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Lifelong Learning: Top Reasons Why School is Cool

What do Henry Ford, Satya Nadella and Sheryl Sandberg all have in common? It is their belief in the power of lifelong learning. Whether it is Nadella’s inspirational message to “hit refresh” and keep up with change, or Sandberg’s advice of “hav[ing] a long-run dream and investing in yourself” and going all the way back to Henry Ford’s statement “anyone who keeps learning stays young,” these leaders believe that true growth and powerful progress can only happen when we are learn-it-alls, not know-it-alls.I learn, therefore I am. What if learning didn’t end with formal school but continued well into your adult life? And what if this learning led to career advancement, upward financial mobility, greater recognition, and a better future for your family? These are just some reasons why school continues to be cool long after your teenage years. As John Dewey put it: “Education is life.”

What is Lifelong Learning?

Lifelong learning is development beyond formal education. The Oxford Handbook of Lifelong Learning defines it as: “the continuing development of knowledge and skills that people experience after formal education and throughout their lives.” The Collins Dictionary extends the definition by suggesting that lifelong learning is “the continuous development and improvement of the knowledge and skills needed for employment and personal fulfillment.” 

Continuous or lifelong learning believes that education is a journey, not a destination. It includes both learning and unlearning, and the human ability to apply a fresh lens to life’s next challenges.

Lifelong Learning Across Cultures

Across cultures, we see the consistent belief that curiosity and learning don’t stop with aging. Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah, and Greek mythology all believe that humans are “microcosms” which are a small representation of the ideal universe or “macrocosm.” They view learning as the constant human striving to bridge that gap.

You have your pick of quotes when it comes to the Ancients’ belief in the value of lifelong learning, whether it is Seneca’s “You should keep learning… until the end of your life” or Plutarch’s: “As I grow older, I learn.”

The Hindu tradition of Gyan Yoga or path of knowledge believes that continuous learning is one of the paths to salvation. In following this path of knowledge, you learn about yourself and reach the ultimate goal: attaining the divine through wisdom.

But perhaps it’s time to come back to the earth from these philosophical and divine spheres. What benefits can lifelong learning bring for you

Why You Should Become a Lifelong Learner

Thirteen Reasons Why might have put many of us off school with its harsh realities of teenage sub-cultures, but these 13 reasons illustrate the correlation between lifelong learning and positive outcomes. Learning beyond school can make you wise, wealthy, and (emotionally) healthy, Here’s how: 

  1. Reskilling and upskilling are here to stay. If our macrocosm– the world of work– has managed to pivot with change and embrace learnings from the digital transformation and pandemic related wisdom, why can’t we? Upskilling is not a passing fad. It is a must-have for all ages and all levels, because with the unstoppable pace of technology and human invention, your knowledge is outdated almost the moment you acquire it. Lifelong learning helps you pivot that knowledge and remain employable.
  1. Longevity means longer working—and learning– lives. The latest research indicates that our work life is at least 50 years. To succeed during this longer life and work- span, we must redefine learning. Indeed, being illiterate has been redefined. It is no longer the inability to read and write, but rather the inability to unlearn and relearn. Lifelong learning makes you agile and keeps you ahead of the curve, thinking of the new “cheese” should the current supply run out.
  1. Learning how to learn is a crucial skill. By committing to lifelong learning, you can try out a variety of ways to learn. Ultimately, this will help you to find the way that sticks, and empower you to develop your learning toolkit. What goes into this kit? It could be ways of learning- such as building models, observing and taking notes, creating mind maps, or using music to focus. It could be favored learning strategies. My top three, for example, are acronyms, the rule of three, and setting definitions to a classical music tune. Lifelong learning helps you master meta-learning.
  1. Learning is always-on. Technology has made learning both accessible and bite sized. Microlearning breaks down information into manageable chunks which you can consume more easily. And speaking of ease, video and audio content has made it possible to learn any time, any place. My students have taught me at least two approaches to learning. The first is a deep dive/ rabbit hole approach of serendipitous learning where you could start with a Wikipedia note and end up reading Nobel prize winning research. The second is an “edutainment” approach, best incorporated by the likes of TEDTalks. Lifelong learning can truly be 24/7.
  1. Learning is more than knowledge. It is doing and reflecting as well. In fact, according to the Lifelong Learning Council, there are four pillars of lifelong learning:
  • “Learning to know” refers to understanding how to develop a broad understanding of a subject you are interested in, followed by more in-depth and specific forays into the subject.
  • “Learning to do” refers to practicing what you learn so you can retain it better.
  • “Learning to live together” refers to developing an ability to relate to others.
  • “Learning to be” includes being autonomous and having control over your learning as well as the potential to innovate and grow because of your newfound skills.

Lifelong learning includes book-smarts and street-smarts.

  1. Learning is deliberate practice. Geoff Colvin’s famous book, Talent is Overrated, makes the case for lifelong learning through trying and failing- then reflecting on the lessons learned and trying again. Michael Jordan didn’t just practice foul shots. He focused on those angles on the court that were the most inconsistent for him and learned. Then he learned some more. This helped him commit learned material to long term memory. Lifelong learning with deliberate practice makes perfect.
  1. Learning is teaching. The learning-by-teaching effect has been proven through many studies. Rather than passively re-studying material, teaching others leads to deeper and longer lasting learning. There are different ways to practice learning through teaching. Peer to peer learning is a collaborative approach where learners at the same level interact and grow together through formal and informal knowledge sharing. Mentoring is an effective way of sharing knowledge, which is proven to benefit mentor and mentee alike.

