Learning At The Edges

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Publication date:

January 07, 2022

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There is a lot of talk about lifelong learning, and with good reason. The reality is that the shelf life of a lot of the knowledge we acquired in school is shrinking fast because of the rapid advancements that are made in many fields. Furthermore, where most of our education focused on the core of traditional disciplines, innovation and progress increasingly occur at the edges where these disciplines begin to merge or overlap with one another. In the process, new cross-disciplinary fields emerge that did not even exist when we left school. At the same time, the changes and disruptions such advancements naturally entail are putting more and more jobs at risk. In the context of all this, lifelong learning becomes the only guarantee to remain relevant, competent, and employable.

When the subject of lifelong learning comes up in educational institutions, the discussion quickly turns to students and alumni. That lifelong learning is a necessity for us all is not always appreciated or recognized. I have yet to meet an educator who sees him/herself when talking about lifelong learning. It is typically a topic that touches others, not them. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one can isolate him/herself from the changes that are occurring and increasingly define what the future will be like. In that future, we will all be learning at the same time, in parallel, and from one another. This requires a horizontal model of co-learning, quite the opposite of the vertical teacher-student model in place in education today. In lifelong learning, we will all be teachers and students at the same time. In here lies an enormous challenge for education.

The other topic that does not get much attention is the adjective “lifelong”. In the future, we will all have to learn continuously and over our entire lifecycle. That naturally implies more learning well beyond normal school ages. Learning at more advanced ages has its own set of challenges, and many are often not discussed or even recognized when the topic of lifelong learning is approached. Taking myself as an example, let me point out some of the challenges I face when my curiosity gets the better side of me. They illustrate some of what lifelong learning is up against for people my age.

Before I dig in, let me point out that I have plenty of runway on the path of learning. I have an insatiable curiosity, a training in the rigorous process of scientific discovery, and a stubborn persistance to pursue problems that challenge my intellect. Not everyone is as far along as I am. In fact, most people are not and those are precisely the ones for whom lifelong learning is going to be crucial but also an enormous challenge.

Despite my significant head start, I myself face challenges when I want to learn something new. Some have to do with me; others arise from what I want to learn something about. Lifelong learning is like climbing a mountain. Whether or not one makes it to the summit depends on how challenging the mountain is, and how competent and fit the climber is. Let me describe the challenges I face in the context of what peeks my curiosity these days.

I am adamant about becoming knowledgeable about distributed ledger technologies (DLTs), also referred to as blockchain (i.e., the technology behind cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and NFTs). DLTs are rapidly becoming a core component of – and some might even argue a necessity for – our future with ambient intelligence. As I am retired, I don’t really need to give in to this curiosity, but if I were half the age I am, I’d have no choice but to get on top of it if I wanted to be part of the future and stand a chance to thrive in it.

With the DLT mountain to climb, I find an immediate challenge in my age. As I am sadly being reminded on almost a daily basis, learning something new does not get any easier as one gets older. We might be better at strategizing the learning process, but it does take more effort and time to get the wheels cranking and get to the results we are  seeking. My dad learned the English language well into his 60s so he could talk to his grandchildren who were scattered all around the globe. He took classes with kids who were his grandchildren’s age and a teacher who was his kids age. He eventually got there but much later than his classmates. Let us be clear: as we get older, our learning processes operate at much slower clock-speeds.

The other challenge I face is how I learn. At least, I know how I learn best. I cannot remember anything unless it makes sense to me. For example, and despite many efforts, I could never remember the names of any of my students when I was teaching. Fortunately, I recognized them because of a great visual memory, but remembering their names was a whole different matter.

Learning for me is a process of building knowledge that makes sense; i.e., creating a structure based on logic. I doodle, draw, and map out pieces as I try to make sense of what I read, see or am told. I always need to think things through and reflect on them. For this reason, I never learned much sitting in class. I  just made notes like mad, and then had to reconstruct things on my own for sense to emerge. On one hand, this method of learning poses a challenge in that it is slow; on the other, however, it leads to a deeper understanding and one that sticks because I can always reconstruct the logic that holds it all together.

When it comes to lifelong learning, we need to recognize – and adapt to – the fact that we are all idiosyncratic learners, and that age slows us down when we are at it. As I will illustrate, the challenges these pose get magnified when we look at the mountains we need to climb in lifelong learning. More often than not, these mountains will be new disciplines that emerge and take shape as new knowledge is accumulated. Lifelong learning will involve a lot of learning that is different from and beyond what we experienced when we were in school.

First, and DLT is an perfect example of this, many new fields are quite complex and often do not anchor at the core of any of the traditional disciplines. Hence, we immediately face the challenge of new knowledge being served in a way that is different from what we got at school. With many innovations increasingly occurring at the boundaries of traditional disciplines, this is a challenge our formal schooling did not prepare us for.

A second challenge that comes with complexity is that we quickly find ourselves in a core discipline we know nothing about. For example, DLT straddles three core disciplines: cryptography, scientific computing, and economics (especially game theory). The latter two I can easily put my teeth in, but the field of cryptography is entirely unknown to me. I did learn about the Enigma machine, but that was in history class when we got to WWII. Hence, I face the challenge of having to learn an entirely new discipline before I can even start with DLT; i.e., I am missing some of the fundamental knowledge needed to climb the DLT mountain. Accordingly, I have to learn – at my age – both upstream and downstream simultaneously.

Further compounding these challenges is the fact that DLTs are evolving rapidly. This is by no means a static field, and I find myself chasing a moving target. Almost daily, there are new insights or developments in the DLT field. It is not exactly a field with well-established knowledge, which is what all the traditional disciplines are and what we were exposed to in school.

Finally, I face the challenge of having to learn a whole new language. And I am not just referring to the new vocabulary any new field is fond of creating (often erroneously borrowing terminology from other fields). I am talking about that basic language needed to make sense of a field as it progresses. Einstein used to lament that he needed a new kind of mathematics to progress faster in his work. His advancements laid bare the inadequacies of the math language at hand at the time. Many novel fields run into this. Accordingly, as Einstein did, we likely face the challenge of having to learn new and emerging fields with tools that are somewhat inadequate.

In sum, lifelong learning poses challenges for all of us. Many of them we neither faced when we went to school nor got prepared for when we did. What these challenges make clear is that lifelong learning is different from the learning we are familiar with and associate with going to school. Lifelong learning is very much learning at the edges of our prior learning experience; i.e., the edge of age, disciplines, and toolkits, to name a few. This will require lifelong learning to adopt
a broad bandwidth, and to recognize – and understand – idiosyncratic learning processes at various ages, especially those well beyond the age of formal schooling.

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