong education and lifelong learning (Field, 2001; Bagnall, 2010). The nature of this difference is debated. Field (2001), for example, agrees that the 1990s were a watershed that brought about a fundamental change from lifelong education to lifelong learning. But he sees this change as more due to governments being prepared to use their powers in support of lifelong learning for marketing reasons rather than as an indicator of fundamental ideological change.

Bagnall (2010) on the other hand, suggests that neo-liberal governments in the early 1990s adopted the term lifelong learning to implement an ideological agenda. Lifelong learning took on an economic and vocational purpose focused on wealth creation and successful competition in a global market place. Training, retraining and learning new skills suited to the demands of a rapidly changing workplace replaced a more community based approach.

I don’t investigate whether Field or Bagnall is right here. In this paper I explore how research has come to characterize active citizenship, lifelong and lifewide learning in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The different accounts of education and learning for life are illustrated by different assumptions and priorities. Both of the following come from the first decade of the 21st century. The first represents a neo-liberal and economic conception of lifelong learning. The second is a liberal, more collective understanding of lifelong education.

The Commission’s 2001 Communication “Making a European Area of Lifelong learning a Reality” and the 2002 Council Resolution on lifelong learning stressed the importance of lifelong learning for competitiveness and employability, but also for social inclusion, active citizenship and personal development. Adult learning is a vital component of lifelong learning (Commission of the European Communities, 2006).

Lifelong education is a comprehensive and visionary concept which includes formal, non-formal and informal learning extended throughout the lifespan of an individual to attain the fullest possible development in personal, social and vocational and professional life. … A key purpose of lifelong learning is democratic citizenship, connecting individuals and groups to the structures of social, political and economic activity (Aitcheson, 2003, 165).

The two conceptions illustrate key differences. Competitiveness and employability provide the primary purpose of the first conception but vocational development is mentioned as just one of a number of purposes in the second. Conception one lists social, political and personal developments as secondary purposes in lifelong learning, whereas understanding two sees them as key purposes. Citizenship appears in both conceptions and seems to have been a permanent presence in education and learning for life. But the language used is different. Active citizenship is used in the first conception as subsidiary to economic purposes; democratic citizenship is listed as a key purpose in the second.

According to Barnett (2010, 2)

“Lifelong learning’ is learning across time, and occurs, as the term implies, more or less throughout a lifetime…. In essence, lifelong learning is a series of learning experiences in successive time zones of a life”.

It includes conscious formal, non-formal and informal learning experiences. The Lifelong Learning Council Queenland Inc (2012) offers examples of the kind of experiences a learner might engage with under each heading in Table 1.

Three perspectives on active citizenship in lifelong and life-wide education research - EPALE - European Commission (1)

Table 1. Lifelong Learning Council Queensland Inc.

Active citizenship learning occurs in all three – formal, non-formal and informal – settings. For example, in formal settings, educators can include courses learning for active citizenship by introducing service learning (also known as community-based or co-operative learning). This is activity-based learning that combines formal instruction with a related service performed in the community (McMillan, 2011). Almost by definition non-formal learning experiences like on-the–job-training, working in voluntary organizations and in learning circles involves both being active and a useful citizen. As Sandlin, Wright and Clark (2011) observe, informal learning is important in encouraging or discouraging active citizenship as it helps shape our identities as active citizens.

Lifewide learning also consists of formal, non-formal and informal learning. It complements, but also differs fundamentally from lifelong learning. It “is learning in different places simultaneously. It is literally learning across an individual’s lifeworld at any moment in time. These places of learning may be profoundly different” (Barnett, 2010, 2).

Every learning experience contributes to lifewide learning by offering unintended and incidental outcomes. Regardless of whether the learning occurs in formal, non-formal or informal settings, unintentional, hidden, small scale and incidental learning occurs (Jackson, 2011). Such learning can add to, subtract from or transform teacher directed or self-directed formal and non-formal learning.

In informal learning unintentional and incidental learning tends to be the norm. But even a formal lecture contains both intended and unintended knowledge in the form of hidden insights. Workplace learning fulfils the demands of the workplace but also provides unintended insights, about power structures, for example.

