Why Universities Should Make it a Top Priority to Cultivate Expert Learners

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.

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?

Posted in blog, education, education reform

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.

4 Replies to “Why Universities Should Make it a Top Priority to Cultivate Expert Learners”

  1. David-Paul Zimmerman

    Just finished reading ‘College (UN)Bound The future of higher education and what it means for students by Jeffrey Selingo.
    If accurate this has to be a wake up call for our Concordia University System BUT I sincerely wonder if we are so far behind the curve, even understanding his perspectives and their impact on higher education, we will be willing to engage the upcoming shift. Will our Schools of Education prepare teachers to prepare students in the manner you describe will be needed. I would appreciate your assessment of our LCMS higher education system, especially in terms of teacher education processes in a future article.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Selingo’s books is a good an useful read, especially for sparking conversation. Ideas in the early part of his book and the later chapters seem contradictory, like commending the work of many for-profits and then promoting things like personalized and competency-based education. Most of the for-profit higher education models that I’ve seen are innovative with marketing and recruitment but lost in the 1990s when it comes to their models of teaching and learning. I see many, for example, that use one-size-fits-all models that seem to be built to maximize profitability more than learning. This is a broad and unfair generalization, especially given that some for-profits are doing great work in areas like earning analytics and student support, for example.

      With regard to the CUS, I’m happy to chat in private or offline in more detail. However, leaders in the CUS are well aware of most everything discussed in a text like College (Un)Bound, and several are working toward potential innovations around these ideas. Only time will tell what will come from this.

      In terms of schools of education, I don’t work with undergraduate teacher now. However, from what I know, I see promise. The necessary changes to prepare for K-12 schools of the future do not require years of work and preparation. As far as I know, placement of candidates remains strong in the CUS, so that must mean that the students have the skill set sought by many. It seems like schools of education are usually not able to innovate apart from the demand. In other words, they have the obligation of providing graduates with the knowledge and skills required for a teaching license and those requested by potential empowers for graduates. From that standpoint, the innovation will likely need to start in the K-12 sector. I’m sure that SOE faculty and leadership in the CUS have plenty of different takes on this.

      With regard to this most recent article that I wrote, cultivating graduates who are the best in the world at learning how to learn is something that has amazing potential. The type of difference that such graduate would make in their work and community could be tremendous. This would go for future teachers, but also for people in any other vocation.

  2. Ralph Sherman

    Are you saying that learning should be more than simply acquiring knowledge and that institutions should also focus on the User Experience (UX)? Ask yourself, why does the gaming industry focus so much of its time and resources on UX design? Sure the games are flashy and have a cool backstory, but what really makes them iconic is the UX. This is not to say that learning becomes gameified, that is another discussion all together. Working relationships are what drive success. Learning to work across disciplines cooperatively to achieve a common goal as in Project Based Learning (PBL). Letting everyone in the diverse group bring their own skill sets to the table so the synergistic outcome is greater than merely the sum of its parts. So what is the solution to cookie cutter degrees where everyone in the peer group thinks the same. How on earth are students and faculty expected to have any meaningful contribution to their life’s vocation or avocation if they are simply vessels of knowledge and not creators of content? Create a learning environment where the students and faculty are working on meaningful projects while attaining core content knowledge and developing the necessary skills to work collaboratively producing something creative and meaningful all at the same time.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thank you for the thought-provoking comment. While user experience is certainly valuable, the focus of the post/article was more about the proposal that Universities invest more time in helping people learn how to learn. With that in mind, the idea of an environment where student and faculty work together on meaningful projects sounds like a great training ground for learning how to learn.

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