Oct 11

Learning in the 21st Century

Tomorrow night, I am honored to be the keynote speaker for one of the college’s honorary societies. As I have been writing my speech, I realized I miss the moments of “circle time” with my karate-ka, where I tried to pass on similar bits of wisdom. I hope you will take a look at the following excerpt from my speech, spend some time thinking about it, and ask some questions. It’s always ok to disagree, and I anticipate some disagreement, especially with my little rant on technology and focus. Give it a read, especially you high school students and young college students, and then let me know: What do you think?

My job is to encourage you to fulfill your potential, here and wherever your life may take you in the future. We live in a very different time, a time when- let’s be honest- the best careers are more and more competitive. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but after teaching for more than a decade, I can tell you for sure some things in life you absolutely need to have to succeed- now more so than ever. The main things I wish to talk about today that I would argue are important issues in 21st century learning and in 21st century success are our abilities to focus, our attitudes, and our creativity.

Let’s start with focus. What do we mean by focus?

First, ask yourself if you have the ability to simply sit, listen, think, and absorb information without distraction for a long period of time. How long can you make it before you check your cell phone? Or start thinking about dinner or your favorite television show you’re missing? We live in a world of 24-7 technological stimulation. I don’t mean to criticize it; I love technology. But I firmly believe living in a technological world also requires that we install a mental cut-off switch in our own minds.

That means we must be able to turn off the technology. Silence the cell phone. Not check it every five seconds. Or check Facebook every five seconds. I tell my students in the classroom to completely silence or turn off their cell phones. It’s not just about being a responsible audience member; it’s about practicing that mental cut-off. Our brains are becoming hard-wired to alerts and vibrations, so much so that the term “phantom vibration” was coined because of the plethora of people who feel imaginary phone vibrations.

Silencing your cell phone is an intentional act you can do to put yourself in charge of your life once again. We are no longer using technology simply as a tool; we are becoming the tools technology uses. So when I teach and when I’m at lunch with colleagues or friends, unless there is an emergency, my phone is on silent. Sure, I may miss messages and calls, but I am in control as to when I am available, and if you make this simple change—silence the phone when you are out to dinner, in class, at work—I promise you that you will find an oddly refreshing view on life: one that puts you back in control of your time and your attention.

The reason I talk about focus is that the ability to focus enhances your interpersonal skills. As a communication teacher, I see more students now than ever who experience a tremendous amount of stage fright. I’ve had students call me from their cars. They were parked in the parking lot, throwing up. Although I empathize for them- I really do- I wonder if it is not the increase in technology that weakens their ability to speak in front of people. Think about it: before cell phones and Facebook, being scared to talk to other people was a natural coming of age event. I had to ask girls out- whether to a dance or a date- in person. And I had to break up with them in person too. Now, kids text. They deal with conflict through text messaging. They ask each other out and even break up with one another with a text. Why? Because it is easier. But let me tell you all this: it’s confronting your fears and your conflicts in person that makes you stronger and gives you more ability to focus.

We have kindergartners entering school with cell phones today. As future parents, this is an incredibly important issue to consider. If you lose your interpersonal skills and your ability to deal with conflict, how will you succeed at a job interview? How will advance in your career?

Trust me. Silence the darn cell phones.

Perhaps more importantly, focusing also enhances our ability to think. When we focus fully on those around us- from our friends to our teachers- we absorb more information. I’ve always believed that intelligence isn’t reflected by the answers you can give but rather by the questions you ask. When we’re distracted, we are not focusing. If we are not focusing, we cannot think as deeply about the information we’re presented.

After the information has been presented, whether it is in a class or a story from a friend, ask yourself, “What do I think about that?” I’ve always thought that’s the best question a teacher can ask a student after a lesson. “So what do you think about all of that?” Even if a student has been listening, often times the responses will be a few words, and the worst words are “I don’t know.”

In fact, think about a lesson you had today in one of your classes. First, how much can you remember about the lesson? Second, what do you really think about the lesson? What did you learn? Was it meaningful?

This inner dialogue is your responsibility. You must learn to do it for every class, and when it comes to the family and friends you care about, you need to be able to deeply focus on them as well.

The ability to focus and the ability to ask questions also lead to engagement. A CEO of a major engineering firm was asked what he looks for the most in job candidates. The CEO said the first thing he looks for is the ability to ask questions. Surprised, some people may wonder, “Don’t you want them to have the technical expertise to master the job?” The CEO’s response: “You won’t know everything, no matter how good your education. I need to know that you can ask questions. If you can ask questions, then you can engage in active participation with your co-workers. It’s that engagement and that active participation that will teach you what you need to know do to the job well.”

An additional piece of advice I encountered is that if you want to be successful, make sure you are “cultivating skills and knowledge that are not available at a cheaper price in other countries or that cannot be rendered useless by machines.”

