Developing an Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory: the ELLI Project

Ruth Deakin Crick, Patricia Broadfoot and Guy Claxton (reproduced with permission)

University of Bristol, UK

This paper reports the initial results of a study that was designed to develop and test an instrument that could identify the elements of an individual’s capacity for lifelong learning. We anticipated that the components of this capacity would include a complex mix of dispositions, lived experiences, social relations, values, attitudes and beliefs and that these various factors would coalesce to shape the nature of an individual’s engagement with any particular learning opportunity. The instrument that was developed the Evaluating Lifelong Learning InventoryÐwas trialled with pupils across a range of ages and subject to factor analytic study. The data have proved robust over successive factor analytic studies, allowing the identification of seven dimensions of learning power and reliable scales to assess these. These dimensions appear to be capable of differentiating between efficacious, engaged and energized learners and passive, dependent and fragile learners. Whilst further, larger scale field trials will be necessary to confirm these early results, the findings would appear to have significant implications for conventional models of curriculum design and classroom practice.


The history of educational assessment largely concerns attempts to develop either instruments to assess intelligence or instruments to assess educational achievement. Very little attention has so far been given to designing an instrument that is capable of assessing a person’s learning orientationÐthe complex mixture of experience, motivation, intelligences and dispositions that any particular learning opportunity evokes. And yet, it is arguably our characteristics as learners and what we bring to any particular learning situation that will be the most important quality for us to be able to measure in the unpredictable and ever-changing world of the twenty-first century. If the capacity and the desire to learn and to go on learning throughout life is now recognized as a central aspiration in the concept of `lifelong learning’, it is important to develop the means to assess the developing qualities that make up an individual’s capacity for lifelong learning. What makes an individual want to engage in learning and to be effective at it? Such assessments are potentially both summative, in the sense of `summing up’ dimensions of an individual’s desire and capacity to learn at any given time and formative, in the sense of helping an individual to become a more enthusiastic and effective learner.

Thus, the overall purpose of the research reported here builds on the analysis of Carr and Claxton (2002). The aim was, Firstly, to seek to identify the elements that define a good learner. Secondly, it was to devise an instrument that could be used to assess where an individual located in relation to these elements at any given time, and in any particular context. A further aspiration was to explore how such knowledge might provide a starting point for developing an individual or group’s learning energy. Thus, in parallel with the empirical study reported in this paper, we undertook a developmental study, with a small number of schools and teachers, to see how useful the ELLI tool might prove to be in practice as a basis for practical interventions aimed at improving an individual’s enthusiasm and capacity for learning. This study is reported elsewhere (Deakin Crick et al., 2002a, b). This paper documents the first two purposes of the research.

Lifelong learning and learning energy

An initial step in the design of an instrument to assess an individual’s lifelong learning orientation must be the identification of potential behaviours and factors to be tested. Thus an initial literature review was conducted in order to identify the most likely elements on the basis of existing research.

The characteristics and components of effective lifelong learning identified in other studies highlight the complexity of the task of the research project, which is the subject of this paper. It is a complex and overarching phenomenon that cannot be reduced to only, say a psychological dimension, or a sociological dimension. For there are also biological, ecological, socio-historical, anthropological and critical hermeneutical dimensions related to it. Thus it is interdisciplinary in its scope.

Learning is a process carried out by individuals and groups. What is learned counts as knowledge or skill, which can take the form of the ability to do something which could not be done before, or a new understanding about the world, or something of spiritual, emotional or aesthetic significance. The process may take place below the threshold of introspection in the learner’s mind and remain there for many years, or the learner may be aware of the process taking place. Consistent with this perspective is Clark’s (1997) argument that thinking and learning are `integrative, whole-body processes that consist of rational, intuitive, affective, sensory and volitional ways of knowing’. He suggests that `intelligence/thinking/learning is a single, dynamic, multi-faceted, functional capacity that is inherent in human consciousness. This capacity may be expressed in a variety of modes’.

Existing research indicated that there are at least four broad categories that can be identified as making a substantial contribution to learning. These categories appear to be cumulative, discrete and inter-related dimensions of learning energy. They are:

  • learning capacities: dispositions, awarenesses and skills
  • learning identity: the beliefs, values and attitudes about learning, self and knowledge held by the learner;
  • learning story: the socio-cultural formation of learners over time
  • learning relationships: the quality and substance of learning relationships.

