What was the one thing you didn’t learn at school?

June 7, 2020
Young class taking school exams

Give yourself a gold star if your answer was "l didn’t learn how to learn".

Odd, isn’t it?

We know that things are changing pretty fast and, whether at home or at work, we need to keep learning just to keep up with (never mind get ahead of) the pack.

The old paradigm of learn for the first twenty-five years, work for the next forty and then retire, is broken for good.

Most of us will need to reinvent ourselves a number of times to offer useful knowledge and skills to the world of work throughout our lives.

And yet schools set us all off on our life-long journey of learning without the very instruction manual that will make it more successful and probably more enjoyable.

The absence of this knowledge makes many of us stop exploring our world and reaching our potential, because learning is too hard and too boring.

I don’t blame schools, or colleges or universities. Well, I don’t blame them entirely. The way they educate is the result of the targets and pressures placed upon them.  They become attainment production lines, designed to be lean and focused on dragging as many students as possible across each target milestone. Educationally, therefore, we are all regressed to the mean.

Broadly speaking, everyone gets the same inputs in the same way and the same assignments that measure attainment in the simplest possible way to assess.  But we’re not the same.  Some of us enjoy learning in the company of others, with plenty of discussion and practical things to do. Others find that too noisy and distracting, preferring instead a quiet corner to read and think about the subject.  Some like lots of diagrams and pictures, others prefer listening to a recording of an expert.

It is understandable though that schools and, too often, colleges and universities cater for the average learner and deliver material in the way most convenient and economic to the provider rather than the receiver.

We all need to take control of our own learning.

We can start by:

  1. Learning how we learn best – There is copious material available online about learning styles and while this is certainly worth a browse, you probably already know. You can think of times when learning has been easier and fun, alternatively when it has been hard work and ineffective.
  2. Seeking out learning providers that offer broader and more flexible learning provision.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the already inevitable shift in proportion between face-to-face and online learning.  In response, some establishments will now simply dump hours of lectures and material onto their websites, portals and learning management systems.


Others will take the opportunity to re-think how they create learning content that engages and sustains the interest of learners. They will offer flexible routes through courses, with learners deciding which suit them best. The days of having to laboriously complete all sections of a module before moving on, should quite rightly be consigned to the bin. What was the point in endlessly clicking the ‘next’ button anyway? 

So, what now?

Learning professionals will need to adapt their thinking further. They will act more as coaches than traditional teachers and lecturers.The internet allows learners to endlessly trawl for the latest material so why would we want someone else to simply stand up in a class and tell us facts?

Instead, learning coaches will become experts in contextualising knowledge and skills, helping learners synthesise new learning and integrate this into their worlds of work. Learning coaches will understand the workplace application of their subjects because they will move in and out of those workplaces throughout their career.

Employers already recognise that the boundary between an initial learning phase followed by employment is artificial. Instead they will regularly facilitate the secondment of staff to and from learning institutions to maintain currency between both worlds.

Of course, this will bring changes to colleges and universities and the way they are funded. Why not base more of their staff in the world of work, and let them facilitate local and online learning from there, while maintaining a link with their educational mothership? 

There is already a question about whether the tertiary education sector needs its very large built estate. If student numbers fall and remain lower, if the boundary between work and learning is further blurred, then what will all the classrooms, halls and student accommodation be for?

Traditional university classroom

Did anyone really think things would stay the same?

David McCracken

David focuses on learning development for Droman Solutions Ltd. He has a M.Ed. and is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

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