Learning is not an end, it’s a means — we learn in order to accomplish. The true ends of education are real-world accomplishments.

Marc Prensky is the Founder of the Global Future Education Foundation

ONCE, ON STAGE, I ASKED A WELL-KNOWN person in the world of education if he were in the “Learning business.” “Absolutely!” he answered.

In my view that disqualifies him as a complete educator (although he is almost certainly a good partial one.)

“How can you say that?” you might ask. “Aren’t education” and “learning” the same thing?” My answer is that they are not — and if we don’t understand this we ignore half the education picture, to the detriment of everyone in the world. Conflating education with learning — the huge mistake that most “educators” make — is the cause of a great many of the problems with education that we see in the world today.

The Current View

I would describe the current view of most of the world’s educators as “First comes learning, then comes accomplishment (as a result of that learning.)” That may have been true, in fact, for the last few centuries. But just like the old adage “First comes love, then comes marriage…”, it is no longer accurate.

I think a far more accurate view, particularly for the future, is “First comes trying to accomplish something; then comes learning as part of what helps you do it.” That was how most people were educated throughout human history — parent to child, master to apprentice — before academics hijacked education. It is time for all of us to take it back.

I hold no animus toward learning or academia — I attended top schools, including Yale, Harvard, and the Sorbonne, and learned much there that I value. But I value equally the education that came later on, when I was out in the world trying to get things done.

Most adults know people currently need two educations: the first the academic part, to become literate and get into a tertiary institution (e.g. a US college), and the second the accomplishment part — equally if not more important — which we typically get when we start working. What we need instead is an earlier start at accomplishing, and a more effective blend of learning and accomplishing in our schools.

“We need people who can get things done”

Google once wrote on its website “We are looking for people who can get things done.” It is no accident that after 12 to 20 years of academic schooling most people start any job or profession at the bottom — they have not been taught to accomplish anything. Accomplishment is just as important, if not more, than the “critical thinking” we currently hear so much about. The answer is not more “vocational” education” — seen almost always as second class — but rather for a first-class education that has accomplishment, rather than learning, as its main goal.

Ironically, “academic” education is a kind of vocational education — i.e. for academics. Why else would we teach kids to footnote? Or insist that kids “do their own work” rather than collaborate to solve problem as people do in the real world?

Life-long Accomplishment

Those who promote “life-long learning” as a goal do a disservice. What they, and we all, should be promoting instead is “life-long accomplishment.” People often, of course, have to learn new skills to do this. But any new learning is easiest and most effective when it is in service of a personal goal (such as, for example, the learning parents have to do for child-rearing.) In the long run, the only useful measure of learning is whether you achieve that goal — not the fact that you “learned” anything. Today, too many of the people promoting “life-long learning” are those who will potentially profit from it.

Although many will reject this, I believe that today, almost any skill anyone will ever need can be acquired on You Tube — even learning to be a doctor. A friend once countered with “You can’t learn to swim or ride a bicycle on You Tube.” My answer is “Yes, you can.” You Tube doesn’t swim or bike for you, but if you follow the directions of the best video instructors you will almost certainly succeed. (It will help to have someone watch you in dangerous situations and for you to keep re-viewing that video on your phone between tries until you get it.) I believe this to be true for any skill you can name, including social-emotional and relationship skills. It is already how many of us, young and old, learn our new skills.

But really accomplishing anything takes another kind of work. It takes applying the skills by doing, persisting, and taking alternate routes when you don’t succeed. In order to accurately say you’ve accomplished something you have to be able to point to something in the world — anything — and say: “See that? Last year it was terrible. Now it’s great. I and my team did that.” In other words, you have to have made a measurable positive impact on the real world. That’s why today’s “project-based learning” (PBL) movement in schools is not enough — it is typically “fake accomplishment,” applying skills only to a report or an in-class project with no actual impact on the outside world. Today’s kids, with their new tools, are capable of much more — they are truly capable of real-world accomplishment.

Real-world accomplishment provides huge benefits to the individuals and the team — self-esteem, self-confidence, and the realization that you CAN get things done in the world. And importantly, it also — by definition — benefits others in some way. What I call accomplishment is different from achievement (e.g. being valedictorian or climbing a mountain), which only benefits you. The people who say “I love learning for its own sake” are talking about an achievement; it’s no different than saying “I love winning.” We will all be far better off by offering our kids more opportunities for accomplishment that benefits others in their world, than by focusing on (and pushing our kids towards) greater achievements.

The underlying problem with making “learning” our goal — life-long or otherwise — is that it falls only on the achievement side, when the real goal is accomplishment. Learning is a means — and a good one — but only that. That is why educators who focus only on “life-long learning” get only “partial credit.” Once all our kids (and educators) know this, we will all be much further on our way to future success.

Marc Prensky, coiner of the term “Digital Native,” is an award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author & speaker. Marc has spoken in over 40 countries, authored seven books, and has been published in over a dozen languages. Through the Global Future Education Foundation (GLOBAL-FUTURE-EDUCATION.ORG) and Real-World-Impact Project Education Network (ARISE-NET.WORLD), and his writings and appearances, Marc strives to empower our planet’s two billion kids to improve their world via a new, more relevant third-millennium education and upbringing. . Earlier in his career Marc headed an early prototype charter school. spent six years at the Boston Consulting Group, and founded and ran a learning games company for over a decade. Marc is widely known as one of the most future-oriented, out-of-the-box thinkers in his field, Marc holds an MBA degree from Harvard (with distinction) and a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Yale. He has taught at all levels, from elementary to college. Marc’s many writings, interviews and videos can be found at www.marcprensky.com. Contact Marc at marcprensky@gmail.com.

Marc Prensky is an award-winning, internationally-acclaimed speaker & author, coiner of “Digital Native.” His goal is to change your perspective.

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