What Does Lifelong Learning Mean in a K-12 Environment?

What Does Lifelong Learning Mean in a K-12 Environment?

By Bradley Wadle

The idea of “lifelong learning” comes up quite a bit as we talk about education.  At first blush, this sounds very straightforward: we don’t think that learning is limited to the school environment.  We want people to continue learning after they graduate from whatever the highest level of “school” is that they complete, and we want them to continue learning for their entire lives.

This is a nice sentiment, but what does it really mean in a K-12 environment?  What can we do within the walls of the school to make sure that students continue to learn even when they are no longer in school?

A standard answer is that there are habits of mind associated with learning, and that if we can establish these habits or dispositions in K-12 children, they will become lifelong learners.  A key disposition, perhaps the one on which all other learning depends, is curiosity.  It’s one thing to learn something because you have a teacher or a parent or a boss leaning over your shoulder telling you that you need to learn something.  But to truly be a lifelong learner, you need to want to learn even when you don’t have a teacher or parent or boss pushing you.  Curiosity is what makes you want to learn.

There’s something a little bit funny about this answer, though.  Do we really need to establish curiosity in a child?  Have you ever met a child who wasn’t curious about the world around them?  And if children are already curious by nature – which is to say that they already want to learn – shouldn’t it be easy to “create” lifelong learners?  Shouldn’t this just happen naturally, with no intervention on the part of schools or parents?  And if so, why doesn’t it happen?

So now the question is changing somewhat.  Instead of asking how to get children to be curious about the world, we’re beginning to ask what happens to stifle their natural curiosity.  What happens that makes children stop asking questions?

At some point in time, children become self-conscious and start to desire approval from adults.  Early in life, this doesn’t matter as much – the priority is on fun, and what others think is irrelevant.  There is nothing shameful about running around the house naked and generally making a fool of yourself, because the entire idea of having your worth be judged by someone else hasn’t even occurred to you yet.  You aren’t trying to impress anyone else.

But eventually, children become aware that adults have separate minds of their own, and adults judge children based on their own criteria.  And when this happens, it is perfectly natural for children to want to “measure up.”  They want to be judged as good or smart or clever by the adults (and other children) in their lives.  Once this desire takes hold, shame enters into a child’s life – as does a fear of being wrong.

Most of us in the field of education will say that you can learn from your mistakes, and sometimes you can even learn more from mistakes than you can from being right all the time.  As a result, you shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes.  As long as you learn from them, who cares if your first guess is wrong?

While this is very easy to say, it is much harder to put into practice.  I used to teach high school German, and I would always encourage students to just talk, and not to worry about whether they made mistakes.  But if I’m being honest with myself, I know that there were (and still are) times that I will hesitate when speaking with native German speakers because I’m afraid that I might use the wrong word or phrase something awkwardly or conjugate a verb incorrectly.  And the pressure is even higher, because I’m a licensed German teacher – I should know better!

We can all think about times when we didn’t say something because we were afraid of being wrong.  Maybe it was a situation at work.  Maybe it was a trivia question at a game night.  Making mistakes on a social media quiz is no big deal – if you don’t like your results, you don’t have to share them!  Making mistakes when other people are watching, though, is an entirely different ball of wax.

Since making mistakes publicly is humiliating, students learn defense mechanisms.  You can take the stance that school just isn’t cool, so you don’t put any effort into it – never do your homework, come to class unprepared, and act like you just don’t care.  How can you be humiliated for not knowing the answer to a question if (a) you didn’t read the assignment so you couldn’t be expected to know the answer, and (b) it was a stupid assignment anyway?

Another common defense mechanism is to become a class clown.  Play up your own stupidity.  If you’re funny, maybe people will be too busy laughing to judge you all that harshly for not knowing the answer.

Perhaps, then, the habit of mind that we’re looking for, then, is a willingness to be wrong – even when other people are watching.  The best time to start instilling this habit is when children start to become self-conscious.  I am not suggesting that we want children to think that the opinions of others are irrelevant – knowing how other people are reacting to what you do and say is important to managing social relationships, after all.  But perhaps we want children to realize that there is nothing shameful about making mistakes – as long as you try to learn from them.  And once children realize this, shame won’t hold them back from becoming the lifelong learners that our own natural curiosity will drive us to become.

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