The components of each of these categories can vary in the degree of their sensitivity to domain, to time and to social context. They may be robust or fragile depending on the context and they are likely to vary over time; and in different social contexts. An individual struggling with French GCSE may be a very different learner from when they are studying for a degree in their chosen subject of physics, for example. We hypothesized, however, that despite the significant differences that were likely to be associated with different subject matter, different reasons for learning self-imposed studying in order to pass the driving test versus imposed school examination syllabuses, and different contexts an adult continuing education class of enthusiasts as opposed to a low-stream group of 15-year-olds on a Friday afternoon; there would, nevertheless, be relatively enduring, constant features of a learner’s `profle’ as well.

Although there is a range of studies which have identified variables that have an impact on the individual’s capacity and motivation to learn, such as self-esteem, locus of control, learning dispositions, goal orientations, learning styles and intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Biggs, 1987; Alsaker, 1989; Katzell & Thompson, 1990; Jonassen & Grabowski, 1993; Maines & Robinson, 1996; Dweck, 1999; Grimsell, 2001), few attempts have been made to explore the notion of the conglomerate of variables as they might operate in persons in particular social contexts, and in particular trajectories in time. Thus the study reported here arguably breaks new ground in its attempt to begin to identify these variables and the relationships between them. It is an attempt to be able to provide working hypotheses about the ecology of variables that together make up an individual’s learning orientation.

The situated capacity to learn is closely related to the notion of `motivation for learning’ and can be construed as a form of `energy’ which is experienced by learners and which drives their capacity to learn, adapt and change in response to internal and external stimuli. It is influenced by a potentially large range of physiological, affective, conative, cognitive, social, cultural and technical factors many of which will be outside the learner’s awareness. The desire to learn is arguably an innate quality of human beings, rather like breathing. Moreover, the extensive research literatures on the significance of, for example, self-esteem, locus of control, goal orientation, self- efficacy and dispositions suggest a strong link between the intellectual and the emotional components of learning; i.e. that affective, cognitive and conative dimensions are deeply interrelated. Learning is also influenced by variables that are present in the socio-historical environment of the learner such as significant relationships, cultural tools, worldviews and traditions as well as schooling and other cultural practices. These factors are likely to in ̄uence each other in a dynamic trajectory in time.

Figure 1 attempts to describe this.

Building on this broad theoretical framework the research task was then to explore how different aspects of learning might be understood together, and how they might operate within the individual learner and in the relationships and contexts of learning.

The term lifelong learning is one that requires careful definition because it is used widely in contemporary educational discourse and has a range of meanings. It is frequently used to refer simply to adult education, or the acquisition of skills and training beyond school. This project began with a broader conceptualization of lifelong learning, drawing on research such as that by Smith and Spurling (1999) who aimed to define the reach and potential of real lifelong learning. They developed a holistic notion of lifelong learning that comprises two parts.

Firstly, they suggest, lifelong learning relates to learning that takes place throughout the lifespan. Secondly, they suggest, lifelong learning includes the main types and classes of learning, both informal and formal education, as well as self-directed learning. Lifelong learning is relatively continuous, with a broad momentum that is maintained throughout life. It is intentional on the part of the individual or the organization and is expressed in some form of personal or organizational strategy, formally or informally, which may be re-appraised over time.

Thus, the accent for Smith and Spurling is on continuity, intention and an unfolding strategy in personal learning. Running through these themes are four principles of personal commitment to learning, social commitment to learning, respect for others’ learning and respect for truth.

Thus, in mapping out an overall picture of what lifelong learning involves, Smith and Spurling begin to develop ideas about learning identity, or the active learning agent within community.

This broad view of lifelong learning is consistent with Bloomer and Hodkinson’s (2000) analysis of learning, based on a longitudinal study of young people and their experiences of learning. They conclude that the explanatory power of learning theory is enhanced when it includes a temporal dimension, and when it addresses how learning is embedded within the complexity of life experiences, in other words, a lateral connectivity.

Seven dimensions of learning energy

These successive statistical operations enabled us to identify what we believe to be some key components of learning. Detailed scrutiny of the loading of the items on the seven factors led to these dimensions being interpreted in terms of the following summary descriptions that are presented in a polarized form here for the sake of clarity. It needs to be stressed, however, that it is important to recognize that these are `ideal types’ in that any individual learner is likely to find themselves at different points on each dimension. Moreover, as has been suggested, an individual’s position between the two poles identified for each dimension is likely to vary from time to time and from context to context. At this stage of the analysis the emphasis was on identifying in a robust way the dimensions themselves, rather than the capacity of the scales to characterize particular individuals.

