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Personal Learning: Charting Its Past, Present, and—Most Importantly, Its Future

The lessons each of us gains from life experience are becoming critical to our professional worlds as workplace demands evolve.

April 13, 2020 By: Peter Smith Read time:

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Personal Learning: Charting Its Past, Present, and—Most Importantly, Its Future

Historically, experiential learning or personal learning was just that: personal, random, and virtually undefined. In terms of formal education, it was all but ignored. But during the last half-century—and especially in the last decade—personal learning is finally being recognized for its academic and economic value beyond what it means for an individual’s own growth and worldview.

And where once the formal education system that awards degrees and certificates supported personal learning only haltingly and inefficiently, today new technology and online resources are transforming how this kind of learning is recognized and validated—and how it can help people tailor their learning needs throughout their lives. These are essential developments, because personal and lifelong learning provides indispensable skills for the workplace.

To begin, let’s be clear on the meaning of personal learning: Like all learning, it leads to the acquisition of new knowledge and concrete skills. It also drives changes in attitudes and behavior as people continually grow and evolve. Both aspects are important elements in one’s career and social and civic lives. What differentiates it from more formalized education is that it is based on how we live our daily lives and the lessons we take from our experiences—from personal insights we might gain from, say, a traumatic event such as the death of a spouse, to skills we might attain as a caregiver to an aging parent, to new knowledge gleaned from workplace training sessions, and so many experiences in between.

Personal learning, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Consider the phrases and stories laced throughout American folklore that celebrate the lessons of life: Live and Learn, The School of Hard Knocks, Older but Wiser.

The message is clear. You can learn from your lived experience. And there are strong and useful connections between this knowledge, personal learning, and success. 

But how to measure this kind of learning so it can be recognized and more fully developed? Allen Tough, the noted Canadian educator and researcher, began to document these human truths more formally with his career-long research on personal learning, beginning in the early 1960s. Tough found that people learn actively and purposefully all the time. In fact, he found that the median adult spends about 15 hours a week on highly specific learning projects outside of college.

Consider some possible sources of this learning. You are learning when:

  • You look at videos on Facebook about child development and discuss parenting with a friend to better nurture the children in your life;
  • Your supervisor at work demonstrates a new technique, or the company brings in a presenter to explain new technological or process developments;
  • You learn how to use a new computer program;
  • You develop a health and diet plan to keep more physically fit while eating well;
  • You face a humbling event in your life that causes you to reflect on your own behavior and make some changes;
  • You learn how to play an instrument, engage in therapy, or learn a new sport;
  • You come to a turning point in your life and use it to transition into a new future.

This personal learning has three important characteristics:

  • It is personal. You often learn alone or in small groups in an informal setting.
  • It is purposeful. You always learn for a reason.
  • It is powerful. Personal learning is continuously changing you, developing your behavior, skills, knowledge, and attitudes into a constantly evolving set of hidden credentials.

But there is another, more difficult truth about personal learning: You tend to internalize it and, in the process, “forget” the learning you have done. As Tough wrote in his 1971 book, The Adult’s Learning Projects:

“If you are like most people, you haven’t seriously considered the possibility that you have achieved significant personal learning, let alone tried to put a value on it. But it is there throughout your life, an iceberg of knowledge, but only revealing tips of ability while leaving the larger body of knowledge and ability hidden beneath the surface. If you do not understand and value your experience and the learning it contains, you can be imprisoned by it, unconscious of its influence on your worldview, your skills, and your knowledge. Losing track of your learning and its value means losing track of who you are becoming and why. (Italics added.)

We know that people undertake a median number of 15 learning projects a year totaling about 800 hours. But interestingly … when asked about their learning efforts, many of our interviewees recalled none at first. As the interviews proceeded, however, they recalled several recent efforts to learn.” (Italics added.)

Since personal learning is, well, personal, here is an example from my own life that illustrates those findings.

On a lazy winter Sunday afternoon in the mid-1980s, I was sorting through old photographs. I came across a picture of me cradling one of my sons, taken at least a dozen years earlier, when I was president of the Community College of Vermont.

As I looked at the smiling person holding the infant in the photo, I felt a physical shock as I realized that I was looking at a stranger. This was not the person I saw in the mirror each morning when I shaved. This was someone much younger, insulated by his own naivete, mostly unscarred and unseasoned. The man in the picture had not known failure in business, had not suffered defeat in politics. In the 12 years since that photo was taken, I had developed and evolved into a different version of myself.

The events of the intervening years had rushed by: my father’s death, becoming a father myself for the third time, elections won and lost, and serving in statewide political office. There was a chasm of unreflected experience between the man in the picture and the person I had become. I realized that I had become, for better or for worse, a new and more nuanced person. And I needed to get to know this Peter Smith better.

