Alan Levine wrote a post a couple of weeks ago that’s been stuck in my brain ever since, primarily because it asks what I think might be the seminal “next” question for education:

What is going to motivate the large swath of a society to become educated or to learn something in a self-directed fashion? It’s one thing to be facing a need that I need to to know first hand– how to fix a bike dérailleur, how to stop a leaking toilet, how to bake a lemon meringue pie how to add a widget to a web page– these are all places DIY shines, when I know that I don’t know something and want to fill that gap. It is clear when I don’t know something I want to know. Lots of people do this. But what is going to drive people to learn what they don’t think they need to learn? What they don’t know is worth learning? In a DIY world with people tooling up for a better job, are they going to DIY their way into poetry? French literature? Is the limits of education the things we need to know how to perform/get a job? That a bothersome underlying under toe in DIY U- that the purpose of education is to end up in a job. That feels…. lifeless.

The question grew out of his read of DIY U, Anna Kamenetz’s newish book which brought me to some similar wonderings back in April. Back then, looking at it from a parenting perspective, I wrote

Is it any wonder they can’t “take charge of their own education” when that self-directed love of learning on their own was driven out of them by second grade, when no one has ever allowed them to or taught them how do that?

But Alan’s question raises the stakes a bit, I think. Through my very K-12 centric lens, I’ve always looked at this as a challenge for our education system, whereas Alan suggests, it’s really about us all. At a moment where, if we have access, we can know and learn so much about whatever it is that we might be interested in, what will it take for people in general to actually take advantage of this “Cognitive Surplus” as Clay Shirky calls it and move away from the television set and into the DIY Learning world online?

I still think that a lot of this shift will rest in the “passion-based learning” opportunities that John Seely Brown writes so compellingly about. But as Alan suggests, there is a big difference between being passionate about getting the stupid toilet fixed and being passionate to learn, and more importantly create new learning, around all of those great things that you may not even know you could be passionate about. Just because we now have this cognitive surplus doesn’t mean we’re going to take advantage of it.

So after a couple weeks of returning to it, I’m not sure I know what the answer to the question is, (do you?) at least for the adults in the world. For the kids, and for schools however, I think it’s pretty clear. Our most total, laser-like focus has to be on learning, learning that is “lifelong and lifewide,” and making sure we do everything we can to expose our kids to as many different subjects and experiences as we can early on to help them identify what their passions might be. As a parent right now, I would gladly give up a lot of the “knowing” that my kids are doing, a lot of the content that’s being crammed in their heads, in exchange for time spent on what learning can be at a time when they have 2 billion potential teachers at their fingertips. Do that, and they’ll find the content they need when they need it, but they’ll also then have a much better chance of carrying that seed of self-direction with them throughout their lives.

That’s a huge shift in the role of schools, no doubt, and it ain’t going to come easy since “learning” isn’t near as easy to assess as “knowing.” But looking at the world as it is, not as it was, how can we not begin to make that shift?