Growth orientation

Some learners appear to regard learning itself as learnable. They believe that, through effort, their minds can get bigger and stronger, just as their bodies can. They see learning as a lifelong process, and gain pleasure and self-esteem from expanding their ability to learn. Having to try is experienced positively: it’s when you are trying that your `learning muscles’ are being exercised. A growth orientation includes a sense of getting better at learning over time, and of growing and changing and adapting as a learner in the whole of life. There is a sense of history and hope. The opposite of growth orientation is fixity. Other learners appear to believe that the ability to learn is fixed. They therefore experience difficulty negatively, as revealing their limitations. They are less likely to see challenging situations as opportunities to become a better learner.

Critical curiosity

Some learners manifest a desire to find things out. They like to get below the surface of things and try to find out what is going on. They value `getting at the truth’, and are more likely to adopt `deep’ rather than `surface’ learning strategies. They are less likely to accept what they are told uncritically, enjoy asking questions, and are more willing to reveal their questions and uncertainties in public. They like to come to their own conclusions about things, and are inclined to see knowledge as a product of human inquiry. They take ownership of their own learning and enjoy a challenge. The opposite pole is passivity. Passive learners are more likely to accept what they are told uncritically, and to believe that `received wisdom’ is necessarily true. They appear to be less thoughtful, and less likely to engage spontaneously in active speculation and exploratory kinds of discussion.


Some learners are on the lookout for links between what they are learning and what they already know. They get pleasure from seeing how things `fit together’. They like it when they can make sense of new things in terms of their own experience, and when they can see how learning relates to their own concerns. Their questions relect this orientation towards coherence. They are interested in the big picture and how the new learning fits within it. They like to learn about what really matters to them. The opposite pole is fragmentation. Some learners are more likely to approach learning situations piecemeal, and to respond to them on their own individual merits. They may be more interested in knowing the criteria for successful performance than in looking for joined-up meanings and associations.

Dependence and fragility

Dependent and fragile learners are more easily disheartened when they get stuck or make mistakes. Their ability to persevere is less, and they are likely to seek and prefer less challenging situations. They are dependent upon other people and external structures for their learning and for their sense of self-esteem. They are passive imbibers of knowledge, rather than active agents of their own learning. The opposite of dependence appears to be resilience & robustness. Learners with these characteristics like a challenge, and are willing to `give it a go’ even when the outcome and the way to proceed are uncertain. They accept that learning is sometimes hard for everyone, and are not frightened of finding things difficult. They have a high level of `stickability’, and can readily recover from frustration. They are able to `hang in’ with learning even though they may, for a while, feel somewhat confused or even anxious. They don’t mind making mistakes every so often, and can learn from them.


Those learners who score highly on this dimension are able to look at things in different ways. They like playing with ideas and taking different perspectives, even when they don’t quite know where their trains of thought are leading. They are receptive to hunches and inklings that bubble up into their minds, and make use of imagination, visual imagery and pictures and diagrams in their learning. They understand that learning often needs playfulness as well as purposeful, systematic thinking. The opposite pole is literalness or rule boundness. These learners tend to be less imaginative. They prefer clear-cut information and tried-and-tested ways of looking at things, and they feel safer when they know how they are meant to proceed. They function well in routine problem-solving situations, but are more at sea when greater creativity is required.


Learners who score highly on this dimension are good at managing the balance between being sociable and being private in their learning. They are not completely independent, nor are they dependent. They like to learn with and from others, and to share their difficulties, when it is appropriate. They acknowledge that there are important other people in their lives who help them learn, though they may vary in who those people are, e.g. family, friends or teachers. They know the value of learning by watching and emulating other people, including their peers. They make use of others as resources, as partners and as sources of emotional support. And they also know that effective learning may also require times of studying or `dreaming’ on their own. The opposite pole is dependence. Some learners are more likely to be stuck either in their over-dependency on others for reassurance or guidance; or in their lack of engagement with other people.

Strategic awareness

Some learners appear to be more sensitive to their own learning. They are interested in becoming more knowledgeable and more aware of themselves as learners. They like trying out different approaches to learning to see what happens. They are reflective and good at self-evaluation. They can judge how much time, or what resources, a learning task will require. They are able to talk about learning and about themselves as learners. They know how to repair their own emotional mood when they get frustrated or disappointed. They like being given responsibility for planning and organizing their own learning. The opposite of `strategic’ is robotic. Learners with these characteristics appear to be less self-aware, and are more likely to confuse self-awareness with self- consciousness.