Americans have always placed a premium on education, believing that a higher level of education correlated to a higher income. For decades this was true; between 1982 and 2001 the average wages earned by American workers with a bachelor’s degree rose by 31%, whereas those of high-school graduates did not budge (Economist, 2017). However, things have changed since 2001.
Tuition costs have been rising, but wages of college graduates have been falling. One possible explanation for this shift is technology. During the 80’s and 90’s college graduates were building our technological infrastructure and commanding high salaries for their work. Now that the infrastructure is in place and technology has begun to rapidly change the pace of innovation, a single college degree isn’t enough.
Essentially, as the pace of innovation increases it’s unlikely that students will leave school with all the knowledge and skill they need for a 30 or 40 year career. Rather, new skills will need to be continuously acquired over careers that span decades, meaning a college degree or even vocational training are obsolete if they aren’t used as a foundation on which to build additional skills.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that rather than replacing workers every 9 to 18 months when their skills become outdated, it’s better for companies to invest in their existing workforce and give them the tools to keep pace with changing technology (McKinsey, 2017). Thus, if we prepare the students of today for the notion that they are “forever learners,” they can have a more successful tomorrow.
The School’s Role
The desire to learn comes naturally to most children, however, this desire must be nurtured throughout childhood if learning is to become a way of life. The following tips offer insight on how to inspire a love of learning:
- Teach Curiosity
- Develop Community Partnerships
- Utilize Differentiated Instruction
Forever learners are generally curious, creative, resilient, and skeptical. They are prone to asking why, or what if, and challenging existing notions in favor of new or better ones. Most children possess these traits at a young age, but grow out of it as they are taught to follow instructions and limit their questions so as to keep the rest of the class on task.
Orderly classrooms are often thought to improve concentration, but at what cost? If a child has to hold their question to the end of the lesson chances are they will forget the question. Similarly, if they are told to perform the task only as they’ve been instructed they never learn to question whether there is a better method.
Innovation and advancement are a result of curiosity and skepticism, and the ability to continuously try creative new ways to solve age-old problems. Thus, rather than being considered disruptive these traits should be viewed as critical to building the foundation that creates forever learners.
There are multiple ways to encourage curiosity in the classroom. For example, teachers can ask students if they have a different way to solve a math problem, or a different interpretation of a passage they read in class. Maybe the students have a question that can be turned into a class project, where they identify both the task at hand and the steps to achieve a solution. Or perhaps a collaborative task where students can brainstorm together could serve as the inspiration to keep searching for new and better solutions.
Teachers should nurture a student’s desire to learn by encouraging them to ask the right questions. However, finding the answers can be a learning exercise too. Perhaps a class debate or asking students to teach concepts to one another would encourage mastery of subjects. Maybe math class incorporates art or music to show how various subjects overlap. Or put subjects into a context that may appeal to students, such as using football to teach statistics or fashion design to teach geometry.
Develop Community Partnerships
External resources might also be utilized to facilitate a desire for more information. Consider bringing local businesses or professionals in to the classroom who can share their experiences about why they chose a specific career, the challenges they encounter and the questions they ask themselves to find a solution. In the digital age it’s likely that many of these people have already encountered a position shift they had to adjust to, and they can offer advice on how to navigate those situations.
Guest speakers help students reconcile what they learn in class with the real world. They put into context how classroom skills can be applied to future careers, and how those careers evolve as new skills and technologies become standard operating procedure.
Local businesses are a great resource to find speakers who are committed to lifelong learning. Doctors, small business owners, entrepreneurs and even authors are constantly learning new skills and technologies to stay relevant in their respective careers. Any number of professionals in your community could share information on how curiosity has no bounds, and how ongoing education has contributed to their career.
Utilize Differentiated Instruction
Students learn differently, and teachers can’t develop a lesson that appeals to each specific student. However, they can provide a variety of lessons for students grouped by ability and skill level. Known as differentiated instruction, in this method students learn the same material under varying levels of difficulty. This requires an assessment to determine each student’s capabilities and teaching to those results. Thus, while the entire class may learn about fractions, the content, process or learning environment may vary depending on the student’s skill level.
Steering a lesson toward a specific outcome diminishes the opportunity for exploration, and conditions students to believe there aren’t additional answers to find. By experimenting with different methods or contexts to present information its possible to pique their curiosity and turn that into engagement, and the desire to keep learning.
The Parent’s Role
Children develop their curious nature early. In fact, most parents dread the first time their toddler asks, “why?” because they know that’s virtually the only word they’ll hear for the next several years. However, as tedious it is to hear that word, it’s also the one word parents should rejoice in, because it represents a child’s desire to learn.
