10 Valuable Challenges for Learners of all Ages

I’m a skeptic when I hear claims about any one method, program, model, theory, or curriculum being the cure to the ailments of modern education.  One reason for this skepticism is because there is no universal vision or set of goals for education.  A second is because people, communities, and contexts vary around the world, and those factors impact what works and what does not.  With that said, when it comes down to it, there are certain types of activities that I consider to be nearly universally valuable for learners.  These help to develop certain traits more than to learn any specific content. I’m not arguing that they need to replace an existing curriculum.  They might simply enhance it or be done amid the existing curriculum.  However, each of these help students develop skills and character traits that invite them into a life of wonder, creativity, imagination, persistence, grit, and a value for excellence.  Learning communities that help learners to do these things see the benefits, whether it is in a home-based education, a magnet or charter school, a one-room schoolhouse, a private boarding school, or a massive urban community school. The other great part about the list is that it requires few resources.

Do Hard Things – Alex and Brett Harris wrote a book by this title.  The full title is Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. It is a book by teenagers for teenagers and the message is simple. Pursue your passions to make a difference in the world and don’t listen to the voices telling you that adolescence is a time for limited responsibility and passive learning.  Instead, do things that are hard and that matter to you and the world.  Imagine if learning organizations became launchpads for this sort of mindset.  It isn’t just about going to school to prepare for adulthood.  What if you pursued really challenging goals right now?  Shoot for the stars. If you end up in the clouds, well, that isn’t a bad place to be, is it?

Go Deep – There is need for survey knowledge about topics, and that will likely remain a staple part of many schools, but there is still room for learners to go really deep into a narrow topic or a specific question.  Doing so helps one learn what it takes to pursue expertise, to see the value of working on something over an extended period of time, and it can be a confidence boost for learners as well. Most people who have massive impact in the world choose to go deep in a specific area, whether it be developing a specific skill set or pursuing deep knowledge about a given subject.

Find Meaning and Value in Something Boring – Coming from the person who recently wrote a post arguing that school should be fun, this might seem like a contradiction.  I’m not arguing that we intentionally make all of school boring.  However, I am arguing that learning to find meaning and value in something seemingly boring is an amazing exercise in cultivating creativity and developing the ability to look beyond the wrapping of a message.  In a world of million dollar 30-second Super Bowl commercials and neuro-marketers who use brain science to sell us things, learning to look beyond the wrapping is really important.  Learning to find meaning in something (or someone) boring is one of the most effective ways to discover that some of the best ideas are not necessarily draped in attractive, ornate verbal or visual adornments.   If we only look at the eye-catching content, then we are likely to miss out on some of the world’s best ideas.

Do the Same Thing Every Day for A Year – Repetition gets a bad rap in education today, and yet we all know that repetition is essential for learning and skill mastery.  As a result, what if schools intentionally provided each learner with a chance to do something, even if it is something small for a few minutes, every day for a full year? Of course, you don’t need a school to tell you to do this.  Anyone can start it right now.  This sort of a lesson helps people to discover the value of long-term investments in something.  It might be to write something every day (even if it is a sentence or a paragraph).  It might be to sing a song, read a poem, or take a picture.  Whatever the case, they can log their journey and occasionally reflect on the lessons afforded by simply doing the same thing every day for an extended period. Or, if a year is too long, why not start with a month?

Experience Something New Every Day – Our brains love novelty.  When we experience something new, the language part of our brain doesn’t have a name for it.  It forces us to experience it with fresh eyes and allows us to see things from a new perspective.  This is a tremendously powerful way to develop creativity, cultivate a sense of wonder (which I consider to be missing from too many learning organizations), and to develop a rich set of experiences from which to pull in the future.

Document What You are Learning and Experiencing – Keep track of what you are learning and doing.  This can be a journal, a blog, daily Tweet-like statements, but such a time-stamped log allows one to reflect on their experiences, notice patterns, and develop a valuable skill of self-reflection.  Without self-reflection, we find ourselves repeating the same mistakes over and over, we get easily stuck in ruts, and we can find ourselves feeling helpless in countless circumstances.  Why not add a simple exercise to help people develop this skill and have an treasured record of their life and learning experiences.  This can also be a place to document ideas and goals.  Some of the greatest minds from history did this sort of things.  It allowed them to build upon previous ideas and to notice connections in their thoughts that they might have otherwise missed or forgotten.

Do Things Without Help from Anyone (including the instruction manual) – Yes, learning to cooperate, network, and collaborate is important in the digital age.  At the same time, there is still plenty of room for people who know how to work independently when the task calls for it.  Leadership, for example, can be a highly collaborative activity, but sometimes leaders need to make an independent decision, even if it goes against the crowd.  Doing things without help also forces one to persist, to stick with it even when they really want to ask someone else to do it for them or just give them the steps.  Sometimes doing things alone results in failure.  That is fine, but with practice, one can learn not to quit too quickly.  I had a broken railing on my front porch for over a year.  On six different occasions, I tried to fix it with no success.  I was ready to call the carpenter, but my wife wasn’t ready to spend the money on it.  So, on occasion, I tried again, but still with no success.  Last night I fixed it in less than an hour.  What did I do differently?  I tried something new and it worked.  Not only do I have a fixed railing, but I had the lesson of persistence reinforced, and this experience will motivate me to spend more time in the first efforts on my next similar task.

Do Things That are Impossible to Accomplish by Yourself – This is where we get to the teamwork, cooperation, collaboration, and networking skills.  Many schools do “group work” or  even cooperative learning.  What if, instead of focusing upon a specific method, we looked for tasks and challenges that genuinely required a group to be successful, where it was not even possible to do it alone.  This is a lesson that some people learn in team sports, but not everyone transfers those lessons to the intellectual life.  What if, every year, students experienced 15-20 such activities.  Combine this with the journal above and that makes for a powerful set of learning experiences, even when the results are not as intended.

Create New Purposes for Old Things – Most of us live in a world of familiar items, and it becomes easy to lose site of new possibilities.  One great way to open our minds to new possibilities is to specifically challenge ourselves to come up with new and worthwhile uses of existing items.  This takes little preparation and it can make for some wonderful discoveries, especially as learners share their insights with one another.

Make Connections Between Unrelated Ideas – This sort of divergent thinking is highly prized in many organizations, so it helps students develop a valuable life skill.  At the same time, regardless of whether it develops into a new job skill, it is yet another way to add a sense of wonder to the learning experience, and it allows learners to maintain and further develop their imagination and sense of creativity.

Posted in blog, cooperation, design thinking, education, innovation, self-directed learning

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.