How to Foster Lifelong Learning in Students

How do you know when you are seeing the birth of ‘lifelong learning’ in students? When they are being pushed?

Schools often claim to desire and often do genuinely desire to have their students develop into ‘lifelong learners’ while at their school. This is a noble aim. It is a highly valuable attribute to cultivate in a learner because it puts them on a value-rich career track, a leading indicator of career success. Charlie Munger’s renowned commencement speech speaks to this value explicitly.

Yet if you ask a school representative (or even better, a student) how this is happening, this “becoming a lifelong learner”, expressed as a clear mental model or as plainly visible educator behavior, most people will start doing funny things. Some will start hand waving and stammering. Others might begin looking at their feet or showing other signs of discomfort that come from not actually knowing how exactly lifelong learning attributes come into being in students. 

And at this point it’s essential to recognize and assume that these are not bad people. In our experience, claims to foster lifelong learning are genuine expressions of aspiration. The problem is that if you can’t see something happen, can’t describe the behaviors that foster it, or even offer a model for how it is visible within learning spaces, then you have little more tangible, little more value, delivered to learners than good intentions. 

How to Inspire Lifelong Learning

Luckily, there are tangible ways to inspire and stoke the lifelong learning orientation in learners. The attribute ‘lifelong learner’ can’t be installed in someone. It can only be encouraged and supported by intentional attributes of instructional design. The condition of being a lifelong learner is synonymous with having a baseline of directed/bounded curiosity along with the skill set to take action in pursuit of the desired knowledge/learning.

A life long learner will be someone who takes action without external direction or prompting. Such a person is creating new knowledge without permission— a form of permissionless innovation of the sort celebrated and encouraged in Kevin Ashton’s How to Fly a Horse and Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works.

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Pull-based Learning

As our previous posts have forecast, we contend that lifelong learners emerge and are encouraged by PULL based learning models and practices. A Pull-centric  learning environment creates the conditions under which long long learning habits are built.  Pull-based learning environments foster learning flow and the flow states— sustained effort and attention, being engrossed in learning, losing track of time in pursuit of information relevant to the learner.

We have observed that classrooms that pull together require less teacher energy per unit of learning acquired. Yes, teachers do less and students do more by design and at the same time.  When I was in the classroom full time, I could always feel the difference between push and pull days. I’d be exhausted after push days. I’d have more energy after class on pull days.

PUSH systems, which we usually don’t like because they’re built for us being like everyone else, are batch-processing systems. Individuality is often discouraged because it slows things down— it also makes diversity of the student body less desirable. Tracking is required by push systems at scale.

Fostering Trust in the Class

Pull systems welcome the learner as she is already. They are efficient once you can get them going and this isn’t easy because the teacher has to go with the students over a sort of ‘trust waterfall’ – the transition of the locus of control and direction at a minute-to-minute time scale from the oldest person in the room (e.g., teacher) to the humans who are allegedly the intended primary beneficiaries of the learning experience.

For teachers, once you can get over the control/command fear and if your administration has fostered a sufficiently trusting environment, you can get started really accelerating lifelong learning much like you would in starting a vacuum of curiosity, like a siphon! 

And if you know anything about siphons as a system for moving people, things and energy around, y9oui know that once you go over the waterfall and have good boundaries established for the course of the learning stream you all are entering, the effort goes to zero and you can start sitting next to students one on one, in relative quite as the lifelong learning builds energy in and of itself. We’re born to learn after all.

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About the Author: Simon Holzapfel

An award-winning educator, thought leader, innovator, scrum master, writer, and competitive amateur athlete. In addition to his tenure as Head of School and President at The Darrow School, an international boarding school, Simon has served as a trustee for several educational institutions and organizations. He has spent several years helping organizations and leadership teams develop agility and improve their outcomes by applying lean system thinking and the agile mindset. He has also dedicated his professional life to equipping people of diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, skills, values, and purpose they require to work and live well.