How I Learned to Learn: 5 Core Skills for Lifelong Learning
Published 30 August, 2018
I probably talk about my first through sixth grade education more than most people. The school I went to can be quickly described as non-traditional, but that does it a disservice. Over the years I've come to realize that Webster Elementary was home to a radical, meticulous, and passionate adventure in teaching.
Webster offered specialized programs with alternative curriculums for both the academically talented and students with cognitive impairments. There was a lot of wonderful work that went into making these groups of students into one community that I won't elaborate on here, but the key to both, I believe, was the willingness to teach children however they needed to learn.
In my classrooms that meant we skipped a lot of the early lessons that I've found people take for granted as a part of the elementary school experience. For example, I don't remember being specifically taught to tell time on an analog clock. We were, however, constantly told when each lesson would begin and end that day, which created many opportunities for us to figure it out ourselves if we were curious.
And I think that's what Webster was ultimately about: giving us as many tools as possible to learn anything we wanted to. Here I've taken a swing at labelling some of the cognitive tools in my learning toolbox.
How to organize thinking
I couldn't come up with a snappy name for this skill, but Webster fully embraced the idea that people can be auditory, visual, kinetic or a mix of learning styles. We learned webbing as a note-taking strategy (also known as mind mapping). Webbing requires a little more up-front engagement with the material you're trying to learn as you sort out the main topic and sub-topics, but a web becomes a very efficient structure to help learn a topic in detail. At GXG, we build topic maps with clients to help us visualize how closely related their learning gaps are, and where it makes sense to go next as we make connections on the subtopics.
Many of the lessons we were given at Webster allowed great freedom to problem solve, through trial and error, without having to focus on doing something the right way. The emphasis was more on doing quality work. Creativity is a great tool to have when I have to do something I've never done before. For example, I was recently tasked with creating GXG conference banners. Even without a perfect template I was able to pull together the key features of a good banner (clear, eye-catching, concise information) and work up something we're proud of! Which leads me to the next learning skill…
I think most adults can think of an example when they've struggled to pursue a new activity or skill after graduating out of the structure of formal education. One of the coolest features of my social studies classes at Webster was how they incentivized independent learning. Each unit (e.g. Ancient Greece, The Oregon Trail, Medieval History) was turned into a role-playing game with individual and team point systems. Everyone chose their own activity for the day from a file of worksheets with assignments with point values weighted by difficulty. You could choose to spend a week on a high point assignment or knock-out a bunch of low point assignments in one class period. Of course, you also had to balance the risks of some random in-game events and the relative work ethics of your teammates. It may sound silly, but these exercises gave me several strategies to break down a learning goal: some wide, shallow tasks today and maybe an in-depth project tomorrow.
Another critical part of the Webster education was a decreased emphasis on grading, at least in the traditional sense. I don't remember correctness being as important as effort, and I think much of our work went beyond "right or wrong" answers anyway. We were also evaluated on a long list of learning and social skills using an on-target, middle-target, or off-target scale. The key here was each student had to assess his or herself first. When the teacher evaluated you there was plenty of time for discussion – especially if your marks differed from theirs. This (sometimes nerve-wracking) process developed in me a critical eye for my own work which is especially helpful when I'm exploring a new industry or technology for GXG. Ultimately, there's no way to guarantee the hierarchies and relationships I map within an Artificial Intelligence ecosystem are 100% correct, but I make sure the choices I make are backed up by my own research and critical thinking.
Finally, my high school makes a special appearance. When my family moved from Michigan to Georgia after 6th grade my schooling became a bit more standard with a mix of regular and gifted (mostly meaning accelerated) classes. A notable exception was my world literature teacher who started every year with a week or two teaching logic and how to recognize logical fallacies in writing. We constantly used what we learned in those two weeks as we read and wrote about stories from different cultures. While I may not be as quick to recall all the vocabulary these days, I do still rely on my instincts for which sources to use and which to discard. Given the large amount of writing I review as I work through a new topic for a client, this is a time-saving (and credibility-building) skill to have.
To sum up, the cumulative environment built on many invitations to be challenged is how Webster taught me to learn pretty much anything I wanted to learn. I'm so grateful that these skills were carefully nurtured in me because they give me the tools to help our clients without having to be an expert on their industries or roles. I'm an expert learner.