Recently, I moved apartments. To be honest, it was a rather stressful process, but there was some reassurance and relief in methodically packing things into boxes and then unpacking them in the new apartment. Life is a bit like that: we find reassurance in putting things into little boxes and moving on – it seems to make life more manageable, structured, and certain. But, of course, life is not neatly compartmentalized. Indeed, it is totally misleading, and potentially disappointing and dangerous, to believe that life is simply a series of boxes that can be filled, sealed, and then opened at some time in the future when we think we will need what is inside.
Take, for example, the ways in which we have traditionally compartmentalized the process of learning. We have differentiated between formal learning (where we attend a college, take a course, or participate in a workplace training program) and informal learning (where we learn by ourselves outside a formal institutional structure). We have then come to see colleges as special “places of learning” and the period that that we spend there as a special “time for learning.” The learning experience is placed in a box, labelled with a specific place and a specific time. We think that the contents of the box will be useful sometime in the future, although we are not quite sure when.
And the box analogy has even entered into the way in which we understand the process of learning itself. Many people think of learning in terms of instructors putting “things” (knowledge and new ideas) into the minds (“empty boxes”) of their students. In this understanding, students are the passive receptors of new knowledge. They hold on to it and bring it out in the future when it is needed – usually at examinations. In this model, successful students accumulate as much knowledge as possible. Good students are those who are excellent at packing their boxes and skilled at rummaging through them and retrieving the relevant items at the appropriate time.
However, this is a very flawed and old-fashioned understanding of why we learn, of what makes a successful learner, and for that matter of a good instructor. Our contemporary understanding of successful learning is based on reconsiderations of the learning process and of the world in which we live.
Because of the way that I understand the learning process, and because of the realities of knowledge expansion, I never try to fill the minds of students with what I know. Instead, I share my knowledge with them so that they can use, refine, and expand that knowledge to become part of their own unique and personal knowledge. I challenge and encourage students to see themselves as active and continuous learners, who are prepared and motivated for lifelong learning.
This is my personal philosophy of educational and the core value of my teaching practice; it is how I interact with my own students. The good news for all students – whether or not htey work with me – is that this is also how Empire State College, UNYP, and their teaching faculties understand learning. We all share a common institutional truth: A good college is not one where you learn; a good college is where you learn how to learn. We also share a common instructional reality: A good instructor is not somebody who gives you knowledge; a good instructor is someone who helps you generate your own knowledge.
Knowledge is no longer a commodity that can be packaged without a use-before date. Colleges are no longer places where knowledge is acquired. People no longer spend a few years in institutions of formal learning and then never have to learn any more. As citizens in communities, employees in organizations, and professionals in communities of practice, we have to accept that learning is continuous.
So how can students and graduates best respond to the challenges and imperative of lifelong learning?
It is challenging to see life as an ongoing learning experience that does not end when you pass the exam or when you graduate. It is challenging, but it is also exciting and engaging. Life is not a series of little boxes that we pack and unpack, nor is it conveniently segmented, partitioned, or compartmentalized. Learning, and making better sense of the world, begins today and continues tomorrow. It is a good idea to start preparing for that reality now and not rely on the contents of those little boxes of the past that we have stored away.
Dorsett, R., Lui, S., & Weale, M. (2010). Economic benefits of lifelong learning. Research Paper #13. London, UK: Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies.
Jenkins, A., Vignoles, A., Wolf, A., & Galindo-Rueda, F. (2002). The determinants and effects of lifelong learning. Centre for the Economics of Education. London, UK: London School of Economics.
Love, D. (2011). Lifelong learning: Characteristics, skills, and activities for a business college curriculum. Journal of Education for Business, 86(3), 155-162.
Neimeyer, G. J., Taylor, J. M., Rozensky, R. H., & Cox, D. R. (2014). The diminishing durability of knowledge in professional psychology: A second look at specializations. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 45(2), 92-98.
Smidt, H., & Sursock, A. (2011). Engaging in lifelong learning: Shaping inclusive and responsive university strategies. Brussels, Belgium: European University Association.
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