The process of learning

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I believe the way that we learn roughly looks like this:

 

Process of learning image

We can gather information about the world from a whole range of sources – from books, conversations, videos, observation etc. Then some weird, wacky and wonderful process happens in our brains, in which information is analysed, compared and integrated, and this in turn forms our understanding of the world. This can generate original ideas about the world around us, which we can try out by conversing with people, by practically applying them in the form of creating products, launching organisations etc. Ultimately, by throwing our ideas out in to the world, we will gain feedback about our ideas, which provides further information about the world and on and on it goes…

 

This ties in with my view that learning is very much an iterative trial and error process in which we basically try something out, get it wrong but by doing so gain information, and at each stage our ideas become more refined and valuable to the world. This is counter to the dominant philosophy currently held in education which only values the first step – gathering information about the world. It does this by having us read books and listen to teachers tell us about the world. We are then tested on whether we are right or wrong – on our ability to retain and regurgitate knowledge. Even as begin to reach step 2 and develop our own ideas about the world, we do so within a very limited set of criteria. At university we are systematically evaluated and analysed on our ability to evaluate and analyse! Somehow there is even a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the way we develop our own ideas about the world, by its very nature stifling creativity and learning. Steps 3 and 4 are not encouraged in schools and thus our learning process is sadly stunted.

 

My own learning about the world has accelerated since I left formal education, and this morning I was weighing up how my ideas have developed over time. At the moment I am living in Swindon and I notice that my learning is being stunted somewhat, because I am not in an environment in which I can practice the third stage; trialling my own ideas in the real world. I am consuming books at a vast rate, but in order to refine that information I need to have conversations with people – ideally people whose ideas are more developed than mine and who will challenge me and highlight the flaws in my thinking. I also need to be able to try launching initiatives of my own to see whether they have the real world value that in theory I believe they do. By doing this (and I know I need to get to London in order to do so) I will get some things right, more things wrong and overall gain feedback which will further the learning circle.

 

I’ll touch briefly here on a tension that exists between this natural learning process and the societal norms we experience. I grew up believing that to be wrong was basically akin to committing a sin, and my peers behaved in a similar manner. Making mistakes and ‘failing’ is hardly talked about in our society, but as I found in the entrepreneurial world, when it is talked about you can almost feel the relief in your peers as their shoulders visibly lighten. ‘Yes!’ they often say, ‘I made that mistake too!’. Why learn from our own mistakes if we can learn from the mistake of others? What a valuable learning experience. And why not share our own errors so that others can help see the lesson in them? To show us that our mistakes are not unnatural, but actually wholly to be expected? Amusingly, I still watch people as they vehemently argue that their point is right rather than acknowledging an opposing view and by doing so developing their ideas further. Their fear of being wrong is stunting their learning and growth, and will long continue to do so unless they can overcome it.

 

We are in a lucky position today whereby the information we can gather about the world is enormous. We have vast libraries of books, and then the biggest library of information ever known to man – that thing called the worldwide web. I notice the value of this in my own learning. I will start with a fairly broad subject, and as my ideas become refined I narrow down further and further. In a sense it can be frustrating, because just as I think that I have developed an original and valuable idea, someone will point me towards an individual or organisation who has already developed this. And so I gather more information from them, and in time I will be able to generate my own original and valuable ideas about the world. This same process has been practised by every person in every discipline in the history of humanity’s understanding about the world, as we build up our global knowledge bank. It was Einstein who said it best, ‘If I have seen a little further, it is only because I have been able to stand on the shoulders of giants’. This is how it sometimes feels, that as I read a great mind like EF Schumacher I am able to integrate his exceptionally developed ideas in to my own understanding of the world and then build further upon that – not because my mind is in anyway comparable to Schumacher’s, but because his ideas are accessible to me. I feel incredibly fortunate that libraries and the web offer me free, easy access to these ideas and these minds; this is a unique period in history that many do not appreciate.

 

By not making the most of this information, by not listening to talks by or having conversations with thinker-doers at the cutting edge of field, or by reading their writing, working alongside them etc we are essentially declining to learn anymore about the world than someone could have in the past. And even those whose ideas were developed many decades ago but still have great value like EF Schumacher and whose ideas are accessible to us, if we do not learn from them then we are declining to learn more about the world than someone could have many years ago.

 

The neatest way to sum this article up is to turn this theory of learning on to it and weighing up its place within that. It is obviously an attempt to trial my ideas in the real world. Next I will get some feedback which will further inform my ideas & knowledge. Someone may point out flaws, or more likely tell me that I’ve basically just regurgitated a theory someone else has already pioneered. In which case I’d look at their theory, assess its flaws and my ideas will be developed further.

 

And on and on it goes…

A school from the future

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In my last blog I went to town on the current system of education and questioned what a better, more modern one would look like. Just a couple of weeks before leaving Australia my call was answered, as by good fortune a friend told me the Northern Beaches Christian School and its education innovation centre; the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning. I jumped on their free tour today and checked it out.

It’s very, very impressive. The ‘learning spaces’ (not ‘classrooms’) are open and bright – one of the first things they did was knock the walls down between rooms to remove that closed feeling that I remember the rooms had when I was at school. Classes are allowed to mix with one another, and even with different age groups. They use the phrase ‘guide on the side rather than sage on the stage’ to describe their teaching paradigm. The learning is student-directed, with the teachers moving around and helping students along. For the most part, the students get on with it using their own initiative. A lot of the learning is focussed around real-world scenarios and collaboration. There is not such a feeling of competition as typically emanates from educational institutions. Students bring their own computers in to school and do a lot of the work from there, with an e-learning platform providing the template for their lessons.

