How to Learn for Doing: Take a Gap Year!

Increasingly, people are realizing that the true value of education lies not in the degree, but rather the student’s ability to use available resources to further improve themselves.

Ben Kim, Why I Wish I Took a Gap Year Before Starting College

Malia Obama is only one of the more high-profile pre-college students to take a year before continuing her education. Both the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge postponed college when they were still William and Catherine. While the practice is becoming more refined and more common in the U.S. and around the world, vestigial images remain of counter-cultural hitchhiking across the country, backpacking across Europe, or volunteer experiences in developing nations across the globe.

What is fascinating about the revamped gap year experiences of today, besides their more formalized approach and entrepreneurial nature of many of the providers of such experiences, is how Gap Year v.3 reflects changing perspectives on learning.

Where’s the gap?

I’m a big fan of Uncollege, and its founder, Dale Stephens, author of Hacking Your Education. Uncollege offers an organized gap year program during which participants travel and volunteer, work on portfolios, and complete an internship in a selected field. It’s a well thought-out approach that balances mentoring with self-directed learning, and while some participants go on to college, not all do. The goal of the program is more about preparation for life than it is about college.

There are a growing number of what we might call gap year service providers, including Where There Be Dragons, the three-month program Ms. Obama attended, Uncollege, the more familiar Outward Bound program, and many others, including programs established by universities such as Tufts, Yale, Princeton, and UNC Chapel hill, which may be fully funded or offer stipends to accepted students.

And there’s where it gets confusing. If a university is offering gap year experience, where’s the gap?

Is this what continuous learning looks like?

Ben Kim’s short post quoted above encourages people to explore life a bit before college, and in so doing, better prepare for the college experience. Step back, in a sense, in order to step forward. What is interesting is the degree to which learning, or perhaps formalized learning is or is not decoupled from “life” during the gap year experience nowadays.

Much has been written by Sir Ken Robinson, John Paul Gatto, Alfie Kohn, Peter Gray and many others about how the very structure of formal education has been a deterrent to children developing their own love of learning. If we turn the gap year into an unofficial grade 14, will kids be free to “decompress” from the first 13 years of schooling before taking on the challenge of college?

Or, can we look forward to major changes in education so that it isn’t so much something to be taken a break from? If school-as-we-know-it can truly benefit from improved understanding of how people learn, how technology can be employed for increasing personalization of learning, and how the profession of teaching can be liberated from now traditional norms, perhaps the gap year can be more of what it was originally intended: a way to see the world and to see yourself from a different perspective and yes, learn from it.

Another type of gap

The discussion on what a gap year can or should be goes beyond consideration of what K-16 education should look like. It also calls to question how we prepare and transition people for and into the workplace. The increasing momentum in corporate training around continuous learning, reskilling, and the powerful case for content curation, performance support, and micro-learning in place of more formalized learning events would be much better served if kids could think of learning as more than a series of isolated events and more of an ongoing, lifelong process.

And that’s how we get to learning for doing without too much of a gap in understanding!

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