Lifespan development and lifelong learning

fencepost. showing growth rings by Martin LaBar. Creative Commons cc-by-nc 2 licence.

Lifespan development and lifelong learning. ‘Development’ is one of those familiar concepts that seeps almost unnoticed into the conversations of educators. They are self-evidently concerned with the development of people. But what is development? Are there particular stages that we pass through in our life course?

Contents · introduction · development · stages · gender, culture and political convenience · life events · conclusion · further reading and references

For adult educators, youth workers and those concerned with lifelong learning one of the great attractions of the literature examining life course development is that it may identify qualities or problems that are the distinctive property of young people and adults. If this can be done then the grounds exist for the establishment of specialisms such as youth work and adult education or learning. In the case of the latter, for example, we might look to possibilities around:

  • process – do adults think differently? (This is what came to the centre of Knowles’ theory of andragogy)
  • situations – do they find themselves in different circumstances to other age groups?
  • experiences – does the accumulation of experience change things. What difference does having been through a greater range of things make?

A further interest is that if there are some qualities that are uniquely youthful or adult, there may be implications for the sort of learning environments that could, and should, be fostered – and what subject matter should be attended to.


How are we to define development? The first and obvious element is change – that development involves movement from one state to another. As a result an interest in development leads one to a concern for transitions. How is it that a person moves from this state to that? A second aspect is that this change is understood to have a permanent or lasting impact, or at least having some degree of ‘carry-forward‘. However, development is not change of any kind.

The feeling of satiety after a good meal clearly involves change, but no one would see that as developmental… Reference to lasting change does not provide a satisfactory solution, because some alterations that are obviously developmental may have no long term consequences; they serve their purposes at the time but they leave no lasting imprint… On the other hand some degree of carry-forward would seem to be necessary for most aspects of development. (Rutter and Rutter 1992: 63)

Third, in common usage developmental often refers to growth, to a progression through certain stages. More than that it is frequently linked to an unfolding, a movement toward a certain fixed point. In terms of human development the notion commonly used here is ‘maturity’. Here we move into contested territory. While it may be possible to get some agreement about where physical growth stops, how are we to approach personality development? What may be maturity to one person or culture, may be nothing of the sort to another. Furthermore, ‘maturity’ is something that is presumably demonstrated in action – and what may be appropriate behaviour in one setting or situation is not in another. Some writers have tried to find a way around this by turning to endpoints like adulthood, individuality, inner unity, self-actualization and so on. However, each of these notions is still borne of a particular historical moment and culture – and there are distinct problems in thinking of them as universals.

Building on these elements Rutter and Rutter (1992: 64) use the following as a working definition of development in relation to humans:

systematic, organized, intra-individual change that is clearly associated with generally expectable age-related progressions and which is carried forward in some way that has implications for a person’s pattern or level of functioning at some later time

The concern here with intra-individual change does highlight a problem in some of the literature. There has been a tendency to focus on what is going on inside the individual with a corresponding lack of appreciation of inter-personal or social forces and dynamics (see selfhood). This ties in to all those rather fruitless nature-nurture debates that were especially prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. Arguably, today, with the development of genetic research, and more sophisticated appreciations of the self, the focus is rather more on gene-environment interaction. This involves looking for the various ways in which genetic influences may orient and open up people in different ways to environmental influences; and how environmental elements may become part of a genetic inheritance. However, looking at a definition like this we can get stuck on the notion of ‘progressions’ – there may be changes or transitions – but are they all forward movements? What are these changes?


One attractive way of handling the idea of development has been through the idea that people pass through various stages. People are seen as making systematic progression in a certain order through a series of phases. Step by step they move closer to some form of adult status. This movement can be seen as involving changes in intellectual and physical powers (for example around changes in intelligence, expertise and ability to reason); and the impact of life events and experiences. Aristotle proposed a three-stage model, Solon divided life into nine seven year stages, Confucius identified six stages, The Sayings of the Fathers (from the Talmud) contain fourteen stages, and Shakespeare proposed seven stages (Tennant and Pogson 1995: 69).

One, quite popular way of expressing this is from Levinson (see below and taken from Tennant and Pogson 1995). In this model ‘each era has its distinctive and unifying character of learning’ (op. cit.: 72). Each transition between eras requires a change in the character of one’s life (and this can take between three and six years to complete). At the same time there is a process of individuation occurring.

