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Dealing with a World that No Longer Exists


Tens of thousands of public and private schools have closed their doors to over 425 million students because of the Coronavirus – and these numbers continue to rise. Teachers and administrators are scrambling to figure out how to instruct students in this new reality.

Face-to-face classroom instruction is largely being replaced by different kinds of online offerings. Many things that have previously defined learning for students are changing dramatically. Learning online requires a level of personal discipline, self-motivation, and individual persistence that often isn’t required in traditional school settings.

Our current educational system tends to promote a level of dependency in students that may be detrimental to them in the long run. That is, their learning is largely driven by external factors and supports rather than internal ones. For example, students are told what to read, what assignments/exercises to complete, and by when to get things done. More often than not, the course content is learned at a “surface level” with the overriding goals being to “get through the assignment” and to get an acceptable grade. More beneficial goals would be for students to work at learning information at a “deep level” and to master some powerful strategies that can be used to learn new content in the future when much of the content that they’re currently learning will have become outdated or markedly changed.

As students now find themselves largely learning from home they are discovering that many of the external factors and supports that they’ve relied on to direct them and guide their behavior are no longer present. They also have much more discretionary time available to them. Given this new dynamic, how will they respond? Will they learn to independently set meaningful learning goals, remain disciplined, resist the temptation to divert their attention from their learning to social interactions with friends and other non-academic pursuits? These new realities afford students a choice opportunity to change themselves as learners in important and significant ways.

Specifically, if they embrace rather than push back on the situation they have been thrust into, they can take important steps toward becoming independent learners and performers who will be better prepared for the world that awaits them – a world that will require them to outlearn not only those immediately around them but also people around the globe in order to remain relevant and competitive.

Increasingly, attention is being given to the rise of the “learning economy.” Specifically, modern economies can be characterized as ones in which knowledge is the crucial resource and learning is the most important process or driver within the system. Because dramatic advancements in technology are happening so quickly, major disruptions are taking place in terms of the kinds of skills and dispositions that workers will need to be successful in the future. A future in which the jobs and careers that we currently see as being central to our way of life and understanding of the world may no longer exist – or will be transformed in significant ways. In short, how workers will need to think about, prepare for, build, and engage in their careers will be much different than our current approach to the world of work.

In this new reality, it’s not necessarily about what someone can teach you, but how you can assess what kinds of knowledge and skills that you will need to acquire to become relevant and to bring value to others. Those who have the ability to adapt to changing circumstances through ongoing learning will put themselves into a position to thrive.

To underscore how much change is occurring within our economy, consider that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that today, an average worker will hold 12 to 15 different jobs in their lifetime. Additionally, the growth of globalization is bringing increased competition into the market place as is increased specialization within disciplines. All of these factors point to the need for additional investments in learning – especially learning that is individually driven.

While the negative consequences and costs of COVID-19 seem to dominate the news, a silver lining in the ravages of this pandemic might be the disruptions that are occurring in education. Specifically, students now have the opportunity to become more self-directed in their learning—and in the process acquire the skills and dispositions that will transform them into more independent learners and performers in the future. Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman and political philosopher, observed nearly 60 years ago “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”  His message is even more salient in our world today.