It’s About Learning, Not Educational Credentials


In the January, 2012, issue of The Atlantic Monthly, there is a lengthy article on the future of American manufacturing entitled “Making it in America”. In profiling an individual company called Standard Motor Products and a few employees performing manufacturing operations, particularly a 22-year-old single parent named Maddie Parlier, reporter Adam Davidson concludes that the company will continue to perform manufacturing operations in the United States, but it will do so only if it can continually compare the cost of employees versus automated technology, and extract the best economic value from the process.

Employees who do not have high levels of education and technical skill will be continually insecure and will be displaced if they are not continually keeping ahead of the marketplace. The most painful point the reporter makes is that anyone who starts his or her work career with major family or other responsibilities will have difficulty keeping current with the skills needed. Maddie Parlier is 22 years old, has completed high school, but has not gone beyond it, is a single mother, and has no spare time or money to take courses and upgrade her skills. She will be vulnerable to a future replacement by technology.

The problem with the increasing inequality of outcomes in our society in a time of global competition, continuous price pressure, and technology advancement is that continuous education and skill development are more important than ever. However, achieving this goal is particularly difficult for those individuals who enter the workforce with the handicap of obligations that make continuous learning extremely difficult.

The story about Maddie Parlier begs two questions:

  • Why did a woman who is obviously smart and a hard worker not continue her education beyond high school?
  • How does someone like Parlier, with time-consuming family responsibilities, find the time to continue to upgrade her knowledge and skills outside of work hours?

When we consider these questions, we are inevitably led to a different way of defining the problem than is customarily used in analyses like these.

Why individuals like Maddie Parlier do not continue in school

My dad, who died in 2001, was a very intelligent person, with great wisdom and insight, and a continuous learner as an adult, but he dropped out of school after the 9th grade. My mom, also a person of great intelligence who was a continuous reader and learner all her adult life, dropped out of school after the 11th grade during the early part of the Depression. Why?

For them, going to school was an unpleasant and unproductive experience. The classrooms experience did not engage either of my parents sufficiently to keep them in school, so they dropped out at the earliest possible opportunity. While it is easy to say that we need better teachers and schools, the bigger problem is that schools do not teach people how to learn. The educational paradigm is fundamentally flawed. Educators make the judgment that individuals have varying learning abilities, and assume that some people will learn, and others will fail to learn.

I can relate to my parents’ experience by what happened with subjects in which I did not do exceptionally well, like biology, chemistry and physics.

These subjects were taught in a standardized way. I did not master them, but got good, although not exceptional, grades by sheer hard work and will power. However, as an adult, I saw their value, and became genuinely excited to learn about the underlying principles of each subject. My daughter even gave me a brief chemistry tutorial on equation balancing recently.

Every one of us gets interested in a subject for different reasons, and we learn in different ways. I think metaphorically and structurally, and recall information most effectively when I can engage multiple senses in learning the subject.

People have told me I have a photographic memory. That is not true. I have a photographic memory on certain selective categories of information, but have a below-average memory on others. My wife can remember the location of a house by a visual map of the color and style of the house and the houses around it. She remembers foods she ate at a restaurant decades ago, and can even discern differences in the taste of an item from what she ate years ago. I cannot remember what I ate last Saturday night at the local tapas restaurant.

Why do I learn and retain information?

  • The subject matter has to be important enough to want to retain it. I tune out on information that will not matter to me, or that does not strike me as interesting.
  • I take copious notes. Contrary to popular belief, I do not file the notes, but review them once and discard them.
  • When I take notes, my handwriting is highly legible, so that I can re-read what I have written.
  • If a particular note is important, I underline it. If it is exceptionally important, I place an asterisk next to it.
  • After taking the notes, I re-read them, and I recite what I have written, so that I can hear from what I have written, in addition to seeing it.
  • If the notetaking on a subject reveals a particular way of organizing and structuring the information, I create a visual structuring on the page of the notebook, either in the form of a graph, a flow diagram, or a chart.

The more of these tasks I perform, the more likely it is that I will remember what I have written.

My mother used to joke that the reason she dropped out of school was because she was required to do a paper on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe in her final semester as a junior in high school. I am sure that no one engaged with my mother in a way that helped her find meaning in the assignment.

Rather than trying to shoehorn every student into a one-size-fits-all educational system, let’s try to figure out the different ways in which to engage increasingly diverse populations in the art and the technique of learning. The goal is “learning,” not “education.”

How do people with overwhelmingly complex lives carve out time for continuous learning, particularly of highly technical subjects?

How does someone like Maddie Parlier possibly carve out time to upgrade her skills?

