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Turning Learning Upside Down

Perceptions about elementary and secondary education are undergoing a sea change as the concept of lifelong learning takes hold in the twenty-first-century world of work.

Whether adults perceive it or not, infants learn from the moment they are born – and some evidence indicates that learning occurs even inside the womb. Babies and toddlers gather information long before they can share their knowledge with adults.

As children begin to talk, they express themselves haltingly at first but gradually add the vocabulary and syntax they need to be understood. Even before they reach kindergarten or first grade, kids become experts in a wide array of subjects. They know 1) how to get parents to give them treats; 2) one hundred ways to delay naptime; 3) the entire text of Goodnight Moon; and 4) the infinite loop of “The Song That Never Ends.”

Joking aside, serious thought is being given to children’s ability to absorb whatever is going on around them when something interests them sufficiently. Consequently, a growing number of educational researchers now believe that formal education should start later in life than it does today.

Research by the National Institute for Cognitive Excellence (NICE) indicates that K-12 education is less effective than allowing young people to learn in a free-range fashion. The institute posits that individuals should start working at 10 or 11, when their creativity and learning ability are at their peak. Entering the workforce early, young people will be well-prepared to continuously develop the new skills and competencies required to keep pace with exponential change.

NICE is striving to understand how students can best prepare for careers that will require frequent reskilling for new jobs.

“Life-long learning is the way forward for everyone in the workforce who hopes to thrive during the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” says NICE Founder and CEO Dr. Hadley Knowmore. “We are not convinced that K through 12 education is the best way to prepare young people for the fast pace of change coming to the workplace. Giving youngsters time to develop on their own equips them with the curiosity and tenacity they will need to persevere through multi-stage careers. They will have a natural aptitude for the periodic upskilling and reskilling they will need to qualify for changing job roles.”

Knowmore added that children perform best when they understand the reason for learning a particular subject:

Fifth graders say they don’t care what time a fictitious train traveling west at 79 miles per hour will take to get to Kansas City if it leaves St. Louis at noon. My colleagues are coming to believe that formal learning can wait until young people gain work experience. Then, they will be ready for on-the-job training or advanced academic studies.

Maynard Gettawerk, a senior researcher for academic think tank Exploratory Learning Solutions, agrees:

Kids are expected to learn all sorts of things they’ll never need in the real world. We have it backward. The curiosity that young children naturally possess is stunted by the time they reach third or fourth grade. People can play until they’re 11, get a job and then learn things that will help them succeed in their careers, either through work-based training or formal education. This sequence makes more practical sense and produces happier people.

On the other hand, on this early April day in 2021, who are you going to believe?


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