When I was a kid, not a week went by that I didn’t make a trip to the big library about a 25-minute drive from where I lived in rural western New Jersey. It was a love/hate thing for my mom; she loved that I loved the books and the learning that went with them, but it wasn’t always the easiest of rides after a long day at the desk of her 9-to-5 job. Still, she rarely said no.
I sometimes think of her now that I live and learn at a time when the library comes to me. I’ve got about 100 books on my iPad, and through sites like Google Scholar and Google Books and the rest of what resides online, I have access to close to the sum of human knowledge through my phone. It’s probably the most powerful example of how, when it comes to knowledge and information, we’ve moved from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance in less than two decades. And it’s not just content; our online lives are also overflowing with potential teachers as well, people who share our interests and can offer their expertise from the other side of the globe if necessary.
What changes in a world of abundant learning? It’s a question that many educators who find themselves in systems built for scarcity are beginning to ask. When information and knowledge are everywhere, do we really need to carry as much around in our heads? Are our students best served by focusing our efforts and assessments on content and skills, or in a world of abundance, would we be better off helping them develop the learning dispositions they need to take advantage of this massive shift?
Today, if students don’t have the disposition to continue to learn, to unlearn old skills and knowledge, to relearn them as needed, and to be self-directive enough to be able to drive that learning on their own, they will not be able to compete with those who can. In Tony Wagner’s recent book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Judy Gilbert, director of talent at Google, says, “Of course we look for smarts, but intellectual curiosity is more important … and we also expect everyone to be a leader.” In an April 14 Wall Street Journal article about the book, Wagner says, “My most important research finding is that young innovators are intrinsically motivated. The culture of learning in programs that excel at educating for innovation emphasize what I call the three Ps—play, passion and purpose.”
Dispositions for Learning
At this moment, when they have ever-expanding access to opportunities to learn on their own, our students’ own motivation or passion to learn is more crucial than ever. Along with that, their willingness to connect with others, their ability to be patient, gritty problem solvers, their desire to create and share, and their comfort with the transparency that this new, online world brings with it are all critical to their success and to our own success, as well. All are dispositions for an age of abundance.
Yet most of our curricula and assessments, created for an age of scarcity, don’t develop or evaluate these types of dispositions. In fact, we know very little about our students as learners because our efforts are primarily concerned with helping them become learned. How many of us have a place on the student report card for an evaluation of “grit” or “fearlessness” or “self-direction”? Not many, I would guess. (If you do, I would love to hear about it.)
Unlike even a decade ago, huge learning opportunities exist for students who have been prepared for the abundance of content and teachers they now have access to. As I look at my own kids, I’m more concerned with their ability to take advantage of those opportunities rather than whether or not they know some previously scarce fact or formula taught to them in case they might need it some day.
Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at willrichardson.com.