Weasel words 4: Learning

“The mind is a fire for fuelling, not a vessel for filling.” Plutarch.

Now this is a big one: a weasel-word right up there with Teaching – so settle in. In fact, to be really nuanced in my Political Correctness, it should come before teaching, as in L&T. (Is this progress?) And this teacher is confessing that after nearly thirty years, he still doesn’t even know precisely what it means.

But then, do any of us? Consider the following; is learning:

a) The act of memorising facts (relevant or otherwise)?

b) The acquisition of specific skills that one previously didn’t have? (But how do you know when you’ve fully ‘learned’ something so open-ended?)

c) The development of one’s attitudes towards the world? (But who is to assess what is ‘right’?).

d) A cognitive process by which we know what we know?

e) A process by which neurones connect to make new electro-chemical pathways in the brain?

f) A temporary, possibly short-lived phenomenon? (In which case how much use is it?)

g) A permanent change (in which case, how do we know when it has been completed?)

h) An act of alignment with the aim of increasing societal harmony?

i) An act of individual liberation that frees one from the need to conform as above?

j) The correction of one’s previous errors?

k) Something else entirely?

In fact, it is probably all of the above, and more – and in a sense it doesn’t really matter. What I do know is that the word is used with near-reverence by many involved in education, and is increasingly talked about as though it is a single, homogenous, knowable  process (it has nigh-on become a concrete noun)  which given the above, strikes me as the height of folly. Like everything else, the word has been commoditised to the point that it can be invoked in almost any situation where someone wishes to imply that what they are saying is VERY IMPORTANT.

The thing that worries me about this is that we risk oversimplifying what is still fundamentally a mysterious process, and one that for all we know is unique to each and every one of us. It is indubitably true that people do learn – in as much as they move on from where they were before, be that in skills, knowledge or outlook. But by commoditising it, we move it from the realm of the unconscious to that of the conscious mind, thereby risking narrowing the process, and by becoming so meta-cognitive about it we also risk its evaporating before our eyes. We spend so long looking for whether it is happening or not, that we simply move our focus away from the unconscious act of doing it to the conscious act of watching for it.

The plain fact is, most learning happens without our fully realising it. We can’t even very closely control what we learn – it is simply that which the brain somehow chooses to squirrel away at any given moment. That is why it also strikes me as foolish to being a lesson with the words “Today we are going to learn (about)…” As if we have that level of control! We might well have the intention (learning objective) but there’s no guarantee whatsoever that Little Johnny is actually going to learn that. He may instead come away with a new swear-word he learned from his neighbour, the fact that if you put synthetic gloves on top of the heater, they do melt, or maybe that Sir actually has a rather interesting hobby that he only found out about because Sir accidentally left his email open when he turned the whiteboard projector on. He will go away little the wiser about our splendid Learning Objective – but he will still have learned.

I’m not actually sure, either, when I learned to teach. There have been endless hours sitting in P.G.C.E. seminars, L&T meetings, staff meetings – and a few moments when the clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight descended, but for the most part it has been such a slow, accretional process, so much below the radar of consciousness, that I have not even been aware of it. Neither did I wake up one morning suddenly flushed with the realisation that I had finally finished learning and could now honestly think of myself as a Good Teacher. Incidentally, I’ve also learned a great deal about how schools (and indeed my fellow humans) work; in particular the politics of the places, and the fact that things don’t always happen for the simple, honourable reasons that one might hope. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meant to learn that; well I always was a bit naively idealistic.

This is why I am constantly perplexed at the modern need to measure when learning has supposedly happened. We expect a very different type of learning from our pupils, from that which we ourselves experience. Maybe we should implant lights on pupils’ heads – red (flashing) for Learning in Process and green for Process Complete…

While it may well be necessary to use a form of shorthand for Learning with immature minds, I’m really not sure that we are helping by sending the wrong message; instead of suggesting that Learning is a trivial, short-term activity, perhaps we would be better off encouraging children to understand what the long term actually means? By combating the short-termism of modern life, rather than giving in to it? In turning this slow, accretional process into yet another instant, zero-sum game, we simply up the stakes and create anxiety that may actually inhibit real learning – while simultaneously raising our own stress levels and workloads to unnecessary heights.