Too often parents dismiss this curiosity as a phase, something to survive rather than encourage. Perhaps they don’t have time for the questions, or they don’t know the answer, so they steer children in what they consider a “safer” direction. Yet this inquisitiveness, if nurtured, could be the foundation upon which countless generations of forever learners are built.
Parents don’t need to have all the answers, they only need to support their child’s quest to find the explanation, and encourage their curious nature. From planting in the garden, to cooking dinner to the mechanics of household appliances, if children ask why or how simply help them find the solution.
Finding the answer is exhilarating for the curious mind, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the exercise. Maybe there is more than one explanation. Maybe you could experiment to find a better solution. Or maybe the answer leads you to ask another question. It’s the ability to explore all options, to keep asking questions despite finding possible answers, and to debate the validity of those answers, that makes us forever learners.
Reading is another way to inspire forever learning. Reading stimulates the imagination and expands a child’s understanding of the world (Culligan, Bogart, 1996). It often leads to new questions as it’s answering others, culminating in a cycle of discovery that inspires the reader to keep searching. In fact, when surveyed, 88% of millionaires say they devote at least 30 minutes each day to reading (Ward, 2016).
Reading is such an important skill even the federal government recognizes its value, and has thrown support behind a number of initiatives to promote literacy such as Reading First, which provides grants to help implement reading programs in schools nationwide.
Whether for self-improvement, discovery or pleasure, the quest for new information is one factor that drives forever learners to keep reading. A love of reading starts at a young age, often with parents reading a bedtime story to children. However, when children outgrow the bedtime story parents should encourage independent reading as a means of both entertainment and education. The best way to do this is for parents to read themselves.
Parents have great influence over their children, particularly when it comes to education. If parents are indifferent to a higher education children are likely to be indifferent also. If parents believe a college degree is the highest form of achievement children are prone to believe that too. However, what was true for the last generation may not apply to the next generation.
A college degree is and always has been a significant achievement, but the pace of innovation means a degree is unlikely to mark the end of one’s education. By preparing children for the notion that high school, college or even a vocational school is a facet, not a culmination of, their education, they are planting the seed that forever learning is a part of life.
Thus, to raise forever learners parents must behave like forever learners themselves. Go back to school and get a degree or get additional certifications through work. Take a cooking class. Read a book. Volunteer for a new project or take a new job with new challenges. When children see a thirst for knowledge in their parents they are more likely to develop that thirst themselves, which will help them acquire the skills they need to stay relevant throughout the course of their professional career.
Merging Parent & Student Roles
Children need the guidance and instruction parents and teachers can provide, and it’s true that routine and discipline are important factors when it comes to raising them to become responsible, productive adults. However, elders and role models must be careful not to teach “responsible” behavior at the expense of curiosity/creativity.
By communicating with one another parents and teachers can agree on what constitutes a healthy level of curiosity vs disruptive behavior, nurturing the former and correcting the latter. They can share information about what happens in the class and in the home to identify strengths that need fostering and interests that could be explored in an effort to inspire a lifelong learning mindset.
Opportunities abound in daily life for parents and schools alike to develop forever learners, simply by supporting, not stifling, their natural tendencies. Let them ask questions, celebrate their creativity, and encourage their search for new and different solutions, especially if they don’t find one right away.
Join the Conversation
Inc. Magazine recently published a list of the 14 words you should leave off your LinkedIn profile. One was expert, because that implies that you know everything, and there is always more to learn. How do you encourage your children to be curious? What learning behavior do you participate in that might inspire children to become forever learners?
Coleman, J. (2017). Harvard Business Review – Lifelong Learning is Good FOr Your Health, Your Wallet, and Your Social Life
Cullinan, B. & Bagert, B. (1996). Reading Rockets – Reading to Your Child. (http://www.readingrockets.org/article/reading-your-child)
Economist Staff (2017). The Economist – Technological Change Demands Stronger and More Continuous Connections Between Education. (https://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21714169-technological-change-demands-stronger-and-more-continuous-connections-between-education)
George, A. (2018). Inc. – 14 Words That Should Never Appear On Your LinkedIn Profile (https://www.inc.com/amy-george/14-buzzwords-to-scrub-from-your-linkedin-page-right-now.html?cid=landermore&mc_cid=c320ec7e16&mc_eid=6bf47df719)
Leyden, A. (2018). TeachThought – 10 Simple ways to Engage in Lifelong Learning. (https://www.teachthought.com/learning/10-simple-ways-to-engage-in-lifelong-learning/)
Ward, M. (2016). CNBC – 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, From A Man Who Spent 5 Years Studying Them. (https://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/29/7-habits-of-highly-successful-people-from-a-man-who-spent-5-years-studying-them.html)