Exhibit 1: Levinson on development (Tennant and Pogson 1995)

Levinson argues that the life cycle comprises a sequence of four eras, each lasting for approximately twenty-five years. He also identifies a number of developmental periods within these eras, concentrating on early and middle adulthood. The eras and main developmental periods he identifies are as follows:

1. Childhood and adolescence: birth to age-twenty (early childhood transition by age three)

2. Early adulthood: age seventeen to forty-five

Early adult transition-seventeen to twenty-two

Entering the adult world-twenty-two to twenty-eight

Age thirty transition-twenty-eight to thirty-three

Settling down-thirty-three to forty

3. Middle adulthood: age forty to sixty-five

Midlife transition-forty to forty-five

Entering middle adulthood-forty-five to fifty

Age fifty transition-fifty to fifty-five

Culmination of middle adulthood-fifty-five to sixty

4. Late adulthood: age sixty on

Late adult transition-sixty to sixty-five

According to Levinson, each era has its distinct and unifying character of living. Each transition between eras thus requires a basic change in the character of one’s life, which may take between three and six years to complete. Within the broad eras are periods of development, each period being characterized by a set of tasks and an attempt to build or modify one’s life structure. For example, in the Early Adult Transition period the two primary tasks are to move out of the pre-adult world and to make a preliminary step into the adult world. Similarly, during the Settling Down period, the two tasks are to establish a niche in society and to work for progress and advancement in that niche. A pervasive theme throughout the various periods is the existence of the “Dream.” It has the quality of a vision, an imagined possibility that generates excitement and vitality. It is our projection of the ideal life. The place and nature of the “Dream” in one’s life is constantly modified and revisited throughout the life course as the imagined self is compared with the world as it is lived.

Another fundamental process occurring throughout the life cycle is that of individuation. This refers to the changing relationship between self and the external world throughout the life course. It begins with the infant’s dawning knowledge of its separate existence in a world of animate and inanimate objects. It is apparent in the tasks of the Early Adult Transition; one of the principal tasks being to modify or terminate existing relationships with family and significant others and to reappraise and modify the self accordingly. Indeed, much of developmental progress is couched in terms of the changing nature of the relationship between self and others, such as mentor relationships, love and family relationships, and occupational relationships. In Midlife, relationships are re-appraised again; this takes the form of a struggle between the polarities of attachment and separateness:

We use the term “attachment” in the broadest sense, in order to encompass all the forces that connect person and environment. To be attached, is to be en aged, involved, needy, plugged in, seeking, rooted….

At the opposite pole is separateness. This is not the same thing as isolation or aloneness. A person is separate when he is primarily involved in his inner world-a world of imagination, fantasy, play. His main interest is not in adapting to the “real world” but in constructing and exploring an imagined world, the enclosed world of his inner self [Levinson 1979: 239].

Levinson views Midlife as a period where one needs to redress the dominance of attachment to the external world: to find a better, balance between the needs of the self and the needs of society – a greater integration of separateness and attachment: “Greater individuation allows him to be more separate from the world, to be more independent and self generating. But it also gives him the confidence and understanding to have more intense attachments in the world and to feel more fully a part of it” (p. 195).

Individuation is also apparent in the attempt to integrate polarities within the self, such as the masculine and feminine polarity, and the polarities between young and old, destruction and creation. The process of individuation is thus paradoxical: it points to a developmental move away from the world, but this independence and separateness is used to make the individual part of the world and to integrate previously separated aspects of the self.

As Rutter and Rutter have noted in such models there has been a concentration on the universals of development rather than individual difference.

Thus, Freudian theory emphasized psychosexual stages, oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. Piaget, by contrast, focused on cognitive mechanisms in the progression from the sensorimotor stage of infancy through the pre-operational and concrete operations stage (in which logical reasoning comes to the fore) or adolescence onwards. Kohlberg extended the approach to moral development, with stages representing different levels of moral maturity (pre-conventional, conventional etc.). Gesell charted development in terms of a series of milestones in physical, motor and perceptual domains. Erikson, too, saw development as a progression through stages, but differed from the others in his emphasis on the importance of interactions with society and in the extension of development into and through adult life. His focus was on psycho-social transitions, with stages characterized by age-defined social tasks and crises involving features such as identity, intimacy and generativity. (Rutter and Rutter 1992: 1-2)

There are a number of issues with such theories. The first arises from the sheer scale of their endeavours. By seeking to be universal theories, by looking to explain some aspect of all our development, they over-reach themselves. While there may be some universals of growth when we come to examine the individual life things are rarely that straightforward.

Second, as Rutter and Rutter (op cit) again comment, by concentrating on stages such theories imply ‘a mechanical predictability that is out of keeping with the dynamics of change, the extent of the flux over time and the degree of individual variability that seems to be the case’. Here we only need reflect on our own biographies and to turn to one of these stage theories. The movement through our lives is not so clear cut, there are all sorts of stuttering steps forward, steps back, and pauses.

