Sunday, August 27, 2017

How to become a Life-Long Learner: Mission of Developing Life-Long Learners

This is the first orientation of new students of IoBM over the last 23 years, where our founder president, Mr Shahjehan Karim is not present. He left us for the hereafter last month. Inna lillahe wa inna ilaihi rajioon. He worked tirelessly all his life to make a world a better place. This institution of IoBM is a testimony to his vision, his mission and his aspirations. One can talk about his achievements for hours. But, today at the Orientation for New Students,
I will focus on one single point; the mission and purpose of IoBM. Mission of an organization is the reason d'etre of why the organization exists. One can see in the following mission statement, Mr Shahjehan S Karim's love for learning, love for the youth, and through them his hopes and aspirations for the future: "The mission of the Institute of Business Management is to foster a learning environment where students are motivated to make learning an on-going life-long process. "
[Aug 26, 2017]
As I ponder over this simple sentence which is right there on the first page of our catalog I marvel at its simplicity and its depth. This mission statement specifies the reason of existence of IoBM and hence by implication the reason of existence of all of its relationships. This mission statement represents the reason of existence of students, faculty, administration, management, HoDs, Deans, Higher management and advisers. All of us exist in our relationships with the institution for fostering an environment where students come to become life-long learners. Please note that this mission is not specific to IoBM. I think this is the real mission of ALL educational institutions; schools, colleges or universities. Enabling an environment which produces life-long learners is also the mission of family, community and society from the perspective of ensuring that the new generation carries forward the legacy of values and achievements. And this was the perspective from which the President and the Chancellor of IoBM spoke at this event while highlighting the values of ethics and care for the parents need to be transmitted.

As I contemplate how can I demonstrate to the international accreditation bodies like AACSB and ABET that we are striving to develop an environment which fosters life-long learning, I realize the immensity and scope of this mission. Accreditation by top academic bodies of the world is linked to IoBM's vision of becoming the leading institution of education, nationally and internationally. This vision and this mission occupied the time of the founder president during the latter part of his life. 
As I contemplate over the policies and procedures that create an environment where students can become life-long learners, I have come to the conclusion that this is not possible unless students adopt this mission to become life-long learners as a purpose of their lives. And, students can not become life-long learners unless our environment motivates and inspires them through role models who are themselves life-long learners: (i) Unless our teachers and faculty members also adopt the mission of life-long learning and demonstrate through their action and deeds that they are life-long learners. (ii) Unless the curriculum designers, i.e. the Deans and HoDs, and the curriculum contributes towards making the students life-long learners. (iv) Unless the staff and administration through their interactions and processes demonstrate that they are also life-long learners. (v) Unless the  higher management, and advisers through their systems and policies create a learning organization that is continually improving and learning; we would not have an organization which Peter Senge defines as "Schools that learn" [1]. 

Life-long learning is an effort that goes on for ever. As I see your bright faces and your beaming futures, I must emphasize that your entry to IoBM university is not the start of learning and your exit from the university will not be its end. You are not here to pursue your 2-year degree or your 4 year degree. You are here to become life-long learners. The award of the degree that you have just enrolled  in is only ONE stage of your on-going life-long learning process. Your learning started when you cried for the first time, which happened when you opened your eyes at the time of your birth. Actually it started earlier when you were conceived. Your learning continued in your infancy, it continued when you were a toddler, it went on during school, and continues now when you are here at this university. It must continue during your studies, play, recreation, interactions, and your classes. You are learning all the time [2]. It must also continue after you leave the university; at your jobs, at home, with friends, in your social circles and everywhere till the very end, the penultimate time, when you have to leave all of this for the hereafter!

Today I would talk about 5 things that are essential for becoming a life-long learner:
(i) Understanding what is pursuit of excellence and its role in making it an on-going life-long quest. (ii) Motivation for adopting this quest comes from diving into your soul and discovering your inner calling, which is called the mission of your life. (iii) This mission then enables you to make your experiential learning a permanent source of creativity and sustenance. We all know who an illiterate is: "Illiterate" is a person who can not read and who can not write. However, do we know what do we call a person who can read but is not a "reader", and who can write but is not a "writer"! Such a person is called a "functional illiterate". You rise from the state of "functional illiteracy" only when (iv) you become a reader and only when (v)  you become a writer. It is only then that you really become a life-long learner. 
 Contents:
1. Pursuit of Excellence  
2. How to Discover your Inner-Calling 
3. Experiential Learning and Reflection 
4. How to become a reader and  
5. How to become a writer

1. Pursuit of Excellence vs "Guzara"

We expect that you are learning during each and every breath that you take. Every subsequent breath of yours should be better than your previous [3]. Every instant of your life should be better than the previous one. This is meant by life-long learning. This is also called the "pursuit of excellence". 

