18 pages • 36 minutes readMatthew L. Sanders
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“Becoming a Learner: Realizing the Opportunity of Education,” Second Edition (2018) is an essay by Matthew L Sanders, who wrote it with incoming college freshman in mind. Its goal is to change the perspective that higher education prepares students for a profitable career. Instead, it teaches students to become learners.
In the Introduction, Sanders writes: “The hardest thing for you to know is the thing you think you already know” (xi). Many people think they know what a college education means, but there are many misunderstandings about higher education that limit learning and keep students from reaching their potential.
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In Chapter 1, “When Learning Job Skills Is Not Enough,” the author addresses the fact that often the skills a graduate learns in college are not enough to land the job that graduate hopes for. Sanders provides two anecdotes. One anecdote describes the director of a news agency who doesn't hire journalism majors but hires philosophy, English, or political science majors; the director wants critical thinkers and problem solvers. Taking this anecdote and others into consideration, Sanders came to the conclusion that college doesn’t provide professional skills, it teaches graduates to be learners.
Chapter 2, “Becoming a Learner,” proposes that the primary purpose of education is to become a learner. Becoming a learner requires changing the way one perceives and discusses education. It's important to understand three realities when approaching a college education: “(1) Your degree doesn't guarantee you a good job. (2) You are going to forget much of what you learn. (3) Many of the job skills you learn in college will become obsolete” (7).
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Recognizing these three realities will help students develop vital qualities. One such quality is being creative, which is important in more than the arts, as it taps into the “active, exploring, questioning nature of our minds” (12). Other vital qualities include critical thinking, communication skills and positive character traits, like dependability and honesty. A student is passive, whereas a learner is proactive regarding their education.
Chapter 3, “Distracting Conversations,” outlines that there are six basic conversations about what a college education is that distracts students from getting the most out of higher education. One of these is the idea that people go to college to earn a profitable career. While research shows that college graduates tend to have better, higher-paying jobs than those without, it is false to think that college prepares students for their dream jobs. It is important not to “mistake a college education for job training” (22). The primary purpose of higher education is to develop well-rounded, educated individuals that can contribute positively to society.
Sanders gives the second distracting conversation: “I have to go to college if I want to have a good life” (23). The problem with this discourse is that it causes students to see education as “an obligation instead of an opportunity” (24). One should view college as a chance to better oneself and that the journey to becoming a learner is what is important, not the end result (i.e. getting a job).
The third distracting conversation is “I'm paying for this, so it better be good” (25). The problem with this way of thinking is that it confuses the truth of what one is paying for. You are paying for access to an education, but you don’t become educated simply by paying. College requires a personal commitment to learning for it to be effective.
The fourth distracting conversation is “I just need to get that piece of paper” (27). Again, this type of thinking removes the feeling of personal responsibility required for becoming a learner, and it places value on a diploma, which does not hold any intrinsic value.
Considering college as not a part of the “real world” is another distracting conversation. Implying there is a “real world” necessitates there being a “fake world,” which does not exist. College is the real world. The last distracting conversation discussed is “When I'm done with school” (30). The problem here is the focus on the end goal, rather than on the process of becoming.
In Chapter 4, “Principles of Learning,” the author offers seven principles that non-learners most often overlook. The first principle is that the essential things one learns in college won’t earn a grade. It is good to strive for grades because they open up more learning opportunities, but it is a fallacy to believe that grades are the most important thing that one should strive for in pursuing an education.
The second principle is “knowledge is interconnected” (35). The problem arises from a “mass-production industrial model” (35) of education and the idea that areas of knowledge are disconnected from one another. This is not the case. Interconnections can be easily found when one tries.
The third principle is “you must take responsibility for your learning” (36). Becoming a learner means being proactive and positive regarding education. Despite poor teachers, circumstances, etc., a learner finds a way to learn.
The fourth principle states that one becomes a learner by establishing relationships. A learner seeks out others and does not simply rely on themselves to acquire knowledge. A learner creates a professional relationship with their professors, asks questions, and receives feedback.
The fifth principle is “learners are courageous” (41). Too often students fear failing or not knowing the answer, but learning requires one to admit that they don't have the answers; one can't learn what one already knows. Learning is a process that requires one to step out of their comfort zones.
The sixth principle is “learning requires humility” (43). A learner understands that they don't have all the answers and that is okay. Learners are concerned with how to find answers. Humility allows one to learn from their mistakes and shows that they are teachable.
The seventh principle is “learning cannot be cheated” (44). Cheating only damages the cheater and hinders their ability to learn. It cheats them of an opportunity to gain knowledge. Learners are not worried about short-term problems. Rather, they have a long-term perspective on education and life.
Chapter 5, “An Invitation,” offers: “This book is about change” (47). There are many issues regarding the current educational system, but with the proper perspective, by becoming a learner, one can overcome the hurdles and challenges a student may face in acquiring an education. Furthermore, being a learner does not simply stop upon graduation; it is a lifetime endeavor. This book is not a step-by-step instruction manual on how to become an effective student. It is a call to meet the challenge of acquiring knowledge and getting the most from educational opportunities.