Lifelong Learning: Risks and Rewards for the L-plate Adult

Lifelong Learning: Risks and Rewards for the L-plate Adult

November 23, 2018

Schools and educators around the world have been extolling the virtues of lifelong learning for many years, if not millennia. I have spoken of this ideal myself at many parent briefings. The practical difficulty that many struggle with is that when seen by the world as a student, the status of learner is clear to all. Learners are perhaps seen by some as incomplete, works in progress, not quite ready – but for what? On the road, for example, the sight of an ‘L-plate’ on a car signals to other drivers that the driver is still acquiring basic skills to pilot the vehicle; experienced drivers tend to give L-platers a wide berth for safety. In Hong Kong, certain roads with steep gradients are closed to learner drivers on grounds of public safety.

After graduation, we enter the world of adult competency and increasingly project an aura of professional authority, backed by carefully constructed technical expertise and rich experience.  We discard our professional L-plates to become experts. The notion of an expert who is also a learner is seen by some as contradictory. Why would someone with mastery in a field of human endeavor voluntarily lower their status to that of a learner? And even if someone were willing to do this, the risks seem to be significant. Won’t we lose face if we admit to ignorance? What will others think of us if we revert to the status of student?

There is a rich body of professional literature that actively promotes this notion of perpetual learning as more than a virtue: it is seen as a sine qua non of true professional expertise. Experts are urged, if not compelled by registration boards, to retain the practice of learning, even as they exercise their professional skill. In the field of medicine, scientific knowledge is increasing exponentially, and on an annual basis, so doctors must keep to date with the latest advances in treatment. I am sure that none of us would like to be treated by a doctor practicing 1970s medicine. For lawyers, new legal precedents rewrite the landscape for litigation on a regular basis; we all want to be represented by legal experts with current knowledge of the law.

In the field of education, teachers are also required to demonstrate a commitment to professional development and learning. In my view, the best teachers are always avid learners, researching things they do not understand, exploring new ideas and techniques for the classroom. They exchange ideas with other teachers, observe lessons taught by other teachers, and look for novel approaches to dealing with learning challenges. Some undertake higher degrees by research in pursuit of learning.

In a very real sense, attaching a permanent L-plate to one’s professional endeavors should be viewed as highly virtuous, if not expected.

Stepping outside of one’s zone of professional competence into the unknown, however, is a completely different challenge. This is where we leave the comfort of our ‘home’ territory, where we know quite a bit, to an alien landscape of unfamiliar terminology and mysterious practices. Taking the step into the unknown is an act of courage that for many is asking too much. And yet, true lifelong learning asks, if not demands, us to take the leap into the unknown.

In recent weeks, a small band of enthusiastic parents (pictured below), each with their own domains of professional expertise, took the extraordinary step to enter our molecular biology laboratory to become apprentice researchers. As they arrived for their first session in the laboratory, full of uncertainty and perhaps some misgivings at taking such a risk, they were reassured by the laboratory scientists, Professor Fred Leung and Dr. Simon Griffin, that they already knew quite a lot, much more than they probably realized. Their learning in the laboratory included an introduction to some basic principles and practices of scientific research, moving on to an introduction to some experimental techniques.

These brave learners are a wonderful example to all of us. They exemplify the spirit of lifelong learning. We can espouse a commitment to lifelong learning to our children and others, but the proof of this is found not in our brave words, but in our willingness to have the courage to enter an unfamiliar environment, don a student’s white coat, and proudly display our L-plates as learners.

Learning! Learning! Learning!

Short Course in Molecular Biology for Parents

The Short Course in Molecular Biology for Parents is a program that consists of six 2-hour laboratory sessions designed to introduce parents to the Shuyuan Molecular Biology Laboratory; to some of the thinking and techniques of modern biological research; and, to some of the things that the students are doing (e.g. in the Molecular Biotechnology and STEM CCAs).

A key part of the program involves carrying out the genetic transformation of a bacterium.  This means introducing a new piece of DNA code into a bacterium in order to make it do something new – i.e. to make a fluorescent protein normally found in jellyfish. Along the way, parents also learn a range of techniques, such as protein extraction, purification and analysis, as well as some standard but versatile laboratory protocols.

Parents are often apprehensive about not having studied much science before or not having studied for a long time. In fact, they soon discover that they know more than they realise and that the key to unlocking that knowledge is to make connections and to ask questions.

One cohort of parents has already completed the course, three groups are currently taking the course and three more groups are set to begin in January.

For parents who are interested in taking the Short Course in Molecular Biology or in finding out more, please access the following link and supply the required details



Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Head of School

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