Continuous learning instead of “lifelong learning”

June 13, 2012, 12:17 pm

This will probably be my last missive from the ASEE conference, since I’m going into my talk session in an hour and then heading directly to the airport. It’s been a good meeting, and it’s always good to rub shoulders with my engineering colleagues to see what they’re doing. As I blogged on Monday, engineers are doing some pretty great things in education.

One of the threads that has really resonated with me here is the necessity of lifelong learning in STEM education. I sort of dislike that term, “lifelong learning”, because I don’t feel like it conveys sufficient urgency. When you hear engineers talk about this, you get that urgency: The problems engineers face are increasing in complexity at an exponential pace, and as one plenary speaker put it, it’s essential to be able to add continuously to your skill set in order to be a practicing engineer. All the good grades in the world won’t matter if you cannot learn on your own when the situation demands it — which is to say, every day, at almost every moment of the day. Continuously.

Of course lifelong learning is wonderful and desirable. But that phrase suggests (maybe only to me) a relaxed process of dipping in to formal educational setups at various discrete points along one’s lifespan — like taking a class at the college every now and then for enrichment, doing that macrame course at the community center when you retire, or even taking an online computer programming course for fun.

“Continuously adding to your skill set” gets the idea across better, because it suggests an ongoing, unbroken flow of learning that is carried out by the individual, every day and in the small moments of each day, indefinitely, whether job-related or just part of life. Maybe we should be using the term continuous learning rather than lifelong learning.

And as I’m gearing up to talk about the inverted classroom again this afternoon, I am reminded how game-changing the inverted approach could be for education. The inverted classroom is about nothing if not training students to add continuously to their own skill sets — to become skilled at identifying what they need to know and then learning it. This is a vital skill, so vital in fact that I’ve come to think that if we in the university aren’t giving students chances to teach themselves things, we’re failing in our mission.

A while back I blogged defensively that the inverted classroom doesn’t require students to “teach themselves”, but now I think that the best-designed classrooms, inverted or otherwise, are actually doing exactly that — training students how to teach themselves, providing the best possible materials for source information, and then having them teach themselves things regularly (with lots of support). The very purpose of the university is to teach people how to teach themselves things! If the university doesn’t train students how to add continuously to their own skill set, in what sense can we call it “higher” education?


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