“Lifelong Learner.” It has a nice ring to it, no? (I’ve always been a big fan of alliteration.) It is one of my favorite educational catch phrases, and one I admit to attaching to many of my own professional bios over the years. It implies an unending curiosity and ability to absorb information. The defining characteristic of lifelong learners is self motivation. This sets them apart from “good students” who achieve academic success primarily due to fear of a negative consequence like a failing grade. Lifelong learners have an innate desire to simply be better and know more. Their active acquisition of new knowledge does not end or even slow when school or work no longer require it.
How do we foster such a mindset? How do we move kids from passive content receptacles to active inquirers, seekers, investigators, explorers?
Connect curriculum to their personal lives and interests
In school, one way that educators attempt to pique students’ interest in academic content is by applying it to their own lives; using examples from the world around them in order to keep learning relevant. Apply those lessons in physics, laws of motion, or simple machines to skateboarding, and you will change students’ perception of the halfpipe forever. Show students a cool pop culture graphic written in java script or python, then show them how a line of code can create visual magic on their own screen, and see burgeoning curiosity regarding mathematics and code. Physics and math become tangible and way cool.
Create curriculum from their personal lives and interests
At home, it works a bit in reverse. Instead of using relatable, real life examples to make curriculum more accessible to students, you must create curriculum from their life experiences. The trick is to turn everyday experiences observations into teachable moments. Explain that there is a science and a history behind everything. Ask questions that lead to more questions and then further questioning on their end.
As adults who raise children we do not personally have the answers to everything (even if we think we do!). We are not authorities in every subject and can therefore not be the sole source of information. This is okay. Lifelong learning is largely about the quest for answers about the world around us. Learning to love learning. Sparking interest and fostering curiosity are the first steps to creating lifelong learners. The next step is providing the tools and teaching what we librarians call “information fluency.” Googling on your phone is a great start, but just that, a start.
School Library Media Center
Clearly the school library is the hub of the school building, like the acropolis in ancient Rome, it is the place that bright, inquisitive minds venture for intellectual stimulation and answers to questions. With school library media specialists as the wise gatekeepers, constantly acquiring, organizing, and dispensing such information. It is the perfect source for students’ self-guided learning. When the brick and mortar school building is closed however, (during summer breaks, or unplanned school closures) alas, there is still access to information to keep the current of curiosity flowing. Most school districts in the US such as mine offer a shed load of digital resources for students to use in order to satisfy their self-guided quest for facts about subjects and broaden their perspectives on interesting topics; eBooks, digital reference, online magazines and newspapers, databases, curated web links, and more. School in your home!
Wading past the resources that schools provide, kids can dive deeper into a more immense ocean of information; the public library. This is truly one of the most valuable (and in my opinion, wildly underappreciated) resources our tax dollars provide. A magical, and due to inter-library loan capabilities, infinite source of free (FREE!) information for kids in both print and cyberspace. Since quarantine and social distancing have closed public library buildings, many libraries have enabled the public to apply for library cards online, (as opposed to in person with tangible proofs of residence). That handy dandy library card number can grant your child access to a mighty source of digital information. It’s like a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
For some, a lack of technology restricts access to library resources from home. Never fear. Technology is not the only portal to information for inquisitive minds. You do not need to place a computer, tablet, phone, or other electronic device into your curious child’s hands. Lifelong learners can broaden their knowledge not only through formal research, but through good old experimentation and observation. This is authentic learning. No need for expensive kits. Rube Goldberg machines can be created with whatever you have lying around the house. Kids can learn about gravity and force watching dad’s golf ball roll down a homemade ramp to set off a falling tower of dominoes. Upcycled objects can be transformed into planters, organizers, and simple tools.
Another educational source exists beyond the back door and into the yard. The great outdoors, the natural world, is by far and large my personal favorite place for waking wonder and fostering inquiry. Let kids get dirty! Literally dig in the dirt. Uncover roots. Trap and release bugs. Catch rainwater and track evaporation. Collect and identify; sea shells, fallen leaves, stones, twigs, feathers. Notice how the objects differ with each passing season. When home, you can introduce kids to the many available identifier apps. Uploading images from a phone or tablet, kids can use these to search the web for similar images and identify and learn about their found treasures. There are even apps that enable you to record bird and other nature sounds for identification and classification. When night falls, don’t merely gaze at the night sky, but teach kids to identify constellations or merely observe changes from night to night. Eventually they will begin to wonder.
It all boils down to that word really: WONDER. Lifelong learners wonder about the world around them, and in turn the history that created it, and it’s future yet to be seen. Whether in school, a library, at home, or out in nature, through questioning, drawing connections, and providing tools we can steer young minds onto a path of seeking that leads to more seeking. These kids will in turn, grow to be adults with greater understanding, depth of perception, deep appreciation, and overall more fulfilling lives.