Creating Life Long Learners (In School or Otherwise)

In response to my entry Schools Not Full of Bugs, Full of Features, Joanne asks a few questions about homeschooling. Instead of answering them in the comments, I’ll respond here.

Joanne writes: “I see adult students in my classes who didn’t “automatically” learn. I have a young woman who told me she’d basically never gone to school. She struggles today because when she tries to read, she doesn’t have a large enough vocabulary, so she doesn’t understand a lot…even though she uses a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. She consequently also has a hard time expressing herself in writing. How do we ensure that whether kids are home schooled or publicly schooled, they get what they need?”

There are many elements to this comment. First, is the idea of “automatic” learning.

People always, always learn automatically. There is nothing we can do to make anyone learn. Because even when we are doing nothing, we are learning. The problem is, however, that we may not be learning what we are “supposed” to be learning. And that’s really the question here – people who don’t learn what they are supposed to be learning, or who don’t learn the “right” things. That’s why so often the argument comes up that kids don’t “just learn things”. What that really means is kids don’t “just learn the things we want them to.” And that is absolutely 100% correct. Kids don’t automatically learn what we want them to. If we want them to learn something specific, we have to direct them.

My argument is this – when we allow people to decide for themselves what needs to be learned in their own lives, they will “just learn things”. And they will learn important things. The exception to this case is when kids have been in the school system long enough that they no longer seek out their own information. They have been trained to wait until someone tells them it’s time to learn before making an attempt to learn something new.

But again, we’re talking about learning stuff that we, as adults and teachers, feel are important. You take the same kid who won’t “just learn stuff” in school, and he will spend hours figuring out a video game or how to do a flip on a skateboard. These kids do have it in them to “just learn”. The key to learning – we learn things that have meaning in our lives. And we learn things when we are not stressed. You put these two things together – non-stress and meaning – and you have a child who will “just learn”, and learn a lot.

I don’t know the details of the woman that Joanne is referring to, but my guess is that she had an incredible amount of stress in her life. If she basically didn’t go to school, which means she was enrolled in school, but didn’t go, there was a reason. And when these kids are growing up stressed, all of their brain cells are going towards learning how to deal with that stress, not learning how to read or whatever else. Especially if learning how to read brings on even more stress.

If a child is supported in a non-stressful environment, and has a reason to read, (and doesn’t have a brain disorder), he will “just learn”. This is in young children. In adults, it’s a little different because there is the social expectation that adults know how to read. For those who don’t, half the battle of learning to read is getting over the huge feeling of inadequacy, and not being able to do it.

Joanne also said: “The other thing is that you never know what life is going to throw at you, or what knowledge you’ll need. Especially today, when people are not just changing jobs every two to five years, but also changing careers. So what someone is being taught now–that may sound “unnecessary” or like something they’re never going to use–may indeed turn out to be useful later on, in that unknown future.”

This is exactly why I don’t think school model of using curriculum is the way to go. We can never know what a person will need to know later on, and anything that kids learn in school is a crap shoot. They might need algebra, or they might need to know how to dissect literature, or they might need to know the names of all the presidents by heart. But, they also might need to know one day how to start a business, or how to negotiate a contract, or how to build a shed, or how to find a good contractor, or how to build a fire, or how to hook up a complex entertainment center. But we don’t teach these things to kids. We expect that when they get to that point in their life, they will figure it out. Even though, many of these things are far more essential than the many things that they are taught in school.

Often, the truly essential things are not taught in school, the extraneous things are. That is enough for me to see that school’s purpose is not to teach kids things that they might find important later. That’s argument that’s used to justify how school is structured. It’s not a logical explanation for why students are required to learn what they are expected to learn. Another problem with the shotgun approach to teaching stuff to kids because they might need it later, is that 99% of the things that we don’t need, we forget, and have to re-learn later anyway. Sure, we might learn some stuff that we never would have if we hadn’t seen it in school, but the opposite would be true if we were out of school living a rich life, or in a school where we could learn the things that were meaningful to us instead of the stuff that we didn’t like. No matter how you cut it, kids will have learning experience all their lives. The question is – who is in control of what those learning experiences are?

Anything that we need later in life – we can learn it. The vast majority of people who change careers don’t do so because they learned something in school. Most people change careers when they realize that the career path they chose right out of school wasn’t at all what they wanted to do, and they want to follow what their true passion instead. People don’t change careers into something they have no interest in doing. People change careers to do something they are enthusiastic about. It’s irrelevant whether they learned about something or not in school. If they are passionate about their new career, they will fill the gaps, whatever those gaps are, because they are motivated to do so.

