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Insights of "Self-Learning" across the lifespan

One trick to this task of designing for lifelong learning is acknowledging the broad spectrum of learners at any stage in the lifespan.

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For research, I interviewed George Selleck, a Stanford grad, All-American basketball player, author, psychologist, and lifelong learner. Currently in his 80's, he seems unable to slow down. A self-proclaimed failure at retirement, he's developing youth-run physical education programs using insights from his expansive career and principles of design thinking.

I entered the interview with a lot of knowledge on George (he is my step-father-in-law). A multi-sport athlete in High School and college, he was California state player of the year in basketball. An All-American in basketball at Stanford, George was drafted into the NBA, but decided to instead pursue a MDiv at Princeton. He went back to school after 12 years to receive a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology from USC. He followed up a counseling career, returned to athletics, and began developing and facilitating whole-person development programs for athletes. He additionally found the time to author 8 books, including his most recent, Changing the Game - a four-quarters of life memoir. Now he continues to change the game by giving youth ownership of their physical education programs with an inclusive, everyone-can-play, emphasis. After that introduction to his lifetime of learning and leading, I hope it is apparent that George might have a lot to contribute to this challenge.

In synthesizing the interview experience, I identified 3 key insights. Those were: 1) George's statement that "all learning is self learning" is poignant, 2) That teaching the skill of self-learning is critical, 3) The end user in this challenge really is everyone.

The first insight, was George's statement that "All learning is self learning." That is both a seemingly simple statement, and at the same time makes sense. However, it was when we deconstructed that statement that (to me) it became more powerful and important. George related this to his experience in traditional education - paraphrasing "with all the degrees and academic successes I achieved, looking back, I really didn't learn anything." He went on to explain that learning really takes place when the learner applies new information or concepts into the world they occupy. That is, when it impacts or informs how the learner navigates day-to-day life, is when learning is success. He believes that is not a fault of schools and teachers themselves. In his opinion, schools and teachers have so much pressure to meet standards that most times they are hyper focused on teaching to the tests to meet standards. So this really presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

Insight number two resulted while in dialogue about self-learning. I had responded that "self-learning" really seems like a high level skill. I related to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and I rate self-learning as a skill for self-actualization, which most graduates right out of high school have yet to achieve. George urged that if self-learning is on the scale of self-actualization, that it is important to make it a survival level skill. I took a moment to take that in. Reflecting as I write this is the first time I've been able to fully appreciate that statement. It would seem, to be able to be effective in a career (let alone as a person in society) in the future, self-learning absolutely is a survival level skill. Then the question remains, how to we make that shift?

Finally, the third insight must be addressed. That is that redesigning higher educator for lifelong learners is going to take the full spectrum of learners. That is, and consistent with George's opinion, students, young professionals, teachers, and those that have developed the capacity to be mentors. Everyone on that spectrum is also on a spectrum of developing the skill of self-learning. Per George, there are overlooked aspects of leadership that education fails to take into consideration and seem to represent a continuum of people's development within systems of higher learning. Those specifically are: self-awareness, deepening self-awareness, developing self-learning, and finally developing the skill of self-leadership. The systems at stake in this pursuit of redesigning higher learning already exist and are filled with people that are all over the map on these continuums. A solution essentially has to take into consideration those people in the system, and how to effectively use them to develop everyone's capacity for self learning. I'm sitting with how to let that sink in fully.

The results of my interview with George were different from what I expected. A skilled and open-minded interviewer probably knows this already. I wish that I could say that was my aim all along, to reach that point that defies my expectations. However, I feel I got there kicking and screaming. This was a pretty uncomfortable experience for me, probably because it is growing my capacity to grapple with a project with this expansiveness. The good news is, the positive outcomes arose despite my best efforts to curtail them. Instilling the capacity for self-learning, making it essential to education, and shifting the systems of people make this a priority are important characteristics of this challenge. This project is of such immense consequence to society that I am excited to see what it produces.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Get out of the school vs. work dualism that might be easily considered while thinking of this challenge. The most effective solution might just break us out of that mode of thinking.

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Photo of Kate Rushton

Thank you for this excellent post.

Hi Matthew,

Your step-father-in-law is inspiring. I bet he is an amazing motivational speaker.

I hope I get to read your ideas on how higher education institutions can help students develop ‘self-awareness, deepening self-awareness, developing self-learning, and finally developing the skill of self-leadership.