Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Life-Long Learners

The phrase “life-long learner” has been kicking around for quite some time in Ed World, but we’re finally in a position to be able to do something about it. The question is whether we’re going to bother.

You can certainly be a life-long learner without any help. You always could be. You could go to the library; you could go to the Learning Annex; you could go live in the woods with a copy of “Walden” and your own thoughts. Now, with wireless hot-spots and smart phones, you can carry libraries and Learning Annexes in your pocket, and you can go live in the woods while listening to an audio book of “Walden.” Maybe it’s not the same thing. Feel free to take sides.

Meanwhile, our schools remain essentially unchanged after over a hundred years. Where once they mirrored the structure of the kind of industrial work they expected most students to graduate into, they now mirror pretty much nothing except each other. Success in school prepares you to be successful in school. Once you get a job, however, you’re starting from scratch. You won’t work like you worked in school; you won’t even use your knowledge and skills the way you used them in school. Where once you were told that taking shortcuts to a solution was “cheating,” now you’ll be treated like a fool for doing things the hard way. You might even get fired for wasting time. Where once you were told not to look at another student’s paper, now you’ll be given a poor review for failing to cooperate with your co-workers. On and on.

Are you encouraged and empowered to become a life-long learner? Are you given the tools to be an independent, critical thinker, someone intensely and insatiably curious about the world? Or are you, rather, trained by school to be a life-long jumper-through-hoops, a trained circus animal who knows what must be done to get the biscuit and the pat on the head?

What if we really believed in this life-long learning thing? What if we took it as our starting point and built—from scratch—towards that end? What if we said that the goal of the American educational system was to encourage and support life-long learning, from childhood to old age? After all, we’re told all the time that the New Economy demands flexibility, agility, constant retraining, etc. The jobs of the future haven’t even been invented yet. All that. So if it's true, why do we abandon people right when they’re ready to take their first adult job, and then tell them if they want any further education, they’re going to have to pay through the nose for it? Why would we want to discourage people from adapting themselves to a changing world and its new opportunities, throughout their lives? Why would you want to tell people that what they have learned up till 18, or up till 22, will have to suffice for a lifetime?

And that has to mean more than "Google it." Even if the Internet promises almost limitless access to information and opinions (and yes, Baly, we do still have a lot of work to do on broadband access and affordability for all), we still need physical school buildings and real teachers. We need schools as places where people can come together and find Wise Guides to help them analyze, discuss, and understand the information they're downloading, and test out the validity of the opinions they've been swallowing, undigested. We need schools as places where people can learn and practice skills that require (or just benefit from) in-person interaction. Perhaps we don’t need grade-level classrooms. Perhaps we don’t need subject-specific classrooms. But we will always need a place. A village green of the mind. An intellectual commons. We still need a place where Socrates can accost us and make us think about what we’re thinking about, to make sure we’re thinking clearly.

And there’s no reason why this should have to be a place for children only. If we're thinking from scratch, let's throw out old assumptions and figure out what we need and want? Why can’t school be a place for all of us, whenever we need it? If I’m 35 and I want to learn Spanish, why do I have to do it by myself, somewhere? Why can’t I go to school during my lunch hour and take it? If I’m 42 and I’m in a job where I need to write more than I’ve written in years, why can’t I go where the writing experts are and get help? My job is increasingly flexible—I can work from home, or at a Starbucks, or at night. I’m available to my boss 24/7 these days, and the line between home and work is increasingly dissolving. So if I can find time during the weekend to work, why can’t I find time during the work week to learn?

Imagine a school where adults interacted with children of all ages—as fellow students. Imagine a school where teenagers actually got to know the adults in their community for a change—and learned from something other than TV shows how adults behave and think. Imagine school as a conversation across the generations about the world and its myriad wonders and problems. Imagine a community where people stopped thinking that just because their children had graduated from high school, they no longer had to support the school system with their tax money—imagine a community where adults were happy to support the schools, because they used the schools. Imagine teachers who truly felt as though they were empowering all the people in their community to grow, and change, and prosper--that they performed a vital function for their entire community. What a job that would be!

The system gives us what the system was built to give us. It will continue to give us what it was built to give us, no matter how much tinkering we do around the edges. We can’t change the system in any meaningful way until we know what we want the system to give us. In every other aspect of our 21st century lives, we're dreaming new dreams and building wonderful machines to make those dreams come true. Why not here?

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