learning for life

A week from today I’m giving a keynote address for a local conference. It’s held here on campus, so I don’t have far to go and I get breakfast. The conference planning committee was kind enough to think of me, and kind enough to advertise my talk using the picture of me with a rainbow ribbon suction cupped to my head.

The conference theme, and the given title of my talk, is “Learning for Life.” The facetious side of me has the immediate reaction of, “For life? Really, that long? Do we have to?” But I’ll play nice, since that’s what the free breakfast is paying for. And, I believe in the idea. The bigger issue is that I think the idea has multiple meanings, and I’m not sure if we think of all of these (although I suspect the conference organizers were aware of the multiple meanings, making it a flexible theme for a wide array of presentations).

Both “leaning” and “for life” have multiple paths they can take us down. “Learning” is the one I am able to address the best (probably a part II of brainstorming here), while the “for life” is the one that keeps surprising me with possibilities. The most obvious (maybe?) and concrete of the “for life” meanings is that it has to do with the duration of our lives. Learning, especially when it’s discussed at a conference for college level tutors and instructors, is something that isn’t relegated to the preK-12 timeline we usually talk about in public policy. Additionally, the stereotype of a college learner is someone fresh out of high school and on track to graduate in a span of 4 years. Yet our university systems are more and more faced with learners who take time off for other pursuits, extend their college careers over 6, 8, 12+ years, or even come back after long absences, looking for a first or second degree even though they may be well established in their “for life” pursuits of career, family, and gray and receding hair. This is all to say that “for life” means that we should consider the learning needs of those who are 30, 40, or 50 years of age. How we think about learning could change when we consider these other demographical and personal profiles.

“For life” also suggests application. We learn for learning’s sake, I’d like to think. We also learn because we foresee that it will be useful in our lives — “for life,” you might say. I think, like most good ideas, we could quote some John Dewey here, emphasizing that learning could be for the personal and pragmatic, directed by and for the student. I don’t advocate that we cater to first order whims of students, nor do I think that our education needs to be so coarse as to only teach basic skills that will get put to immediate use. We can think forward enough to imagine that understanding how science works is going to help in the voting booth as well as in an engineering career. The fun is in trying to figure out the details. Learning how to convert ounces to milliliters to tablespoons isn’t something that’s particularly crucial all by itself, but a student of beer brewing might use this in determining how to mix a certain potion of sanitizing solution. (Not the best example, but one I often find myself within — I never remembered that there are about 15 ml in a tablespoon and about 30 ml in an ounce, but when faced with a mix of kitchen supplies and metric based instructions I find myself remembering these important details.) The point is that the learning we do now should be relevant to us now and in the long term. Educators need to figure out how to make this happen by being clear about the goals of what’s being taught, and matching this with the pedagogy. A friend’s recent lament about a textbook that asks students to create a rap about metalloids may be a good example of how we often miss this mark. Yet this isn’t an isolated example. A recent exhibitor’s booth at a major national science teachers association meeting had an array of these examples, including an entire company devoted to teaching scientific concepts using hip-hop videos and dance routines.

The other aspect of “for life” that grabs my attention is probably the most literal but the least obvious. “For life” can also mean for the purpose of being alive. Education around the world brings prosperity, democratic citizens, societal reforms, and new prospects. To have learned something could someday save one’s life, but not necessarily in a traditionally heroic way. Seldom are we going to find ourselves taken hostage by a group of pirates who will only free us if we are able to state the second law of thermodynamics. Yet an education can create an opportunity for individuals that gives them a new life: not just living, but livelihood; and not just in a financial sense but in a human sense. Education isn’t successful because it gives us rocket scientists and iPod engineers (although these are good too), but because it should be creating and recreating the best of our humanity, investing in individuals as well as in the collective.

I’m still working on this entire talk — that’s actually what scribbling this out is all for. This encompasses the first third of the talk, I think. The other two parts are about the “learning” in “learning for life” — what do we say that learning is and why does it matter that we think about it; and about our own imperative to do something about all this — how we need to be those who actually attempt to create changes in education because it would be irresponsible not to. But I’ll think (write) about these later. For now, I have to read chapter 18 and beyond of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — some good potential learning for life for my daughters.  

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