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A beginner’s guide to lifelong learning

LiveMint logoLiveMint 01-10-2017 Aruna Sankaranarayanan

For generations, formal learning was associated and often limited to the confines of academic institutions. Pictures of young graduates throwing their caps into the air was symbolic of their new-found freedom as they didn’t have to study for dreaded exams anymore. Even though we still commemorate graduating from college with fanfare, this milestone doesn’t necessarily foreshadow the end of one’s education nowadays. In fact, the pace at which the world of work is changing, only those who are willing to be lifelong learners are the ones who will be able to take on the unpredictable workplace of tomorrow.

Unlike the stable, steady jobs of yesteryears, the modern workplace demands that you “keep moving and learning no matter what stage you’re at”. So, it is imperative for people to continually “upskill” themselves. There is no room for complacency at any rung of the corporate ladder. As Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan writes in The New York Times (2 September), “The list of professions and sectors soon to be obsolete grows steadily by the day.” Even white-collar professionals like radiologists and accountants can be replaced by algorithms that read scanned images or suggest financial options. As we cannot necessarily predict which careers will be there tomorrow, Mullainathan says one should prepare for change itself. And for this reason, he says, we need to revamp our traditional model of education where people were schooled early on for later life. In today’s fast-paced world, where knowledge and skills become outdated swiftly and unpredictably, we have to be prepared to be students at various stages of our lives. Best-selling author Thomas Friedman echoes the same sentiment in The New York Times (10 May) when he writes, “If you want to be a lifelong employee anywhere today, you have to be a lifelong learner.”

In her 2017 book, Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles And Discover Your Hidden Potential, Prof. Barbara Oakley focuses on lifelong learning by profiling people who made significant changes to their lives at relatively later stages. She defines “mindshift” as a “deep change in life that occurs thanks to learning”, and describes unconventional trajectories taken by people all over the globe. For example, in her book, Oakley describes Graham Keir’s transition from being a musician to a doctor. Keir trained at two of the US’ most prestigious conservatories, the Eastman School Of Music and Juilliard School, but a chance encounter compelled him to make a radical career shift. He was invited to play his guitar at a pediatric cancer centre, and as the experience moved him considerably, he realized that playing music wasn’t deeply satisfying anymore, and decided instead to become a doctor. Keir could do this because he was willing to learn a skill completely alien to him.

Never stop studying

As technology gets more sophisticated and computing power grows to unimagined levels, more and more careers are only going to get disrupted. In a blog published by the Brookings Institution in September 2016, researcher Daniel Araya and work and learning expert Heather McGowan predict that by 2025, roughly a third of today’s jobs will be automated. Further, most elementary schoolchildren today will be working in jobs “that have yet to be invented”. So, how do we prepare students for jobs that we can’t quite envision ourselves?

The answer is that we need to prime students to be flexible learners who can reboot, re-orient and reinvent themselves at various points in time based on the changing circumstances. And for us to be able to learn at any age, we need to keep our brains active and agile. Oakley, who likens today’s jobs to “conveyor belts”, says do something different every day. It could be as simple as brushing your teeth with your left hand if you normally use your right, or sitting at a different seat at the dinner table, or taking new courses, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), learning a new craft, or even cultivating a new hobby. Also, she says, learn things that you find difficult by breaking them down into smaller, manageable chunks and practising till you master one chunk at a time. Instead of simply following your passion, Oakley advises that we should broaden our interests and nudge ourselves outside our comfort zones. With persistence and humility, we are likely to surprise ourselves by how much we can learn. Literally, there is no end to anyone’s potential.

Four habit- forming tips

Read

Books give you access to generations of information, stories and ideas. Set a monthly target (say, two books a month), and then break it down into a daily habit (20 minutes of uninterrupted reading time).

Practise

Put what you’re learning to practice. For instance, if you’re studying art appreciation, visit a museum or a gallery to test your understanding of the subject.

Study buddies

The best inspiration is to stay surrounded by others who want to learn, either on social media or in person. Together, you’ll challenge, encourage and support each other and grow.

Online class

Can’t make it to a traditional classroom? Take an online course and work at your own time and pace.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties in Bengaluru and Chennai.

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