One thing that will always be needed, one thing that will always make you more valuable than machines: your ability to think, listen, communicate effectively, and ask questions.

And I would argue that these skills begin with your ability to focus.

The second element that I wish to discuss tonight is attitude.

In our communication classes, we talk about how attitude has three primary components: a logical component, an emotional component, and a behavioral component. Basically, attitude means what you think about something, what you feel about something, and what you do about something.

I encountered a formula for finding one’s passion in life in a book called the Element by Sir Ken Robinson. His formula, which I am going to connect to attitude, is “I get it, I love it, I want it, where is it.”

The first part of attitude deals with logic. When it comes to finding success and passion in life, I want you to think logically: What are you good at? What do you get? What do you understand?

Robinson writes, “Our aptitudes are highly personal. They may be for general types of activity, like math, music, sport, poetry, or political theory. They can also be highly specific—not music in general but jazz or rap. Not wind instruments in general, but the flute. Not science, but biochemistry. Not track and field, but the long jump.”

So what are the things you understand or are good at doing? What would it be logical for you to do with your life?

The second part of attitude deals with our emotion. In terms of finding our personal passions, you have to ask yourself: what do you love to do? Certainly, we will not love everything that we are good at doing, and we may love some things that we do not think we are all that good at doing. Robinson shares a fascinating story about his brother, who is a musician.

Robinson writes:

“I told Charles [his brother] how well I thought he played keyboards. Then I said I’d love to play keyboards that well. ‘No you wouldn’t,’ he responded. Taken aback, I insisted that I really would. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You mean you like the idea of playing keyboards. If you’d love to the play them, you’d be doing it.’ He said that to play as well as he did, he practiced every day for three or four hours in addition to performing. He’d been doing that for seven years. Suddenly playing keyboards as well as Charles did didn’t seem that appealing. I asked him how he kept up with that level of discipline. He said, ‘Because I love it.’ He couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

So what do you love to do?

The third part of attitude is our behavior. In communication studies, we argue that the behavioral part of attitude is determined by a combination of our logical and emotional parts. Similarly, I find that our career passions are also determined by a combination of what we are good at—what we should logically do—and what we love to do.

The third part of Robinson’s formula for finding passion is “I want it.” In other words, you first find what you are good at, then you find what you love to do, and then you must have an even stronger, more enthusiastic attitude of wanting and desiring that particular passion.

So what do you really want out of life? Is there something that you love to do and are good at that you are willing to put in hours and hours of time to master?

Finally, Robinson asks, “Where is it?” Once we know what we are good at, what we love, and what we want, we must then ask, “Where is it?” Where are the opportunities? What will you have to do in order to find it?

So where will you have to go and what will you have to do in order to make what you want to happen actually happen?
Robinson’s formula for finding personal passion: “I get it. I love it. I want it. Where is it?”

In addition to focus and attitude, I also wish to discuss creativity.

Let’s define creativity as the ability and the passion to create new things and adapt to new situations.

There’s a story I heard from a science teacher who asked her students to observe something under a microscope and tell her what they saw. She was frustrated because the students couldn’t describe what they saw. Instead, they asked, “Can’t you just tell us what we’re supposed to be looking for?”

The creative mind doesn’t need something specific to look for; the creative mind describes what it sees. But this is hard for students who come from a world of standardized testing, students who have been taught to think in multiple choice, students who are told what they need to know and look for in every class.

Real success—something more important than that ACT you took in high school—isn’t about selecting the correct answer on a standardized test. It’s about being able to explain your reasoning as to why you selected certain answers. Your ability to apply knowledge to new situations will determine your success in college, not your ability to take a multiple choice test.

We hear the term “adaptability” a lot, and that’s why I like that this definition of creativity we are using includes the ability to adapt to new situations. By the time you graduate college, technology will have changed. Will you be able to adapt?

Lastly, creativity—and ultimately your success in college and beyond—relies on your ability to be curious. Curiosity will trigger the questions that guide learning. Curiosity will keep you motivated. But unfortunately, the public school system you went through as a young person often kills curiosity. It is of no fault of the hundreds of wonderful teachers out there. Think about this: if your success and intelligence is determined by how much knowledge you can retain, then you focus on memorization. If education is dominated by memorization, then we have effectively destroyed creativity, curiosity, and exploration.

The same science teacher I previously quoted also said, “If you want to encourage young people to be scientists, it’s not how much they can retain but how much they can explore.”

So I encourage you to explore. Explore the library. Spend your free time browsing shelves just to see what you will find. Take electives outside of your major. Learn to love learning again.

Remember what it was like as a kindergartner? We all looked forward to school, didn’t we? We were excited. We hugged our teachers and we longed for the first day of school at the end of long summers. As the years passed, however, something happened, didn’t it? What happened? We lost our love of learning.

Now, in college, where you have the freedom to explore your passions, learn to love learning again. If you love learning, it is easy to be successful.

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