    Warren Buffet has been called a “learning machine” because of his propensity to read and consume vast amountes of information. But he doesn’t stop there. Buffett is equally known for crystallizing his learning through his letters to investors, which are a combination of the knowledge he gleans from research and learning, with a good measure of his insightful, folksy wisdom. Lifelong learnin is starting both to-learn and to-teach-lists.
  1. Learning is valuable. What are the economic benefits of lifelong learning? According to the Pew Research Center, 16 percent of Americans no longer believe that a single four-year degree prepares students for landing lucrative and satisfying jobs. The research shows that education credentials are limited in opening up job opportunities, with survey respondents relying on further learning in a professional, technical, or vocational field. And this investment pays. Each additional year of learning results in an average increase of between 8 percent and 13 percent in hourly wages. Lifelong learning is the modern-day equivalent of The Giving Tree.
  1. Learning is motivating. Beyond financial value, learning brings its own rewards because it is fulfilling. Motivation studies have shown that self-determination and growth can lead to greater learner and worker satisfaction. Take the case of the eponymous hero of the popular series Ted Lasso. Rather than rest on his laurels after becoming popular at home or wallow in self-pity at his failing marriage, this folksy American football coach chooses to learn how to coach soccer, which helps him embrace life. Lifelong learning is its own reward.
  1. Learning is growing and being resilient. When I reached halfway through high school, I shut myself to Math. There are many ways in which I can justify this decision. In retrospect, I wish I had known about two seminal pieces of research which show that learning is about developing through failing. Carol Dweck’s growth mindset thrives on challenge: according to her research, failure is not evidence of unintelligence but a springboard for growth. Angela Duckworth believes that grit is crucial to the learning process: the power of perseverance allows you to stretch yourself and commit to sticking with it. Lifelong learning is embracing failure and bouncing back from it.
  1. Learning is making your brain plastic. Neurological research offers a clear-cut testament to lifelong learning. Scientists once thought that the brain stopped developing after the first few years of life: this meant that only young brains would be “plastic” and thus able to form new connections. Today we recognize that the brain continues to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. This phenomenon, called neuroplasticity, demonstrates that learning increases the brain’s capacity and can be an effective counter to conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s Disease. Lifelong learning enriches—and saves– lives.
  1. Learning builds community. One of the most beautiful elements of education is the connection it creates within the learning group. Lifelong learning enables you to join networks of like-minded individuals with similar interests, and to “wonder afresh” through the eyes of others. I have witnessed how my grandmother, an accomplished middle school principal in a regional language school in India, overcame personal tragedy by learning English at the age of 60. The learning process allowed her to see life through new perspectives, and the learning community became therapeutic. Lifelong learning creates lifelong bonds.
  1. Learning for yourself. Learning fulfills the highest needs within Maslow’s hierarchy. It leads to greater self-esteem by creating a feeling of accomplishment. You are not just learning for yourself; you are also a role model to your family and friend circle. When I started teaching using a VR headset at Edstutia, it was brand new territory. I had not so much as played a video-game as a kid. After some fumbles (and a lot of humorous situations), my newfound ability to teach in VR became a source of pride—not just for myself but also for my family. Lifelong learning is about DIY: doing it (for) yourself.

Lifelong Learning at School and Work

Along with tremendous personal benefits, be secure in the knowledge that employers value—and actively seek—lifelong learners. Organizations are constantly struggling with the “know-do gap,” the phenomenon where what we know does not smoothly translate into what we do. The gaping hole becomes most evident in the discord between what we learn at school or university and what employers want. 

For example, a UK study found that 98% of business leaders thought communication and teamwork skills to be essential for employees entering the workplace. However, only 32% agreed that a four-year college education was doing enough to equip their workforce with these lifelong learning skills. Their solution? Trying to create a learning organization based on a culture of continuous talent development to patch the holes.

Lifelong learning is clearly a business need with which education needs to catch up. How do we do this? 

Finland has come up with one solution: a teaching curriculum based on key competencies and on what young people need in their life. Centers for lifelong learning have started emerging within some education institutions. However, they tend to cater more to researching lifelong learning, and less to offering lifelong learning for their students. In developing the curriculum at Edstutia, we were mindful of lifelong learning best practice. Our Academic Advisory Board, comprised of industry leaders, guides our curriculum to make it relevant and agile to meet changing business scenarios. Ultimately, we want our learners to be intrapreneurs: self-starters who can design their exploration pathways and receive the best guidance from instructors on how to make their learning stick– and evolve– over time.

What You Can Do Today

What can you do today to jumpstart your lifelong learning? Start with questioning and self-reflection before tackling all 13 strategies at once.

Sift what you learn, and prioritize needs and wants, must-learns and nice-to-learns. It’s OK to not be a learn-it-all but rather to commit to learning all the time.

Consider making learning part of your new year or birthday resolutions, or finding accountability partners- friends or family or coworkers- who can help you commit to learning. This will help you get in the mindset- and be accountable towards those whom you care about.

I Learn, Therefore I Am

Learning is a marathon, not just a sprint. Create your master plan for learning for each decade of your life. At the same time, remember to also break it down to each day. 

Can you start with daily learning to achieve lifelong learning? Can you make learning a habit, a part of your life as integral as breathing? I learn, therefore I am.

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