Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Value of Booksmarts?

I’ve spent a large chunk of my 54 years on the planet either formally engaged in the act of learning, or thinking about how learning happens.  It seems to me that we’re all engaged in the learning process, pretty much all day, everyday (whether we’re aware of it or not).  Much of that learning is done on automatic pilot; for instance, once we get a ticket (or two) for passing a school bus with flashing red lights, we learn to STOP when the bus has its red lights flashing.  That powerful lesson was probably not something we got up one morning planning to learn.  It’s just learning that occurs in a happenstance sort of way.

Other kinds of learning we do in a very intentional way, some of it because we really want to - like learning how to put make-up on to make ourselves beautiful, learning how to drive so we can get that precious drivers license, learning how to operate our cool new iPhone, etc.  Sometimes it’s a very intentional AND formal way of learning – like going to college or trade school to learn to be an accountant, or teacher, or welder.

Looking back on many of my learning experiences I see that I learned from a variety of sources and through various “teachers” such as:  the school of hard knocks, books, observing events and people, trying and failing repeatedly, many sermons (mind you, I didn’t learn from all of them), loved ones, teachers, experiences of all kinds, coaches, allies, hundreds of hours of college work, even my enemies.  Again, that learning was the combined result of both formal and informal processes.

My guess is that my experience is not all that different from yours.

Since we all engage in the process of learning every day, then one might argue that there is little point in accumulating the formal evidence that documents our learning (such as diplomas, degrees, and certifications). 

Howard Gardner, the noted Harvard psychologist and educator, says that intelligence “…is the ability to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings.”  That’s a fairly high-brow way of saying that smarts is when you know something or can do something your friends and community value.  In that case, there’s a whole lot of stuff that would make one “intelligent.”  I’m thinking of my grandfather on this note.  He dropped out of school in 8th grade, and went to work to help support his family.  I’ve not personally known anyone with a brighter mind than he had.  However, his “smarts” were not “booksmarts.”  Translate that to mean that he didn’t have any paper credentials documenting his learning/intelligence.  But, as Gardner has rightly noted, my grandfather was held in the highest regard by his community for what he knew and the skills he possessed.  So, what would have, could have, possibly been the added value to him had he actually formalized his expansive knowledge and skills repertoire?

Here’s the deal.  It’s true; learning is learning, whether informal or formal.  True, intelligence is something that is valued by your community, usually (even if it’s the kind of intelligence possessed by mob bosses or gang leaders).  So, like my granddad, what is the need in getting a diploma, pursuing the degree, becoming certified?  What do booksmarts get for you that streetsmarts don’t?

Here’s the way I see it.  The learners that go to the trouble to document their learning and accumulate the evidence that goes with it have a significant advantage over those that don’t.  They get the job interviews the others don’t, they have doors opened that the others don’t, they get the jobs the others can’t.  They’re not one ounce smarter, but they have more opportunities, more options.

It’s really the value of education.  Learning counts.  Proof of that learning counts even more.

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