by James Bailey |

Every new article about so-called “lifelong learning” is more troubling than the last. They all start with a litany of vanishing career prospects and end with educators exhorting students to somehow morph themselves into nimble entrepreneurs and self schooling risk-takers. But not yet! Not until after their classroom days are over, and that is too late. If students are not seeing entrepreneurship right in their schoolhouses, as this author did, they need to take matters into their own hands. 

Students must recognize that, for them, the future is now. If their school’s curriculum were already preparing them to meet the 21st century on its own terms, there would be no need for a later reboot. Kids would just keep evolving and adapting and taking risks the same way they saw their teachers doing K-12. It would be no sweat to continually let go of old ways and pivot to something brand new as adults because that is what their courses would already be demanding that they do.

Instead, bricks-and-books schoolhouses are stuck in Erasmus’ world where, “We should learn that which need never be unlearnt. And that only.” In the currently-fashionable “STEM” curriculum the answers have all been known for centuries. Half of them are right in the back of the textbook. The job of the student is simply to imitate the skill set of the master, as even Leonardo could see.

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In imitable sciences the student can attain equality with the master and can produce similar fruit [such as] mathematics where the pupil takes in as much as the master gives ... like letters where the copy has the same value as the original reproduced indefinitely as is done in the printing of books.

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The recent movie Hidden Figures shows the imitable sciences at work back in the days of the Mercury Space Program. The NASA engineers just stick with what they are sure need never be unlearnt. It is Dorothy Vaughn who grabs the future the way every true entrepreneur does: beg, borrow, and steal.

Ms. Vaughn acquired her self-reliance the hard way, growing up black in the mid-century south. This author, meanwhile, learned both programming and entrepreneurship the way it should be learned, right in the classroom. In 1962, when she was deep in a purloined FORTRAN manual, he was deep in a full-year programming course in his public high school. How did that happen?

The school needed somebody to run the lumbering punch card machines that kept its grades and attendance records. They drafted a rookie mathematics teacher from MIT. In return, they let him teach coding in the front of his classroom while the punch card machines whirred away in the back. So we got to see a teacher actively innovating and doing whatever it took: running punch card machines if that was what allowed him to teach what he knew needed to be taught, but had never been taught before. In those same years a few others, like Bill Gates, were wrangling time on early computers and tooling themselves up to invent the future, not just watch it run off without them. 

Today, in a few lucky places, students are learning neural networks (the enablers of deep learning) in mathematics class and preparing to enter the annual iGEM competition in biology class, because of entrepreneurial, risk-taking teachers. The rest are factoring polynomials.

It is precisely during our K-12 years that our lifelong habits of thought get bedded in. Therefore, when teachers who never change themselves exhort their students to become rest-of-life learners—but only after they leave the schoolhouse—students need to be very wary. When their schooling installs the need-never-be-unlearnt habits, those are the ones the student will live inside for a lifetime, as the Mercury Space Program engineers were doing. They were like STEMmings, marching in lock step off the cliff of joblessness.

At every step of their schooling, students—and their parents—need to remember that the mind that is being made up, one way or the other, is theirs. Fortunately, they now have a choice. The same computers that are destroying jobs on the one hand are opening an alternative educational track on the other, a track that teaches entrepreneurship as well. If their grade school is not teaching them to program at the same time they learn to read, students can learn on their own at scratch.mit.edu. Millions already are. Even earlier, they can ask for a Cozmo robot (www.anki.com ) for their birthday and watch it learn to negotiate their room and recognize their face.

If their middle school is not introducing them to Big Data, students can shake hands with it at www.selfschooling.com and www.wolfram.com. Manipulating data two values at a time is not a skill that the 21st century values. Big Data in the middle school years sets the stage for serious life science in the high school years, as selfschooling.com also shows. Traveling into space may have been a big deal back in Dorothy Vaughn’s day, but students know that the excitement today is right down here on earth. In Prof. Barabasi’s words:

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We have a generation that is growing up for whom the traditional goals of going to the moon, of flying to faraway stars, don’t exist anymore. That’s not what excites them. What excites them is data, networks, social systems and all of those things that were really not part of the thinking. *

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And certainly not part of the teaching. By skipping the moon phase and plunging on their own into data, networks, and social systems, students are helping themselves two ways. First they are learning the subject matter that actually matters in the 21st century. Even more important, however, they are keeping alive the habit of learning on their own initiative that they came into the world with. Self learning that gets put on pause K-12 will never be life-long learning.

* Albert-Iaszlo Barabasi, “Thinking In Network Terms”, https://www.edge.org/conversation/albert_l_szl_barab_si-thinking-in-network-terms.

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