I am a big fan of learning. Huge. If anyone wants a poster-child for lifelong learners, I volunteer — so long as you can get past the point that I am neither a child, nor old enough to really have “lifelong” mean a whole lot.
My “day job” sees me working in a post-secondary institution. As one might expect, this is at least partly because I am also a fan of higher education (it helps that I work with great people, in a great environment, too!). The fact that I completed two undergraduate degrees probably is also a good hint.
Learning and education are not, however, the same thing. And while I believe that everyone is suited to learning, I do not believe that everyone is suited for education. In fact, the more I discover about myself, the more I realize that I am a natural learner, but I am not naturally suited to education.
Educate vs. Learn
Before I explain what I mean by that, a quick sidebar is necessary for me to define what I mean by “learn” as opposed to “educate.” I will be using both of those terms in slightly different — and broader — ways than I think we’re used to.
Also, I am not an expert in learning research; all I know is what has been true in my experience. In other words, these definitions do not work in all contexts, but they work for what I’m trying to discuss here.
By educate, I mean the process by which one person imparts knowledge directly to another in a proscribed manner. This may be in a classroom, or it may be as an apprentice, or it may be on-the-job training. It may be presented by an instructor giving a lecture, by a program of readings from a textbook, or by systematically working through material which is deemed “important to know.”
By learn, I mean the process by which one’s own curiosity leads a person to seek out knowledge. The key defining difference between education and learning in this context is who determines the course of study, who sets the learning objectives and outcomes, and when those objectives and outcomes have been met. Learning is a completely independent action; as soon as you involve an outside influence in deciding what to learn, I would define that as education, not learning.
Not Just Inquiry-Based Learning
A lot of researchers identify what I’ve called “learning” here as inquiry-based learning. Ideally, they are the same thing; here’s how Queen’s University describes inquiry-based learning:
Inquiry is a form of Self-Directed Learning and follows the four basic stages defining self-directed learning. Students take more responsibility for:
- Determining what they need to learn
- Identifying resources and how best to learn from them
- Using resources and reporting their learning
- Assessing their progress in learning
Sounds great, right? And it is great — except that in order to fit inquiry-based learning into our educational framework, we still have to make adaptations to it. These changes move it back into the realm of education, and out of the realm of pure learning. These changes are, noteably:
- Instruction: if you read the quote above carefully, you’ll notice that it says, “students take more responsibility…” This implies that the student is not solely responsible for their learning, but that there are still frameworks in place which guarantee the student learns something to do with whatever the course was about. (Having courses or subjects in itself is a hallmark of education, since they artificially lay boundaries on what ought to be examined. These boundaries also cut out anything which may be related, but are not the subject itself. Courses and subjects also restrict the learner to focus on one major theme or idea for an extended period of time, which as we’ll see below, is an artificial construct too).
- Assessment: a key component of education is determining when the student has acquired the necessary knowledge, skills or understanding, by means of assessment. Queen’s University’s website goes on to say that at the end of an inquiry course, the student will be judged on whether or not they have learned sufficiently and correctly. Well, actually, the website says that they will be graded, but the end result is the same — an outside party makes a determination about whether the student has achieved his or her own goals.
It’s ultimately that last point that causes inquiry-based learning in our educational systems to be more about education than learning. For logistical reasons if no other, when you are educated, your start and end points are defined for you. Compare this with pure learning: when you learn, you define your starting point, and you go until you determine you are finished.
There Is Nothing Wrong with Education
“Now just hold on a second,” I hear some of you saying. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with educating people. We need to be able to ensure that people are learning what they need to know. Instruction and assessment are important — after all, you wouldn’t want a doctor who didn’t know anatomy!”
And you would be right.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with education, in and of itself. Remember, I work in a post-secondary institution. I have multiple undergraduate degrees. I know many people who thrive in formal educational settings more than in any other environment.Â I am a strong believer in, and supporter of, education, with one caveat:
I support education, if the education process does not get in the way of the student’s ability to learn.
For many of you, true learning in an educational environment happens naturally; you instinctively align your start and end points with that of their educational program’s requirements. You immerse yourself into your education, having (rightly) determined that you want to follow the course of study that has been plotted out for you.
For others, you are able to find learning in education because you have a particular outcome in mind — maybe your dream is to become an architect, or an electrician, or a physician. If what is important to you is the outcome of your learning, then the path you take to get to that outcome is secondary. All that you need to do is to find a course of study which speaks to what you want to learn and how you want to learn it, and ensure that the outcome is the same as what you want.
