In my blog “Success in study and career highly depends on grit” I wrote “21st Century skills sound to me as a hollow phrase. Many of these skills have been important since ages!” Lifelong learning is such a skill that is not unique to the 21st century, neither for students nor for employees or persons who are self-employed, although it is obvious that learning how to manage continuous change and uncertainty is a key qualification in modern life. Everybody will face challenges in many facets of his or her work and life.
The model of “learn at school” and “do at work” is no longer sustainable. Reskilling and lifelong learning is a way of life at work. Has it ever been different? And would not it be boring without lifelong learning?
Lifelong learning in the early 20th century
My parents were a traditional farmers family with only 15 dairy cows, 7 ha of meadows and an apple and pear orchard. It’s less than 50 years ago. They managed to adapt their life to the revolution of mechanisation and the mass production of goods that had a massive impact on transport and food production. Suddenly it became possible for them to consume and use goods that were produced far away. They adapted to the revolutions of electricity and telephone communications, and they just touched upon the initial signs of the digital transformation with the rise of computers and automation, before they died after a rich and fulfilled life. They could never have imagined that this digital transformation would lead to a globalisation where businesses cross borders to combine high tech with low wages. Nor could they have imagined that farming would transition into an agricultural industry I see every day in the ultramodern farm of my current neighbour in the Green Heart of Holland. This farmer owns hundreds of hectares of grasslands and more than 800 dairy cows that are milked by robots and fed by an intelligent system that computes food composition and quantity for optimal milk quality and production on the basis an algorithm that takes cow vital statistics, food ingredients, environmental data and lots of other information into account. Where will we go from there?
From university study to engineering practice
I can’t think of any lifelong learning element in my aerospace curriculum in the late seventies. Still, I and hundreds of thousands of Baby Boomers with me, have been able to move on from computing numerical solutions of engineering problems by using a slide ruler, via the rapid evolution of pocket calculators, punch cards, terminals connected to mainframe computers, the internet, personal computers, to laptops and apps with data and software stored on servers or in the cloud. Without having heard about lifelong learning, I moved from a study in mainly aeronautical engineering with its focus on aircraft design, structures and manufacturing, into the engineering business of spaceflight, where I learnt designing satellite systems, satellite testing, managing design, development and verification processes of spacecraft systems, and finally systems engineering of highly advanced space instruments in an intercultural and interdisciplinary team of engineers, scientists and agencies.
From engineering practice back to the academic world
After 21 years of engineering practice I returned to TU Delft where it had all begun, to teach my experience in space engineering practice to the young generation. I not only had to acquire didactic skills, also to upgrade the in-depth theoretical knowledge about electro-optical instrumentation. When I took the lead on the five-year reconstruction project of the Bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering I had to acquire skills about leadership of academic professionals. Last but not least I switched early 2014 to an in-depth investigation and synthesis of the impact of the rapidly changing world on higher education in engineering, science and technology. This was a completely unexplored area for me, the subject matter as well as search as such.
What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?
The above demonstrates that lifelong learning is from all times and not unique for the 21st century. My life has been full of learning, upskilling and unskilling for more than forty years already. The combination of experience in the industrial and academic world has resulted in a rich personal history I use to reflect upon. It enables me to develop a view on the future of higher engineering education, in spite of the highly uncertain scenarios in technology and society. The more I know and understand, the more I admire the knowledge, insights and perspectives of the people around me. Young people of the Millennial and Gen-Z generations simply can’t imagine the value of that richness yet. They will maybe build up an even more diverse richness, as they will face more challenges and changes in their work than I have experienced as a Baby Boomer. They will probably make demanding choices and change jobs more often than I have done in my whole life.
“I keep on making what I cannot yet do, in order to learn how to do it” (quote Vincent van Gogh, 1885)
Lifelong learning makes life engaging and enjoying
Lifelong learning reaches beyond the world of work. A bike ride on a sunny Sunday in October to an Arts Route in De Kwakel, a small village in my neighbourhood, inspired me to discover my talent in oil painting, while I realised I had zero experience in oil paint or paintbrushes. It seemed an exciting way to me to create art and visualise how I see the world around me. It would be so different from the abstract thinking, problem solving, designing, engineering, planning and writing of texts and reports which I have doing since many decades.
Thus I develop a new awareness how I actually see the physical and artistic world around me. The course not only shapes my painting skills but also my taste. The lessons make leisure days more purposeful and enjoying, and charge the batteries for my regular work of developing a vision of the other world and transforming higher engineering education.
Attempting new things
Lifelong learning is not a necessary evil. Having the courage to go off the beaten track and attempt something new, makes life engaging and enjoying.