Our people are afflicted by a disease called the "guzara" disease. We are trying to just live by. Often whatever we do, we try to do it with 2nd class or 3rd class quality ("2 number or 3 number"). We never try to excel ourselves, we don't try to be better than the way we did last time, we don't try to improve ourselves. We try to subsist. We seem to be perpetually in a survival mode. We are happy in our comfort zone. We just try to do the minimum to survive although we can do better.
Whenever I see the reports written by students, I notice that they could have done better, but they did not. Pursuit of excellence means the "best" that you can deliver. What is "best" was once described to me as follows: What will you do, if you are taken some distance in to the deep sea and thrown aboard? The effort that you would make, the struggle that you would do to keep afloat, the energy that you would expand is your "best". Anything less is NOT your best! In this regard, I am reminded of the oath of scouting that we used to take when we were in school:
"On my honor, I will do my best. To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight." [4]
We see "guzara disease" in the roads constructed a few months earlier being swept away by the first rain. We conveniently think that this is due to corruption and responsibility and the fault lies elsewhere. However, I see a similar "guzara" in the work of students and other employees. When they submit to me a report or an application, I read the first couple of lines and I can see that they could have done better but did not. They knew that they have made a mistake which they could have corrected but did not. They could have written in a more legible manner but they did not. They could have constructed the argument better but did not. They could have structured their writing better but did not. They could have re-read it to remove the mistakes that they could but they chose not. They could have re-read it several times to remove all the mistakes that they could but chose not to. This is "guzara", the bane of why we are where we are! Dear Students, make pursuit of excellence your motto.

2. How to Discover your Inner Calling

What would motivate you to keep you awake night and day striving to make each of your breath better than the previous one. One thing is certain that this life-long continual effort can not be justified on philosophies underlying popular phrases that we throw around with abandon, and often make them the motto of our lives; phrases like "what-the-heck", "all-is-well", "I-don't-care", "who-cares" etc. 

Life is real, life is earnest and life is not an empty dream [5]. You need to discover your inner calling: 

Apne Mann Mein Doob Kar Pa Ja Suragh-E-Zindagi
Tu Agar Mera Nahin Banta Na Bann, Apna To Bann [6]
Delve into your soul and seek out the secret of your life;
If you can not be mine, then don't be mine, but at least be your own!

You discover your mission and your purpose when you discover why you are here and what does it mean to exist, and what is the meaning of your life. This you can only do by going deep inside your soul to discover the secret and hidden tracks that would lead you to your inner-calling, your mission in life, your purpose of why you are here. This is again a life-long quest. It is a difficult task but a necessary responsibility of growing up and taking charge of your life. This must precede any great contribution that you make for your own self, your family, your community, and to humanity. 

3. Experiential Learning and Reflection

During interviews when I ask a technical question, I frequently hear the excuse that Sir I am sorry I studied it a few (some semesters or years ago) and have now forgotten. How come what you learned did not become a part of yourself? There are several things that you learned but had not forgotten, why?
Why do you forget some things but remember others far more trivial and far more distant in past. I think the basic reason is connecting your learning with your experience and your reflections. Whatever we hear, observe, read, and learn we must try to connect it with our experience, and then connect it with our existing knowledge. Connecting new observations with the existing knowledge in our mind requires recalling existing links or creating new links. It also requires putting the facts in existing or new categories. This can only happen through deep reflection. However, we often do not have time for deep thinking. Please take time out for reflection. Reflection is what makes you innovative and creative. Reflection is where new ideas come. This is the time for new advances. Remembering facts is no longer the objective. Creating new ideas is the name of the game, which can not happen if through reflection you are not re-organizing and re-arranging the information that you currently have.

