An article in ‘The Times Higher Education’ this week noted that enrolment of traditional-aged undergraduates in the US is down by 7 per cent since 2011 while the number of older people – baby boomers who want to stay active in retirement – is soaring. It reminded me of the 2010 film called The First Grader which is based on the true story of an 84 year-old Kenyan villager who fights for his right to go to school for the first time to get the education he could never afford. His belief is that ‘Learning never ends until you’ve got soil in your ears’. I thought about this as we sent off our Year 13 girls today to take their A Levels. After all the years at nursery, junior, senior and sixth form, the concept of lifelong learning may seem a little unappealing to them at the moment.
However, what I hope our girls will come to realise is that an essential part of being human is the ability to learn; that lifelong learning is about creating and maintaining a positive attitude to learning both for personal and professional development. Every aspect of life provides opportunities to learn — and not only school or university. Reading, interpersonal relationships, travel and special interest activities all shape, and re-shape, our individual selves.
I also hope that when the girls reflect on their time at school they will feel they have been surrounded by the best learning role models: their teachers. Experience tells me that the very best teachers are not only willing to learn about their subject area and effective ways to teach it, but they are also willing to learn about themselves and their learners, increase self-awareness and be willing to act on the information they learn.
Similarly, in an interesting Harvard Business Review article Mark Bonchek explores some of the challenges of continual learning in business:‘The problem isn’t learning: it’s unlearning … to embrace the new logic of value creation, we have to unlearn the old one. Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm’.
Sometimes we need to recognise that what we have learned or used in the past needs to change – but this takes courage. Who wants to give up what has defined personal success in the past? Fortunately, research tells us about the brain’s neuroplasticity and, if we embrace continual learning, we can be challenged and energised at any stage of life.
Australian professor, Maryellen Weimer identifies seven characteristics of all effective learners (https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/for-those-who-teach/seven-characteristics-good-learners/):
- Good learners are curious.
- Good learners pursue understanding diligently.
- Good learners recognise that a lot of learning isn’t fun.
- Failure frightens good learners, but they know it’s beneficial.
- Good learners make knowledge their own.
- Good learners never run out of questions.
- Good learners share what they’ve learned.
So, Year 13, as you move on to the next life stage, I say be brave and keep learning!