7 Skills for Life-Long Learning and How to Address Them

A large number of district, schools and classrooms that include “create life-long learners” among their goals.  But what are the skills really necessary to learn throughout your life?  And are we really addressing those goals in the best possible ways?

The changes that I believe are necessary to better work on these skills (and therefore produce true life-long learners) are not about WHAT we teach.  It’s not about the subject area, content, standards or curriculum that we have to operate within.  It’s about HOW we teach and HOW we structure our classrooms.  It’s something that we, as teachers, can do in spite of the boxes that we are put within by “the system” – it’s reform that we can do in our own classrooms without waiting for “the system” to change!

I listed the skills that I think are necessary for life-long learning and then I noticed that they fell into two categories for how I addressed them in my classroom–one group is addressed through inquiry learning and the other through student-paced mastery learning.

Life-long learning skills addressed through inquiry:

“Inquiry” has become one of those words in education that people interpret many, many different ways.  So here’s how I interpret it, so that you know where I’m coming from when I talk about how it addresses life-long learning skills.  Inquiry comes from the word “inquire” – which is to question.  Inquiry learning might be hands-on learning but it doesn’t have to be (and certainly not all hands-on is inquiry!).  Students can question and seek answers to those questions through discussion, literature research, reading, experimenting, or a large variety of other ways.  But for me the essential component of inquiry is asking questions and seeking answers to those questions.

So in light of that definition of inquiry, here are the life-long learning skills that can be addressed through true inquiry in the classroom:

  • Curiosity.  True inquiry work will cultivate this natural skill in our students (or help reignite it if it’s been dormant from years of it not playing a role in their courses).  Inquiry is about questioning and seeking answers to those questions (which may be “hands-on” but doesn’t have to be!)
  • Seeking & analyzing information.  The ability to seek out information from appropriate sources and judge that information for reliability, validity, bias, etc., is crucial to a student’s ability to learn without a “teacher” throughout their life.  I think this is coming along in schools – we’re working towards this much more than before.
  • Transfer.  When seeking information to answer a question, solve a problem or simply satisfy a curiosity, the information you find won’t always fit your question/purpose/problem/curiosity perfectly.  You might find relevant information from a different setting/situation/culture/context that is applicable to what you’re working on but not exactly a perfect fit.  This applies to students undertaking inquiry in the classroom just like it does to someone learning throughout their life!  Traditional classrooms give students the exact information they need to solve the problem in front of them – requiring very little transfer.  Inquiry-based classrooms, however, ask students to transfer information from one setting to a new and different problem.

Life-long learning skills addressed through student-paced mastery learning:

I write a lot about student-paced mastery learning.  That’s because I truly believe in it.  I’ve studied the literature, I’ve seen the transformation in my own classroom and I’ve seen the difference it makes with my own children when they’re given the chance to learn in this way.  It’s powerful and I really don’t think anyone can understand all the extremely important skills it teaches children – in addition to the content that they are mastering along the way – unless they’ve tried it or seen it in action!

Here are life-long learning skills (or “self-regulation skills” as they’re often called in educational psychology) that are addressed through student-paced mastery learning in a way that is simply not possible in the traditional classroom (everyone moves along together at some rate which is determined by a mix of variables including calendars, curriculum maps, when a critical mass of students “gets” a concept, etc.):

  • Perseverance.  I wrote about how our country/education system’s attitude and treatment of failure does little to build a students’ perseverance (and probably does more to damage it) in my last post.  Allowing students to fail in safe, nurturing environments in which they are allowed to dust themselves off, get back up and try it again (with the knowledge that you believe they can succeed) will go a long way towards developing this skill in students.
  • Motivation.  I plan to write about this one in the near future…but if you haven’t, you definitely should check out Daniel Pink’s Drive for a great read on how we’re going about motivating kids in completely wrong ways!  Student-paced mastery learning provides the autonomy and mastery (two out of the three things that regulate motivation…the third is purpose and that can be provided by using problem-based, applied or thematic learning!  More posts on those topics coming soon, too!)
  • Initiative and independence.  In traditional classrooms, students are told what to do and when.  They’re told how to learn (do this worksheet, read these pages, etc.) and when to do it.  In life-long learning, they will be faced with a challenge, problem, curiosity and it’s very likely that no one will be there to say “Do this worksheet to learn about that.”  How will they know how to take initiative to learn throughout their life if they’re never required (or as I prefer to think – allowed) to do it throughout school? And “independence” doesn’t mean they can’t work as a part of a team or collaborate with others (that all still occurs in a student-paced mastery learning class…post on that coming soon!) but it means that they can work independently – they can direct their own learning.
  • Reflection and meta-cognition.  This one goes right along with my argument about initiative above.  Students are always told when it’s time to assess their understanding and then it’s assessed for them and reported back to them.  How will they ever know when they’ve truly learned something if they don’t continually reflect and use meta-cognitive skills throughout school?  In life they’ll need to be able to judge for themselves when they understand something and when they aren’t quite there yet and need to seek out additional information, resources or help.  But yet we never require/allow them to practice these skills in traditional classrooms – they’re told when they’re done learning, when it’s time to assess, and how they did on that assessment without thinking about any of those things for themselves.
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