Today, the concept of lifelong learning that Europe wants to promote no longer conceives the worker as an operator of instructions, but as a creative subject that develops its own learning and participates as a citizen in the construction of a more inclusive society. Is today’s school, during compulsory education, also guiding students in the construction of their own learning?

7. Children studying. HICA (Cávado river hydroelectric plant). 1945-1964. Teófilo Rego Archive, Casa da Imagem – Manuel Leão Foundation, Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal.

Education in the industrial age in the 20th century was loaded with a sense of instruction. It was important for students to learn to follow a set of rules, just as, when operating a machine, one needs to comply with its handling instructions for the machine to work. Beyond the instruction of rules, what can education teach to contribute to the improvement of the living conditions of workers?

8. Children working as apprentices in the leather industry in the late 19th century. Interactive Museum of Industry, Gabrovo, Bulgaria.


Education concerns activities developed inside or outside the industrial facilities with the goal of acquiring skills enabling the workers to perform a task or a set of tasks. These activities, paid or free, may be developed before or after the worker enters the industrial infrastructure, on a voluntary or compulsory basis. Throughout history, the worker, individually or in groups, has participated in different types of training activities with the aim of improving his/her performance at the site where he/she were or aimed to be at. This transfer of know-how takes place as a means for living, economic, political, religious, and/or affirmation of corporate identity.

In the pre-industrial era, learning took place mostly between generations of craftsmen belonging to the same family. Often the mastery of a trade, or a craft, was part of family identity. Later on, with the Industrial Revolution, the training to work in any industrial sector changed. In its origins, the individual was admitted to the factory as an apprentice and through daily observation and training would learn a trade. The worker understood that when his knowledge increased, the company would allow him to progress up the hierarchy of the factory. Many workers had no access to prior, or off-the-job, instruction. To that extent, the education at the factory meant individual progress and the identity of the worker would become embodied with the corporate identity.

With the displacement of men to the front during World War II, many jobs were occupied by women. These jobs had been held up till then mostly by men. Despite the unequal pay and the lack of specialisation, the integration of women was a fundamental milestone for the affirmation of women in the world of labour. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) declares the human right to education (regardless of gender) and is itself the proof that a development paradigm based on control and subjugation of workers had to be overcome. Education is therefore relevant to perform professional tasks and to question the equality within the industrial system and labour world.

Nowadays the EU, a society based on knowledge and cooperation, is concerned with improving the training and participation of its citizens. Training policies go beyond the Hawthorne experiment (1927) – for example work specialisation is not synonymous with efficiency and workers change jobs so as to avoid monotony. Through exchange programmes for pupils from compulsory schools and universities, an attempt is being made to develop a European identity fostered by a common egalitarian education.

Lifelong learning is today one of the most important competitiveness policies in the EU.