The Learning for Life App

Betha Gutsche /

Get the app

Find the Future event at NYPL“A lifelong ability to learn has given human beings all kinds of evolutionary advantages over other animals. It’s our killer app.”
(John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, The New Culture of Learning)
(Photo by cabbit on Flickr)

The rapid pace of change in the last two decades is no longer news; it is just our 21st century way of life. Whether employed or not, white collar or blue collar, patron or library staff, we are all faced almost daily with the need to acquire new knowledge. Fortunately for our species, our brains have a remarkable capacity for continual learning over a lifetime.

When you hear someone say, “I didn’t learn that in school and I don’t have time to learn it now,” don’t you just want to tell that person to “get the app”? You know, the reality app that reminds you that life is learning; it is all learning all the time. Roy Tennant said it best: “Learning should be like breathing. It’s something you do every day almost without thinking.” And we don’t even have to download the app; we are born with it.

According to Cathy N. Davidson, author of a much acclaimed new book on the brain science of attention, “65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.” Many K-12 educators fully grasp that they cannot teach students every skill they will need in the job market 15 years hence and they are moving to upgrade education to the digital age. Adults are living that reality right now, many finding themselves unprepared for the globally connected knowledge economy we are living in. In the midst of figuring out what to learn, they are struggling to learn how to learn and keep learning.

John Seely Brown, author of the opening quotation, posits that it’s not even enough to learn how to learn. We must approach lifelong learning as if it were an active sport, something pursued because we want to learn new things in a world of constant change. He describes the “entrepreneurial learner” as someone whose curiosity sponges up information, seeks problems to solve, and connects with others to probe for solutions. He thinks libraries are the right environment to cultivate this entrepreneurial approach to learning. The emergence of library experiments with creative media labs and maker spaces are on the cutting edge of providing a fertile environment for immersed and connected learning.

Can you teach curiosity?

[Take the poll at the end of this story.]

In John Medina’s groundbreaking book (and website) on Brain Rules, he makes connections between new understanding of the way the brain works and how it can help us learn and live more successfully. He sums it all up at the end with this declaration:

“The greatest Brain Rule of all is something I cannot prove or characterize, but I believe in it with all my heart ….it is the importance of curiosity.”

When education is designed to stimulate and nourish curiosity, learning becomes adventure and discovery. The learner is empowered to explore, experiment and direct her own path to knowledge. In You Can’t Teach Curiosity... But You Can Nourish It, blogger Shannon Firth describes an MIT study that contrasts traditional teaching with curiosity-based learning:

“A teacher showed a group of 4-year olds a new toy with four tubes, saying, “I'm going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” She then showed them how to pull on a tube and make the toy squeak. For a second group of students, Gopnik showed the students a new toy, and said she had “just found it.” The teacher acted surprised when she pulled a tube and it let out a squeak.

The group of children given direct instruction played with only the one tube that squeaked, while the students who weren’t given direct instruction played with the toy longer and discovered many of the instrument’s hidden functionalities.”

Think of the possibilities for translating this lesson to adult learners in the library. Adult learners may be equally receptive to self-initiated discovery if we can upend the traditional approach to teaching. Try breaking away from the step-by-step “do this” type of instruction and find ways to stimulate learners to explore and discover for themselves. As you devise strategies to nourish curiosity and create collaborative learning environments, keep in mind these tips for developing curiosity:

  1. Keep your own mind open.
  2. Keep asking questions.
  3. Ask learners to formulate their own questions.
  4. Create excitement about learning.
  5. Find the fun.
  6. Learn from each other.

New roles

“Education is not filling a pail, it’s lighting a fire.”
(William Butler Yeats )

Whether training staff or patrons, we still tend to think in terms of teacher/student or trainer/learner relationships. In the 21st century, there is a growing understanding that we are actually all co-learners. The teacher-sage is being crowded off the stage; the playground is encroaching on the classroom. This is the age of the empowered learner and the multi-directional flow of knowledge exchange.

Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center draws comparisons between the old and the new in his Future of Knowledge presentation at the 2011 Internet Librarian conference:

Old New
Learning as transaction Learning as a process
Knowledge is objective and certain Knowledge is subjective and provisional
Learners receive knowledge Learners create knowledge
Knowledge is organized in stable, independent hierarchical structures Knowledge is organized “ecologically”—disciplines are integrative and interactive
Learning happens passively, by listening and watching Learning happens actively doing and managing our own learning
“Intelligence” is based on our individual abilities “Intelligence” is based on our learning communities

The New Culture of Learning recognizes the advantage of a learning environment that defines boundaries but encourages fertile investigation within the bounds. This is gaming mechanics that sets the rules of the game while providing numerous uncharted paths through the environment. In the new paradigm there is still a role for someone (teacher, trainer, librarian) who defines the learning boundaries (the rules of the game), plants clues and tools along the paths, and stimulates connections between learners. The major adjustment is to accept that learners are no longer passive recipients of information. They are co-creators.

As you design or prepare to deliver your next training, keep the two “C”s in mind:

  • Curiosity: how will you nourish it?
  • Collaboration: how will you facilitate peer-to-peer learning?

Check out May's Poll Results for a list of interesting and varied results!

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