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Kindling a Fire: Learning How To Learn

Kindling a Fire: Learning How To Learn

“What your students need to learn most is how to learn.”

That was the advice of a senior leader of the Cincinnati business community over breakfast last year. I had posed the question “What skills do our students need to flourish in a world filled with disruptive technological and social changes?”

His advice, though particularly pithy and perspicacious, was similar to other feedback I’d gathered over the past 18 months as Country Day developed its new strategic plan. Business executives, college deans, and community leaders all touched on a familiar theme: we don’t know what specific content knowledge or technical skills your students will need, but we know that they will need to be able to learn throughout their life. They’ll need to be curious and adaptable; they’ll need to be intrinsically motivated and resilient to challenges; and they will need to be proficient at picking up new skills well after their formal schooling has ended.

I find much to agree with in this wisdom. But students will need to overcome at least two major challenges in today’s society if they are to heed this advice:

  • First, an overly transactional approach to modern education leads many students to pursue a superficial degree or credential rather than deep learning and meaningful habits of mind.
  • Second, a culture of intellectual risk aversion does not sufficiently encourage (and sometimes even punishes) new ideas or dissent.

Both challenges are deeply rooted in modern American society, and neither is easily solved by one student or one school. The trend towards more credentialism in education is part of a broad cultural shift that increasingly views children as professional resumes to be polished rather than young lives to be explored. Many factors are driving this shift to intensive investments in childhood: parents marrying later, couples having fewer children, and students experiencing more pressure and stress around college admissions. But the net effect is that many parents and students view the education process as simply a consumer product to be acquired – the grade or degree – rather than a journey of intellectual growth and discovery.

The pressures leading to intellectual risk aversion are similarly pervasive. Many students today feel that they must have their lives, beliefs, and identities figured out at an early age in order to present the best profile for colleges and employers. As a result, there is simply less desire for experimentation or risk-taking with new ideas.

Perhaps this is influenced by the permanence of social media, which understandably leads some students to feel that one bad decision might follow them for the rest of their lives. Perhaps this is simply a predictable result of a culture that prizes black-and-white thinking over nuanced analysis of complex problems. Or perhaps it’s our societal tendency to demand that young people advertise cheap allyship of favored causes rather than rather asking them to develop their own ideas, even if they contradict prevailing dogma. Regardless of its causes, though, young people often feel unable to follow the advice of Oscar Wilde to “play gracefully with ideas” along the road to self-discovery.

The good news is that the same developments that are disrupting the future of work and society may well solve these two challenges. In a world dominated by artificial intelligence and rapid change, credentials and checklists will simply be less valuable than the ability to learn and adapt. Indeed, the once sought-after credential that a student worked hard to acquire may be irrelevant before they are halfway through their career. Moreover, we are all going to get a dose of humility as technology rapidly expands and renders our certainty and conventional thinking obsolete. New ideas will be required because we are not going to be facing yesterday’s challenges, and yesterday’s solutions will not cut it.

Thus, we must show our students another way. The name of this column is a clue to our philosophy at Country Day. It is inspired by the famous Plutarch quote that “the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” This axiom has never been more true than at this moment. Skills like intrinsic motivation and adaptability, though important today, will be positively invaluable in the future. And “learning how to learn” can be cultivated in the right school environment. But it takes a new approach to education, not just stale content and rote learning that too many schools still rely on because “it’s what we’ve always done.”

If you’re a parent, I encourage you to assess your students’ learning. Are they checking boxes on a resume, or deeply engaging in intellectual discovery? Are they planting familiar flags of identity, or experimenting with new ideas in the hopes of changing their minds? Have they learned how to learn? If not, it’s not too late. After all, they’ll need to keep learning for the rest of their lives.

"Kindling a Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This ran in the January/February 2024 edition of the publication.