Learning for Life

It is a significant achievement and a reason for every Niagara resident to stand tall and proud.

Although I no longer work there, I am delighted that Niagara College has again won the distinction of being number one in overall student satisfaction among all colleges in Ontario. 

According to the results of this year’s survey, administered at 24 Ontario colleges by an independent research firm, 86.1 percent of Niagara College students said they are satisfied with the education they’re receiving. Additionally, it’s clear that employers are satisfied with their graduates.

Shortly after hearing this news, I happened to end up on a long and solitary drive, and had time to reflect on my own education and its role in general.

I realized that while my own college and university education has been an important foundation, most of the skills and knowledge I use to earn my living today are those I’ve learned outside of formal education. Among others these include information technology, relationship building, system-thinking, analyzing and synthesizing data, community leadership, marketing, personal productivity, team-building, and even teaching. 

This is not about tooting my own horn or taking shots at colleges and universities because if you stop to think about it, a lot of what everyone knows is picked up on their own. Rarely however, do we think about what it takes to become self taught.

This is perhaps a question we all need to be thinking about.

I do know that when I was teaching at Niagara College, a commitment to ongoing learning was something I, among others, tried to instill in students. Unfortunately my efforts were sometimes met with mixed reaction as most students seemed convinced that it was the degree or diploma that would be their ticket to success.

Too often it seemed there were students more comfortable with an education system that measured success and gave them a piece of paper for their ability to memorize and regurgitate specific information.

For me however, it also needed to be about promoting an excitement about learning, analysis, thinking, and innovative solutions. As a result, and to the surprise of some, I often implemented take-home and open book exams.

It left many students stumped and scratching their heads. Those who were used to being honour students and didn’t perform well on my assignments and tests, demanded to know exactly where the answer was covered in their textbook. 

On the flip side however, there were often results that showed clever and creative thinking. Ironically some of the best came from students who others had labeled by others as disruptive underachievers. 

So what is it we should be thinking about including in our curriculums, if it isn’t already there, if we are to encourage self-directed, life-long learning?

If we can graduate students who have a learning attitude in place, their lifelong learning will be a matter of knowing how to research (with Google as a search engine and www.wikipedia.com this has become so much easier), listening well in order to “know what we don’t know”, and staying in touch with experts through reading, networking, and technology.

Once new knowledge is acquired we need to teach how to put it into practice in order to better understand now, and remember more later. For me, writing this column and my blog is a way of applying what I learn each week. For others the practice strategies will be different.

We also need to ensure graduates who understand the importance and how-to’s of developing networks and professional relationships. One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life has been my network of colleagues. They are crucial to challenging my thinking, identifying trends and issues, extending my knowledge, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I need to learn more.

It is essential as well to convey the importance of scheduling time for learning. Having the books on the shelf, websites bookmarked, and a strong network won’t help if there isn’t a commitment to giving oneself the time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing knowledge.

As we transition from an industrial-based economy to one where know-how, expertise and intellectual property is more critical, lifelong learning will be essential. As the Wikipedia experts say, lifelong learning is the concept that “It’s never too soon or too late for learning”.

Posted on 04-20-08

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