Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

The 5 Habits of Extreme Learners

By Milton Chen — December 11, 2017 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Over the past decade, the most prominent school reform effort has been the development of the Common Core State Standards and their assessments, which were intended to support college and career readiness. However, during that same period, the world of work took a sharp, driverless turn. Start-ups with odd names like Uber and Lyft swiftly accelerated, upending urban transportation, creating millions of new jobs and eliminating others.

Armies of robots, already in factories and warehouses, are preparing to march into offices and hospitals. With artificial intelligence increasingly competing with human intelligence, what’s a student to do? And how might educators help them? If these prospects sound dark, perhaps we can light a path forward by studying young people who are already preparing themselves well for this uncertain future.

Commentary Collection

BRIC ARCHIVE

In this special collection of Commentary essays, professors, advocates, and futurists challenge us all to deeply consider how schooling must change—and change soon—to meet the needs of a future we cannot yet envision.

This special section is supported by a grant from the Noyce Foundation. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors’ own, however.

Read more from the collection.

In 2014, as a fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., I worked on a simple project to interview a small, diverse collection of individuals we called “extreme learners.” They met a single criterion: They loved to learn. Like extreme athletes, they were passionate and fearless. Instead of letting institutions define what and how they learned, they engineered their own personal ecosystems of learning and connected their learning to earning in creative ways.

The 11 extreme learners we identified were mostly in their teens and 20s and included a few mid-career and experienced professionals. As John Falk, an expert on informal learning at Oregon State University and one of our extreme learners, put it, “Everyone on this planet is hard-wired to learn, extremely, all the time. The first advice I give to any learner today is: You must take control over your own learning. The good news is, it’s easier today than it’s ever been.”

As a group, our extreme learners did not fit conventional definitions of “best and brightest,” as defined by high GPAs or test scores. Instead, they were opportunistic in finding places and people to learn with, using not only formal schooling but also informal learning centers, such as maker spaces and science centers. They engaged in authentic, experiential, project-based learning.

These extreme learners shared five habits, which can prove instructive as we look to prepare students for an unpredictable future:

1.) They were self-motivated and found connections between their learning and working, both volunteer and paid. Sixteen-year-old Thomas Hunt, for example, left high school after 9th grade and created his own home school, volunteering at an anti-aging center concerned with macular degeneration and atherosclerosis while taking community college classes. Another extreme learner, Lenore Edman turned her interests in paper crafts, sewing, and electronics into an online business.

2.) They maintained a strong sense of curiosity across disciplines, often spanning the arts and the sciences. They asked a lot of questions and volunteered for new experiences. Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski tried several high schools before settling on the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco, where she pursued her interests in Afro-Brazilian dance and creative writing. At the same time, she also worked on a research study with an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences, studying beetles and biodiversity in the high altitudes of China’s Yunnan Province.

These learners are the type of students prized by many universities and companies: Students interested in a wide range of topics, and deeply knowledgeable in a few topics.

3.) They were networkers. They cultivated role models and mentors through face-to-face and online connections and participated in communities of like-minded individuals. Parents often supported their explorations. As a high school student, New Yorker Nikhil Goyal contacted a global network of mentors through email and Twitter, asking them to advise him on new models of learning. While still in high school, he wrote a book, One Size Does Not Fit All, and become an in-demand keynote speaker at education conferences.

4.) They were technology savants, accessing a vast world of online learning for resources, contacts, courses, platforms, and tools. They were digital producers as well as consumers, sharpening their coding and design skills to create websites, apps, and virtual-reality games. Reflecting on his 16 years of schooling spent “feeding facts into his forgetting machine,” Nick Winter studied learning theories and created an app for learning Chinese characters. Preetha Ram, a former dean at Emory University, designed a social learning platform where learners pose questions, receive help, and, in turn, help others.

5.) They developed their social-emotional skills, learning to work well in groups and taking on leadership and teaching roles. Faced with challenging personal circumstances, they became more resilient. With a background in computers, Marc Roth moved to San Francisco, but became ill and homeless for six months. At a maker studio space, he took courses, starting with 3-D printing. In turn, he taught others and developed his own three-month program to teach digital fabrication to the homeless, which was praised by then-President Barack Obama at the White House Maker Faire.

These extreme learners had an entrepreneurial spirit. While they may take on jobs in established companies, they will also do well in the “gig economy,” where self-starters fill in periods of underemployment. They developed that spirit as entrepreneurs of their own learning, seeking out projects, identifying supporters, and applying lessons from one experience to the next.

While today’s students will ride in driverless cars, they should begin now to take the steering wheel of their learning lives. The sooner schools and informal learning centers give them more freedom and flexibility to do so, the better their chances for thriving in careers we cannot now imagine.

Related Tags:

Coverage of science learning and career pathways is supported in part by a grant from The Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as The Future Workforce Demands Extreme Learners

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
What is it About Math? Making Math Figure-Out-Able
Join Pam Harris for an engaging session challenging how we approach math, resulting in real world math that is “figure-out-able” for anyone.
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness Amid a Rocky FAFSA Rollout, Ed. Dept. Offers Colleges More Flexibility
The changes are meant to free up colleges and universities to process aid forms more quickly and easily.
4 min read
Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form are on the rise.
Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form are on the rise.
Jon Elswick/AP
College & Workforce Readiness A Career Prep Bill Gets Bipartisan Support in the Senate. What’s in It?
New federal legislation would authorize state grants to bolster dual enrollment, apprenticeships, and other forms of on-the-job training.
4 min read
Heidi Griebel and Josie Wahl participate in carpentry class at Career and Technical Education Academy in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Jan. 7, 2019.
Heidi Griebel and Josie Wahl participate in carpentry class at the Career and Technical Education Academy in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Jan. 7, 2019. A new bill in the U.S. Senate would authorize state grants to bolster dual enrollment, apprenticeships, and other forms of on-the-job training.
Loren Townsley/The Argus Leader via AP
College & Workforce Readiness In Wake of Hiccups and Tight Deadlines, Feds Beef Up Supports for Fledgling FAFSA
The newly designed Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, branded the "Better FAFSA," is prompting lots of frustration.
3 min read
In this May 5, 2018 file photo, graduates at the University of Toledo commencement ceremony in Toledo, Ohio. On the bumpy road to repayment this fall, student loan borrowers have some qualms. Borrowers filed more than 101,000 student loan complaints with the Federal Student Aid office in 2022 – more than double from 2021 – and that number is poised to increase further as October payments approach.
High school seniors who are hoping to one day graduate from college are facing significant roadblocks in getting answers to how much federal student aid they can get from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which has been plagued by delays and technical glitches. Above, students at the University of Toledo in Ohio participate in graduation ceremonies on May 5, 2018.
Carlos Osorio/AP
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Whitepaper
Driving Student Success with Career-Connected Learning
This white paper explores the strategies and tools districts across the U.S. are using to provide students with meaningful learning oppor...
Content provided by Defined