Why school itself undermines the message of life-long learning

One of the goals of good teaching that I’ve seen floating around over the last year or three is the concept of “life-long learning”.  The idea is to enable or train students to continue learning new skills and adapting to our wacky, changing world beyond high school.  This seems pretty hard to argue.

What I haven’t seen, however, is a serious look at just how effectively we destroy this in students.

I don’t think I really get it myself. But in the process of growing as a teacher, I’ve had chances to think back to my own key moments as a student.  Events that shaped my own beliefs in learning and what came later in life that had to tear those beliefs down and rebuild.

Here’s an obvious one for a starter, one which I’m sure teachers have heard before: students define their set of “things I’m good at” by the grades you give them.  It took me forever to realize that hey, I am actually capable of being an artist even though I got a C when I tried something unusual for an art assignment back in Grade 2.  (No joke.)

Okay, there’s the warm-up.  Here’s the bigger one that took me until now to see.

We are constantly telling students that they need to learn everything important for their life within the timeframe of K-12, and possibly university.

We tell them this every time we pressure them to be ready for university.

We tell them this every time we panic on their behalf at the idea of graduating a year late.

We tell them this every time we impress on them how important it is to choose the right college program.

Whenever a student asks, “Why do I have to learn this?” we never, ever answer back “Oh, well if you don’t learn it now you’ll pick it up later when you need to.”  Our system doesn’t let us, but even if it did I suspect we’d never let ourselves.

We tell them this by streaming.  (You didn’t get this now, so you’ll live a life where this isn’t important.)

We tell them this by setting them up in competition with each other.  This one’s got an anecdote, a truly bizarre one: I tried taking piano lessons when I was in grade 4.  I was mediocre at practicing, and when my first recital came up I was grouped with a bunch of other kids my age, nearly all of whom had been playing piano for the last four years.  I felt like a doof, and quit.  It took me until my 30′s to actually pick up music again despite the fact that oh my gosh, I love music.  I really and honestly believed at that point that if you were ever going to be good at something, you had to have started it from age 5 or it was too late.  I thought nine years old was too late to bother learning something.

This overlaps so much with the more obvious, or more general problem of setting up low self-efficacy in students that I’m not sure if it’s drowning my point or not.  It’s not just that we tell kids, “You can’t do this.”  It’s that we tell them, “If you can’t do this now, then you can’t do this ever.”

I don’t know of any solutions to this other than to keep learning.  Find something you thought you were bad at and try it, fail horribly and keep trying.  Let students know you love more than just math class, that you’re taking guitar lessons for the first time, that you’re having fun studying something you missed in high school.

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12 thoughts on “Why school itself undermines the message of life-long learning

  1. Very true. You could add to your list:

    1. School separates knowledge, nearly all the time, by somewhat arbitrary lines, which means that when students do decide to explore something themselves, they may put up imaginary barriers as their learning drifts through our subject areas.

    2. We tell students to drop learning now and do something else, even if they are in the middle of an engaging learning activity. We also tell them to essentially sit around and do some useless task because “there’s still 10 minutes until the bell.”

  2. Ar you familiar with the term “unschooling” developed by John Holt? He has a lot of ideas about how to encourage life long learning, that you may enjoy looking into.
    Thanks for sharing your perspecitive, being a homeschooling Mom I often feel worried about how different I am approaching educating my child, then I read things like this and I remember ..oh yeah because I want to inspire my child to delight in following his curiosity, without external reward motivators or to be better, but simply for the JOY of discovery and enriching his life with the countless wonders of our world!

    • I am. I guess it does avoid a lot of the problems caused by the structure of education that I raised here; I’m sure there are trade-offs though and I don’t think it automatically avoids these problems. We’re just as capable of compartmentalizing and “streaming” kids as parent-educators as we are as teachers. In fact unschooling leaves the door wide open for sending the “You aren’t good at this now so just ignore it” message in an even bigger way.

      Keep in mind, one of my examples was from extra-curricular activities. This is a Thing That Happens, not something only locked into the school system.

  3. I teach life science to 7th graders. This is my fifth career. I tell them that. I explain that I almost failed 8th grade math, but a brilliant teaching assistant worked with me in college (while I was in my late 20′s) got me to “see” word problems like poems. I tell them that certain things will “click” later. We do projects, then students who had a hard time can work with me until they understand what they needed to do and can succeed. I bring cool stuff back from the professional development conference I attend each year. I tackled learning physics (yes, I had avoided a formal physics course since 9th grade Physical Science) in my 50′s. I believe every teacher needs to study something new continually so we not only model life-long learning but also put ourselves in the position of novice to keep remembering how hard new learning really is.