Third, our own biographies are likely to show significant deviations from the path laid out by the theories. ‘Stages’ may be missed out, other ways of naming a phase or experiences may be more appropriate. The reality is that in any of these domains there is no one universal path, nor is there some fixed end point – ‘normal maturity’. Detailed studies of socio-emotional development reveal a different tale: ‘it is likely that children take a variety of paths, and that adult outcome cannot be sensibly be reduced to differences in levels of maturity’ (op. cit.).

Gender, culture and political convenience

On top of all this are questions anyway about whether stage theories such as those developed by Kohlberg, Erikson and Piaget can be applied universally. They have been formed within specific social contexts – and the research largely undertaken in respect of boys and men. Perhaps the best known rehearsing of the arguments around this question is the ‘Kohlberg-Gilligan’ Controversy (discussed at some length in relation to moral theory in Benhabib 1992: 148-202; Tennant 1988 also mentions it). Basically, the beginning claim that Gilligan and her associates made was that Kohlberg’s research into moral development reflected a long-standing gender bias. That, for example, certain ‘female characteristics’ such as a concern with relationships, were substantially underrated by the researchers. This meant that when women took the tests associated with the Kohlberg research they consistently scored lower than men. There are all sorts of issues around this debate including the danger of slipping into an essentialist position i.e. that there are ‘natural’ differences with regard to ethics and moral development between men and women. However, what remains is a continuing challenge to universal theories of this kind.

We can turn to other problems concerning cultural bias. Many of the dominant theories have been devised within particular value systems and in relation to a limited range of cultures. The problem has been is that they are then hawked around as apparently universal theories. If our sense of selfhood varies from one culture to another, then this places a major question mark against universal theories of adult development.

Life events

We have been looking approaches that try to chart the life-course via stages or phases – as Tennant and Pogson put it, ‘periods of stability, equilibrium and balance that alternate, in a largely predictable way with periods of instability and transition’. As an alternative we can look to those theorists that stress the large differences in the way that life courses are made. One way of looking at this is look at the disruptive impact of life events or transitions (defined as a discontinuity in a person’s life) and the scale of readjustment required. For example, the Holmes and Rahe scale has 43 items (Hopson 1981: 142-144). At the top come:

1 Death of a spouse 100
2 Divorce 73
3 Marital separation from mate 65
4 Detention in jail or other institution 63
5 Death of a close family member 63
6 Major personal injury or illness 50
7 Marriage 47
8 Being fired at work 45
9 Marital reconciliation with mate 45
10 Retirement from work 45
11 Major change in health or behaviour of a family member 44
12 Pregnancy 39

At the bottom of the list came: Vacation (13),Christmas (12) and Minor violations of the law (e.g. traffic tickets) (11). According to Hopson (1981) there was a fair degree of correlation across different cultures in the relative impact of these events.

The significance of the list for our purposes is less in the specifics than in the types of event and the effect they have. At such points of change and discontinuity we have to deal (and often not that easily) with a range of emotions and experiences. They frequently have a considerable impact on the way we understand ourselves. Many of the items listed relate to dimensions usually associated with adults – marriage, divorce, retirement, pregnancy. The scale of the disruption can be magnified by the extent to which such events occur out of sequence (or time). Neugarten (1976) argues that such crises may not be experienced as crises if they occur on time, as part of the expected life cycle. For example, as we get older we recognize that death is coming closer for ourselves and our partners and close friends. While the shock of the death of someone close to us is still deep we can at least console ourselves with the notion that they had ‘a good innings’. Where it is someone ‘young’ the shock and anger can be amplified. It is, thus, the unexpected life events, those that occur ‘out of time’ that are the potential crises (Tennant and Pogson 1995: 91).

When looking at these results we have to sound a further note of caution – this was a test designed for adults. Death of a parent, for example, could score equally high for a child as death of a spouse for an adult. However, I suppose the important point to take away is that changes in our bodies as adults, and the impact of ‘life events’, can have a fundamental impact – and are as significant to us at that time as many of the changes that happen during childhood.

One of the consequences of this is that ‘development’ may occur at any point in life – and need not be linear. Different situations and influences will make for variations in development. Some of these will be associated with age, some with cohort, some are ‘accidental’ One such model is from Baltes, Reese and Lipsitt:

Exhibit 2: Influences on development (Tennant and Pogson 1995)

Baltes and his colleagues argue that developmental-processes may begin at any point in life and are not necessarily linear (that is – a developmental theme, such as dependence, may be more salient in early and late life than it is in middle life). They recognize three influences on development which together account for substantial individual variation. First, there are normative age-graded influences: those correlated highly with age, such as physical maturation, commencement of education, and parents’ death. Then, there are normative, history-graded influences, that is, historical events that influence entire age cohorts-economic depressions, epidemics, wars, social movements. Finally, there are a host of non-normative influences: events that have great impact on individual lives but that most people escape, such as contracting a rare disease, having a child with a genetic abnormality, or winning a lottery. Baltes, Reese, and Lipsitt (1980) summarize these three influences in terms of whether they are primarily age-related (that is, related to a person’s own lifespan) or cohort-specific (that is, related to the point in history when a person was born).

