Smith, senior vice president of academic strategies and development for Kaplan Higher Eduction, has been involved in education at many levels. He is the author of several books, including "Harnessing America's Wasted Talent," published by Jossey-Bass in 2010. While the book speaks primarily to leaders in higher education, warning them of impending disaster in our current education model, chapter three, The Paradox of Personal Learning, includes nuggets valuable to all of us.
You've likely heard students lament, especially older students, that there is no way in our current system to credit them with life lessons, some hard earned. Part of what they're up against, Smith writes, is the mythology of the American Dream: "if you are resourceful, work hard, and learn on your feet, opportunity will come knocking."
College, he says, accounts for only part of that equation. We learn in myriad ways whenever we:
- Read parenting books and discuss them with a friend or in a group
- Take certification courses at work
- Watch the demonstration of a new technique at work or listen to a lecture about an industry development
- Engage in a new diet or health plan
- Read travel books for an upcoming vacation
- Take continuing education classes
- Buy new technology and learn how to use the software
- Learn a new skill, like playing an instrument or a sport
Each of those examples is likely to involve three important characteristics, according to Smith. The learning is always:
- Personal. It is interpreted by our unique experiences. What I take away from a learning experience will be different than what you take away, based on our past experiences of the world. "We learn as we are," Smith writes, "influenced by our fears and our faiths and our singular experiences."
- Purposeful. It happens because we are ready for it to happen. Something has happened to pique our interest in the subject. "We may forget why we first started," Smith writes. "We may shift what we value most; but if we are, in fact, learning, it is because each of us, as an individual, wants and needs to learn."
- Powerful. It changes us. "Learning, unlike nearly anything else, bears down on us in ways that change us," Smith writes. "It revises how we think, how we feel, how we behave. It yields new skills with which we can surprise or delight others and ourselves. It enables us to rise above our places in society by showing others our unique, hidden credentials."
The ProblemThese characteristics are all very wonderful. We have all experienced the joy of learning that is personal, purposeful, and powerful. The problem, Smith writes, is that our system of higher education in the U.S. ignores experience and personal learning. It focuses on credits, certificates, and degrees. Sometimes, if you're lucky, he says, you can transfer credits from one institution to another, but getting credit for learning outside the system "is a far more difficult, far chancier affair."
The Personal SolutionSmith's book is about changing the system, about waking up to the terrible waste of talent our current system ignores. As a student or a teacher, what can you do? You can start with simple awareness of the characteristics that make learning effective: it's personal, purposeful, and powerful.
"Personal learning is the way we breathe in new ideas, new behaviors, and new knowledge, and exhale the old," Smith writes.
Awareness of the fact that people are learning all the time, gaining new capacities and developing talents, they're changing, is a good place to start. If you're a teacher, how can you tap into those new talents? How can you recognize and credit them? If you're a student, regardless of whether or not your new talents are recognized, how can you use them? Don't wait for others to give you credit for what you know and can do. Share your talents.
"Personal learning is our natural way of developing our talent," Smith writes. "If that talent goes untapped, however, if that renewable resource is ignored, America's talent pool is diminished, with enormous costs and consequences for our society."
ResourcesPersonal learning is the topic of just one chapter in Smith's book, "Harnessing America's Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning." To buy the book:
To learn more about Smith, visit his blog.