Thriving in the 21st century landscape depends upon high competence as a learner. Can Universities help prepare people for such a reality? As we look at the possible disruptions, innovations and experiments in higher education; there are growing numbers of critics who speculate about the future of these institutions. Some describe what they expect to be the extinction of higher education institutions that cling to certain practices and traditions. Others see a future for higher education institutions, but one that looks quite different from what we see in many places today (embracing blended, online and competency-based models, for example). Still others picture a future where the majority of students in higher education learn in increasingly scalable online and low residency learning environments, with the exception of a few highly gifted or wealthy élite that gather for a residential experience (like élite boarding schools versus community public schools on the high school level). I’m not sure about any of these predictions, but I will make a seemingly contradictory claim about what we need in higher education institutions, namely that their futures depend upon striving to become unnecessary for the people whom they serve. By this, I mean that Universities must major in preparing students who are amazing learners. To explain what I mean by this, I return to an article that I wrote in the first quarter of 2013.
One of the most read and controversial articles that I wrote in 2013 was entitled, “Good Teachers Become Less Important.” Much of the controversy came from the title and not the content of the article. The title can be understood in more than one way. It could be read as a “news flash” that somehow good teachers are becoming less valuable than in the past. That was not the intended meaning. Rather, I wrote it as a claim about what good teachers do. They equip students so well that the students eventually no longer need a teacher. We all know the role of a good teacher is not to cultivate people who depend upon them. The goal is eventual self-sufficiency.
This is intuitive and starts with some of the earliest learning experiences of infants. At first, people carry infants around, but over time there is rejoicing when the little ones learn to roll over, crawl and walk. The same it true for personal hygiene, reading, writing, speaking, driving, building and maintaining positive relationships, and eventually living out various vocation and avocations. As the young people grow and develop, they need less help. Self-direction, self-regulation, and human agency increase. This is how “learning in the wild” works. Learners get just enough assistance until they can do it on their own.
Is it how educational institutions work? Depending upon how we look at it, we can answer yes or no to that question. There is little doubt that learners in educational institutions develop knowledge, skills and abilities that allow them to be more self-directed. Most of us do not need to turn to our early teachers or to a school if we want to read a book, develop a new hobby, or master new knowledge or skills. Somehow we manage to develop competencies along the way that empower us to do these things. People are capable of developing these ability through formal schooling, despite it or even without it. At the same time, educational institutions have a way of building dependency upon the formal schooling system. One level of school prepares for the next. We spend an immense amount of time teaching people how to function in school contexts and not enough in the contexts outside of school. An authority figure determines the goals, how to meet the goals and how to assess the learners.
This is where I see a growing number of critiques of higher education. There remain plenty of career paths that have strict regulations requiring one to go through extensive schooling before being licensed. The healthcare industry is full of such requirements. There are other majors in college that only require the degree if one wants to work in another educational institution. These are self-referential programs. You must earn a PhD in history to teach future PhDs in history. One does not need to earn a terminal degree in history to write history books, develop knowledge and skill in the valuable tool of historical inquiry for the workplace, or to create a historical documentary.
More than any time in history, an individual with a device and Internet access has not only unprecedented information, but unprecedented access to social networks, experts, and learning communities from which to learn. Granted that I have the basic competence and confidence to thrive in a MOOC or an online community of practice, I can potentially cultivate knowledge and skill that match or exceed that of a graduate student in a given discipline. I can read the same books and journals, dialogue with the same types of peers and experts (maybe more), and get feedback of my work and ideas from a global audience. I can develop a deep love and appreciation for the arts without taking a single art class. I can identify my strengths and limitations, and then devise a plan for leveraging my strengths and addressing harmful limitations. I can to read, write and speak one or more new languages. I can take up a new instrument, start a business, or become an expert at marketing and sales. None of these require a formal college degree, and there are more alternate paths to achieving such goals than any time in history. While they don’t require a degree, they all require skill in learning.
What I am sharing is not new. As an example, consider the following short list of books that guide people through developing what it takes to leverage this massive and open learning network available to us today, and to grow as self-directed learners.
- The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast! by Josh Kaufman
- Guerrilla Learning: How to Give Your Kids a Real Education With or Without School by Grace Llewellyn and Amy Silver
- The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education by Grace Llewellyn
- College Without High School: A Teenager’s Guide to Skipping High School and Going to College by Blake Boles
- Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree by Blake Boles
- Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will by Dale Stephens
- The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to be Successful by Michael Ellsberg
- The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business by Josh Kaufman
- 40 Alternatives to College by James Altucher
- Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything by Kio Stark
Where does this leave the teaching component of 21st century Universities? Does it make them unnecessary apart from the professions that strictly need a given degree as an admission ticket? I don’t think so, not unless higher education institutions dig their heels in and insist that things become more regulated, that they be the default and required ticket into most careers. They can’t survive by thinking that they are primarily in the business of selling degrees. Instead, higher education institutions must stay focused upon helping people develop as powerful learners.
This is a wake-up call for colleges and Universities to pull from the deep and rich treasure trove of the liberal arts, which is not simple about mastery a specific body of content, but about cultivating knowledge and skills that empower one for a life of self-direction and human agency. In other words, institutions will need to make it a priority to become as unnecessarily as possible for the students that they serve. If it takes some students a year to reach a certain level of competence and confidence, then make that the stopping point for the students. Why have students continue three to five more years for a full bachelor’s degree in such instances? Or, if they show the equivalent mastery of a student who studied for three to five years, then give them the degree and let me start the next part of their lives. If some programs require a deep level of expertise that may require the equivalent of a PhD and 5-10 years of study, then so be it. However, there is no need to keep students around just to mark all the necessary checks off a list of graduation requirements. This might even mean taking pride in the dropouts that get what they need and then move on to start a business. It also calls for us to pay closer attention to the impressive body of literature around competency-based and personalized learning, and to invest in the many transformational learning experiences that occur during college, but in informal out outside-of-class activities.
There is another important element to this, one that relates to the list of books above. If you are a college graduate, how many classes, text or discussions did you have about the types of ideas in those books? How many Universities make it a priority to help people learn how to learn, develop the confidence and competence necessary to develop new skills and bodies of knowledge? Why not make this an explicit part of a student’s general education? This could include things like building a strong personal learning network, making connections with experts and new people, getting the most out of the things we read and watch, and understanding what it takes to learn something on one’s own. As an example, many Universities teach literature, but fewer teach reading after elementary school. This is the gap that Mortimer Adler sought to address when he wrote, How to Read a Book, a sort of advanced literacy text for adults. As much as Universities are supposed to be places of learning, shouldn’t they emphasize their skill in helping students, more than anything else, to become the best learners in the world?
More than any specific innovation or emerging practice, I contend that such a shift in focus will do more to secure a persistent and valued role for higher education. There will continue to be strong movements that offer alternatives to college, and I fully support them. At the same time, what if Universities took it as a personal challenge to offer a learning context that directly competes these alternatives by pointing to the high-caliber of learner that graduates from such institutions, and how that person thrives in a 21st century world?