If you are able to find learning fulfillment through education, no matter the reason, then you have reason to be excited. That you are able to meet your needs for learning in an educational environment means you really are lucky. Our whole society is geared toward providing you the best resources you can have — the best instructors, the brightest researchers, the most in-depth textbooks, the strongest programs and courses, and the more student-friendly environments.
When you identify a course of study which fulfils your inborn desire to learn about X, Y or Z, no matter what it is (formal or informal, classroom or on-the-job, hands-on or cerebral) then run — do not walk — toward that opportunity.
When Education is the Shoe that Doesn’t Fit
But not everyone is able to engage in true learning while being educated. So what about the rest of the world — those for whom it is the journey of learning that is exciting, and not the destination?
Perhaps you read through the descriptions of learning, and something in you started jumping up and down, “Yes! That’s what learning should be like. Why was school never like that?”
Maybe you’re the type of person that often found yourself drawn sideways during school, and had to be forced back to learn what you were “supposed” to be learning.
Some of you may find that a course is extremely interesting to you, until you’re half-way through. Or (like me) you’ve completed multiple degrees, and have thought about starting a half-dozen more. Others of you have given up on education, because you can never seem to stick with it long enough to learn what you’re supposed to.
Education is Flawed (For Some)
The truth is that, while everyone has a capacity and natural ability to learn (you wouldn’t be able to walk and talk and play baseball if you couldn’t!), education isn’t the right approach for everyone.
Now, we tend to accept this for those students who have struggled throughout school — we say, “Oh, so-and-so just wasn’t cut out for school.” It’s implied that the flaw is with the student, for their inability to fit into the system that has worked for so many others.
More difficult to see are those who have never struggled in school. Just because someone has thrived throughout their schooling does not mean that education is the best thing for him or her, as a learner. In fact, I would argue that many, if not all, of the best and brightest learners (and the most stellar students) are actually ill-suited to education.
These are the learners who are able to pick things up very quickly and easily, and so they are able to “coast” through the proscriptions of education.Â The danger lies in the fact that the process of “education” can actually hinder their naturally inclination for self-directed learning.
Take me, for example. As I stated before, I am a natural learner, but I am not naturally suited to education. In fact, education has a detrimental impact on me.
Because when I am put into an educational system, I feel stifled. I feel constrained by start and end-points to learning that don’t match up to what I want to learn. Part of this is because for me, learning is like a drug — I get addicted and need to constantly feed my addiction. It’s not enough for me to just have a hit of it now and then; I need to constantly be exploring new things and ideas.
Not only that, but I am a generalist. Once I have the basics of something down pat, I’m ready to move on to something new. The thing is, education isn’t designed to allow you to move on to something new whenever you feel like it. It is designed to give you more and deeper knowledge of a subject or series of related subjects. It’s embedded in our idea of the learning process: you go from student to apprentice to practicioner to master. From novice to intermediate, to advanced. From entry-level, to supervisor, to boss. Education is designed to have a pre-determined start, a pre-determined culmination, and (most often) a pre-determined path from one to the other.
The Problem Isn’t You
There are two critical things for you to understand if you identify with any of that. They are:
- Just because education doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you.
- You do not have to be educated in order to learn.
You may need to read that a couple of times; it’s okay, I’ll wait. I know it didn’t sink in for me the first time, either (to be honest, I’m not sure it’s sunk in 100% of the way, 100% of the time yet).
Think of all the people that you know who currently work in fields that have nothing to do with their formal education; if you can’t think of any, go ask. You’ll find them — I’m a perfect example. Think of all the things you have learned in your life that you didn’t learn in a classroom, or from a textbook. Think of a time when you were at your most curious — when you wanted to find something out, and so you did.
Now it is true; our society doesn’t seem to operate this way. We’re not socialized to think that uneducated people can be just as knowledgeable (sometimes moreso) as educated ones. As a result, most of us have been taught (!) that getting a college degree, or a certification, or even your high school diploma is significant, because it shows what you’ve “learned”.
But between you and me, those pieces of paper don’t tell the whole story. They fail to mention that even without those papers, you would still be a fantastic learner, a curious soul and a fascinating mind.
Education is not a pre-requisite for learning. And there’s nothing wrong with you if you are able to learn without it.