So, my philosophy is this – teach kids the stuff they want to learn. If you do that, they will learn everything they need, and won’t waste precious life and energy on things that cause stress, are pointless, and give the impression that learning is boring. Because real learning – the learning that has meaning – is never boring. Never, ever boring. Meaningful learning might be hard, it might be challenging, it might even seem surmountable – but it’s never uninteresting. And, if you tap into what kids want to do, they will climb over themselves, and overcome huge obstacles to get what they want.

Joanne said: “I think some people are saying that the answer to coping with that kind of uncertainty is to teach thinking skills and problem-solving skills, and to teach people to be lifelong learners. But I’m not sure how to encourage that in every person. Even for me–I love learning and also did well in school–it is a major impediment to learn new skills when life is so busy you barely have time to make a living when you’re trying to make ends meet. “

I don’t think that anyone can be taught how to be a lifelong learner. It’s nurtured by allowing children to identify what their needs are, and what they want to learn, and helping them achieve the goals they set for themselves. People are born learners. They continue to be so until they are taught that learning is canned. How well a child does in school is not related to whether they are likely to be life-learners. The stress of education – kids being caught up in someone else’s idea of who they are supposed to be, and doing their best to live up to that – that’s what kills the desire to be a learner. If a child doesn’t feel that stress, they can keep their inborn learner alive. Of course, life has its stress points, so I’m referring to constant, daily stress that threads through their lives – the stress of trying to be something they are not to please someone else. That can be in school, at home, whatever.

Being busy is not an impediment to learning. In fact, I would say that busy people learn far more than idle people do. When our lives are busy with – stuff – whatever that stuff is, we are learning. The question is – do we recognize that we are learners? Or do we see ourselves as stagnant and in order to learn something, someone has to come along and teach us?

I see myself as a life-long learner because I am always learning. Even when I’m doing the dishes or laundry or driving around, I’m always learning. Now, I have a keen interest in a lot of topics, as everyone does, so I make the choice to bring those topics into my life one way or another, and by doing that, I am learning about those topics – even though I’m not doing anything that looks like school. I’m a life-long learner because I see the learning that happens all the time. So if I’m interested in something, I don’t wait for an opportunity to come along that I can take hours at a time off to learn it, I put things in my life that allow me to learn it. Books, magazines, tv shows, talking with people, watching movies, looking at websites, thinking about it, writing about it, whatever it takes. And, if a class does come along that fits perfectly and it seems interesting, sure, I’d take it.

This is what I see life learning to really be. Not a life-long urge to go to school or to take classes – but an awareness that all beings are learning and that since this is true, it’s up to ourselves to decide what we want to be learning and how we can learn things in our everyday lives. We don’t have to add anything into our lives to continue learning. It’s a shift in perspective.

To bring this to our children, it will take a shift in perspective of the entire purpose of education. So long as we see education as trying to get kids to do certain things because it’s what someone, somewhere, has deemed important for kids to learn, we will never be able to nurture all children as life learners.

So, the whole thinking skills thing, and problem solving skills is a bunch of hooey, IMHO. If someone is living a meaningful life, and sees themselves as a learner in every situation, thinking and problem solving are so intrinsic to the process, that it isn’t a skill at all – it’s the default way of being.

Lastly, Joanne says: “I don’t know enough about other countries’ educational systems (or other countries’ approach to issues like homeschooling) to know if there are interesting examples of what can be achieved in terms of truly “educating” kids and getting them to be lifelong learners. I have heard (from a rather curmudgeonly but concerned individual who was part of a national commission evaluating the state of education in the U.S. and what it meant in terms of the U.S.’s chances of staying competitive in world markets) that some other countries’ citizens seem to be more invested in their own advancement, and in using problem-solving skills and self-education to achieve those goals.”

I don’t know either, and this would be an interesting question. I do sometimes think that the US is somewhat “stuck” on the idea that we have to be #1, and instead on focusing on what individuals need for their own lives and how that can help our country grow, it’s more important to look like our kids know stuff that other countries don’t know.

I would be much more interested in knowing what percentage of kids come out of our k-12 system with a solid sense of self, confident that they are capable of supporting themselves financially and emotionally, and feel a strong sense of community with the world outside of the walls of school. And then I’d like to see that with the other countries.

What I think would make the biggest difference in our schools is to drop every expectation of what kids should do – period. And then focus on helping the kids self-educate. That’s what a lot of the new charter schools do. Montessori and Waldorf lean more in this direction. If we want kids to be life-learners, and self-starters, and problem solvers and all that – then that’s what schools should look like.