Lifewide learning involves a wide variety of teaching agents: people, media, objects and institutions. Often it is holistic, dealing not only in knowledge and skills, but also inspiring emotional responses and assisting in developing values. By being integrated into everyday learning activities, lifewide learning is capable of stimulating learners to action (Jackson, 2011).

Active citizenship features in lifewide learning, if in hidden and unexpected ways. A university course on literature may give birth to a desire to right an injustice in one’s own life. An experience in an adult education programme in foundation literacy may generate ideas about creating wealth. A vocational programme about computer technology could reveal a pathway to found and maintain a charity organization. A visit to a museum may engage the imagination to further research local history.

Visiting a crumbling factory may suggest a career in environmental protection, historical preservation or politics. If lifewide learning enables us to understand our world in different and unexpected ways, active citizenship offers ways to act on and realize our understandings (Jackson, 2011).

Selected perspectives on active citizenship

So far I have argued that active citizenship is embedded in official and academic views of lifelong/lifewide learning. According to the Directorate General Education and Culture of the European Commission (2007, 1) “the importance of active citizenship as part of lifelong and lifewide learning is widely acknowledged, and is being increasingly recognised in education and training”.

Numerous reports have been published, often under the sponsorship of the European Commission. Nearly all of them acknowledge that there are numerous perspectives on active citizenship (Ebner, 2009). For example, de Weerd, Gemmeke, Rigter and van Rij (2005) in a report to the European Commission developed a range of active citizenship indicators that defined it as participation in social and political life. An earlier communication by the European Commission (2001), on the other hand, saw active citizenship as something that would benefit citizens economically in a knowledge based society.

The diversity of views on active citizenship in reports sanctioned by the European Commission is mirrored in the work of academic researchers. It would be impossible to include all scholarly perspectives on active citizenship in one article. So choices have to be made to capture diverse views. I have selected four different perspectives on active citizenship to illustrate the different ways it is perceived.

Barnett & Coate

One such perspective is offered by Barnett and Coate (2005). They identified three different knowledge projects for higher education. Each has implications for active citizenship in lifelong/lifewide learning. One knowledge project they labelled reproductive knowing. This echoes the ideological and policy settings current at any one time. In the present climate this suggests active citizenship supports a global knowledge society in pursuit of economic development and wellbeing. Citizens with such knowledge seek to apply it in the market place as employees, employers and entrepreneurs.

A second knowledge project is for citizens to learn to act constructively. This project involves active participation of citizens in their communities. Such participation may include taking part in service learning at university and in the community, working within local, national and international structures, voting in national and local elections and responding constructively to government policies.

The third knowledge project is for citizens to learn to be socially and environmentally critical. This might involve challenges to the status quo through community action. Citizens might participate in learning communities; take part in environmental and political protests.


A second discrete perspective on active citizenship is offered by Bagnall (2010). As do Barnett and Coate (2005), Bagnall (2010) recognizes three different conceptions. He identifies first, a formal conception. This is a legal view that constructs active citizenship in terms of rights and responsibilities bestowed by the state on all its citizens who have the right to participate in political, social and economic processes. Their active duties include obeying laws, conventions and the rights of other citizens. He labels his second conception of citizenship participatory. It is concerned with what is involved to be an active citizen and on the knowledge, skills and values that such activity requires. Bagnall (2010, 452) identifies knowledge such as that of the nature of democratic processes and their informing procedural values, and the skills involved in networking, collaborating, arguing, researching issues, and advocating positions—knowledge, in other words, that is not only propositional but also dispositional, and particularly procedural.

He calls his third conception of citizenship existential. It involves profound identity building experiences of being a citizen such as embracing and being embraced by one’s community. Active citizenship involves generating, adopting and adapting commitments and obligations to it.


