Skills and Dispositions for Lifelong Learning

One of the main reasons I became a teacher was to help students become lifelong learners.  It’s been one of my main goals for students and has significantly shaped the expectations, lessons, and culture in my classroom.  It’s allowed me to take a step back from those hard days where a lesson falls apart and put those days in perspective relative to a larger ambition for my students.

I realized long ago that to help my students become lifelong learners, I had to become one myself.  I had to be able to continually empathize with them and know what it felt like to be in a constant state of intellectual grasping.  So for the past many years, I’ve continued to learn all sorts of awesome mathematics and programming ideas outside the context of a formal education.

In the beginning, my self-taught journey was pretty rough.  I would pick up a topic, only to put it down again because of distraction, lack of interest, or a decision that it wasn’t worth my time.  I kept trying t0 push through resources that were too easy or too difficult.  Lifelong learning began as more of a frustration than this rich, amazing thing that it’s supposed to be.

In the past year, I’ve gotten a lot better at being a self-taught learner.  I’m focusing on a few, concrete goals and have been pursuing them consistently (visualizing math, programming in javascript, creating graphs in desmos, sequences in OEIS).  I’ve been able to import some of the content I’ve learned into my classroom, but I’ve also been learning cool new things for their own sake.  In other words, I’ve finally learned how to consistently maintain a set of hobbies outside of TV 🙂

Here’s the lesson I’ve learned: being a lifelong learner is not just about wanting to learn for the rest of your life.  It requires certain skills and dispositions which I believe can be taught in the classroom.  For my own teaching practice, it means I need to go beyond simply instilling in students a “love of learning”.

Here are the skills and dispositions that I’ve come up with so far that are an important part of being a lifelong learner:

Having a growth mindset: It is incredibly easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged by the learning process once the scaffolds and guided instruction provided in school are gone.  A growth mindset will help you keep going and give you a healthy perspective on your journey as a lifelong learner.

Demanding revision: This is related to a growth mindset.  It’s impossible to get good at something immediately.  But at the same time, it’s impossible to get better if you’re never revising the way you think.

Finding the right resources for the right time: There are an overwhelming amount of resources to learn virtually anything – books, podcasts, documentaries  forums, online classes…there’s so much. Not all of these resources are high quality. More importantly, some resources are better suited than others depending on your specific needs as a learner at that time. The same book might be extremely useful at one point in your learning and pretty much useless the next. The better you curate, the better your learning. Likewise the more you learn, the better you’ll curate.

Trusting the resources once chosen: Far too many times I’ve fallen into the trap that I can’t learn because there must be a better resource out there than the one I have. No resource is perfect, and at the end of the day you have to trust the decisions you’ve made about the resources you’re using.

Having a goal or project in mind: I’m not sure it’s absolutely necessary, but having a concrete project has helped give my learning more purpose. For example, I’ve been learning javascript to integrate certain features in my class website.  Without this goal, I might have stopped learning JS like I did many years ago when I simply wanted to code for its own sake.

Connecting with others: This has been my newest achievement when it comes to being a lifelong learner.  Learning is a social activity, and I’ve recently started to use Twitter, forums, and blogs to share ideas about math and ed with people around the world.

Finding ways to receive feedback: In becoming a lifelong learner, finding feedback is essential. This goes way beyond responding to feedback (which is essential too) and relates to the idea that learning is social and contingent upon the ideas of others.

Are there other skills and dispositions about lifelong learning that I’ve missed?  What implications do these ideas have for the classroom?

I would love to hear your feedback!