Experiential learning is a major initiative and you would find it in your courses and in your capstone projects. These projects connect your experience with reflection through a process that is called learning by doing.

4. How to Become a Reader

The evidence of you being a life-long learner is your habit of reading. As part of the interview panel for new university admissions over the last 20 years, I routinely ask the candidates about the books they read and have read. The candidates who have read books unrelated to passing the exam is no more than 5 out of 100. The number keeps going down. Out of these 5, a couple have just read a book or two. Please note my interest is in identifying readers of any non-course book, English or Urdu or whatever. Initially I thought the issue was technology. But now I think the issue is systemic and much deeper and relates to the current method of teaching at schools.
But are you all readers? In one sense, you are all readers. Readers of a book, Facebook! But, is this reading a real reading? Is sharing of a few sentences, jokes, and senseless comments constitute reading? Facebook is important but only if you use it for increasing your depth and the depth of others. It is important for consciously developing ideas by referring to more in-depth articles. The interaction is worthwhile only if you have the ability to sustain in-depth discussions on a topic without flying off at a tangent. This requires focus, concentration and deep reflection. 
Without in-depth analysis and deep reading these social media interactions would make you a fodder of those who are out there to prowl and exploit. At minimum they are out there to make money from you, without giving you any thing in exchange for you giving them the liberty to analyze and pick on your mind and your behavior which is what google and Facebook is doing to become the richest companies of the world. 

To become a life-long learner, you need to have some favorite online websites and blogs that you must access every day. There need to be one or more newspaper websites that you regularly subscribe to. There ought to be a couple of websites with your hobby related content of which you are a regular visitor. You need also to subscribe to a physical newspaper. Habit of reading and coming across content that you are not pulling is indispensable. You also need to have personal library where you read from. Some people tell me that they read online books. I tell them that I also have hundreds and thousands of e-books on my computer disk. However, the only book that I have ever gotten to sit down and read have been the ones lying around on my table, or around my bed side or in the living room. Soft copies are too soft. And. they exist in the "virtual" world. Get real for a change and enter the real world!

I would strongly urge you to go daily for a few minutes to ted.com. The site's motto is "ideas worth sharing" and all of its videos which are about 18 minutes each are worthy of sharing and watching again and again. Indeed if you watch a video will feel the urge to share the exciting message in the video to all those you deeply feel about. 

Reading is a contagious disease, it can not be taught. It can only be caught and that too from someone who already has the disease. Our faculty must all be afflicted with this disease. This is a tall order and is the reason for our functional illiteracy. We have started some literary clubs where people with such afflictions meet regularly. There is  reading club, poetry club, speakers club, writers club, thinkers club etc. They encourage the students to come and enjoy reading and writing. 

5. How to Become a Writer

Writing is fun and a cathartic experience. You need to write to understand the immensity of what you gain when you write. We expect every student to become a writer. Your personal blog should be your portfolio of the projects, experiences and learning.

Writing reduces tension, lets you vent out your feelings and emotions, give a voice to things that can not be said. During writing you discover that the sequence in which thoughts were coming is not logical. Writing helps you re-arrange your thoughts to make them more powerful, logical and convincing. Writing enables you to discover nuances that thinking and speaking can not reveal. Once you start writing you feel that the urge to write starts building up as you observe more minutely the things that you would have otherwise ignored. It sharpens your observation, and makes you remember things that otherwise you will miss and forget. It becomes a repository that would give you great comfort that your life has not been in vain. There is at least some thing you have accomplished. Over time, this repertoire of your writing becomes a track with which you can progress. This also helps when you need to go back and make people understand what you may not have time to explain.

Join the Writing Club. Ensure that your Writing Intensive Courses are generating worthwhile writing that are embellishing your personal blog. 

I started writing this blog four years ago. I try to put here all my learning, speeches, observations and my reflections. It has been great vehicle to transmit my learning. Please make your blog also such a repository. You starting today would have what a wonderful collection of writings by the time you are my age!

References: 

[1] Schools that Learn, by Peter Senge
[2] Learning All the Time by John Holt
[3]
[4] Scouting Oath
[5] A Psalm of Life, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
[3] Iqbal's Bale Jibril, # 27 

See Also: 



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