Learning to learn

At the suggestion of a friend, I am currently reading Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I am almost finished with it, and I hate to come to the end as I’ve been enjoying it very much. Sagan’s writing is both entertaining and accessible, and his message — centered around the argument that everyone should develop scientific literacy, and that despite the commonly-held belief to the contary, everyone can do so, given the right tools — is compelling.

Throughout the book Sagan makes note-worthy comments on various themes. In one section, after discussing ancient educational institutions wherein tool-making skills were passed from master to apprentice for generations over hundreds of years, Sagan makes the following observation:

When the training is unchanged for immense periods of time, traditions are passed on intact to the next generation. But when what needs to be learned changes quickly, especially in the course of a single generation, it becomes much harder to know what to teach and how to teach it. Then, students complain about relevance; respect for their elders diminishes. Teachers despair at how educational standards have deteriorated, and how lackadaisical students have become. In a world in transition, students and teachers both need to teach themselves one essential skill — learning how to learn.

This point — that the goal in a fast-paced, ever-changing society is to learn how to learn, rather than to memorize soon-to-be-obsolete information — is a truth I hold to be extremely important, as I reiterated again and again (possibly ad nauseam) when I taught at KSU. Given the rate of change in our society, there is no time for standing still; we should all be alert to the changes happening around us, and we should strive not only to keep up, but to contribute, helping to shape the changes in our areas of interest and expertise to whatever extent we can.

The sociologist Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” I believe he was absolutely right. Adaptability is an invaluable quality now, and will likely become ever more important as time goes on. Students and teachers alike need to bear this in mind as we work together in the classroom.

Education is a shared responsibility: it is the teacher’s job to facilitate learning, sparking students’ curiosity and providing them with the tools they will need to widen their base of knowledge and deepen their understanding; meanwhile it is up to the students to make the most of what lies before (and within) them as they move from curiosity to comprehension. (And of course there will be times when teachers play the roll of students, and vice versa.) While all of this is going on, we all should strive to remember not only what we are learning but how we are learning it, the better to replicate it later when we’re faced with new, potentially bigger, challenges.

Change is going to happen regardless of whether we actively participate; the choice is ours whether we fall behind or keep up… or, with a little creativity and a lot of gumption, help shape it.

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About Christine Ghattas

Christine Ghattas (Christine Bonnie Ghattas) is a teacher and artist from the United States. View all posts by Christine Ghattas

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