Normative Age-Graded: Biological and sociocultural influences that are linked fairly clearly with age, such as physical maturation during childhood or typical events during adulthood involving the family, education, and occupation.

Normative History-Graded: Environmental, cataclysmic, and social influences that affect most members of a culture at the same time, like wars, sweeping economic or technological changes, and major epidemics. These effects may differ depending on a person’s age at the time of the event, but most people of a given age-a whole cohort-will have similar experiences.

Non-normative: Events that are significant for a particular individual, but are not part of an overall pattern tied to the life cycle, like traffic accidents, lottery winnings, and religious conversion.

With two of the three major influences on development relatively unrelated to age, the attempt to identify universal age-related stages or phases seems bound to fail.


As we have seen models that involve the passing through of certain defined stages are problematic. There can always be debates about the nature and extent of stages. We cannot even make a distinction between adult learning and child learning (Jarvis 1987b: 179) (see andragogy). Kidd (1978: 17) goes further, ‘what we describe as adult learning is not a different kind or order from child learning’.

According to theorists like Jarvis (1987a) different social situations may be significant at different ages. Different social conditions may well be a ‘constituent causal factor in different learning processes occurring… Thus… adult learning may be no different from child learning, given the same social situation’ (ibid: 11). The question then becomes whether there are some qualities and experiences that tend to be rather more the property of adults (providing we can define this term!) and children (and this implies a further question – what of young people?). The importance for us as educators is that events and situations cannot be prepared for in some simple way. As Yeaxlee said, they have to be experienced and reflected upon – and, thus, can provide a focus for educators.

We need to avoid relying on the idea that there are predictable and relatively stable stages or phases of development. We also need to be extremely cautious about there bring some ideal end point to development such as maturity or adulthood.

Further reading and references

Rutter, M. and Rutter, M. (1992) Developing Minds. Challenge and continuity across the lifespan, London: Penguin. Good, accessible overview of lifespan development.

Tennant, M. and Pogson, P. (1995) Learning and Change in the Adult Years, San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass. Provides a very helpful overview of life course development for those concerned with lifelong learning.


Baltes, P. B., Reese, H. and Lipsett, L. (1980) ‘Lifespan developmental psychology’, Annual Review of Pyschology 31: 65 – 110.

Benhabib, S. (1987) ‘The generalized and the concrete other. The Kohlberg-Gilligan controversy and feminist theory’ in S. Benhabib and D. Cornell (eds.) Feminism as Critique. Essays on the politics of gender in late-capitalist societies, Cambridge: Polity.

Boud, D., Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (eds.) (1985) Reflection. Turning experience into learning, London: Kogan Page.

Brookfield, S. D. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. A comprehensive analysis of principles and effective practices, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (rev edn.) Vol. 8, The Later Works 1925-1953 (ed.) J. A. Boydston (1987), Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.

Hopson, B. (1981) Psychology for Education, London: McGraw Hill.

Humphries, B. (1988) ‘Adult learning in social work education: towards liberation or domestication’, Critical Social Policy No. 23: 4-21.

Jarvis, P. (1987a) Adult Learning in the Social Context, Beckenham: Croom Helm.

Jarvis, P. (1987b) ‘Malcolm S. Knowles’ In P. Jarvis (ed.) Twentieth Century Thinkers in Adult Education, Beckenham: Croom Helm.

Kidd, J. R. (1978) How Adults Learn 3e, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentrice Hall Regents.

Knowles, M. S. (1970) The Modern Practice of Adult Education. Andragogy versus pedagogy, New York: Association Press. (Extract in Tight 1983).

Knowles, M. S. (1973) The Adult Learner. A neglected species, Houston: Gulf Publishing.

Knowles, M. S. (1980) The Modern Practice of Adult Education. From pedagogy to andragogy (2nd edn.), Chicago: Association Press.

Levinson, D. (1978) The Seasons of a Man’s Life, New York: Knopf.

Smith, F. (1992) To Think. In language, learning and education, London: Routledge.

Tennant, M. (1988) Psychology and Adult Learning, London: Routledge.

Acknowledgement: The picture fencepost – showing growth rings  – is by Martin LaBar. Reproduced under a Creative Commons cc-by-nc 2 licence:

© Mark K. Smith 1999