Learning Begins…..When?

13 Oct

Noticed on the noticeboard outside a school the following sign: “Learning begins 7th October.” What a strange sign. I found myself asking the question: “When does learning stop?”

Now, before all the teachers jump up and down, I do realise what the person who put the sign up was trying to say. They were referring to when school would recommence after the holidays. I know that. What I began wondering about was the implication that learning only occurs in formal schooling, that young people are not learning when they are not in school.

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk wrote, “The least of learning occurs in the classroom.” He was a teacher having taught both at Columbia and St. Bonaventure Universities and been responsible for the academic education of the novices at Gethsemane. He knew the importance of formal education.

He understood learning is not restricted to the classroom and what is taught in the classroom is perfected in experience outside of that specific learning space. Henri Nouwen, Catholic writer and priest, adds that we only learn what we have been taught when the teacher is no longer present. A quick glimpse at the Christian Gospels and the Book of Acts will affirm his thesis. The disciples began to learn the truths taught to them by Jesus when they had to engage with the world without him. No longer could they defer to him to tell them what to do, they had to connect with the wisdom they had heard and seen and translate that into their own knowledge base. Major scientific discoveries often find their way into reality by exactly the same journey. Ideas taught are tested, refined and completely rediscovered long after the scientist has left the classroom.

Over my many years of working with people, young and old, I have noticed most learn by experience intertwined with the formal and informal learning they have been exposed to over their lives. They need both, and learning through a collaboration of both can be seamless and unobtrusive, often going unrecognised by those involved. It just happens. They learn how to cope with grief and loss through experiencing death and tragedy personally. I am constantly amazed how young people are able to confront, process and make meaning from extreme experiences, discovering insights and learnings that can never be taught or confirmed any other way. Only then do they reach into and connect with the learning they may have received in formal classes.

Taking young boys sailing and asking them to sail the yacht to a specific destination gives a purpose to those often strange and unfamiliar formulas they learnt about in maths and could imagine no reason for remembering. In context they learn what they have been taught but can not repeat in classrooms or exams. Building community gardens, designing murals, working in retail and hospitality and more, build on and contextualise the learning which only begins in the classroom.

Watching an artist on a reality TV show, I discovered a method for creating portraits I had not seen before.  Right at the beginning she simply scribbled over the canvas in black pastel. There was no sketching the subject, no setting a background, no formalising the shape as is taught in formal art classes. She simply scribbled on the canvas. When asked by one of the judges why she did that she replied she used the shapes that appeared in her scribble to get the shape of the portrait she was about to paint. The portrait would appear on the canvas in the lines she had just drawn.

Now, my own portrait skills have been limited up until now. Her method is one that I use as a general guide in all my other paintings but I had not thought of using it for portraits. So I did, and it works for me. This not something I learnt formally, but by observation and experience.

What does this have to say about how we do education? May I suggest the following:

  • Good education is collaborative. What I mean here is, it is a collaborative effort between formal classroom instruction and experience. It is needs the opportunity to engage with life in a way that allows classroom learning to be discovered, interpreted and contextualised without the tendency to over scaffold that process. It has to be natural and intuitive, not forced and manufactured. Education is defined by its fit with the individual, the context in which that individual finds themselves and the journey they are engaged in. It is collaboration in the full sense of the word. It is risky, challenging and scary as it shifts all involved from their familiar roles to that of a learner. this is especially so for the formal teacher.
  • Good education requires quality down time. If, as it has been suggested by Daniel Arielly, that the majority of us are at our best in the two – four hours after we wake up, that is when formal education occurs. (bakadesuyo.com) Why not use  the afternoons for learners downtime reflection, journalling, exploration and to have experiences which may engage the formal learning they had been doing before break. This is probably a step to far for most education administrators and principals but is vital if we are to provide quality learning. A quick look at monastic pedagogy proves valuable here. The rhythm of monastic life is built around early morning education (reading and classes), reflection (prayer), downtime (rest and contemplation) and physical work. It is in tune with the normal rhythms of nature and the human body, and it provides an opportunity for experiential learning that has proven effective for many hundreds of years.
  • Good education is not imposed but discovered. Modern education has been taken over by the need to produce outcomes, achieve test scores, embed work ready skills and to turn young people into widget producing, widget consuming contributors to the infernal drive for profits. We impose upon them the outcomes we wish for them to achieve instead of democratising education and allowing them to discover, explore and unpack the mystery that is life. While some of this is an natural outcome of education we need to find ways to do this without prescribing the path and the destination. Young people are naturally inquisitive, creative and intuitive. Good education reinforces those qualities.
  • Good education requires respect. Respect for the process of learning, the mystery of life and the individuals and institutions engaged in the process. Young people and adults come to have respect for these elements in different ways and at different times. They are not identical. They do not arrive at the same place at the same time. Education systems group young people by age and this may not be the best way to educate them. If respect is necessary and people get there at different times, despite being the same age, why do we not teach accordingly, allowing young people to travel through their formal education at a speed suitable for them? Why not allow them to package together the various elements of learning, classroom and experiential, in a way that works? Why do we impose a structure that works for some but not others, that allows young people to fall behind, become demotivated or simply give up? Once again I point to monastic pedagogy which allows for the needs of the individual to be met in different ways at different times. How each use their times of reading and reflection is up to them. Even the work structure has a sense of ownership built into the process. The experience of Thomas Merton and his journey through his monastic life exemplifies the flexibility and accommodation taken to ensure he made the most of who he was, even if the institution did so begrudgingly at times. 

It may be true that experiential learning only stops when we stop breathing and we have long since left the classroom. I fear many of the students in our classrooms have perfected the art of breathing for survival reasons only. Learning has long since passed them by.

Tell me what you think – glennloughrey@gmail.com

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