The future of learning (Uncollege)

Are you a self starter when it comes to learning? If not, you should be.


Jim Paterson


When Bob Paterson got his engineering degree from Rochester Institute of Technology two generations ago, he was being trained for life – the material he learned would generally apply most of his career, though some facets of the job would be automated.

Today Bob would likely find that if he doesn’t retrain pretty extensively, his four-year degree might lose its value… in two years.

And whether you are planning to be an engineer or not, research is continually showing that to be successful, satisfied and happy, you have to be a self-directed learner.

Bob Paterson was my dad. He worked for two companies during his 50 years of employment, and when he stopped he was doing tasks very similar to when he started, although he had moved from designing parts for equipment used in World War II to parts for Xerox copiers.

But according to Lucy Madsen Guglielmino, the author of a lot of the comprehensive research about the topic and a prominent member of the International Society for Self Directed Learning (SDL), research shows today, the “half life” of an engineering degree is two to eight years,

“Why have these learner characteristics and the process of SDL become so critically important in recent years? The primary answer to that question is change: the massive, escalating proliferation of information and technology.”

Guglielmino and others studying SDL have been focusing on how education must change to prepare students for a world where engineering degrees lose value in half the time it took to get them, and online information grows at a rate that ads the equivalent of the 17 million books at the Library of Congress’s about 37,000 times a year. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003.

According to Daniel Pink, in his book DRiVE: The surprising truth about what motivates us, access to that information changes how we think and work,  and the motivation to learn and use information independently requires three attributes:

  • Autonomy—the desire to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery—the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose—the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

The good news — Guglielmino and her cohorts say the process of self directed learning can, itself, be learned. And, she says, it leads to “satisfaction, academic achievement, workplace performance, conscientiousness, resilience, strategic thinking, creativity and flexibility, and cross-cultural adaptability.”

Just being aware of the need to self-educate is helpful, but here are a few other tips Guglielmino and others recommend.

  • Understand your learning style. Do you know if you learn by reading something, hearing about it or watching it demonstrated – or just diving in and doing it. Knowing that will keep you from getting frustrated and self directed learning is hard enough without nowing what’s best for you. There are assessments that will help.
  • Have goals and a plan. Long term (I’m going to change careers.) and short term (I’m going to research this topic for two hours before I take a break.)
  • Stay motivated and disciplined. In whatever way you can. Think about the things you’ve achieved and how you accomplished it, paying particular attention to the distraction that occur on one screen or another.
  • Develop and use networks. For key information in the area you are studying and for support when you get hit a bump
  • Keep going. Over those bumps. Successful self learners understand there will be some tough spots, but they are prepared for them and can keep moving,
  • Assess your success. Give yourself credit for hard work (There may not be someone around to assess you and give you a report card) but be honest when you examine your effort – and keep pushing.
  • Build executive function skills. They are key (staying focused and organized and using time well) and if you lack them, get some help and practice them.


  completing work; one who enjoys learning and has a tendency to be goal-oriented.


Jim Paterson is a writer living in Lewes DE.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *