25 Practices That Foster Lifelong Learning
“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into learners and nonlearners.” –Benjamin Barber, sociologist
Is your capacity for learning is fixed or fluid? Can you improve your intelligence and talents through hard work and practice, or are you stuck with the brains you’ve got? Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says most of us have either a “fixed” or “growth” mindset when it comes to learning. Most of us can get through sixteen years of schooling regardless of which mindset we have, but when it comes to lifelong learning–learning for the sake of learning, without outside pressure–only a growth mindset will cut it.
Lifelong learning is now recognized by educators, governing bodies, accreditation organizations, certification boards, employers, third-party payers, and the general public as one of the most important competencies a person can possess. But even if we all agree on its value, and harbor the best intentions of possessing it ourselves, it can easily escape our grasp if we approach it the wrong way.
First off–and this is what Dweck was getting at–we must believe that, at any point in time, we always have the potential to change and grow through application and experience.
“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
In fact, we are all born with a growth mindset, Dweck says. It’s just that some of us don’t hold onto it:
“Everyone is born with an intense drive [I prefer need] to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They never decide it’s too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward.
“What could put an end to this exuberant learning? The fixed mindset. As soon as children become able to evaluate themselves, some of them become afraid of challenges. They become afraid of not being smart. I have studied thousands of people from preschoolers on, and it’s breathtaking how many reject an opportunity to learn.”
Lifelong learning requires embracing opportunities to learn. Do lifelong learners believe that, with enough motivation and hard work, they can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is “unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training.”
So how do you cultivate a growth mindset if it doesn’t come naturally? And how do you hold onto it if you’ve got it already? Below are 25 recommendations to guide you in the right direction.
1. Begin with the end in mind.
When you approach a new concept or subject, don’t think of it as an isolated learning experience. Think of it as a new territory you’ve begun to conquer. More than likely, you will find in the future that you’ll have many uses for it that weren’t obvious to you during your initial studies, so think of each learning experience as an investment rather than a one-time transaction.
2. Accept responsibility for your own learning.
We’ve all had bad teachers and various obstacles that prevented us from sailing smoothly through formal education, but ultimately, we are responsible for our own learning outcomes. This becomes clearer than ever when formal schooling ends and adult life begins. The knowledge you cultivate is directly related to the effort you put into gaining it.
3. View challenges as opportunities for growth.
Challenges excite lifelong learners. Why? Because lifelong learners see challenges as learning opportunities and, ultimately, a chance to enhance their own competence and intelligence. Relishing challenges is one of the most distinctive differences between people with growth versus fixed mindsets.
4. Have confidence in yourself as a competent, effective learner.
You may have had trouble performing well in school, or maybe you feel that you have a poor memory and can’t soak up all the facts that other people can. The first step towards correcting this is to combat it first-hand. Improve your memory with puzzles and reward yourself when you do perform well now. Have the confidence to say you can become a competent, effective learner–through a growth mindset–if you aren’t already.
5. Create your own learning toolbox.
What personal learning strategies do you use? Do you listen to podcasts, jot down notes, draw concept maps, or rehearse what you’ve learned aloud? What’s your routine like? Do you enjoy reading the news in the morning while you drink your coffee? Skim the Twitter headlines during your lunch break? Study French after dinner? Identify the tools you use to promote your own learning, and create new ones to add to your collection. Being aware of how you learn is an important part of being an effective lifelong learner.
6. Use technology to your advantage.
Mobile learning has never been more possible. Take advantage of it! You are what you do, so make a habit of using technology to boost your skills and knowledge on a daily basis.
7. Teach/mentor others.
If you can’t explain what you’ve learned to someone else in a way they can understand, then you probably don’t really understand it yourself. Sharing knowledge with others is an excellent way to reveal your own strengths and weaknesses and really lock learning into place.
You’ve heard of the “importance of play,” maybe a little too frequently lately, and it’s essential not only to immediate, short term learning but also to lifelong learning. Keep it fun and it will remain interesting as well.
