The Future of Higher Education: Teaching Students How to Learn

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The same old rules no longer apply. Institutions of higher learning must adapt a fresh strategy in order to remain relevant into the 21st century. ‘Teaching to the test’ is tantamount to teaching to the previous century, along with its accompanying rote and worn out processes, is dead on arrival, ensuring the demise of both basic and higher education. A dramatic shift is needed: from “Teaching Certainty” to a more generous and empathetic approach, the key tenants being creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and communications skills.

“Learning how to learn is a prerequisite for professional environments where people are expected to identify necessary changes and react with creativity and agility to innovate in each new market landscape.” ~ Seth Godin

We live in a world in crisis, a knowledge-driven society, wherein time is fluid, nothing is permanent, technology drives changes weekly and instability is the only constant. Our imperfect world is advancing headlong towards uncertain future scenarios and it is imperative that we direct our efforts towards sustainability, an innovative way of creating things in order to save our environment. This herculean task must be accomplished in concert with achieving justice, social equality and economic stability.

The College Board, in its consideration of the ‘practical benefits’ of higher education in the 21st century states the following as the critical issues that need to be addressed:

  • Economic

  • Health

  • Civic Involvement

  • Personal Development

  • Effective Communications skills (verbal and written)

  • Realization of Passions

  • Greater Sense of Discipline

  • Sense of Engagement

To these, I would include an empathetic approach to learning, as this is imperative to the higher purpose to which we serve. In other words, the benefits of higher education in the 21st century are not just career-oriented; rather, it is providing the opportunity and ability to fully develop oneself. It is the duty of higher education to help students pursue their higher purpose.

Higher education should not only train a student in their chosen field of study, it should also encourage and instill an analytical approach to disseminating and processing complex information. In order for higher education to truly serve their students, they must merge the analytical aspect with a keen ability to communicate their ideas and solutions in order to make a real difference—make a ruckus, if you will. These methods reinforce critical skills such as self-discipline, organization, and the ability to complete a task from start to finish. This is the only path to nurture a more professional person, with a consequential work-related skill set.

This is compelling for two reasons. The first stated above and the second, if higher education fails to change course, the need for it becomes dull and elusive. The commitment of time and money expects a meaningful return on that investment. Even when the student changes her major rather late in the process, she has still gained invaluable knowledge—and ideally—an ongoing curiosity that fuels her purpose.

The future of higher learning institutions is dependent upon their willingness to adapt to the reality of how to manage—and change—the vast challenges that most certainly lay ahead. In the beginning, (post-WWII), education and the ideals it exemplified aspired to create and develop the “perfect” citizenry. The natural next step was meant to ensure that the citizenry was well trained. More recently, the shift was around the awakening of the ‘critical spirit’.

Today and into the 21st century, the new ideal centers on encouraging creativity: fostering the capacity to learn which in turn, instills a lifelong willingness to face new challenges and modify learned expectations accordingly. This new reality means there can be no learning without the capacity to re-learn; without the ability to revise when faced with the inevitability of the weakness with what we thought we knew.

“In our Knowledge Economy, education provides the impetus to engage in creativity in an environment of particular uncertainty; the capacity to effectively manage the cognitive dissonance that gives rise to our failure to comprehend reality.” ~ Inerarity

The loss of certainty in teaching methods is not a truth to mourn, rather, an opportunity to embrace the promise of higher education with its mission to provide today’s evergreen students more than one skill set to secure their first job after graduation. In teaching them how to learn, we empower them to succeed for the rest of their lives. (Godin, 2016)

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