Learning from Everywhere

By Peter Smith

Millions of Americans are blocked from achieving their economic, social and civic potential by an education system that fails to capture and recognize their knowledge, skills and abilities. At the heart of this systemic obstruction of opportunity lies our failure to understand and value personal learning. Using the life stories of personal learners, Stories from the Educational Underground: The New Frontier for Learning and Work (Kendall Hunt, August 2021) unmasks this blight and describes solutions that illustrate education’s new frontier, bringing innate American talent into public view.

As NEBHE’s current project states, “All Learning Counts.”

So, just what is personal learning? Personal learning is all that other learning that you do, learning that is not planned by schools and colleges. It includes learning:

  • from your culture and personal traditions
  • on the job, at home and in the community
  • with colleagues, supervisors, family, neighbors and friends
  • directly from life experiences, as well as
  • via the computer, the library or other data and information sources.

More than 80% of what we know comes from learning done outside school, according to the Center for Creative Leadership. Personal learning is the driver and source of the vast majority of what we know and are able to do. This book celebrates the power of personal learning, arguing that it must be recognized as legitimate, useful knowledge, not only by colleges but also in the workplace. Why? As a matter of simple justice and economic health, it is time to bring this massive natural and human resource from the margins to the mainstream of opportunity, education and work in America.

Watch for an upcoming exclusive NEJHE Q&A with the author.

The American higher education ladder to opportunity is a miracle of democracy and there is much to be proud of. But there is another side to the story. That same ladder to opportunity for some is also inaccessible to many others. Millions of people simply cannot adapt to the traditional collegiate model and its assumptions—financially, culturally, emotionally or physically. In most cases, this is not a function of intelligence or native talent. Life circumstances simply get in the way. Some people have a high school diploma and others have some college, but no certificate or degree. As a result, the only option to employ their talent and acquire knowledge is through personal and experiential learning, including non-collegiate training as they live and work. But when there is no credit given for that learning, it generally does not lead to greater opportunities. Like the kids looking through the window at the candy store, these people are on the outside looking in, so close yet so far from realizing the opportunity they deserve.

Stories from the Educational Underground shares the stories of previously marginalized people and the influence of life experience on their knowledge, wellbeing and perspectives. The experiences described in these stories show definitively that almost everyone has the innate capacity to learn and does so continually. The stories show how they struggled mightily to get their talent and capacity recognized. And they show the value of personal networks that ultimately connect them with opportunity; mentors who advise, challenge and caution them at critical moments; and collegiate as well as non-collegiate programs that meet their needs in real time. These are all supports which expedite the journey to opportunity and which college graduates generally enjoy.

This new ecosystem will include college as we know it, but also many other options such as:

  • nontraditional and alternative colleges
  • new non-collegiate pathways for learning and work which carry formal recognition
  • informal access to learning resources and
  • the recognition of personal learning from life experience itself.

America’s learning and work landscape must incorporate personal learning, and the talent and capacity which drives it, as an explicit and inherently valuable component of a person’s knowledge. This expanded definition of knowledge is far more inclusive than simply knowing a great deal about a particular subject, be it accounting, computer technology, nuclear physics or Hegelian philosophy. It includes two additional dimensions.

The first comprises cross-cutting intellectual capacities such as problem-solving, critical thinking and analytical skills. The second includes emotional intelligences and how they contribute to critical abilities such as communication, effective teamwork, promoting diversity, and leadership.

We are leaving millions of people and a great deal of talent on the far side of a massive opportunity gap, which hurts individuals. As bad as it is for individuals, however, the gap is also bad for society. Contrary to the myth of America as the land of opportunity, if you are born poor, live in a rural area, are a person of color or a member of an indigenous community, too often your chances for educational success, economic opportunity and security are far more limited than those who are not. When the gap is analyzed along economic and racial lines, the systemic disparities and the gross inequalities are crystal clear. Put more bluntly, if we are going to end systemic discrimination in education, work and the larger society, we must encourage, respect and reward talent and knowledge in all its forms and regardless of how it was gained.

Stories From the Educational Underground: The New Frontier for Learning and Work has three purposes. The first is for each of us to recognize, value and reflect on the personal learning we do and its impact on us. Understanding your personal learning gives you more control over your life, no matter who you are. The second is to illustrate the human and societal costs of the way we currently treat many learners and their knowledge and to argue for a new way of thinking about them. And the third is to describe programs and pathways, which will create the new ecosystem we need and provide the needed support to personal learners throughout life.

NEBHE’s project, “All Learning Counts” suggests the direction we in higher education must take if we are going to solve this problem.

Peter Smith is the Orkand Chair and professor of innovative practices at the University of Maryland University College. He is the founder of the Open College at Kaplan University (OC@KU) and founding president of the Community College of Vermont and California State University, Monterey Bay. Smith represented Vermont in the U.S Congress and served in the Vermont Senate and as lieutenant governor. This piece is adapted from the introduction to Smith’s new book Stories from the Educational Underground: The New Frontier for Learning and Work (Kendall Hunt, August 2021).


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