“Education is something that is done to you. Learning is something you do for yourself.”
— Joi Ito
We don’t have many straight lines anymore in this wicked world we live in. Uncertainty has certainly come to stay, and we all need to get used to it.
When it comes to learning, this context has a double meaning; on one side, the learning journey is not linear anymore, and on the other, it’s the key to continuously adapting to this ever-changing world.
Back in the day, if you lived in a wealthy country (and if you were part of a privileged group), you could design a life plan, follow the steps, put in the effort, and “rest”, (almost) sure you would reach your goal. Not anymore.
The Education System
The world has changed, but the education system got stuck in the process. It’s now (finally) giving some signals of being alive, but the rules of the game have changed. Completely.
The system was designed for the industrial age, but now no school will solve your problems on its own — even the ones that are adapting at a fast pace. By now, we are all aware of that, except those who don’t care about the topic (no judgment here) or those in denial.
Most traditional education prepares you to be great at passing tests, but what’s the point of memorizing a bunch of stuff you are never going to need anyway? Even if there was a point, you won’t remember a thing in a couple of years. Plus, what you are learning can be outdated even before you leave school.
And yes, I’m being a bit dramatic (and unfair) to the outstanding educators who work in “the system”. Their knowledge is precious for this ongoing transformation. Also, several areas need deep knowledge and resources that only the education system can provide at scale.
However, there are also many areas where the value of formal education or certification is decaying by the day. And the system itself doesn’t have the flexibility to keep pace with the current times.
The New Players
Some people are lucky and study in a school suited to today’s challenges, like Elon Musk’s Ad Astra (or its byproduct, the synthesis school) or have access to a great tutor like some micro-schools have — but starting with the right foot is not enough. And yes, the first years are paramount, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
The pandemic accelerated the decay of the outdated education system, but the multitude of alternatives, good or bad, that mushroomed are only part of the learning journey… Not to mention that most of these schools are private, which raises severe inequality problems.
It’s a contradiction. On one side, we need flexibility; on the other, those in the best position to experiment with new models are private players, which excludes underprivileged people. Nonetheless, building their own path can also give a competitive edge to people without the resources to attend traditional school institutions.
So, now it’s up to you to continuously zig and zag to tackle a never-ending flow of challenges — no need to stress out, though, just learn how to adapt to an ever-changing world.
We all have opinions about how to instigate a lifelong learning mindset. In my case, I’m a huge believer in exposing people to radical diversity and experimentation and leaving the decision about what path to follow to them. Curiosity triggers motivation (and the other way around), and motivation fuels learning like anything else.
The new learning (incomplete) playbook
The new playbook to navigate this admirable new world is being written as we go — through an immensity of great experiments (e.g., new learning models, schools, approaches, mentors, coaches, etc.), the only “problem” is that it will never be finished. So you need to sharpen your critical thinking to make the right choices at each moment — and, obviously, learn how to learn, the skill that trumps all the others.
With time, unconsciously or consciously, everybody starts to follow some principles on their journey. If you need a jumpstart, here are some principles that can come in handy:
- Adopt a growth mindset — you can learn; you can change.
- Be strategic and deliberate — define what you want and act on it.
- Learn actively rather than passively — learn by doing.
- Nurture a symbiotic network — we can all be “winners”.
- Feed off of diversity — open up and question your beliefs constantly.
- Explore and experiment — run low-risk experiments continuously.
- Reflect and Relax — pause to recenter and recover.
- Learn at different levels — micro (you and your inner-circle), macro (organizations and big communities), and meta (systems).
- Stay active, eat right, and get enough sleep
Most of these principles are backed by science but don’t think about them as dogmas. You should keep an open eye for good practices, but never forget your own identity — what works for others doesn’t necessarily work for you.
In your endless quest, some power-ups will come in handy to make you stronger, faster, and more powerful — using gaming terminology. Here are three suggestions that go well together:
1. Testing as a learning tool
Testing is a powerful way to recall information. It works like this: imagine there are some central concepts that you need to have on the tip of your tongue. You can read the “manual” over and over again, or… try to recall the concepts without reading them, and then read them to confirm if you were right or wrong. The latter is both more efficient and effective.
2. Spaced repetition
Spaced repetition is an evidence-based learning technique, where you deliberately hack the way your brain works. Confused? It builds memory by repeated review of content according to a method to improve long-term retention.
Let’s simplify this and show how it goes hand in hand with the testing technique. If you need to memorize 100 concepts, probably the best way is to create a digital deck of cards, one per concept, with the title on the front and the description on the back. Every time your flashcards tool shows you a card, you try to recall the concept before turning it. Then you turn the card, and “inform” the system about how hard it was to recall it. If it was easy, the system is only going to repeat it after some time; if it was hard it will repeat it in the same session.
This technique works by mixing, or interleaving, various subjects to improve learning. So, instead of always studying the same thing until boredom kicks in, you alternate topics giving space to your brain and therefore sparking openness to learn new things.
It’s your learning journey, own it (or not)
“Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.”
— Antonio Machado
Before wrapping up, a word for the ones who are fed up with all this “learning talk”. Learning may be the word of the day, but sometimes people lose touch with reality and ignore that not everybody wants to be a learning machine. Some just want to have a peaceful life and learn as they go without putting much thought into it. And that is perfectly fine.
Assuming you are one of the ones who want to continue learning throughout your life, it’s important to differentiate between two types of journeys.
There are journeys where you are guided by a facilitator, a teacher, a craftsman, or other professional or group of professionals (e.g., mentors, tutors, coaches, universities, corporations, academies, etc.). In this case, the journey starts where you, as a learner, are now, and ends (hopefully) with you knowing more and being able to do more, according to the desired outcome.
And then there is the main journey. It not only brings together and gives meaning to all the others, but it’s also the one where you’re the main character. In this endless journey, the uphill battle is up to you.