As I think back on my educational experiences, I’m struck most not by what I was taught but instead that which I had to apply in new and different ways. When you think about the essence of learning, it is partially building the foundation. But, the one aspect that will stick with you the most is how you utilize that learning.
When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, we studied many different types of problems in mathematics, physics and chemistry. While these problems presented themselves across several disciplines, the reality is that by practicing a lot of problems; students became skilled at developing solutions.
Professionally, this base has allowed me to go on to solve problems in automotive, automated retail, transportation, logistics, and education. And, it has enabled me to expand my base of potential problems beyond just the discipline of mechanical engineering.
If we agree that problem solving is a necessary and useful skill, how do we make sure that the next generation develops that framework in a meaningful and systematic way.
1. Recognize that learning is a process
We aren’t always going to get a concept the first or second or third time it is presented to us. However, what is most important is that we stick with it until we understand it. This doesn’t mean just following the same process over and over again while expecting different results.
Instead, this means that if a technical concept is challenging, you should rely on a few different sources to help it make sense. At times, this will mean that an instructor has to explain it another way. Other times, this means that a peer might offer insight into how it has made sense for them. In an interactive learning environment, everyone can and should be both an instructor and student.
By flipping the model for how learning is distributed, we can recognize that everyone can be educated in new and different ways. This frees us up to think about things in a very different way.
2. Appreciate that unlearning is useful
Often times when you learn a new concept, it can take a while to get it. However, if we think about knowledge in the context of a disruptive environment, there may be times that that hard earned knowledge is no longer useful.
When this happens, we have to perform a hard reboot on the knowledge that we have taken in and clear our memory banks so that we can can add new learning to the mix. In business, we often discuss a concept called sunk cost. This means that people will often try to retain gains of prior investment beyond the point it actually makes sense. Once you have invested resources into something that isn’t generating returns, you have to be willing to lose it all in order to move on.
From a learning perspective, it is likely that this will happen at multiple points throughout the career of the next generation. It is better to give them this insight early so that when new programming languages are introduced, they can enthusiastically clear space to bring in that knowledge.
3. Celebrate that relearning is helpful
For someone who has learned difficult concepts and then unlearned those same things, it can be very challenging. So, we must create context that helps celebrate those who intentionally lean in to learning something new.
One of the best ways to do this is by embracing a growth mindset. For anyone who regularly engages with young people, they will often talk about how their brain is growing because they are learning new things. For those who may be outside of the K-12 environment, this may be a bit unusual. However, what this is really teaching students is that each time you learn something new, you are expanding your capabilities and along with that your brain grows.
In the context of technology, it is likely that they will be able to re-use much of the foundation they have gained from other areas. So, instead of it being a wholesale reboot and relearn; it is most likely closer to an addition on a house. The framework of how to solve problems with technology is similar. However, the tools and methods need to be tweaked.
The best way to conceptualize this is that words have been printed on paper and now digitally. We are still sharing the concept. However, the skills that are needed to utilize a typewriter are similar but different to those of word processing on a computer. As a society, we need to be willing to celebrate that evolution.
While the concept of lifelong learning is still emerging, the one thing that is certain is that in order for the next generation to be successful they are going to need this mindset as a precursor to success. Thankfully, the technologies that are being developed provide the context. However, in order for the success to result, we have to make make sure that we are intention about the value of being a lifelong learner.