Learning – from cradle to grave

"Knowledge does not narrow, knowledge only adds...and without knowledge many experiences in life remain very narrow and very shallow..." - Professor Walter Lewin, Professor of Physics, MIT.

While browsing the internet recently, I came across a picture of the giant mainframe computer of the early '80s. While staring at the picture, I was reminiscing the time back in 1988 during my time as a master's student at the University of Reading, England. For the first time in my life, I had to use a computer to prepare a linear regression plot using a software called Lotus 123. That was still the early days of computer and it marks the beginning of my exploration into the wonderful creation of modern time  computer. It was indeed an exciting and thrilling experience for me to be able to plot a graph and derive the equation so easily. I remember using a software called 'Chi-Square' (if I'm not mistaken) as word processor as well as for drawing a simple flow chart. To draw a simple rectangle or square, I had to press the keyboard key several times horizontally and vertically  just to get a simple box shape! Then Word Perfect came to the fore and later became a very popular word processor (apart from Word Star). It has very basic features, just enough to get your work done. It doesn't have What You See is What You Get (WYSWYG) interface but rather what you see is totally different from what you actually get when printed. So on the screen you see yellow text to represent underlined text, green text to represent bold text, etc.  and you have to memorize a few key commands (so rote learning has its role!).

I became very interested and fascinated with computer, partly because I had to use it to analyze data from my research work. So my acquaintance with computer was partly by default but it was also by choice because somehow I could sense the potential of the technology and how I could leverage it for my work. I started to 'indulge' in computer and tried to get my hand on any form of learning materials (mainly book and magazine which are very scarce). My other learning resources include a few very helpful technical staff from the computer centre. There's no formal training  it's mainly learning by reading, asking and DOING!

What's the point of telling this story? Well, there are a few points relevant to knowledge and learning...

First, all of us are learners  and lifelong learners. We learn new things every day. In a publication of the World Bank entitled, "Lifelong Learning in the Global Knowledge Economy: Challenges for Developing Countries", lifelong learning is defined as follows: "A lifelong learning framework encompasses learning throughout the lifecycle, from early childhood to retirement. It encompasses formal learning (schools, training institutions, universities); nonformal learning (structured on-the-job training); and informal learning (skills learned from family members or people in the community).  It allows people to access learning opportunities as they need them rather than because they have reached a certain age".

According to Hargreaves (2004), "Lifelong learning should mean what the term plainly says: learning lasts for life – cradle to grave – and so begins when we are born and embark on the adventure we are well programmed to pursue: learning. The principal function of formal education, therefore, should be to help people to learn, embracing both content (knowledge, skill and understanding of various kinds) and process (the motivation and ability to learn successfully)".

My experience of learning about computer fits in the definition of lifelong learning. I didn't learn computer as a subject in the curriculum but rather it was through informal learning. I constructed my knowledge and skills on using computer practically from zero and build up or accumulate the knowledge over time. I applied my computer skills in my work (as a research student at that time), so I have the opportunity to hone the skills. Soon I became quite good and knowledgable and I spent many hours to help (basically teach) fellow students using computer. All educators would agree, 'the best way to learn is to teach'. Every time when we teach, the knowledge become deeper and deeper and the knowledge expanded. As Professor Walter Lewin said, "Knowledge does not narrow, knowledge only adds...". The learning process continues because now I have to learn not only about computer but also new development in various forms of educational technology.

In the context of teaching, teachers have the advantage over their students because they are more experienced learners. Teachers are supposed to have the skills of searching for the right information in the large pool of knowledge in various domains and constructing that knowledge for meaningful learning. It is important that we pass on the skills to our students. The students of the 21st century are going to need the skills of inquiry  of research  if they are to be able to investigate and to learn and hence be employable in the future. The greatest challenge would be to make our students understand that learning new knowledge is not for the sake of getting good grade in the examination. It's easier said than done especially in the examination oriented systems that are prevailing in most institutions but I guess we have to try very hard to change their mind set. We have to convince our students that they need to have a larger sense of purpose beyond personal achievement in examination. Students have to understand that it is the learning skills that they have to develop to prepare them for a future in which learning will occur in a greater range of contexts.

I believe our role as educators goes beyond transmitting knowledge  our role is to nurture our students to become lifelong learners  to teach them the skills of 'learn how to learn' and to teach them the appreciation and the love for knowledge. This is the essence that would enable our students to become successful lifelong learners. Before we can do this, however, we have to be honest and truthful with ourselves  are we a real lifelong learner? Educators must set examples for students by becoming lifelong learners themselves. They have to keep up-to-date with new knowledge, pedagogical ideas, and technology. If students are to become better learners, it is essential for teachers to become better at what they do. As teachers, we should not sit in our comfort zone but we should continue to grow by challenging ourselves to new skills and new knowledge. This can be achieved through a continuous professional development programme or through own initiative to learn through reading, attending short courses and workshops, etc.

Further readings:


  1. wonderful article and very inspiring !
    thank you for sharing words of wisdom

  2. Hi Shalini, I'm glad that you find the article useful and inspiring. Thank you.

  3. Hi Doc Karim, I really enjoyed reading thru your this eloquent posting.
    I am impressed.
    The world is a better place today because of people like you being involved in your field for the good of mankind.

    I sure admire you with your enthusiasm re your research.
    The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains.
    The superior teacher demonstrates.
    The great teacher inspires.

    And the best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatizes, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself.

    You have a nice day, Doc.
    Best regards.

  4. Hi Uncle Lee,

    The great teacher inspires...students to learn, discover, uncover, think deeply, critically, creatively...thanks for reading and sharing your thought.


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