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.