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Learning By Doing

Think about your own experience as a student, or the experience of someone close to you. The bulk of our time in school was spent in passive activity. We were recipients of knowledge. We were expected to effectively absorb what was being presented so that we might regurgitate it later as “proof” that we learned something. Within this paradigm, the more one could absorb, the more educated they were considered. And this process of absorption was hugely influenced by the time spent acquiring it. College degrees or specialized certifications are held up as a testament of competence. “He must be smart, he spent 5 years (or more, depending on the degree) in college.” When we had learned enough, when we could proudly present our “testament of proof,” we could stop learning and go to work.

That may have worked once upon a time. But, not anymore.

Our 21st century learners don’t do so well in passive environments. They are wired to be active, to participate, and are driven and motivated by their curiosity. They are not satisfied by being told something. They need to experience what they are expected to learn. For them, learning stops when they are not physically and intellectually engaged within a process of discovery. And, for as long as they can remain engaged, learning continues. Learning by doing. What a beautiful idea.

Learning by doing is not a new idea. It was common during the middle ages when young men would acquire the necessary skills to become proficient in a craft or trade by serving as an apprentice along side a master in the field. Regrettably, this form of individualized instruction lost favor with the crushing need to streamline our educational model to more closely resemble the industrialization of economies. At a huge cost. The pendulum swing is gradually correcting itself, hopefully finding a balance that supports both efficiency and personalization, information overload and the opportunity to place one’s hands on an issue, answering questions while simultaneously developing them. Because we learn best by doing, the author of a recent article predicts a resurgence of the apprenticeship model in the 21st century.

That article, “Pay Attention to this Prediction for the Future of Work,” was written by Natalie Nixon and appeared in the October 13, 2019 edition of Inc. She makes two very profound statements, statements that bear sufficient weight to have bold type. First, “Learning by doing is driven by creativity.” And, “Creativity is a competency that gets better through experiential learning.” Another words, practice makes perfect and use it, or lose it.

Learning by doing is all about consistently exercising one’s creativity. It’s that simple. It’s that profound.

During its 2018 meeting in Devos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum published the "Future of Jobs" report. In it they list the top 10 personal skills that will be necessary by 2020 to navigate the fourth industrial revolution. They are:

1. Complex Problem Solving

2. Critical Thinking

3. Creativity

4. People Management

5. Coordinating with Others

6. Emotional Intelligence

7. Judgment and Decision Making

8. Service Orientation

9. Negotiation

10. Cognitive Flexibility

Yes, you read that correctly. By 2020.

Why is it that creativity is an under appreciated asset in our school systems? After all, it is a key driver of learning and ranks among the top three 21st century workforce skills. In many settings, the creativity of children is actually discouraged. Creative activity is frequently noisy, messy and unpredictable - observable characteristics that are counter to the preferred compliant behaviors that reflect “good classroom management.” And, not only do we overlook the creativity of children as a competency to be nurtured and developed, we often sabotage creative expression by being overly prescriptive. Coloring books come to mind. (Please re-read my September 16, 2019 post, Where’s the Creativity?, that includes the parable titled “The Little Boy.” It’s a perfect descriptor of what I mean.)

None of the skills presented by the World Economic Forum are ones that can be acquired by passive activity. No amount of rote memorization, even over an extended period of time, will contribute in any meaningful way toward the development of these essential traits. What this suggests ("demands" would be more accurate), assuming that the WEF is correct in its findings (and I find no reason to doubt their conclusions) is that we need to do things differently.

If it’s true that a definition of insanity is continuing to do things the same way while expecting a different result, then our educational system is in deep peril. “Out with the old and in with the new.” Or, in this case, “in with something so old that it’s now new.”

Let’s embrace the creativity of children and give learning by doing the place it deserves in our education system.

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