Hargreaves (2011) (see also Dennis Shirley’sarticlein this issue, referring to Hargreaves’ scholarship) writes about educating for creativity in the 21st century. Drawing on the generational research by Strauss and Howe, he suggests that we are at a great turning point in history. His perspective on active citizenship is built on four imperatives for the future. The first three imperatives focus on economic, social justice and ecological factors, which the fourth operationalizes by applying active citizenship, and by implication, lifelong/lifewide learning. The imperatives are:

• the economic imperative of developing 21st century learning [and learners] for an innovative and creative [knowledge-based] economy• the social justice imperative of developing better lives for all in a world that reduces inequalities• the ecological imperative of education for sustainable living• the generational imperative of developing dynamic and responsible citizens and leaders for the future who can properly address the other three imperatives (517).

Each imperative offers a distinct focus for lifelong learning and active citizenship. The economic imperative is met through active and innovative learning; the social justice imperative by learning emphasising the quality of life over quantity; the ecological imperatives revisits the 20th century quest for limits to growth. It is the fourth perspective that is key in this discussion. It establishes a clear justification and agenda for active citizenship within a lifelong/lifewide learning framework.


Zepke (2013) provides yet another perspective on active citizenship. Drawing on the knowledge projects suggested by Barnett and Coate (2005), he argues that active citizenship can be differentiated by the closeness active citizenship has to government policy. He identifies, first, a conforming closeness. It is accepted that lifelong education must help citizens to be globally competent learners (Lutz, 2010), who vote, pay their taxes and contribute to the economic health of their society. At a greater distance to the status quo is a reforming active citizenship that does not oppose but actively seeks changes to the prevailing system.

Three typical examples illustrate this approach: learners are involved in service learning that combines formal instruction with a related service in the community; learning about active citizenship is embedded in a wider but normalized curriculum such as a compulsory citizenship module; a whole-of-institution approach in which citizenship education and practice is embedded in all that is taught. Removed from current government policies is active citizenship that opposes the status quo in a radical pursuit of social justice. There are numerous ways to advance social justice through active citizenship: education that enables citizens to learn their way out of the prevailing rationality; to critique this rationality and use creative capacities to seek out alternative pathways; create spaces for collective action through individual agency.

Three perspectives on active citizenship: synthesizing the literature

Official policy documents and scholarly work then offer numerous perspectives on and interpretations of active citizenship within lifelong/lifewide learning. The articles reviewed above offer examples of the diverse ways active citizenship is theorized. However, these examples do not represent all possible perspectives on active citizenship. They do, however, enable some understandings to be developed. For example, active citizenship:

• is deeply embedded in lifelong/lifewide learning discourses;• occurs in formal, non-formal and informal settings; and can be conscious or incidental;• is influential in establishing personal and community identities;• stresses individual and/or collective economic development;• facilitates social and/or community development;• develops and enacts formal democratic behaviour;• works to achieve sustainable living;• seeks to achieve social justice;• develops in learners’ knowledge to suit a variety of social purposes;• embraces a formal statement of rights and responsibilities/duties;• is a vehicle for change;• supports and opposes government policies.

These varied understandings are not mutually exclusive. It is possible for lifelong/lifewide learners to hold them all. But despite potential overlaps, it is possible to identify broad and distinctive ideological orientations that underpin active citizenship in different ways. Three in particular come into the foreground. They appear in the articles discussed above and reflect well established distinctions between lifelong education and learning. I label them according to their dominant orientations: a democratic action orientation, a human capital orientation and a social capital orientation. Each orientation contains a number of additional strands present in the wider literature, but not necessarily in the review articles. I turn now to explore these orientations and selected strands further.

Ideological orientations of active citizenship

A democratic action orientation

A recurring theme in the articles reviewed is that active citizens participate in the democratic processes in their communities. Citizens abide by formal statements of rights and responsibilities, participate in formal democratic behaviour and behave in appropriate ways in social situations. They take responsibility for their own actions, vote, belong to political organizations, take part in community activities and obey the laws and mores of their communities. But each article also offers its own specific ideas on the democratic participation theme. According to Barnett and Coate’s (2005) second knowledge project, citizens learn to participate constructively. This may include taking part in applying formal learning at university in the community, working within local, national and international networks and responding constructively to government policies.

