Thriving in an Unscripted World

TLO's Front-End/Back-End Approach to Learning


It used to be a good education was the doorway to success. At a minimum, a Bachelor's degree was the key to a good job, if not to a fulfilling career. Graduate degrees would take you even farther. Today we're discovering that neither a B.A. nor an MBA are really enough to assure us of either an executive title or a house in the suburbs, let alone two cars in the garage, and a comfortable retirement. Even a Ph.D. isn't enough to guarantee you a career and a life that includes a home in the suburbs, college for your kids, and a Sandals vacation in the Bahamas every year. 


Today, we're learning that a formal education will give us the knowledge you need to see our world's new challenges. But, we're also discovering that seeing these challenges is not the same thing as having the mindsets and the skillsets that are needed in order to respond and cope with them. In a world like ours -- one filled with radical complexities and accelerating rates of change — a high-quality liberal education is a necessity. But, by itself, no matter how good it is, a formal education will never be enough to let master the 21st Century’s newest challenges. At best, an education can only be a small part of what, for each of us, must eventually become a lifelong learning journey

A Front-End / Back-End Approach To Learning

In our new Mach 2 world, lifelong learning journeys must become for us “the new normal.” For that to be true, each of us needs three essential things:

  • What these days experts know as a “liberal education.”

  • A thorough exposure to the techniques and tools of experiential learning, especially those skillsets that show us how to make effective use of all the knowledge we’ve and experiences we’ve acquired since we became an adult.

  • The learning skills that will let us make use of the experiences we’ve had, both good and bad, in ways that deepen our personal and professional development, accelerate our success, and help us settle into pathways that lead us to the careers we want, the relationships we need, and the lives we’re hoping for.

Simply put, if we’re going to cope with the 21st Century’s toughest challenges, we must recognize all of our formal education for what it is — simply the 'Front-End' portion of what must be a lifelong learning journey. And, as well, we must also recognize the experiences we’ve had, especially those we’ve had since becoming an adult for what they are — simply the 'Back End' portion of our lifelong learning journey. Essentially, what we need to fully recognize is the fact that learning or any sort in the 21st Century is going to be a two-part effort. Learning is going to be an process with a front-end and a back-end. In a sense it’s going to be a ‘learning equation’ that we’re all going to have to become intimately familiar with and exquisitely capable of implementing:

A Liberal Education + Self-Directed Learning Experiments = Successful Development

This equation highlights for us both the educational knowledge and the personal learning experiments we need if we're going to both survive and thrive in today’s complex and rapidly changing world. In practical terms, this equation highlights the fact that, as adults, those of us who have personal issues to address and professional goals we're hoping to realize, must learn how to organize for ourselves both the Front-End and the Back-End components of this new 21st Century learning equation.

TLO’s Approach to Front-End Education 

Twenty years ago, when you wanted an education, you had to pick your school, apply, enroll when accepted, select your major, pay your fees, go to class when scheduled, listen to the teachers’ lectures, and then take your tests, over and over again until you completed the required curriculum. This was the routine, at least until the 21st Century came around. This is when the online learning revolution really got started.

A 21st Century liberal education is based on the concept of enlightenment. It’s the kind of education that seeks to empower adult learners, to equip them with the kind of flexible modes of thinking that can help them deal with the complexity, diversity, and change that are characteristic of today’s world. Its essential aim is to provide its students with broad knowledge of the wider world, as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. When successful, a liberal education helps adult students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills, especially 21st Century skills such as communication, critical thinking, analytical decision-making, and problem solving, and the demonstrated ability to apply this knowledge and these skills in real-world settings.

Today, a liberal Front-End education can be pursued in three distinct ways:

  1. Bachelor and graduate degree course work offered by accredited colleges and universities.

  2. Professional certification programs online that are targeted at adults who want to advance their knowledge and skills in one specific area such as management, nursing, or computer programing.

  3. Online education platforms that host a large variety of courses, each of which is aimed at a specific issue or the development of a specific skillset.

Today’s online technology’s has made a liberal education accessible. All a prospective student needs is a computer, an Internet connection, and some basic software skills. Increasing numbers of adults have these tools, and the technologies they need to become "well-educated” whenever they want. Far from being an inferior learning experience, these students are discovering that online education can be a learning experience that suits them, and that allows them to take their learning experiences places that are under their control and direction. 

Today, it is very clear adults who are looking to realize their professional aspirations and/or their loftiest personal dreams can get a good liberal education on line.  A high-quality liberal arts education is the ideal Front-End component for this equation because this kind of education creates a better, more flexible foundation for your success in today’s real world than any narrow, more specialized professional education, no matter how good this specialized program is.

TLO’s Back-End Approach

On-line education programs clearly can provide the high quality Front End education we need. It can give us the knowledge we need to begin an effective learning journey. However,  there’s no way that alone our educational accomplishments will ever be enough. In today's complex world, formal education simply offers us the chance to develop the knowledge platform we need to move on into developing the uniquely personalized mindsets, perspectives, and skills you need to if you're going to build a complete, and sophisticated array of 21st Century skills. In a world like ours, filled with radical complexities and accelerating rates of change, as well as other contemporary challenges and opportunities, a high-quality formal education is necessary. It's your primary foundation. But formal degrees and advanced certificates, by themselves, can never be either flexible or personalized enough to let you build a successful 21st Century career, or brilliant life you aspire to. At best, formal education must be be the Front-End portion of a lifelong learning journey.

In addition to the advanced knowledge, a formal Front-End education provides, each of us also needs to know how to create unique, highly personalized, experientially based Back-End learning experiments. If we want to improve the skills we already have, develop the new skills we will need to succeed at work and in our lives, and/or reframe outdated modes of thinking in ways that more effectively respond to today's challenges and opportunities, then we definitely need to take the take to learn how to design and implement full-fledged knowledge- and experience-based, self-directed learning programs. Knowing how to integrate our knowledge and our personal experiences into well to organized, fully integrated Front-End/Back-End learning journeys is going to be the real mark of effective 21st Century learning.  

So, whether you’re an adult who’s looking to accelerate your career or an adult who’s looking beyond professional advancement to building a career and life that’s both meaningful and satisfying, this equation highlights the proposition that your learning efforts need to include both a formal Front-End educational program and a Back-End experientially-based apprenticeship. Regardless of whether you want to achieve your professional aspirations or realize your loftiest dreams, you’ll need a personal learning program that offers you the advantages of a modern liberal education and the challenges of real-life learning experiments that will help you translate the knowledge you’ve acquired into real-world skills.