  4. Josh,
    A very interesting article on a somewhat hazy topic, i.e. lifelong learning (LLL). I assume that you are working in the US. My reason for doing so is because of the way that use the term LLL. I’m from Iceland but have been here in the US for several years but having worked in education in European circles for many years, I’m more accustomed to LLL as it has been used there. One thing that has perplexed me here in the US is how under-developed the concept of LLL is as compared to Europe. There, the concept has a relatively long history and has gone through several evolutionary changes, going from LLL as “continuing education”, i.e. education that occurs after compulsory or formal education, to a true “cradle-to-the-grave” conceptualization of learning, i.e. that learning is something that occurs at all stages of, and in every facet of, life. It’s pretty much impossible to generalize about these matters across all of Europe but this is certainly the case for Northern European countries and a definite trend elsewhere.

    The reason why I’m mentioning this is that the evolving conceptualization of LLL has had a significant impact on educational policy and practice and it sounds to me like that’s sort of what you’re getting at. So, my point would be that the concept of LLL can have a considerable impact on education but it has to evolve to the stage where it goes beyond what you describe (which I agree with fully). In N European countries, the trend has been toward more experiential learning because it not only puts learning into meaningful contexts, it also demonstrates to learners that meaningful learning experiences occur not only in classrooms but in all activities. Students are expected to get from this at least some idea of how learning occurs in everyday life and how that can be applied to formal learning contexts as well as others. Thus the message is a very different one than what you describe in the US context because the European conceptualization of LLL does not, as you say, suggest that formal learning is a prerequisite for LLL, but rather that formal learning is one aspect of a continuous LLL process.

  5. Pingback: Episode 110: Cheesemonkeysf, Part 2 | Infinite Tangents

  6. Pingback: Episode 111: Josh Giesbrecht | Infinite Tangents

  7. I’m coming here from “Infinite Tangents”, as cryptically alluded to in the above comment. Others should go there to hear Josh and Ashli talking more about this idea. (http://tangentspodcast.com/2013/05/26/episode-111-josh-giesbrecht/ )

    One thought that strikes me is how, back in the day, people used to “specialize”. You had your baker, your blacksmith, your undertaker, whatever, people had something they had decided they were good at – and you trusted them to do it right, and they took pride in their work. These days, we still have specialists, but it’s in an age where not only can you learn anything at the touch of a button, the market is saturated to the point where everybody is second guessing everyone else, and you can buy bread at a Canadian Tire. (For non-Canadian readers, that’s an automotive and appliance store, traditionally.)

    So yes, you can learn things later in life. Students WILL learn things later in life, they don’t need to learn everything K-12… except if they don’t, and if they have no specialization, there’s a good chance they’ll be UNEMPLOYED. Which society has said is A BAD THING.

    After all, if all you have to show for your education is a general degree, that’s somehow not good enough (was it ever?). So we “stream” people, as you say, but perhaps it’s more so that they can function in society, and unless a child really KNOWS what they want (do they ever?), they’ll look to their marks and define themselves by that, because hey, it’s something nice and concrete. Not to mention it’s set down by the very society demanding that they ultimately work for a living.

    I’m not saying this system is great (nor am I saying we don’t need specialists), but I think it arcs even beyond education itself. Plus, it means that those in the most trouble are folks (like me) who are sort of good at a whole whack of things and didn’t know where they’d end up.

    For the record, I also determined I was no good at art back in middle school. (Though I did continue with music.) Now along with teaching I draw for my own web serial. Which I grant may or may not be any good.

    • I think I’m with you on that analysis in terms of how our culture is feeding this specialization mindset into our education. It drives me crazy for a couple of reasons.

      One is that a specialization mindset excludes all kinds of cross-disciplinary learning. For example, the most interesting work I’m seeing done with coding these days is coming from artists and journalists, not “programmers” as a specialization. Or alternately some of the most interesting art I’m seeing is coming from programmers. These are two fields that in terms of how we stream kids, we would’ve seen as VASTLY separated and would never dream of pushing an “artsy” kid into a “nerdy” programming class. What other amazing opportunities are out there if we mash up math and PE, history and science, etc?

      The other is that the specialization is about more than education, it’s about *identity*. Self-identifying as being destined to be a coder / baker / blacksmith / welder / farmer / trucker / banker / etc might inspire some to push forward in their learning … but it’s almost guaranteed to be shutting down learning somewhere else. (Sorry Sir Ken Robinson, but even dancers can benefit from learning physics, economics, or world history.) I’d even say it excludes a growth mindset and instead assumes that one’s ability to learn something is fixed.

      Plus there’s just generally weird stuff about attaching your identity to a career. (Speaking from experience.) It’s not a great idea to primarily see yourself as an extension of your career.

    • (Also, seriously, there’s bread at Canadian Tire now? What the heck?)

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