Most of us spend less than a quarter of our lives in classrooms, but learning doesn’t stop when we finish school. We continue to learn new information and skills so we can tackle all aspects of adulting with as much success as possible.
It’s a fascinating time to be a cognitive scientist or learning professional. We live in a world of great complexity and we must learn and master new things all the time, usually without the help of formal education.
Life admin requires continuous learning for adults.
Our focus as training professionals has been to help people learn new skills and information to get jobs or to do their jobs more effectively. That’s still a challenge (along with its equally challenging cousin – ensuring the dissemination and adoption of research-informed practices in the workplace). But in addition to these workplace tasks, people must also learn skills to manage the growing list of “life admin” tasks that are required just to get life done.
Life admin includes a wide array of tasks. We must learn how to buy health insurance and ask the right questions about coverage and take the right course of action when our claims are denied. We must learn how to save for retirement, manage our money and establish credit. We must learn how to comparison shop and say the right magic words so we will not be overcharged for our Internet, cable or phone service. We must learn how to spot a scam, protect our identity, decide when it’s time to go to the doctor, fix our crashing devices ... it goes on.
The good news is we’re good at figuring out how to get things done.
We are strongest as learners when we have a practical reason to learn things. We are natural problem solvers and we will use all of the tools and information at our disposal to make something work for us.
The bad news is that we’re not as good at understanding complex problems with no intuitive causes and solutions.
Some of our life admin tasks are not so straightforward. This is increasingly true of our tasks as citizens: the problems we face are complex and the policy solutions involve an equally complex set of benefits and tradeoffs. We need to learn enough about policy and governing to vote wisely – not only for candidates but for the many state and local ballot initiatives presented directly to the voting public, a list that grows longer with every passing year of legislative gridlock. But often we don’t learn what we need to know to cast an informed vote: the cognitive load of this task, the time it takes and the lack of learning support pose real barriers.
When we become overwhelmed by this complexity, we turn to heuristics, thinking shortcuts that help us know what to do. One heuristic is political party affiliation. I wonder how much of our current political polarization in the U.S. and elsewhere is a response to overwhelming complexity and a lack of tools to navigate it.
With a world as complicated as ours, we need cognitive division of labor – meaning, we need to rely on experts who know more than we do about many things. To make the most of this setup, we need three key elements:
A population with good reasoning skills and the ability to seek and evaluate information
Experts with some facility in sharing knowledge with non-experts
A societal foundation of trust, so we can believe that experts are usually not lying to us and have our society’s best interests in mind.
This blog will explore all three in different ways and from different angles. Stick around and learn with us!