In Bagnall’s (2010) piece, participation involves knowing about the nature of democratic processes and what procedural values inform them; networking, collaborating, arguing, researching issues, and advocating positions—“knowledge, in other words, that is not only propositional but also dispositional, and particularly procedural” (Bagnall, 2010, 452).

Hargreaves (2011) offers the view that active citizenship requires leaders who participate in a democracy to enable an innovative economy, a just society and a healthy environment.

In the reforming conception of active citizenship suggested by Zepke (2013) citizens actively seek changes to the prevailing political system. Included in a reforming conception are behaviours such as signing petitions, contributing to communal changes and working in voluntary capacities to improve the lives of fellow citizens.

An implicit strand of the democratic action orientation in all four review articles, but explicit only in Zepke (2013), suggests that democratic action contributes to individual and community well-being. He suggests that there is a definite link between feeling well, acting well and thinking well and democratic action. Forgeard, Jayawickreme, Kern, and Seligman (2011) agree that democratic participation is an important contributor to well-being. The World Health Organization (WHO) (2004) recognizes being able to in?uence one’s own destiny through democratic practice among its indicators of well-being. In rating the importance of 30 well-being indicators to university students from four ethnic groups, Tafarodi, Bonn, Liang, Takai et al. (2011) found that ‘having a positive impact on others or having made the world a better place’ ranked third when results were aggregated. Shah and Marks (2004) used results from the European Social Survey to construct a well-being manifesto. This suggested eight areas for action, one was active citizenship that strengthened civil society through democratic participation. The manifesto argued that “being actively engaged with communities has been shown not only to give us a personal sense of well-being but also to have a positive knock-on effect for others” (Shah & Marks, 2004, p. 3).

A human capital orientation

Each of the four review articles recognizes in at least one of its perspectives that active citizenship is connected to human capital development. Human capital theory offers an economic orientation to learning; but one that recognizes the educational, social, biological, cultural and psychological complexities involved in human and social development. In particular, human capital theory stresses the importance of lifelong/lifewide learning as a stimulant for the modern knowledge economy (Ehrlich & Murphy, 2007). These authors note that active citizenship in the human capital orientation is a key contributor to the knowledge economy.

In their reproductive knowing project Barnett and Coate (2005) proposed that citizens support a global knowledge society in pursuit of economic development and human wellbeing. Citizens with such knowledge actively apply it in the market place as employees, employers and entrepreneurs.

Bagnall’s (2010) third conception of active citizenship is existential. Active citizens focus on forging their own identities. In our present society this identity is likely to form around work and economic wellbeing.

Hargreaves’ (2011) conceptions included two that have strong human capital orientations. One, his economic imperative, has learners contribute to an innovative and creative knowledge-based economy. The other focuses on the development of dynamic and responsible citizen leaders to help build that economy.

In the final review article, Zepke (2013) suggests that his conforming conception will enable active citizens to be globally competent learners who vote, pay their taxes and contribute to the economic health of their society.

It is important to observe here that the human capital orientation to lifelong learning and active citizenship has been subjected to considerable critique in the academic community. While policy papers produced in the European Union as elsewhere have embraced the human capital view that lifelong/lifewide learning and active citizenship are necessary for a dynamic knowledge economy (e.g COM, 2001,678), academics have often been critical of it (Crowther, 2004). Indeed this critique forms a distinct strand in the human capital orientation of active citizenship. At the heart of this critique is Martin’s (2001) comment that lifelong learning should be about learning for living not learning for earning a living. Crowther (2004, 125) argues

“…Lifelong learning diminishes the public sphere, undermines educational activity, introduces new mechanisms of self-surveillance and reinforces the view that failure to succeed is a personal responsibility. It is ultimately a ‘deficit discourse’, which locates the responsibility of economic and political failure at the level of the individual, rather than at the level of systemic problems.”

In more specific terms Aldenmyr, Jepson Wigg and Olson (2012) identified a number of ‘worries’ about how active citizenship is acted out in their Swedish case studies. They found that there was limited space for deciding on individual and community needs, identity and voice in a human capital discourse. They found this to be a problem in terms of equity, democracy and social justice.