But I realize, that it’s very hard to manage that many kids all doing their own thing. So, on the practical level, even if everyone in the world agreed with me on this (which I admit, is not the case ☺, it would continue to be a problem of “how” to do this.

Certain kinds of charters, certain private schools and homeschooling, in my opinion, are the first steps in this direction – to create a precedent of how it is entirely possible to nurture the learner that’s in all of our kids; that’s in everyone.

I hope that answered Joanne’s questions. As with most things, often times, answering one set of questions merely opens up another set of questions.

Thank you Joanne for having this public conversation with me. I look forward to reading your thoughts on this.


4 Responses to “Creating Life Long Learners (In School or Otherwise)”

  1. Anna Says:

    I think that free schools do an excellent job of the ‘how’ to nurture the learning in a large group of kids in an ‘institutional’ setting. I would be excited for my kids to go to Sudbury.

    As for inspiring lifelong learning in EVERY child, it simply begins at home, regardless of where they are ‘schooled’. Our kids have seen us convert card to run on trash, learn to cook new foods, learn new methods of fitness, learn to be a childbirth educator, learn to be parents, etc etc etc. I was traditionally schooled, but I watched my parents, especially my mom, teach herself new and useful things all the time. She is an elementary principal, but she rewired most of her kitchen. I learned from her that learning has nothing to do with school.

    I echo what you say about kids learning what they need. The jobs that my children will have probably have not been created yet. How can I prepare them for that? Teach them to embrace new ideas, show them how to acquire knowledge and encourage them to be bold in their learning.

  2. tobeme Says:

    You have written a great article! You have expressed many of the same thoughts that I harbor about today’s formal educations system. I am very frustrated by the American Public educations system because of how they teach or don’t teach and what the results at the end of the system are. I have had the fortunate experience of being exposed to children who did very well in school and children who did not do so well in school. The eye opener was the children who did not do so well, got pushed through the system, however lacked the basic skills in reading and math to be effective in the work a day world, let alone the academic world.
    The “No Child Left Behind” Act has created a school system which teaches the test to ensure they continue to recieve their funding. The expense of this, is, our children are memorizing data to get through the test, however many do not understand the context of the information. Therefore there is no real learning going on.
    Our system does a very poor job helping our children become ready to navigate a sucessful adult life.
    Please understand, I do not place the raising of our children entirely on the education system. The primary teachers in any childs life are the adults in their home. Many parents have given this responsiblity over to the television, game systems and the computer.
    I agree charter & private schools are a step in the correct direction.
    Thanks for writing this article. Yes, as you can see you hit a nerve with me today.
    There is so much more to learn!

  3. Joanne Says:

    Interesting responses. But then, you are right, good questions often lead to other questions.

    This issue still remains: do we try to provide a good education for the “other” children–the ones who are not as lucky as your kids are, the ones who don’t have parents committed to their education and their futures, parents who will move heaven and earth–and home school if necessary–to ensure their kids can live up to their full potential as learners and human beings. The reality is that there are whole segments of the population who lack these advantages–and school can be a place of safety and resilience for some of these kids, a place to succeed when home is not conducive to their own development.

    I hope that in addition to seeing what our schools are doing wrong, we also acknowledge the many things that schools are doing right–to avoid being like the six blind men and the elephant. To see the whole picture, not just parts.

    This week’s Washington Post Sunday magazine ran an interesting feature on just this topic in Jay Matthews’ article on middle schools.

    On a related note, you might be interested in this post (and hthis blog on educational policy).

  4. H Thomas Says:

    Just tripped across this thread and am overjoyed to see the comments. You have raised so many pertinent points.

    I home-schooled 6 of my own kids (the last 2 through 12th grade) and then mentored other home-schooling families through an umbrella organization for about 6 years.

    In the beginning people asked me how I ever expected my kids to be “normal”. I would chew my fingernails and my knees would wobble and I would bravely try to explain that I had to take the chance.

    Now I look at my eight adult children and say, “Praise God they are NOT NORMAL!!!” They don’t do everything just as I would do it, but every one of them is a capable, intelligent, creative human being and each is fully able to figure out what he/she wants to do, and then accomplish it.

    They learned how to learn and they learned how to think and they learned how to solve problems by doing stuff themselves, making choices, and living with or re-arranging the consequences.

    We taught them to work hard, play hard, love life, honor God, and treat people with respect. We also taught them to be interested in the would around them. The rest they taught themselves. And they did a mighty fine job of it!


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