School is just one spoke in the wheel of lifelong learning. The more that I engage in conversations about the future of education, and how to promote greater access and opportunity for life and work today, the more important this simple truth becomes to me. It is important for us to remember that most learning in life happens outside of school…without a formal teacher designing and directing the experiences. In our conversations about the future of education (or the present state of education for that matter), we sometimes lose sight of this important reality.
While sources report a range, almost all of them agree that the average person today and in the future will hold anywhere from five to fifteen different jobs before retirement. In a past study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, researchers reported over 1/4th of people having more than 15 different jobs by the age of 48. Granted, many of these are jobs in the same or a similar line of work, but we are looking at the average person changing careers five or more times, and many more making partial career shifts (like a classroom teacher going into instructional design or corporate training, or moving into a management or leadership position within one’s field). Even when shifting between similar jobs, there is often a significant learning curve. Add to this the constant change of technology and we get a clear picture that work in the 21st and 22nd centuries includes ongoing learning, re-learning, and un-learning…and most of this without a classroom or a formal teacher coordinating the learning. Consider the many ways in which people learn what they need to stay current in a job, shift to a similar job, develop skills that transfer to work environments, move into leadership within one’s field, or make a full career shift.
- Get another degree, complete a degree, or earn a first degree while working. Some would like us to think that this is the most common route, but a closer look at the workplace and workforce of today indicates that this is the exception for many people. Or, even where it is commonplace, this is only a fraction of the learning that is taking place.
- Taking one or more college credit-based classes in a new area (face-to-face, blended, or online).
- Taking one or more continuing education classes from a college, community-based organization, or other provider (face-to-face, blended, or online).
- Going through a boot camp or workshop format training experience.
- Getting informal advice from friends and colleagues.
- Learning on the job from a mentor, boss, or colleague.
- Learning by trial and error, on the job.
- Setting work goals individually or as a team, establishing plans to achieve the goals, and monitoring progress.
- Formal training programs and initiatives within the workplace.
- Volunteering in the community and serving in community groups, boards, and related organizations.
- Joining an in-person and/or online community of practice that helps stay current or learn about a new area.
- Experimenting and practicing. Plenty of people learn something new as an avocation or hobby, using evenings, weekends, and off-time to learning something new or refine a skill. In time, it might serve a purpose in paid work or even become the basis for a career shift or venture into business ownership.
- Playing games and solving puzzles.
- Hiring a coach or personal trainer (formally or informally, in-person or online).
- Reading books and online articles.
- Watching online tutorials and taking short video courses online.
- Listening to podcasts and audio books.
- Volunteering during free time to help and learn something new at the same time.
- Interviewing and observing (formally or informally).
- Joining a local club and/or meetup.
- Journaling and writing.
- Talking through work challenges and opportunities with colleagues over breakfast, lunch, dinner, or an evening beverage.
- Personal research on topics of interest.
- Attending webinars.
- Completing projects, overcoming novel challenges, and seeking answers to important questions on the job or in another context.
- Informal conversations, interactions with, and observation of friends, family members, co-workers, and others in the community.
- Educational apps and software.
- Attending conferences (online and/or in-person) and retreats.
- Professional counseling. This is part of how some cultivate the state of mind or emotional intelligence needed for current for future contexts.
- Building and leveraging a personal and/or professional network through social media, in-person connections, etc.
- Drawing insights and ideas from entertainment sources.
- Self-designing formal and informal learning pathways that leverage multiple of the above.
- Informally and drawing upon one or more of the above over months and years, without a clear goal or plan.
Without question, this is an incomplete list, but notice how few of these learning opportunities involve a formal classroom. Notice how few include a teacher who is in charge of a group of learners and is coordinating the bulk of the learning process. Also consider how little of this is documented or easily visible. Yet, this is a realistic view of learning today. This is actually how people learn. It is how we gain new knowledge, develop new skills, shape character traits and dispositions over time, and how we build overall competence and confidence for current and future challenges and opportunities.
I think about this often, and it is what leads me to explore questions like the following.
- If much of formal education is structured around a teacher coordinating and directing the learning, to what extent is that preparing people for the type of learning that will be commonplace for the rest of life?
- What are promising examples of schools that appear to be best equipping people for this sort of lifelong learning?
- Given this incredibly diverse array of experiences that contribute to a person’s learning, what does an educational ecosystem look like that helps all of us look beyond diplomas and degrees?
