School is One Spoke in the Wheel of Learning & Why This is a Critical Insight for the Future of Education

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.

  1. 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?
  2. What are promising examples of schools that appear to be best equipping people for this sort of lifelong learning?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. How might new forms of credentials help to tell this story through the structuring of rich and mine-able data?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. 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?
  10. 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.

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Posted in blog, education

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.