There are countless similar stories, many with more direct applications to preparing yourself for the workforce. A student I knew at the Community College of Vermont, Jason DeForge, had not finished college in his younger years because of family circumstances and plunged into work. He grew in his job, and one day a supervisor noticed him leading a training session. The supervisor was impressed by his abilities and urged him, 20 years after leaving college, to return to school. The initial coursework had DeForge prepare an assessment of his experiential learning. It was a revelation, he recalled:

“I was totally divorced from any knowledge of my personal learning. Had no idea what was in there. But as I got going, I saw my life rolling out in front of me. … I had worked at a print shop, and I discovered that the learning I did there was equal to some early college-level courses. The big difference was this: When you learn something for the first time in college, it is an abstraction. … When you learn it at work … it is in a real-world context. This has been a life-changing experience for me.”

These sorts of assessments remind us that personal learning is present, powerful, and there to be harnessed for economic, social, civic, and personal gain in millions of adults. Think of it this way: There is an enormous untapped source of talent and capacity walking around this country. And if it is tapped, not only will the individuals whose learning is being respected benefit—socially, civically, and economically—but our society will benefit as well.

Happily, there has been significant change in the ways we can generate, support, and harness personal learning. As we have moved toward an information-rich society, there have been two major developments.

The first is that the traditional academic conceits that belittled personal and experiential learning as being less valuable than college-based learning are crumbling. In fact, there is mounting evidence that suggests that personal learning is a critical (and majority) component in workplace and personal success in many cases. The Strada Institute for the Future of Work, where I am on the advisory board, is plumbing the depths of the many ways in which knowledge gained through personal learning can be very valuable when applied in the workplace.

The second development is that technologies, applications, platforms, and dynamic databases are emerging that will be able to identify, support, and validate personal learning at a scale and with precision that was previously unimaginable. At the University of Maryland Global Campus, where I currently work, we are developing the capacity to scale assessment of prior learning and map it to learning outcomes in the curriculum through a program called Qualified. 

This marks a new phase of how larger society is recognizing the value of personal learning. Whereas personal learning was once purely individualistic and random, the late 1940s saw the beginning of the progressive education movement, which developed practices to organize the assessment of personal and experiential learning. These practices became institutionalized through such organizations as the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. As important as those developments were, the new technologies will allow us to take the recognition of personal learning global. 

Knowledge gained through personal learning can be very valuable when applied in the workplace.

There are also a number of services and practices already underway or in design that will support recognition of personal learning. These include algorithms that will analyze learners and provide feedback on their place in their learning journey and what gaps need to be filled, the creation of “continuous academic records” that will travel with people throughout life to record and value their learning, and the development of open education resources that, without cost, build microcredentials and degrees tailored to learners and their employers.

Fortunately, there is also an institutional foundation to build upon. “Adult-friendly” colleges such as the University of Maryland Global Campus develop learning programs around the needs and the existing strengths of the adult learner. And when I interviewed the presidents of several similar colleges, they agreed that a closer connection between learning and work was becoming essential for the future of both.

Data Points

15: The hours a week the median U.S. adult spends on highly specific learning projects outside of college. TWEET

Data Points

1940s: The decade which saw the beginning of the progressive education movement. TWEET

Data Points

This movement developed practices to organize the assessment of personal and experiential learning.

Data Points

We know that people undertake a median number of 15 learning projects a year totaling about 800 hours. TWEET

Data Points

But interestingly … when asked about their learning efforts, many of our interviewees recalled none at first. As the interviews proceeded, however, they recalled several recent efforts to learn.”

There also are many new organizations and businesses joining the field with the express intent of removing the barriers between learning and work by building on and supplementing what adult learners already know. Some are creating enormous databases of credentials and employing common language to identify the commonalities among different credentials. The common denominator that runs through all of these and many other new efforts is that the learning you do outside of college and away from formal educational programs is being recognized as valuable both personally and in the workplace. For example, online platforms are available that identify the needs of a learner, match learning resources to those needs, and then match the learning done with employers’ needs for new employees.

While these systems and supports are being established, it is essential that people take responsibility for their personal learning. We all should value the chances life gives us to grow. We can embrace the new technologies and programs to get better information about how our skills align with the needs of the workplace. And we can learn to recognize the turning points in our lives as opportunities for change and improvement.

The Takeaway

A closer connection between personal learning and work is becoming essential for the future of both.

Peter Smith was the founding president of California State University Monterey Bay and the Community College of Vermont and currently serves as the Orkand Endowed Chair and senior vice president/chief academic officer at the University of Maryland Global Campus. He is the author of Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education.

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