A new book outlines seven steps to becoming a lifelong learner
by David Valdes Greenwood
When Kim Soucie and Hiram Scott registered for a
writing course through the department of continuing education at Emerson
College, they didn't know each other. On the surface they had little in common:
Soucie, who commutes in from the suburbs, is finishing up a degree in
marketing, while Scott, a Dorchester native, is just beginning to study
communications. But both are prime examples of "peak learners."
"Peak learning" is a term coined by Ronald Gross in his 1991 motivational book
of the same name, which has just been updated in a "21st Century" edition.
Chair of the University Seminar on Innovation at Columbia University, with two
decades of practical research and 15 books on the potential of the human mind
to his credit, Gross specializes in giving confidence to adult learners and
helping them maximize the gifts they bring to and take from later-life
Gross's enthusiasm for the subject is clear even during a phone interview. His
voice is that of a cheerful zealot when he emphasizes the most important thing
an adult who wants to be a peak learner should know before approaching new
courses of study: "To realize that this time it's completely for
you!" he says. This stands in contrast to what many adults remember of college
the first time around, when choices may have been made under parental pressure
and majors were defined by pre-set courses. "It's hard to get rid of the
conditioning and say `It's for me,' " Gross says.
Soucie, 35, agrees. "I was nervous at first . . . but it
was fulfilling," she says. "I was doing it on my own, having my own
accomplishments. And it's the best thing I've ever done for myself." When she
started going back to school five years ago, it filled a need. Coworkers were
focused on child-raising, but she was newly divorced. Instead of pursuing a
family, she wanted to grow professionally. And after 12 years of being a
secretary, she says, she realized she could do more.
At 36, Scott wants more, too. Having produced his own community-access cable
program (The Variety Show on BNN-TV 3) for three years, he wanted
to expand his knowledge of that field and eventually see what opportunities
there were in television and video. He says he knew it would be a
time-consuming process, but "being older didn't make me nervous -- I was
actually looking forward to it." That eagerness to learn is key to what Gross
sees as the "seven essentials for peak learners."
1. You can learn how to learn. Although common myth has it that
effective learning is accomplished only in childhood, recent studies have
proved otherwise. Our brains are not less receptive as we age, but the way we
take in and process information changes. Gross says adult learners simply need
to be aware of how they acquire information best. For Scott, that means being
direct. "When I go to class, I don't feel like I can't ask something. There are
no shackles about asking questions or saying I don't understand."
2. You are already a superb learner on occasion, and you can build
on that natural skill to make the rest of your learning easy, enjoyable, and
productive. Gross encourages people to think about the subjects in which
they soak up information readily. For example, the mind naturally makes room
for understanding and storing information about favorite hobbies and pursuits.
Work situations, too, can provide evidence that you have the capacity to
acquire new skills.
3. You have a personal learning style, which you can identify, take
advantage of, and strengthen to become an even more accomplished
learner. Do you group big ideas together for a broad picture of a
subject, or do you prefer to string step-by-step instructions together into a
specific unified whole? Are you attracted to data or personal communication?
These are just some of the questions Gross asks learners to contemplate as they
search for a course of study that suits them. For Soucie, pursuing a specific
degree program met her needs. "I live better and work better with structure and
organization," she says. "And having to schedule my classes and time for
homework and for team projects in class has helped me be even more organized
with everything else in my life."
4. You learn best when you are most active mentally (and sometimes
physically), making your own decisions about what, how, where, and when to
learn. This idea of active learning -- which requires effort and planning
on the part of the learner -- is crucial to the "peak" experience. Gross says
that "with the freedom of choosing your path, there must also be
responsibility." Scott concurs, noting that "there's no one telling you `you
have to do this and this,' so it means you have to be responsible yourself."
5. You can design the environment that makes your learning more comfortable
and hence more effective. Gross stresses the importance of finding
out whether you are a "lark" or an "owl" (a morning or a night person) and
knowing how posture, atmosphere, and physical setting affect how you learn. For
instance, if you know you can't write while sitting on your sofa, then write at
your desk; if your mind is most active first thing in the morning, do your
homework then and exercise later in the day.
6. You learn most enjoyably by choosing from a rich array of media,
methods, and experiences. The book suggests expanding your knowledge by
availing yourself of paperback literary classics and great artwork reproduced
in books, but this can also mean taking a course that offers you something
other than a credit toward a major. Soucie expected to gain useful
marketing-design and strategy tools in her major classes, but one of her most
influential courses turned out to be in public speaking, a general-education
elective that made her aware of how she talks. "I think I'm a more articulate
person now," she says.
7. You can accelerate your career by l(earning) your living -- mastering
new skills and knowledge virtually every day at work. Gross
encourages learners to build opportunities for growth and mastery into their
work day. Besides encouraging personal development, this can yield praise and
an officewide awareness of your contributions. Soucie's study helped her leave
secretarial work behind; now she works in marketing for an Internet services
company and says, "A lot of my courses have helped me put things together at
work. They help me look at problems a little differently."
That Soucie has been able to get what she wants is what Gross likes to hear.
He doesn't even mind if people think of learning as an analogue to shopping:
"Be active, like a consumer. There's no reason to put up with uncongenial
people and a more expensive product," he says. His description of what
learners/customers must say to themselves sounds like a mantra: "My way, my
price, convenient for me." After all, education is indeed big business, and
course providers actually do think of students in terms of revenue. "Even
continuing-education people," Gross points out, "are still in sales." If
they want your money, they absolutely should give you what you want -- and you
shouldn't feel bad about making your needs known.
information on "peak learning," visit Ronald Gross's Web site at
http://www.lifling.com. His book, Peak Learning: How to Create Your Own
Lifelong Education Program for Personal Enlightenment and Professional
Success, was recently republished by Putnam and is available for $16.95.
The expense involved -- which can be considerable if you choose a degree
program at a private college -- inspires a warning from Scott. "The one thing
I'd tell students is to be sure that you can put in the time for homework and
projects. If you can't commit to the time, then maybe approach it another way."
That is exactly what Gross recommends in his book, suggesting everything from
television to networking to zoos as alternative ways of acquiring knowledge. He
refers to America itself as the Invisible University and encourages adults to
pursue learning even -- or especially -- outside the structure of academia.
In the end, what makes someone a "peak learner" is not the receipt of a
diploma or the acquisition of a title, but the blossoming awareness that he or
she can learn and is entitled to do so. It's a sense of motivation and pride
that gets people up in the morning and makes them succeed, even as they eye the
future. Soucie and Scott know this firsthand, and it's pretty likely that Gross
-- even without meeting them -- would say they're at their peak.
David Valdes Greenwood is a frequent contributor to the