Lifelong Learning: Modeling for Students and Faculty

A man reading a book to be a lifelong learning
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I have tried to stay fit since my teens, and four decades later, I was still training at the same intensity until pain in my joints creeped in. Like any stubborn person in denial, I ignored it and suffered. Then I spent a weekend with my sister and her husband, who showed me an innovative approach to strength training that would put less stress on my joints and at the same time increase my strength.

As my brother-in-law, a professional trainer, described this approach and shared the tools to try it, the researcher in me filtered his words. Don't get me wrong, I think he is terrific, but his approach just sounded too good to be true and I hadn’t heard about it before.

After doing my own research, I decided to switch from my intense weight lifting to Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training, as he had suggested. With this, you place a cuff or band above your bicep and tricep to restrict blood flow to muscles during exercise. This enhances muscle strength and hypertrophy at about one-third the weight compared to traditional training, and strikes a balance between optimizing muscle development and recovery while minimizing stress on joints and tissues.

The results have become profoundly clear by my increase in muscle tone. I haven’t been toned like this since college! So BFR worked, at least for me.

As a school leader in the second half of my life, this experience was not just a personal win-win but it led me to consider a larger payoff: Continuing to learn and develop new ways to improve my quality of life is an approach I can model with my learning community.

You Can Teach an Old Dog

Steven Kotler challenges the conventional wisdom about aging and learning, and shows how testing the limits of an aging body and mind can transform our later years. It can make us more effective and resilient, and prove that we can model for others the value of learning no matter who or where you are in your developmental stages. For school leaders like me, Kotler's insights offer lessons on how continuous learning enhances an ability to support my school community far beyond conventional leadership.

Kotler's experiment is grounded in neuroscience and psychology. He debunks the "long slow rot theory" of aging, and instead presents evidence about how our brains remain pliant and capable of growth well into later years, and allows us to acquire new skills and adapt to challenges, provided we continue to engage in active learning.

One of the key scientific concepts Kotler explores is the idea of "flow," a state of deep focus and immersion in an activity. Flow is achievable at any age but is crucial for maintaining cognitive health and peak performance as we age. By pushing oneself to learn new, complex skills, older adults like me can still achieve high levels of performance and satisfaction.

Again, the secondary and broader advantage is that a new generation of learners and families sees me striving to develop and learn. Because as Ben Franklin suggests, the older I get, the more I realize I don’t know.

Lifelong Learning and School Leadership

For school leaders, these principles can be directly linked to our role as school leaders, helping us be better leaders and models for our school communities through continuous adaptation and learning.

Consider these actions to help your own development, as well as your community.

  1. Embrace a Growth Mindset - Kotler underscores the importance of a growth mindset—the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. This mindset is crucial for school leaders who navigate the ever-changing landscape of education. By modeling a growth mindset, leaders can inspire teachers and students to embrace challenges and view failures as opportunities for growth. This provokes our locus of control, or the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces, have control over the outcome of events proves we are capable of anything.
  2. Enhance Cognitive Flexibility - Kotler’s exploration of neuroplasticity highlights the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural pathways. For school leaders, continuous learning can enhance cognitive flexibility, allowing us to better handle the diverse and dynamic challenges of our roles. Engaging in new learning experiences keeps our minds sharp and adaptable.
  3. Build Empathy and Emotional Intelligence - A cognitive superpower is enhanced empathy, which comes from lifelong learning and the broadening of perspectives. Effective school leaders can better understand and connect with their staff and students on an emotional level because we develop greater empathy and emotional intelligence, leading to stronger relationships and a more supportive school environment.
  4. Foster Innovation and Creativity - Creativity triggers innovation, essential for addressing unique challenges. By continuously learning and discovering new ideas and perspectives, we get to foster a culture of transformation within our schools, encouraging teachers and students to experiment and think outside the box.

Dance As If Everybody Is Watching

When I noticed a change with the blood flow restriction training, a good friend of mine, one who is innovative and forward-thinking, asked, “Don't you worry about people looking at you with those bands on?”

This is the oxymoron of leadership. We are expected to project a certain image at the very same time children need fallible adults who demonstrate they can still learn, mentors who can inspire them to grow in a remarkably imperfect upward progression.

My response to my friend: “I am not doing this for them. I am doing it for me and everyone who sees I can still grow.”

Practical Steps for School Leaders

  • Engage in Diverse Learning Activities: Participate in a variety of learning experiences that diversify and stimulate different areas of the brain and enhance overall cognitive flexibility.
  • Model Lifelong Learning: Demonstrate a commitment to lifelong learning by sharing personal learning experiences with staff and students. This can create a culture of continuous improvement and inspire others to pursue their own learning journeys.

Discovering Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training later in life allowed me to improve my strength and muscle tone without stressing my joints, illustrating the power of lifelong learning. Kotler's work on lifelong learning and cognitive flexibility show how I can better support my school community by modeling continuous growth and encouraging students and staff to embrace new challenges and learning outcomes.

Dr. Michael Gaskell is Principal at Central Elementary School in East Brunswick, NJ, has been published in more than four dozen articles, and is author of three books: Radical Principals, Leading Schools Through Trauma (September, 2021) and Microstrategy Magic (October, 2020). Mike presents at national conferences, including ISTE (June 2023) The Learning and the Brain (November, 2021), and FETC (January 2023, and 2022); and works to find refreshing solutions to the persistent problems educators and families face. Read more at LinkedIn