Book by Peter Smith
Review by Leila Chavez Soliman 
Academic Counseling
Glendale Community College, CA

The 21st century, non-traditional, adult, and lifelong learners need, seek, and deserve a non-traditional landscape where learning happens anytime, anywhere, and any way. Yet the traditional architecture of education is time-bound, place-bound, and role-bound (O’Banion, 1997). These boundaries impede learning and waste talent. Peter Smith (2010) advocates for “harnessing America’s wasted talent” through “a new ecology of learning.”

The author opens with compelling statistics called “The Law of Thirds” that illustrate America’s wasted talent (p. xiii). These statistics show that one-third of students have not graduated from high school; another third have graduated but have not moved on to college; and the final third have attended college, 60% of whom have at least an associate’s degree (2010). Smith would classify the first two-thirds without a college degree as America's wasted talent, for whom the book advocates.

The form of the book reinforces “The Law of Thirds." The text is divided into three parts, each comprising three sub-parts. Another set of three core indicators characterize learning-centered ecology. First, personalization connects the learning process with the learner. Second, customization tailors the learning experience to the needs of the learner within standards. Third, mobility transfers the learning achieved outside academia wherever the learner goes.

Reminiscent of O’Banion’s A Learning College for the 21st Century and other texts on learning-centered paradigm, the book goes further in terms of workforce education and impact of wasted talent on domestic and global economy. “Hard truths” reveal that younger American workers are less educated than their older counterparts and America has skilled worker deficits of seven million this year, predicted to triple by 2020 (p. 11). Rhetorically speaking, with the workforce currently aging, retiring, and declining, how is America to compete in the global marketplace?

Furthermore, Smith exposes higher education’s “dangerous conceits”—unfriendly practices and learning environments (p. 48). For him the utmost conceit is the refusal of certain institutions to recognize learning attained and validated elsewhere, particularly for students who “swirl” or transfer between institutions (p. 49). Costly to the learner and the nation, swirling increases student debt and financial aid as well as delays students from entering the workforce and contributing to the economy (p. 85).

While critical the book conveys optimism in discussing solutions, progress, and new possibilities. Among them are talent-friendly colleges for the 21st century (C21Cs) characterized by “end-to-end support services; outcomes-based curricula, assessments and course design; flexible degree architecture and programs; learning assessments that promote seamless transitions between life, work, and degree programs; and global credit portability” (p. 155). Educational portfolios are now required to help personalize learning. Free courses available online enable learning anytime, anywhere. Online services such as Credential Consolidator, Credit Finder, Academic Evaluator, and Opportunity Locator contribute to credit portability.

Further large-scale transformation necessitates changes at the national level and implications for the American government, policymakers, Department of Education and higher education administrators. Although the book is not directly intended for academic advisors, implications and opportunities also exist at the grassroots. That academic advising is teaching and learning outside the classroom behooves advisors to foster a learning-centered environment. As advisors, our role is to help students discover and maximize their talent to become skilled workers and, most importantly, lifelong learners.

O’Banion, T. (1997). A learning college for the 21st century. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press. 

Harnessing America’s wasted talent: A new ecology of learning. (2010). Book by Peter Smith. Review by Leila Chavez Soliman. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 180 pp. $40.00. ISBN # 978-0-470-53807-4
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