- How can we help people tell a more complete story about their learning and connect with other people and organizations that resonate with part of that story?
- How might new forms of credentials help to tell this story through the structuring of rich and mine-able data?
- More specifically, what are the benefits and limitations of AI and algorithmic solutions to connecting people with other people, organizations, and employment opportunities through rich and ever-growing data sets? To what extent might this help us move beyond credentialism? How might it help is address issues of access and opportunity?
- How can we leverage AI, learning analytics, and adaptive learning to amplify the quality of learning that people experience throughout life? What are the exemplars today for truly personalized and adaptive systems that optimize learning for individuals and what will it take for us to reach the next generation of this work?
- Since so much of life is and will be focused upon learning/re-learning/un-learning, how do we infuse and elevate the human-ness of these experiences by tapping into incredibly powerful phenomenon like wonder, awe, curiosity, mystery, adventure, experimentation, truth, beauty, and goodness? How might historic and emerging insights about these phenomenon help us think about and design the lifelong learning ecosystem of the future?
- Given that people are constantly learning and will need to do so even more as technology (and especially AI) creates massive shifts in types of jobs and the nature of work, what are some of the more promising platforms, environments, and resources that help people grow and learn?
- Formal education solutions are clearly inadequate and misfits for the type and nature of lifelong learning that I am describing, at least for the majority of situations. As such, how can we nurture and expand our conversation about education to see it as a much larger and more integrated system, one that we do not inhibit by the narrow constraints, schooling metaphors, educational practice ruts that shape much of how we think about teaching and learning today?
This doesn’t take anything away from the impact that a teacher does or can have on the life of someone. It doesn’t diminish the role of schools. However, if we are looking at learning across the lifetime today, we need to think beyond the teacher/student and schooling constructs. Education is already larger than that. This is no different from recognizing that health and wellness is about so much more than a patient/doctor interaction. These professionals do and will continue to play a valuable role, but limiting many of our conversations about education to these formal contexts is inadequate for the challenges and opportunities of our age. In fact, it has always been inadequate. Formal education has a role to play today and in the future, but it is one of many spokes in the lifelong learning wheel.
This is an exciting time, but it is one that will involve significant shifts in how we think about education and about learning. It will be uncomfortable. It will challenge longstanding traditions. It will call for new ways of thinking about connecting people and employers. It will demand a much broader way of thinking about the lifelong learning enterprise. Yet, if we are diligent and persistent, I am optimistic that we truly can create a better, more hopeful, more humane, and more empowering educational ecosystem.
Can you imagine a future where a person is endorsed as fully qualified to serve as a medical doctor without ever going to college or medical school? If we look back far enough in history, we know that this was commonplace, even the standard. Today, such an idea seems reckless or absurd to most people. How could someone possibly gain all the knowledge, skill, and experiences necessary to do that job at the standard that we expect in healthcare today? How could someone reach that level of competence without going through a formal curriculum, studying from several hundred dollar textbooks, attending countless seminars and lectures, doing the carefully crafted hands on learning, being carefully assessed and vetted, and going through the entire sequences of learning experiences created for future doctors as they progress through college and medical school? Would you want a brain surgeon to work on you who never went to medical school? It is hard to even imagine a modern world work someone could reach that level of expertise, be recognized as such, be highly qualified, and receive a job as a doctor.
Yet, as a thought experiment, imagine that you had to propose and then create two or three alternative models for people becoming doctors. Suppose that you had to create a system for equipping tens of thousands of highly qualified and competent future medical doctors, but you had to do it without college or medical school. Where would you start?
Many instructional designers would probably begin by conducting a careful analysis of exactly what knowledge, skills, dispositions, and mindsets are necessary to do the work of a general practitioner today. You might interview people, do a careful and in-depth study of doctors in the workplace, examine the problems and procedures commonplace in that line of work, and whatever else it takes to create this initial list. Then, given the importance that people attribute to this particular work, you would probably establish ways to further vet, verify, and refine that list.
Once you know what is needed, then what? Again, the traditional instruction designer might jump to the end. What is the best possible evidence that someone embodies all of the competencies and/or proficiency that you identified? Given the importance attributed to this line of work, you would work hard to make sure that whatever plan you devised would provide a high level of confidence that people were truly competent.
