One of the buzz words in education, especially higher education, is ‘life- long learning.” It shows up in learning outcomes and in accreditation goals and everyone just nods his/her head. But what does it really mean? Are we as teachers and students perpetual learners? Are we supposed to be enrolled in classes for the rest of our lives?
So here’s my take on what life- long learning means to me as I go through my 26th year of teaching. We all know that through 12 years of education we should be learning; that’s clear. And we also know that as we go on to get our undergraduate degree we are learning. Then if we branch out and do a graduate degree or two, we’re still learning. Then what? Does it all end when we enter our careers? Well, I had some professors who used the same yellowed notes to teach us, so maybe for some it does. I hope I’m not that teacher.
But in this global world in which we live, it is pretty difficult to survive as a person without continuing to learn. I jokingly (but not so much) tell my students that when I moved to Dubai, I had to put a world map in my kitchen to be sure that I actually could see the places from where my students came. I learned geography, sure, but it is changing year by year and I still consider this part of my ongoing education to understand the world around me.
And then there is the consideration of those of us who are expats and have chosen to live and work abroad. We are given the golden opportunity to live in a culture that is often quite different than our own. We work and live amongst people who come from completely different backgrounds than us. But do we interact with others who come from lands foreign to us? Do we attempt to learn a different language? Do we go to restaurants and try new foods that are out of our comfort zone? All of these small gestures contribute to what I consider part of the big story of life- long learning. These gestures cannot be quantified, but they surely add to the experience of living abroad. One of the most wonderful and rewarding activities that I have done since I lived abroad was to work with Sudanese refugees in Cairo. They wanted desperately to learn English so that they could open doors that knowing an international language grants them. I volunteered my time to teach them several nights a week and never had I had such appreciative students with such earth shattering stories to tell. Don’t get me wrong, I love my students wherever I teach, but something about that teaching chance changed something in me forever.
Then what about travel? Does that help us to achieve further learning? Well, surely it does. It seems in all of my world travels I have learned at least one important life lesson per trip. But how should we make a learning experience out of a vacation? My students and I plan to go to Bangladesh hopefully next summer. We will teach kids in the slum schools of Dhaka and hopefully some of their engineering skills will be used in helping in other ways around the schools. Giving back in such a way is surely learning. And what about the trips we take to places a far with five star hotel visits and spa treatments? Are we learning? Certainly something about the place will seep in, but I really believe that you must know the people whose country you are visiting. Talk to them. Ask about their country. See what others can teach you; you might be surprised. Another humbling experience for me was when I opted to take my Christmas time break to the Philippines instead of going home to my family in the USA. It was another life changing event for me. Understanding that things we consider needs in our life, like a bed or a washing machine, are not needs for many people in the world, makes us take a look at our own lives and be thankful for all of the things that we have. I consider that trip one on my path to pursuing life-long learning.
And what about us as teachers and educators? How can we teach our students to be life-long learners? A tricky question, but I will try and type my thoughts out. One thing that I think has really helped my students to understand what they can do to keep growing and learning is do random acts of kindness: i.e. Community service. Every semester in every place I have taught I help students find worthy causes for us to dedicate time and collect items. It is not just the events themselves, but how I can see the impact on my students in my 26 year teaching career; they have gone on to help others and continue to teach those around them about the great satisfaction that they get through helping others. One of the most heart touching events I did with my students is when I worked in Dubai. Since Afghanistan has a high percentage of orphans due to the many wars they have endured, and with the help of two of my students from Afghanistan, we ‘adopted’ an orphanage of 250 students. We had the ages and gender of all of the kids and my students went shopping for winter clothes, school supplies and a toy (since it was Eid) and put them in a backpack that was age/gender appropriate. An Afghani airline donated the sending of the backpacks to Afghanistan and my two students went there to actually distribute the donations to the kids. The students at the orphanage handmade cards of thanks for my students and also made a video for us. The pride that my students had in shopping, packing and then seeing the kids get their backpacks was life changing for them and also for me. I know for certain that many students involved in that project continue to organize community service projects; they teach others how to accomplish what they did.
The other big love that I try to convey to my students is to read for pleasure. I have discovered that this generation has many young people who don’t know about the joy of escaping to other places through reading. I guess it’s part of the hidden curriculum as an English professor in that I try and discuss popular books and maybe even the films that are made from them with my students. Classics are great, but reading is reading. I embrace whatever students are reading and often we share book. Office hours are often times that former students and current students come by to discuss things like books, movies and other news stories that matter to them; I learn from them as much as they learn from me. It is these conversations with my students in which I think I do my best job in being a representative of what life-long learning might be. Keeping up with what your students are interested in reading, watching and doing does make a difference in establishing an ongoing relationship; wherein I can hopefully always be a teacher to my students.
Be a role model. Teach others to be teachers. Live by example. True teaching involves learning everyday.
By Doc Hall
Aka Dr. Katherine L. Hall
Assistant Professor of English, Khalifa University