9. Look at the science.
One thing that might be keeping you back from learning new things is the belief that you can’t learn new things. But neuroscience and psychology have shown this to be false. Our brains remain plastic and malleable well into old age, and it’s possible to create new connections among neurons and learn new things even if you’re 80 years old.
10. Try new things on a frequent basis.
Trying new things not only keeps our brains sharp but also feeds the growth mindset. When you broaden your perspective, you start to realize there’s far more left to learn about the world than you ever imagined.
11. Learn from those who have a strong growth mindset.
Surround yourself with people who are constantly learning, reading, sharing, discovering. It will inspire you to do the same for yourself.
12. Design personal learning goals.
It always helps to have a plan. Sure, one of the best things about learning is that you’re free to explore any topic, any time you want. But mastery feels good. That’s why some of us decide to learn Italian in six weeks or memorize all the decimals in Pi. Identifying and visualizing goals helps us become driven, effective learners.
13. Talk about what you’ve learned.
This one becomes increasingly important as you meet people throughout adulthood. We all want to sound educated and informed to others, and lifelong learning ensures that we will. Be sure to use what you learn in conversation.
14. Always have an answer to the question, “What are you reading?”
It can be a series of articles, a short story collection, a novel, a memoir, a textbook. Anything, as long as you’re invested and willing to learn.
15. Keep a “to-learn” list.
It can consist of entire languages or quirky facts, as long as it’s yours. There’s something permanent-feeling about writing something down–try it, you’ll see the difference.
16. Ask questions when you’re confused.
Many of us think asking questions is a sign of ignorance, but I say it’s a sign of maturity. If you are confident enough in your own intelligence to speak up when you need clarification, you’ll have no trouble becoming a lifelong learner–and you’ll know more than you did if you’d been too shy.
17. Practice thinking for yourself.
Albert Einstein once said, “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating, or contemplating over ideas you have learned.
18. Put it into practice.
Skill-based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush. If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice and create something.
19. Filter your information stream.
There’s a lot of information out there, much of it unreliable or presented in a way that seems new but actually repeats what you already knew. Lifelong learners know when to pay attention and when to say, “Next, please.”
20. Learn in groups.
Some of us don’t like doing this–it reminds us of group projects in school. The truth is, learning with others is often more rewarding than learning on your own. For one thing, you get to see how other people interpret the same information in different ways, which is priceless information in and of itself.
21. Unlearn assumptions.
We all have long-held assumptions about the way the world works (or doesn’t work). To be lifelong learners, we need to be open to every and all possibilities. The world changes rapidly each decade, year, month, day–can you keep up?
22. Choose a career that encourages learning.
Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does. Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.
23. Have projects and hobbies.
It seems like a simple idea, but the truth is, projects and hobbies can easily slip away from us when we’re not looking. And we tend to fall into patterns of low variety. Sure, you can learn plenty watching Breaking Bad every at night after work, but what if you also pick up knitting or read a Shakespeare play every other morning? It will only feel like work until you’ve slipped into a routine (which usually doesn’t take long).
24. Learn something new every day.
A short Education Life piece about a young “Renaissance man” describes how he has learned something new every day since his junior year in high school: For two and a half years, Jeremy Gleick, a sophomore majoring in bioengineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, has devoted an hour a day to learning something new. His rule: It can’t be related to schoolwork, or merely reading a novel. Even if he’s sleeping at a friend’s house, he squeezes in his hour. “At some point in the evening, I just excuse myself and go do it.” He recently passed his 1,000th hour of self-study, most of it done online.
25. Improve your memory.
If you can’t remember what you’ve learned, learning can be frustrating. There are plenty of techniques available to help improve your working memory capacity so that you can recall more of what you’ve learned. Try the card game “Set” for starters.
Promoting lifelong learning as continuous, collaborative, self-directed, active, broad in domain, everlasting, positive and fulfilling, and applicable to one’s profession as well as all aspects of one’s life has emerged as a major global educational challenge. Meeting this challenge will require changes in the way teachers teach and learners learn, as teachers take on a more facilitative role and learners take more responsibility for setting goals, identifying resources for learning, and reflecting on and evaluating their learning. Start with these 25 recommendations and you’ll be off on the right foot.