As they bring in more innovation and non-traditional methods the student performance on standardised government assessment has improved. The numbers of negative behavioural incidents has dropped by 80% from the time they began adopting a different pedagogy. Their graduates adapt well to university, because they are more accustomed to self-direction and adopting their own learning structure. The skills they prioritise are ‘soft’ skills – those such as communication, self-management and problem-solving that will prove valuable no matter how much the world around us continues to change.

Those are the details. But it was the feel of the place that stays with you.

You could tell how engaged the students were. 9 and 10 year olds without a teacher supervising them and getting on with their exercises – and clearly enjoying it. You could tell that it was a place students were happy to be, rather than waiting until they could go home. No bells. No students being disciplined. The kids were quite confident chatting to the adults walking around and answering their questions. Trust was placed in the kids to learn as was best for them. It was student-centred; not teacher-centred.

I’d like to go again – 2 hours is barely a glimpse.

It’s obviously not as straightforward as picking up this system and replicating it elsewhere. A school is so complex, with dozens of staff and 100s of students you have enormous interaction and so many layers of processes taking place. Having not worked in a school myself (next step..?) it’s hard to understand all of that. They are also open that they do not currently have a ‘model’. It’s more of a series of continuous innovations. In fact, they suggest it works well because they are continuing to move forward. Not everything works, and you need good responsible staff in charge of such innovation because these are the children’s lives you’re experimenting with here.

What struck me when I was reflecting afterwards, is that of all the non-traditional schools I’ve looked at, there are some startling similarities in the themes that emerge. Student-centred. Teacher as a guide. Open spaces. Real-world skills and learning applications. Collaboration. Fostering many forms of intelligence, not just academic. It is surely no coincidence that educators have questioned the current system and looked to innovate have come to such similar conclusions as to what must change.

If schools such as this were to become the template, rather than the current traditional, industrial model of education, the paradigm shift would be astronomically complex. SCIL say that the transition from traditional to non-traditional is one of the toughest things and you inevitably see resistance when the status quo is changed. It’s not just a model for the school you need, but a model for the transition. Do you transition existing institutions? Or start new ones and let the old ones die out? And for public education (North Beaches Christian School is a private school), you need a massive change in policy around the way education is administered. That requires senior government figures with vision willing to put their necks on the line for something that will radically change the status quo and that people will resist. It requires long-term evidence-based models to compare with the outdated ones.

It’s not easy, but in my mind there’s no doubt it needs to happen. As Ken Robinson says, we are failing to make use of our most valuable resource – human potential. The role of public education in this is massive.

If you’re interested in other models of learning, Ken Robinson’s ‘Out of Our Minds’ is well worth a read. I also strongly recommend watching this:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByO41gE3dPQ

 

I’m slowly compiling a list of the great examples I come across…

The education system: Please reboot

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Whilst assessing the year ahead and weighing up a possible move back to the UK, a surprising realisation hit me; that as a recent graduate it seemed easier to get a job by starting an organisation rather than joining an existing one.

On an individual level, this is in part down to my having spent the last few years embarking on similar endeavours, but the increasing number of graduates who I’ve seen reaching a similar conclusion suggests there are systemic issues too. Basically, unless you have experience, contacts or in-demand specific skillsets it’s very hard to find work in the current economic climate – and young graduates fresh in to the world of work are the ones who suffer the most because of this. Unfortunately, the current educational system is doing a woefully inadequate job of fulfilling its primary role; to prepare young people for the world of work. Degrees don’t count for much to employers given that nearly everyone seems to have one, and a degree simply teaches you how to write about stuff, not actually do stuff.

It does seem somewhat farcical that we spend 3 years and £30,000 learning mostly how to write essays or exams about our field of interest, rather than actually practice in it. If you were to design a new education system from scratch, it would little resemble the current one. These faults are hardly surprising, given that the free, compulsory system of education was designed originally for the industrial age in the 19th century. Governments are notoriously slow at updating existing systems, and are far more inclined towards minor incremental changes over large whole-scale change, even though the latter is sometimes needed. For example, the curriculum in Australia recently went through a considerable review and re-design, and the very conservative outcome was largely seen as an enormous missed opportunity to bring it up to date by those within the sector.

I know that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around at the moment due to the world’s faltering economic system, but it doesn’t feel right that graduates are unfairly penalised by the existing systems. I grew up with so many outstanding young people who would bring value to any organisation, but now can’t find paid work having had their creativity and open-mindedness beaten out of them by an education system that values sitting in the library over getting out in to the working world. Personally, I’d have found a 3 year internship in various working environments a more valuable use of my student debt and time than my degree was. Heck, the world, and consequently the job market, are changing so fast that many of us will end up working jobs that don’t even exist yet (think about the impact of the computer revolution). Surely time spent learning a broad range of real-world skills would be better suited to that future than time spent on one narrow discipline.

And this is, after all, the generation who is about to inherit a world buried under a mountain of debt, waste, and facing a plethora of considerable environmental issues. It’s a generation we need to invest heavily in; let’s actually make the most of the tremendous potential locked within our youngest and brightest. An education system that fosters real-world skills and knowledge would be a good start.

 

 

The genius that is Sir Ken Robinson vocalises this debate far better and more elaborately than I ever could here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&feature=player_embedded

If you’ve never watched an RSA video before then you’re in for a treat!