  • We have to create learning processes that provide more flexible self-learning opportunities. It would be unfair to expect Parlier to attend a classroom course outside work hours, given her single-parent responsibilities, but she can learn online or in other ways. If there are fees for such courses, she should be reimbursed under a company’s educational assistance program, just as she would if she were attending a class. We need to make continuous learning as convenient and cost-free as possible.
  • We have to teach people how to use small blocks of time as effectively as possible. A single mother holding down a job does not have big blocks of time for learning. She might get a series of 5-minute blocks of spare time. We need to figure out how she can use them for learning exercises.
  • We have to teach people how to multi-task more.

Alternative learning methodologies

Learning can happen anywhere, any time. I love the text-to-speech feature of my Kindle, especially when I am in my car and can have the experience of listening to an audio book, even if it is in a computer-generated voice. I learn from online demonstrations of subjects. I also have found that certain TV programs have presented subjects with far more impact than I have ever learned them in a classroom. My friends showed me about the many free tutorials on YouTube. I have even learned from a casual face-to-face encounter, such as a cooking demonstration at a supermarket or a restaurant. We should test individuals to determine how they learn best, and should draw from their insights and experience, even at an early age, to figure out what is most likely to excite them. Courses should be created in ways that enable them to be delivered remotely and in a multiple ways.

What always amazes me about learning is what we discover about how people of all ages engage with the world. Some people learn through video games and master complex subjects. Others gain a great deal of insights from friends, work colleagues, peers, and even online communities. Even today, I find that my best learning about potential applications for my I-Phone comes from other users. One of my nephews told me about a new application called Soundhound, which enables my phone to pick up music sounds in a public place and identify the song and the artist.

In essence, everyone can learn, and we should figure out how to make that learning process happen.

How does learning fit into a busy schedule?

It is easy to criticize people who do not take time to improve their skills. However, in the real world, people have multiple jobs, are juggling time-consuming family responsibilities, and often have challenging commutes to and from work. Moreover, many jobs are physically and mentally draining. For many people, the ability to take time to learn simply does not appear to be there. How can we help people carve out the time to learn?

  • We need to show people how to simplify their lives, reduce the wear-and-tear of daily activity, and create learning time. Too many people drive to work alone every day. Even when public transportation is unavailable, there are many underutilized carpooling, vanpooling, and ride-matching services available to people. I gained an extra 90 minutes a day of reading time when I commuted by train between New York and Connecticut. When shuttle services between the train station and the office were unavailable, many people gave me rides to and from the train, and I learned a great deal from them.
  • Buying hot, healthy pre-prepared food virtually eliminates cooking time, and frees up time for other activities.
  • If I were a young parent today, I would be looking for tools to order groceries, clothing, supplies, hardware and other items online for home delivery to save on shopping time.

If large blocks of time cannot be created, then we have to coach people how to use smaller time blocks more effectively. I always felt that one of my advantages over other people was the use of 1-5 minute time blocks. When I watch live television, I put the set on mute during commercials, set an alarm for 3 minutes, and do something productive. More and more, I record programs to reduce the watching time from the original running time by fast-forwarding through commercials. I recapture that time for other purposes.

How do I use 5-minute drives to and from the coffee shop? I turn my Kindle into an audio book and listen to a few pages while driving. The Kindle also can be read outside while I am walking and even while I am waiting in line at the grocery store or some other retail outlet. I have done a lot of reading in the security lines at airports, while I watch other people stare into space. I also remember doing work during the many times I waited with my children at the pediatrician’s offices as they were growing up. I took my own materials, rather than relying on what the doctor’s office had available.

Everyone has spare time. The only question is how to take advantage of it.

We need to teach people how to multi-task more.

When my children were young, I used to take them to the local doughnut shop, get a cup of coffee, browse the newspaper, and talk with them. It was a great bonding experience for us, and I typically read to them and talked about whatever I was doing. I also used to take them to museums on Saturdays and Sundays and learn as they were learning.

Today, the shoe is on the other foot. When I am with my adult children, I ask them about what they are learning, what books they are reading, what movies or videos they have seen, and what places they would like to visit, and why. My daughter is great in the sciences, so she continually directs me to good resources.

Also, as I noted above, we have a lot of waiting time in our lives that can be usefully deployed. Today, many people use their cell phones to talk or do text messages while they are waiting for someone, but it is easy to convert some of that time to learning time.

We have to change the paradigm from schooling to learning. We have to change the paradigm from learning as a highly standardized activity to a highly customized one. We have to change the paradigm from learning as a process that takes place within specific certified courses to one that can occur anywhere. I have no problem with testing people to see what they have learned, and rewarding them for having achieved a certain level of competence, but we need to make it as easy for them as possible.

This skill and knowledge gap is solvable. We can help the Maddie Parliers of the world compete in the global economy and support their families.