Personal Learning: Part I

Over the last 35 years, the three books I have written have carried some consistent, if ever-evolving, themes. Two of them are opposite sides of the same coin, the highly personal nature of learning and the value of experiential learning. In Your Hidden Credentials: The Value of Learning Outside of College (Acropolis, Washington, D.C., 1986), I began the discussion about the interplay between personal, academic, and experiential learning. I explain personal learning as the knowledge you gain from your life experiences. There are two parts to this experiential coin: the actual skills and abilities that are concrete and knowable and gained through explicit experience and the values, attitudes and behaviors that you develop or refine through experience, reflection and introspection.

As Dr. Jill Mattuck-Tarule, co-author of Women’s Ways of Knowing, put it in a review,

“By emphasizing making connections between life and learning, Smith’s ideas about ‘personal learning’ make visible a form of adult knowing that has largely been invisible for all adults, and especially women and minorities.”

Though personal and experiential learning were controversial in higher education at that time, I knew I was playing on safe ground philosophically, because John Dewey, that famous Vermont-born philosopher, wrote in Democracy and Education,

“Every experience enacted and undergone modifies the one who acts and undergoes…We often see persons…..(who) have the precious gift of ability to learn from the experiences they have.”

And, as I further developed these notions in The Quiet Crisis: How Higher Education is Failing America (Anker, now Wylie, 2004) fifteen years later, I could more clearly understand how my own life story had included such learning in abundance.

As one example, I remember a day in the late 1980’s when I was sorting old photographs. It was one of those lazy Sunday afternoon jobs for a winter weekend. I came across a picture of me cradling one of my sons. It had been taken a dozen years earlier during my final days at the Community College of Vermont. As I looked at my smiling face in the photo, I realized with a physical shock that I was looking at a stranger, a person who no longer existed. This wasn’t the face I saw in the mirror as I shaved each morning. This was someone young, insulated by his own naïveté, mostly unscarred and unseasoned. I wasn’t that person any longer.

The intervening years had rushed by: elections won and lost, a business venture, success on a school board, my father’s death, becoming a father for the third time. It was dizzying. There was a chasm of unreflected experience gaping between the man in the picture and the person I had become. Looking at the stranger in the photograph, I realized that a river of unreflected learning and change had flowed by and over me. I realized that I had grown away from the earlier version and become, for better or for worse, a new and different person. That is the essence of personal learning.

And my first major professional experiential learning project (Tough 1969) came when I founded the Community College of Vermont in 1970. I was 25 years old and had never managed anything substantial. I’d certainly never founded a college! But I believed that experiential and community-based education could work.

Looking back years later, I realized that I had not learned enough at that point to know that we should not succeed. One observer had, in fact, called us the “bumblebee college” because although the laws of physics suggest that bumblebees are too heavy to fly, they do. He thought that our operation, both educationally and politically, defied gravity.

Despite this gravitational pull, our collective effort was successful. The college survived and went on to greater heights. Today, it prospers. But I believe, in retrospect, that the college’s endurance and success also have their roots in the decision I made to leave the presidency in 1978. I chose to leave because, after almost eight years, what I did not know was catching up to me. I had been capable of launching an innovative college but not, as I was learning on the job, of serving as its continuing leader.

I realized with some pain that I had worked myself beyond my level of competence, that the job increasingly called for more than I knew. That meant that the longer I stayed, the less effective I would become with great liability accruing to the institution. I made the difficult decision to leave this extraordinary venture and look for the next challenge.

Whether my eight years in the president’s chair was one learning project or several is not immediately clear. But it is clear that learning first equipped me to try and that more learning and awareness ultimately warned me to leave.

It was my third book, however, that began the intellectual process of exploring the incredible value of focusing on personal and experiential learning in the just-emerging new ecology of learning. Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: a New Ecology of Learning (Wiley, 2010) began the process of understanding the implications of unlimited free content, unlimited access, unparalleled flexibility, and far greater consistency in curriculum design and assessment. Its assertions, derided by some as interesting but wildly over-stated, have been borne out by innovations in the lifelong learning space since 2010.

In this context, this set of blogs, The New Universe of Learning, is my next step along this pathway. I envision a world in which all learning – personal, experiential, and academic – can be harnessed for personal value, be it personal, social, civic, or economic. In this world, Mattuck-Tarule’s earlier observation that “Smith’s ideas”…(about) the connections between life and learning make visible a form of adult knowing that has largely been invisible for all adults, and especially women and minorities” will become viable and valuable as a new operating reality. In these blogs, I will outline how we are moving from simply making this learning visible to making it accessible and valuable for all learners on their own, personal terms.


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