The Challenge of being a Lifelong Learner

My Linda sent me an email today with a wonderful quote from Eric Hoffer about the nature of learning…

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

It’s so true. As educators we talk a lot about the importance of being a lifelong learner, but to actually BE a lifelong learner is sometimes tough. It means accepting that what you don’t know far outweighs what you do know; it requires the mental muscle to always be curious and asking questions about the world and how it works; and it means being mature enough to regularly put your ego aside and freely admit that you really don’t know the answer to most things. Funnily enough, the group of people that I often see struggling with this idea more than most are teachers. We seem to espouse the lifelong learning ideal, but many of us still like to always be in control and feel like we at the top of the food chain when it comes to the learning process. It’s an interesting paradox.

Seymour Papert once wrote,

“So the model that says learn while you’re at school, while you’re young, the skills that you will apply during your lifetime is no longer tenable. The skills that you can learn when you’re at school will not be applicable. They will be obsolete by the time you get into the workplace and need them, except for one skill. The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn. It is the skill of being able not to give the right answer to questions about what you were taught in school, but to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.”

I came across that quote from Papert about 10 years ago, and as a teacher it changed everything for me. I suddenly “got it”. It crystallised exactly what the role of education should be, and how the industrial age classroom where we learnt facts in order to regurgitate them on a test, would never be able to meet the real needs of 21st Century learners who live in a world where many of the jobs we are supposedly preparing them for after school have not even been conceived of yet.

Being a lifelong learner is tough because it is so relentless. There is always something new to learn or some new idea to explore. It’s not a now-and-then thing. It’s an always-on, 24/7 sort of thing that you either embrace or you don’t. You can’t be a lifelong learner occasionally.

And the people who do this and take the risks and spend their life catching up on the endless list of things they don’t yet know, they will reap the rewards. And in all likelihood, they will be the ones who end up creating our future.

To quote George Bernard Shaw…

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world while the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I’m willing to bet that the unreasonable man of which Shaw spoke was a good example of a lifelong learner.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 The Challenge of being a Lifelong Learner by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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