We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn. —Peter Drucker
Back-to-school season is officially here. Local news stations are reminding drivers this morning to watch for the flashing lights of school zones as a staggered start to the fall school season begins this week. Stores are packed with parents shopping for school supplies and uniforms while children are making every attempt to get the most out of their summer.
We’re no different around here, though it is rather complicated. Kat is on the closing end of her studies, planning to graduate in early October. My youngest son decided to do his final year of high school here, so we’re busy getting him transferred before the 10th. The one I’m looking forward to the most, though, is when the little ones start back to school next Monday. Finally, peace and quiet again!
At the same time, however, we need to realize that learning isn’t limited to what happens in and around school. Intelligent people have long known that learning never stops. Even more, it’s what you learn on your own that often makes the most difference in our lives as we grow older. The classroom gives us a foundation for how to learn, but learning is something that we must keep doing if we are to have any hope of understanding what’s going on around us.
Learning Versus Obsolescence
Try this on for size: much of what you were taught is already obsolete.The older you are the truer that statement is. Word definitions change. Science changes. Technology changes. Limits once considered insurmountable are suddenly surpassed and exceeded several times over. Our understanding of history changes. Even the difference between political parties change.
Carlin Flora wrote a wonderful article for Psychology Today on “The Golden Age of Teaching Yourself Anything.” The article emphasizes the degree to which both technology and social construct make self-learning accessible across such a wide spectrum of knowledge that most anyone has the potential to become an expert in anything without ever setting foot in a classroom. Perhaps more importantly, though, is that such self-learning is critical to remaining a productive part of society.
What looked like occupations that would have no end 30 years ago are now, in many cases, either obsolete or else employ such a common level of skill as to have become commodities. Basic computer operation, for example, once required considerable training and an understanding of abstract math. Now, the average 16-year-old can perform tasks that exceed the abilities of a masters-level computer science major from the 1980s. Self-learning isn’t an option, but a necessity.
Beyond The School
James Marcus Bach in his book, Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar says:
I happily plunder knowledge wherever I find it. I don’t seek the destruction of schools. I am out to dismantle something else—the popular belief that schooling is the only route to a great education and that the best students are those who passively accept the education their schools offer.”
Schools are wonderful in their ability to give everyone a basic foundation for how to learn. However, they don’t even come close to teaching us everything we need to know. To assume that one graduates from an institution no longer needing to learn is foolish. Learning only increases as life progresses.
Take Dick Drew, for example. In 1925 Drew was a sandpaper salesman for 3M, which was then largely a minerals company. While attempting to sell sandpaper to mechanics at a body shop, he observed the difficulty painters were having with two-toned paint jobs. Skipping over all the fun details, this sandpaper salesman learned about paint, learned about adhesives, and invented masking tape. The world has never been the same.
Learning all we can about as many different areas as we can increases both our critical and creative thinking. The more information we have stored on the left side of our brain, the more creative connections can develop on the right side of our brain. If we are having problems with a creative block, the answer may very well be learning something new.
Breaking Barriers To Learning
Many of us went through school at a time when pedagogical theory focused on different students having a different learning style. One student might be said to be a more visual learner, one who doesn’t pick up information from reading, but does from seeing a task done. Others were said to be tactile learners: they gained information by completing a task themselves. Guess what: the whole theory might have been wrong.
Flora’s article looks at the “rigorous analysis” by Christian Jarrett, a cognitive scientist and the creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. Jarrett doesn’t seem to believe in learning styles. He says:
Although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught.
The example Flora uses is this: “Novices learn better from examples; more expert learners benefit from solving problems. And combining activities, such as drawing a diagram of a cell after reading about it, improves learning for just about everyone.”
Taking Jarrett’s theory to an applicable end means that anyone can learn anything. The potential is not limited to a learning style that might make resources unavailable. If you want to learn something, do so.
Conquering The Fear Of Learning
If learning is so accessible, then why aren’t more of us taking advantage of that opportunity? We’re scared. We’re insecure. We don’t want to fail … again. When we are not confident in ourselves then we are less likely to explore. We shelve our curiosity in favor of sticking with what we know.
New and developing technology may be the most frequent example for people of my generation and older. We’re comfortable enough with the technologies that were developed when we were younger. But now that technology is largely obsolete. We hear people talking about the Internet of Things and not only do we not understand what that is, we are, as a group, generally afraid to find out. We don’t like feelings of stupidity, ignorance, or inadequacy. These new technologies raise those emotions so we avoid learning to dodge the emotion.
One factor that may contribute to our shyness is our experience in competitive environments. When we’ve been made to feel that we are not smart enough, that our ideas aren’t quite good enough, that we’re not “winners,” we feel inadequate. We don’t trust our ability to learn enough to contribute to any substantial change.
What we must realize is that how smart you are doesn’t matter nearly as much as being open to learning more from whatever source might deliver it. Having an attitude that you can learn, that you want to learn, allows one to learn in greater quantity, sometimes without being consciously aware that learning is taking place.
Curiosity drives our growth and spurs our interests into different fields of learning. The final challenge is realizing that we don’t have to know it all. Success isn’t determined by the amount of knowledge we accumulate, but by how we utilize the information we have. The student of physics doesn’t have to run a particle accelerator to relate theories of attraction and velocity to more esoteric applications.
We all have the ability to learn. Learning helps keep our brains active and may (not making any promises here) help ward off early onset dementia and Alzheimer’s. Success lies in the fact that we know more at the end of today than we did at the beginning.
With so much information at our fingertips, learning has never been so accessible to so many. Whether you can create the structure necessary for self-learning or if you need the guidance of a teacher, the door is wide open. Explore. Discover. Be amazed.