A social capital orientation

In addition to identifying democratic practices and human capital formation as features of active citizenship, the four review articles promote active citizenship as developing social relationships, reciprocity, trust and social belonging. These social characteristics of active citizenship align with social capital theory. This is a wide ranging concept, however, with numerous possible interpretations. Thinkers associated with social capital theory include writers as diverse as Bourdieu, Coleman, Habermas and Putman (Edwards, 2009).

Coleman (1990) saw social capital as a neutral resource capable of bringing about both individual and social well-being but also its opposite.

The review articles suggest that education for active citizenship builds social capital by encouraging positive individual and social change.

Barnett and Coate’s (2005) third knowledge project suggests that education must generate knowledge about community action, including how to be critical.

Bagnall (2010) suggests that active citizenship encourages social capital growth through networking, collaborating, arguing, researching issues, and advocating. He suggests also that active citizenship helps people build their identities as citizen by embracing and being embraced by ones community.

Both Hargreaves (2011) and Zepke (2013) go further by arguing that active citizenship generates social capital for social justice. They argue that active citizenship must alert lifelong/lifewide learners that the pursuit of wealth leads to inequity for some, over development and a decrease in individual and social wellbeing. Lifelong/lifewide education on the other hand can help create more equitable and sustainable societies.

Hargreave’s and Zepke’s observations imply the presence of a more radical strand to the social capital orientation. This strand suggests a range of methodologies that cultivate social justice. One such methodology centres on what Aldenmyr, Jepson Wigg and Olson (2012, 268) refer to as “taking voice”. This means lifelong/lifewide learners engaged in active citizenship collectively question dominant ideologies, empower themselves and others by speaking out against injustice and become potent speakers for social and political change.

A related methodology for social justice through active citizenship is critical pedagogy. Vandenabeele, Vanassche, and Wildemeersch (2011), in discussing planning for environmental citizenship education, argued that citizen learners learn their way out of the current neo-liberal ideological rationality by finding spaces for learning about and critiquing market-focused learning. Such spaces can be found in formal, non-formal and informal learning. Active citizens can use such learning spaces to plan and speak for change. But such spaces are not limited to planning and discussion. They are also meant for collective action through individual agency (Brook?eld & Holst 2011). But participatory practices are often part of a range of new technologies of persuasion. Such technologies need challenging so that active citizenship leads to respect for diversity and con?ict, as well as coherence and connectivity (McArthur, 2010).

What of the future of active citizenship?

I have argued that active citizenship is a necessary part of lifelong/lifewide learning. By reviewing and synthesizing selected official reports and academic work, I found that active citizenship has more than a single orientation. The synthesis identified three major orientations to active citizenship along with some associated strands. I labelled the orientations democratic participation, human capital and social capital. I finish the article by speculating about the futures of these orientations.

• The three active citizenship orientations exist in a specific ideological, political and educational context. At present this context is neo-liberal or, in some jurisdictions, a diluted version of neo-liberalism. While the exact meaning of neo-liberalism will alter over time, it does not seem likely that it will disappear over the next 10 or so years.

• The three orientations do not stand alone. Nor are they mutually exclusive. All are infected by neo-liberal assumptions and active citizens will identify with them all to some extent at different times and in different circumstances. All three orientations will continue to be influential into the future as long as neo-liberalism continues to dominate.

• But the human capital orientation will be the dominant orientation into the foreseeable future. It is the closest to the heart of neo-liberalism and its focus on individual wealth creation. However, the democratic participation orientation could also increase in influence as a number of older western democracies note the increasing alienation of citizens from democratic processes.

This blog has been published first inELM Magazine.

Author: Nick Zepke

Three perspectives on active citizenship in lifelong and life-wide education research - EPALE - European Commission (2)

Nick Zepke, an Associate Professor of adult education in the Institute of Education at Massey University in New Zealand, works at undergraduate and postgraduate levels with teachers of adults. His research interests are divided between learning and teaching in higher and further education and taking a critical approach to studies of lifelong education and futures. Contact:


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