After that, you might delve into research on the best way to help someone move from novice to expert in terms of the competencies and/or proficiencies listed. Perhaps you would examine a blend of teaching and learning strategies, maybe even looking at how to design adaptive learning software that constantly monitors performance and adjust to optimize learning.
Not doing this in the context of formal college and/or medical school, you don’t have any of the limitations established by these structures. Time, place, pace, and the learning pathway are completely flexible. One person might demonstrate competency in a short time, while another might work on it over a decade or two. There are no rules about who is allowed to study or not. There are no rules about how much it would cost. There are not requirements about who is in charge of the learning. The only requirement is that there is a clearly defined set of competencies and proficiencies, and that there are valid and reliable measures of learning that have an incredibly high level of predictive power with regard to future performance as a medical doctor. You can also be free to design multiple learning pathways, even ones that are constantly adapting and learning how monitor and maximize the learning of each person.
We talk about the unbundling of higher education today, and there are ample examples of it. Most are with competencies related to less regulated jobs and professions. However, thinking about a highly regulated and largely unquestioned learning pathway like medical school might be a helpful thought experiment. It is an exercise in imagining alternatives to the current system, the potential affordances of such alternatives, as well as the limitations.
As it stands, much policy and practice is based upon an unquestioning acceptance of the current system. As I’ve mentioned before and drawing from a Henry Ford quote, our attempts at educational innovation are most often the faster horse sort of solution. We assume that the system that we have is the one that we should have or will always have. Or, we are too worried about the potential losses to consider something that might completely disrupt the current system. Yet, there is benefit in sometimes stepping away from the current structures and allowing ourselves to truly imagine the breadth of possibilities. Perhaps we will discover truly promising options that were largely hidden from us before.
This summer, I’m devoting time to exploring research on the psychology of awe and wonder, and the implications for education. I’ve decided to invite others along for part of this exploration. I’m doing this by scheduling 5 real-time online events where we will each read a provided journal article or piece of research that and gather online to discuss it. Meetings will be at 11:00 AM CT on 5 different dates: May 30, June 6, June 13, June 20, and June 27. If there is a large group of people who are interested, I will set it up as a fish bowl conversation where 3-5 people can take turns being on the hot seats, while others can listen and participate via chat. Or, when someone has something to say, they can just jump into one of the hot seats and speak up. If it is a small group, then we can set it up pretty much like a virtual round table discussino.
I’m hoping to make this a lively, substantive, and relevant collection of conversations. However, be ready for some meaty readings/research articles and discussion. If this sounds like something that you want to participate in, simply click on the link below to join a mailing list. Or, perhaps none of the dates work for you, but you want to stay informed. You are more than welcome to fill out the form as well. Then you will get emails that are sent to other attendees, including any recaps of the meetings.
Filling out the form will add you to the mailing list so that I can follow up with details about the readings, how to connect, and other news about the journal club. You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the unsubscribe option at the bottom of an emails/notifications that you receive from the mailing list.
I’m excited to announce the creation of a new Facebook Group called the League of Education Podcasters, Bloggers, and Content Creators. If you have an education blog, podcast, or love creating and sharing education content; this will be a community where you can connect with like-minded people. Whether you are thinking of delving into education content creation or you are a veteran, I’m hopeful that this will be a community that has something to offer everyone. Just click on the link and request to join. Or, if you are still considering it, here are 10 reasons why you should consider joining today.
- You are an education content creator and want to get better at what you do by learning from others.
- You are tired of always feeling like you are reinventing the wheel, and would like a community to help you out.
- You would appreciate people who could serve as a sounding board for your ideas or experiments.
- You are looking for people who can help promote one another’s content.
- You want to start a blog or podcast, but could use some sage advice so as to avoid common rookie mistakes.
- You are an experienced content creator and this is a chance to pass your wisdom on to others.
- You’ve been blogging and podcasting for quite some time, but you are not getting the results that you want.
- You are looking for people with whom you can collaborate on current, new, or future content creation projects (maybe even find a co-host for a new podcast or a group to collectively create a new blog that changes the conversation in education).
- You want to get better at what you do.
- You want to experience the excitement of joining an new online community and helping turn it into a thriving community of practice for current and future education podcasters, bloggers, and content creators.
If one or more of these reasons resonate with you, please head over to the League of Education Podcasters, Bloggers, and Content Creators and request to join. Sorry, no t-shirts yet, but you never know!