Loving Life-Long Learning: A Must Way of Life
Life-long learning is the “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated” pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. It not only enhances social inclusion, active citizenship, and personal development, but also self-sustainability as well as competitiveness and employability.
There are at least five types of “life-long” learning:
- Learning to know: Mastering learning tools rather than acquisition of structured knowledge
- Learning to do: Equipping us for the types of work needed now and in the future, including innovation and adaptation of learning to future work environments
- Learning to live together and with others: Peacefully resolving challenges and conflicts; discovering other people and their cultures; and fostering community capability, individual capacity, economic resilience, and social inclusion
- Learning to be(come): Education contributing to our complete development: mind and body, intelligence, sensitivity, aesthetic appreciation, and spirituality
- Learning to learn
Howard Gardiner, an American developmental psychologist and Harvard University professor, compiled a list of “critical capabilities” for citizens and co-workers from leaders in business, industry, and government (1994):
- Personal responsibility
- Capability to act in a principled, ethical fashion
- Skills in oral and written communication
- Interpersonal and team skills
- Skills in critical thinking and challenge-resolving
- Respect for people different from oneself
- Ability to change
- Ability and desire for life-long learning
In their book “Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice,” Merriam and Bierema (2014), claim that the notion of life-long learning should not only be life-long from cradle to grave, but “life-wide”—recognizing the interplay of informal, nonformal, and formal learning in different life domains—and “life-deep”—incorporating the religious, moral, ethical, and social dimensions which shape human expression—have led to richer and more pluralistic interpretations of the scope and possibilities of learning throughout the “life-course.”
Learning does not require a specific reason, since learning for the sake of learning, can in itself be a rewarding experience. There is a common view that continuous learning and having an active mind throughout life may delay or halt the progress of some forms of dementia, although there is actually little scientific evidence to support these claims. However, keeping the brain active does have advantages, since learning can prevent us from becoming bored, and enable a more fulfilling life at any age—like me writing a book on leadership at 81!
There are many reasons why people learn for personal development:
- Increase our knowledge or skills around a particular hobby or pastime
- Develop some entirely new skill that will enhance our lives—e.g., a pottery or car mechanic course
- Research a medical condition or our ancestry
- Plan a trip and learn more about the history and culture of our destination (in my case, a trip to Scotland, my grandparents’ homeland)
- Take a degree course later in life, simply because we enjoy our chosen subject and the challenges of academic study (I completed my doctorate at age 48)
Our beliefs about our ability to learn are where it all starts. They influence our motivation, our level of effort, our desire to persist, and our openness to feedback. If we believe that we can learn, it is significantly more likely that we will. If we believe that we can’t learn, it’s likely that we won’t. It’s true that the view, which we adopt for ourselves, profoundly affects the way we lead our lives. It can determine whether we become the person we want to become, and whether we accomplish the things that we value.
Research tells us today that the basic benefits of life-long learning:
- Improves our minds
- Bolsters our self-esteem
- Enhances opportunities for promotion
- Keeps us in touch with our changing world
- Ensures that we remain aware about things in life
- Creates a hunger for more knowledge
Optimal leaders, therefore, are optimal learners. We have a growth mindset. We believe that we are capable of learning and growing throughout our lives. To become a more focused and effective leader, we must engage in life-long learning. We never finish learning, never finish improving.
Life-long learning is a way of life. And it doesn’t matter what our learning style is. What matters is how frequently we engage in learning activities. We can reflect, read, watch others, get a coach or “Mench,” participate in learning activities, or just try out new skills or techniques. Whatever it is, we must engage in it every day
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Vice President Emeritus for Learning Technologies Donald Smith, Ed.D, CPT, headed ME&A programs in learning, leadership, and performance enhancement. He stayed with the firm in his retirement, bringing more than 65 years of experience as a coach, designer, facilitator, evaluator, manager, educator, and organizational change architect in more than 50 countries.