Are You a Learner?

Eric Hoffer’s quote really resonates with me…

"In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

I connected for breakfast the other morning with twitter colleague and learner, Chris Wejr (@mrwejr).  Chris is a principal in an elementary school in a fairly remote school district.  He talked about the power of social media, in particular twitter and blogging, to iStock_000006664728XSmallfacilitate his learning.  It is amazing how titles and hierarchies of the bricks and mortar world seem to disappear in the digital realm.  We talked about how we connect and learn along side teachers, principals, superintendents, and renowned speakers.  Last week Chris and another twitter colleague David Wees (@davidwees) facilitated a tweet-up learning event with the BC Minister of Education George Abbott (@georgeabbottbc).  Chris shares his learning freely, shares others learning and ideas freely, and connects with colleagues around the world to ensure he is learning in real time.  Chris is an excellent example of a 21st Century learner!

It used to be that the only practical way to be truly educated was through attending K12 school for 13 years and then to get a higher education, another 2, 4, 8, or more years at a potentially very expensive college, university, or technical institute.  A college degree was the ticket to the best paying and most rewarding careers and jobs.  The digital revolution is upsetting this accepted norm.  This article ‘Is our students learning?’ in the Globe and Mail is a rather scathing report (their view) of the state of higher learning.  Assuming there is some truth to the article, what does / will this mean to be the learner of today and the future?  What should our learning institutions be providing to students, and how?

“If you make some very logical, and even conservative, assumptions about where technology is likely to lead in the coming years, much of the conventional wisdom about what the future will look like becomes unsupportable”, Lights in the Tunnel (kindle 222)

Our world is being reshaped before our eyes and technology is a major driving force.  There are those that would argue technology is just a tool but in my opinion that ignores the pervasiveness of technology’s role in all facets of modern life.  Our modern society would not be possible without the relentless development of technology.  Educational organizations were designed in a very iStock_000003160702XSmalldifferent era for a very different societal context.  We need to ensure that our learning institutions meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s citizens and society.  Institutions like MIT offer their course content online, for free.  A learner would have to pay the full tuition to receive an MIT credential. At some point will society move away from valuing “credentials” to valuing knowledge and skill without credentials?  How do you think this will play out?

I attended Maria Andersen’s (@busynessgirl) presentation of Levers of Change in Higher Education at the 2010 World Future Society conference.  If you haven’t viewed her presentation before, it’s a must see in my opinion.  It paints her thought-provoking picture of the forces of change pressing on higher education.  Information and knowledge to some degree, is becoming free and accessible without being required to pay tuition fees, buy books, and attend classes. 

Higher learning institutions need to design compelling and engaging learning experiences for students that are not available in other ways.  I would say K12 school systems are equally under pressure to reinvent…  as learning increasingly becomes a blend of a physical and 3D immersive virtual world experiences that blur together, a purely face to face experience will be insufficient.

I think the key message is that continuous learning is essential today.  The modes and methods must evolve to be relevant and iStock_000005304585XSmallengaging for learners.  Learning can not end with 13 years in K12 and some years of post secondary attendance.  We must all be “learners”, which has no determined end point in time.  I believe if you stop learning in this era of accelerating change, you increasingly risk irrelevance (re: Eric Hoffer’s quote).  My fear is that we too often pay mere lip service to “life long learning” and the changes necessary to reinvent education. 

If you aren’t a continuous learner, yet, you might want to make that a priority…


  1. Eric Hoffer's quote in the opening of this blog is spot on. I remember an encounter once with a Fortran trained network manager who was convinced there would again be a need for his skills so he didn;t see the need to retrain. It's sort of like being an Amiga computer technician. Times change and so should we. We need to be open to learning or face being left in the background. Great blog post.

  2. @rmannell: I suspect there are a lot of people who have been 'left behind' over the past few decades of tech change. And... the future is coming faster than the past (exponential change) so people need to be riding the learning wave or... the alternative isn't good.

    thanks for stopping by!

  3. Thank you so much for the dialogue, Brian... always inspiring to chat with you. I did not realize I was a learner until 5 years ago... when I began my masters I began questioning everything I did both in and out of teaching. I could not wait until I finished the program (although I loved the program at UBC) so I could read all the stuff that was referenced to me.

    Then I found Twitter and BOOM! my whole world began to revolve around learning... dialogue, questions, connections...

    My question... why did it take me until I was 30 years old to realize that I was more of a learner than a teacher?

    Will social media help people to personalize and realize their learning earlier than I did?

  4. Sort of an awakening hey. 30 years old is a fine young age to realize you're a learner. I think that SM will become the new normal as teachers embrace it more with their students. As that happens, we need to make sure they are doing so in safe and appropriate ways... more learning!

  5. Hi Brian. I'd like to put two of your statements together and try to show how I see they fit. The first (from June 10) is "We need people to be thinking further ahead than the next mid-term exam or report card." and the second is (from June 18) "continuous learning is essential today".

    The first is a pretty high bar. Most adults don't do much thinking about the future and certainly most teenagers don't either. Schools aren't very helpful. It requires a lot of maturity; often the sort of maturity not present until after the teenage years. So if we want people to think that way we are going to need a culture of learning after schooling is done. That's where your second point comes in.

    As an example we are hearing that people are not financially prepared for retirement because they haven't been thinking about the future. People need to learn more about finances, budgetting and retirement. Too many people then make the next leap: therefore we need to teach more about finances, budgetting and retirement in high school.

    What if most teenagers aren't ready to learn about retirement? Does that mean we are doomed? Not if we had a culture of learning after schooling ended.

    Why don't we offer an income tax break for every 20-30 year old that completes an online course "Preparing for retirement"? Why doesn't every employer of 25-30 year old offer a course "How to manage your finances"? Because we don't have a culture of learning after schooling ends.

    As I see our schools struggling (with limited success) to cram a whole lifetime of learning into a few short years I realize how much better it would be if we all realized that we have a lifetime to learn it all.

  6. @Mark Ekelund: the unfortunate thing it seems is that the future and one's past become more interesting and important as we age... teenagers are very focused on the here and now aren't they. I've written before advocating for building in 'educational futuristics' into the curriculum, building in scenarios of the future into learning. Perhaps one's schooling can help create a future orientation in students. I like your suggestion of creating a culture of learning after school has ended - that could help instill the importance of life long learning we've been hearing about for the past 15 years or so...

    I agree with you that schools can't be expected to teach everything students need for their life but they can certainly instill a love for learning and an understanding that it doesn't end at grade 12 graduation or with post secondary learning - it must be life long.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation!


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