Preparing Students For What We Can’t Prepare Them For

Did You Know

Screen captures from Shift Happens

What We Know About the Future Is that We Don’t Know About the Future

In their viral video Shift Happens, Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod describe the global, digital twenty-first century world as “exponential.” In other words, with connectivity, information, and global population growing exponentially, the world we live in has shifted drastically—and will continue to shift drastically in the near future.

One major example directly relevant to higher education: “The amount of new technical information is doubling every two years. For students starting a 4 year technical college degree, this means that half of what they learn in in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study” (emphases added).

The assumptions of the finitude and stability of what students need to learn (on which Western higher education operate) are no longer valid, if they ever were. For instance, if one of the purposes of higher education is to prepare students for a career, we certainly face a challenging situation: “The top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 . . . did not exist in 2004. [. . .] The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that today’s learner will have 10-14 jobs . . . by the age of 38.”

If we hope just to tell students what we know in order for them to be able to do what we do, we have seriously misunderstood the task required of higher education in the twenty-first century. As Fisch and MeLeod put it, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist . . . using technologies that haven’t been invented . . . in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

Though higher education is certainly about more than preparing students for jobs, technologies, and problems, one broader and exceptionally clear point emerges: We need to prepare students for what we can’t prepare them for.

Shifting Paradigms: “Teaching,” “Learning,” “Learners”

One of the most important shifts in recent decades in discussions of teaching and learning has been the shift in focus from “teaching” to “learning.” As John Tagg puts it so well, “Teaching is valuable if and when it leads to learning, but not otherwise” (The Learning Paradigm College, p. 18). Of course, one might say that teaching is only teaching if it aims to facilitate learning and that, therefore, the distinction is merely word play. But if that’s the case, the word play has nonetheless been incredibly helpful for articulating an important shift in thinking and practice for many teachers.

Now another shift is in order, one that can be articulated through an even finer distinction between terms. Actually helping students learn what we want them to learn is certainly better than simply talking at them about what we want them to learn. But even this is insufficient. The problem, as Fisch and McLeod make clear, is that we simply cannot know what students will need to know in their future lives. And, even if we were to somehow guess correctly or look into the future to find out, there would never be enough time to help students learn it all while in school. Unless they stay in college for the rest of their lives, which obviously wouldn’t work.

But to look at this impossibility another way, we do know at least one thing that students will need to know in the future: how to learn. We need to set students up to learn outside of college for the rest of their lives. We need to shift from facilitating learning to developing learners.

Instead of telling our students:

Welcome to Economics 101 where you will learn about macroeconomics, microeconomics, and personal finance.

We might say something to this effect:

Welcome to Economics 101 where you will learn how to learn about economics. We’ll start with several economic topics I’ve selected in advance (macroeconomics, microeconomics, and personal finance), not just so you will know about these specific topics but so that you will have the opportunity to practice learning economics and to reflect on the process—all in order for you to learn how to learn yet-to-be-determined economic topics that you will find important in the future.

Maryellen Weimer on Learning vs. Learner

In recent years, Maryellen Weimer has been one of the major proponents of developing learners rather than just learning. This is how she explains her preference for the phrase “learner-centered” over “learning-centered” in the preface to the second edition of Learner-Centered Teaching. What’s most important to her is to keep the focus on people, specifically, “students.” But she avoids “student-centered” because that connects too easily to the student-as-customer debates, which are not her focus. And she avoids “learning-centered” because she sees “learning” as an abstraction and, consequently, as likely to lead us to theorize about learning but not necessarily to make practical changes in how we teach (p. vii).

These reasons have merit, though I’m not convinced by her comment about abstractions. But I think that the most substantial argument Weimer makes for “learner” over “learning” comes not in her explanation of the terms but in the central thrust of the book, which I take to be this: If we produce learning, the learning may stop when students leave our classes. If we develop learners, they can keep learning for a lifetime.

Whatever learning can occur during college is not sufficient—and will only grow less and less sufficient as more and more knowledge accumulates and new skills, occupations, and technologies emerge. Therefore, “learning to learn” should become more and more important as an aim in our teaching.

Don’t “Teach a Man to Fish”

Perhaps we need to update the old teaching adage:

Give a person a fish, and they will eat for a day. Teach a person to fish, and they will eat for a lifetime.

We should add:

Teach a person to fish, and they will eat for a lifetime. Teach a person to learn, and they will be able to do just about whatever they need to do in a lifetime.

Not as catchy, but it gets the gist.

Watch Shift Happens (Did You Know?)

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