How transformative would it be if we could embrace the idea that unfinished is our natural and permanent state?…Our path, if we’re lucky, is evolution without an end. –Susanna Schrobsdorff, Time Magazine, January 24, 2021
As we think about our lives and the lives of children, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all embrace the idea that our natural and permanent state is a sense of wonder, curiosity and continuous growth and development?
This is especially appropriate in a world that is constantly changing and evolving environmentally, economically, technologically, and culturally. For most, the permanence of work at one job, in one place, is no longer the rule but rather the exception. Even the ability to maintain the security of one career no longer means that the work will not change dramatically over time, that we will not continually need to learn new knowledge and skills. Many build new interests and talents. We are always figuring out evolving relationships and friendships. “Getting stuck in a rut” is no longer a viable option for successful life navigation for most Americans.
The goal of being unfinished
Preparing students to think of themselves as “unfinished” and in a state of impermanence, always learning and growing, should be a key goal of education today. This goal implies a different perspective on how we work with students and what we teach them. Our goal should be that, at all levels, students need to be active and engaged learners, curious and interested in what they are learning. They need to build and grow a progression of understandings (not just discrete knowledge) and a complex skill set that helps them continue to learn in the future. These skills include not just reading and writing, but also being a good listener and speaker, knowing how to search for answers to questions and solve problems, thinking logically and creatively, organizing a project from beginning to end, and collaborating with others. They need to get comfortable with improving and adapting to new circumstances and challenges over time. They need to find and develop their interests and individual talents.
This state of being unfinished means that we often feel like “beginners” at learning – filled with struggle, doubts, misconceptions, mistakes, vulnerabilities as we learn anew and rethink what we already have learned (Vandervilt, 2021). Our frame of mind is like a scientist bent on new discoveries – finding our own revelations, opinions, hypotheses, and ideas based on evidence (Grant, 2021).
Room to grow
By the time students graduate, they need to have a good grasp of fundamental understandings about the world around them, a skill base that allows for future learning, and a continued interest and curiosity in learning more and digging deeper. They need to be comfortable with being beginners at learning and rethinking what they learned in the past. Whether college or career bound, they will need to continue their learning throughout their lives, both personally and professionally. After all, school learning accounts for just a small number of the years that they will be learners in a changing and uncertain world!
In my book, Teaching for Lifelong Learning: How to Prepare Students for a Changing World (Solution Tree Press) I spell out some of the goals and teaching practices that will promote continual growth and curiosity at all levels, including the following:
• Build units of study around uncovering understanding and correcting misconceptions, not around learning a set of discrete facts.
• Focus learning around inquiry into a few key essential questions, puzzles, challenges, and/or mysteries.
• Use activities that promote complex thought and discussion, such as open-ended assignments, performance tasks and projects, and visual organizers.
• Frequently use formative assessments to help students improve their work.
• Teach students how to reflect on and critique their own and other’s work.
• Help students organize and extend their learning and growth over time with interactive notebooks and portfolios.
• Help students from an early age become researchers, with a “let’s find out together” perspective.
• Encourage students to learn from their mistakes and failures, build perseverance and persistence. Model this way of thinking with students.
• Ask students to frequently self-reflect on what they have learned, how they have grown, and how they have learned from mistakes and errors.
• Model being a continual learner, one who is comfortable with listening to others with different viewpoints, uncovering new perspectives and ideas, learning from errors and mistakes, and learning and relearning ideas and opinions.
These and many other similar practices can be developed through how we teach, assess, develop our curricula, and build relationships with our students.
Thinking about education as an always unfinished state is an attitude, a way of being. It means that we see ourselves and ask students to see themselves as continual learners, working together to grow and become better human beings.
Leonard Cohen, the musician, said it well:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Dweck, Carol. Carol Dweck Revisits the Growth Mindset (September 22, 2015). In Education Week, accessed at https://bit.ly/2RA1Pbg.
Grant, Adam (2021). Think Again. Penguin Random House.
Vanderbilt, Tom (2021). Beginners: The Joy and Transormative Power of Lifelong Learning. New York: Alfred Knopf.