Wanted: Professional Learners

What if one primary goal we had in schools was to develop kids as “professional learners”?

As in people who make money because they are learning.

That’s the intriguing phrasing that one of my favorite workplace bloggers Jane Hart uses to describe what people formerly known as employees need to be to thrive today.

In the modern workplace there is no longer such a thing as a job for a life – only a life of jobs – so it’s up to everyone to continuously update their knowledge, skills and productivity and become an independent, modern, professional life-long learner.

Much about that resonates for me. The idea that there is a growing sense of self-determination that learners possess, able to choose the what, the why, the when, the how, and the with whom of learning. The idea that learners have to be well versed in the learning affordances of modern technologies. That your paycheck depends on your ability to learn.

And, I’ll add, the idea that being a productive, caring, contributing human being depends on your ability to learn as well.

Important to understand also is that the context for much of that is about having a “life of jobs” rather than a job for life. Whether we like that or not, that seems to playing out more and more each day.

Thinking about developing “professional learners” as a primary goal would stir the pot quite a bit for schools though, right? In fact, I’d think that for many, that would be a daunting headshift. That’s just not the way we think of our value. That’s not what we assess our kids for. In many cases, we’d have trouble describing our own selves as “professional learners.” We’re much more comfortable with “professional educators” instead. We get paid to teach, not learn.

But let’s just take a flier and pretend that we’ve embraced the urgent argument for such a shift in our emphasis to creating “professional learners.” How would that change our practice?

Here are some thoughts (in no particular order):

  • We would have to help students identify learning goals and build their own curriculum around those goals – This is what all the recent discussions around student agency are hinting at (though few go all the way there.)
  • We would have to help kids develop their own learning portfolios so they can track and exhibit the skills, literacies, and knowledge they have accrued.
  • We would have to help them develop key learning dispositions, such as persistence, the ability to see failure as an opportunity, to be optimistic, to name just a few.
  • We would have to help them understand how to find and connect with experts and teachers that are well beyond their physical spaces. It may be most powerful affordance of the Web that we don’t promote much in classrooms.
  • We would have to help them develop skills to track new tools and technologies that will no doubt impact their lives. I mean, say what you will about AI and AR and VR, if you don’t know what they are and what their potentials may be, you’re missing an important context for your learning.
  • We would have to help them to “manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information” as the National Council of Teachers of English suggests. In other words, they have to become their own librarians.
  • And we would have to help them understand the larger shifts that are happening financially, environmentally, culturally, and politically, all of which provide powerful new contexts for interacting with the world and thinking about their own futures.

Obviously, to help them with all of those things, we need to be professional learners ourselves. If nothing else, we have to be experts at learning more than experts at, say, chemistry. We’d have to be models of professional learners.

And for that, we’d have to rethink much of our professional development, which is focused much more on teaching than it is learning. We’d need to live in cultures of learning, which, again, are much different from cultures of teaching. It would require us to rethink our roles, and our value in classrooms.

“Learning how to learn” is becoming one of those buzzphrases that I’m sure some will attempt to co-opt into a “program” or an app. But it’s not a curriculum. It’s not a linear, testable, school-y thing. It’s a way of life.

Five Great Links for This Week:

Audrey Watters on Lies Damned Lies and Statistics. A review of the ASU – Global Silicon Valley Conference.

Nicholas Carr on Re-engineering humanity and how we push back against “technological momentum.” Always a balancing voice.

Jeff Selingo on The Future of College Looks Like the Future of Retail. Always a voice on the edge.

Jon Freer on Transactional vs. Relational Learning in School. An interesting dive.

Olga Kahzan on The Myths of Learning Styles. Say it ain’t so.

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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