Over an even longer period than I have been teaching, I have also learned to play several musical instruments – and nary a formal lesson in sight. While instrument-playing is a thing unto itself, I think that it can nonetheless tell us something about learning more generally. My current challenge is the fiddle – ahem violin – which I have been working at for around three years, after deciding that I really needed to be playing one of the serious core instruments of Irish Trad. In this case, my thirty-five years’ prior learning on the mandolin gave me a good start, and for once I decided that some taught lessons were probably in order – in the form of an online distance-learning course from OAIM.

Through her video lessons, Majella Bartley, a respected fiddle teacher from western Ireland, taught me to acquire all of the techniques of ornamentation that I might never have worked out for myself. She did it by demonstrating how they work, what they sound like – slowly at first – and then making the learner play them again and again until the fingers did what they were supposed to. A perfect combination of didactic and active learning – but the majority of the work was done solo, in the confines of my spare bedroom, as I practised what I had been taught. Most pleasing of all was the fact that during my recent enforced ten-month-and-counting break thanks to post-viral syndrome, very little seems to have been lost. That is surely good learning.

But technical progress isn’t everything. One of the challenging aspects of traditional music is that everything is done by ear, and there is no one definitive version of a tune – each player makes it their own. And even when you can do this, there is no guarantee that you will capture nyah – the ‘feel’ of the thing.

Learning to do that is indeed a mystical process that for me only happened when I got myself over to the dimly-lit back-rooms of various hostelries in remote parts of Ireland and played into the night with the natives. Once again, the learning was subconscious – but what an education it was.

At no point was the L word used. It was accepted that this mysterious process just sort of happens when you are least expecting it. Go looking too hard and it disappears into the Irish mist.

I think the same thing happened at school – I don’t really remember ever being conscious of learning anything; some things seemed like common sense, others were really difficult and needed working at – but the point of actual learning remained invisible. And then there was that curious thing that once upon a time was called the Hidden Curriculum…

The reason for this extended digression is to illustrate what I believe to be the true nature of learning – something greater than the sum of its parts. When learning something new, it is of course necessary to acquire the basic skills and knowledge, some of which can be done mechanically – but real mastery is so much more than that. It also depends on the osmosis of all sorts of intangible attributes that give one the right ‘feel’ for the subject. Just as one cannot acquire overnight the hundreds of tunes that a good traditional musician will hold in his head, it also takes time for things to develop. Some of the process really is that oblique; I often tell my sixth-formers that the best way to improve their subject-specific writing is to read what others do, and let it soak in. Again, that takes time, and to pretend otherwise is seriously to mislead.

One of the problems here is the timescale of the classroom. Is it reasonable, with a lesson-duration of one hour to justify, to claim that learning has only occurred once something has been committed to long-term memory? I suspect that the only people who really need to take a short-term view of learning are actually the teachers, under pressure from the usual accountability…

I don’t need to try to remember my name – I just know it – and so I think I can reasonably say that I have learned it. But I can’t remember the number of the restaurant I telephoned from memory yesterday – though at the time I thought I had learned it, but clearly not. Yet I can still remember a defunct bank account number from twenty years ago. Such are the mysteries of short and long term memory. I sometimes tell my students that they can only consider they have learned something once they know it as they know their own name, but how we get to that stage is still hit-or-miss to say the least, and I’m really not convinced that all the gurus and researchers with their pet theories and flashy learning aids are really very much help, for all that they neatly fit my one hour slot. I have seen too many occasions when what looked like learning at the end of a lesson (or even a term later) turned out to have been nothing of the sort when we revisited the topic eighteen months on.

I have no doubt that it is possible to ram specific information into our pupils’ heads by labouring it enough – but whether that is either necessary or desirable is another matter. Cramming classes are just that – a futile attempt to enable young people to jump through short-term exam hoops – that in many ways is a complete betrayal of what learning is really about. I think you can even get a pupil to retain more than 100% of their true capability in the short term – witness those students who ‘over-achieve’ at G.C.S.E., only to find themselves utterly unequipped for the demands of ‘A’ Level, vacant on material they supposedly learned in Year 11. This is the worst conflation of all – real learning is not the same as that which is needed simply to pass exams.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” Albert Einstein

Even worse, I also find myself questioning the actual use of all those facts that teachers daily drum into their pupils – and this from a staunch supporter of teaching knowledge. Do we spend so long obsessing about whether the kids are learning that we cease evaluating whether what they’re learning is even of much use?  I hear so many colleagues talking about learning in this prepackaged sense that I wonder whether they ever actually stop to question the use of the topics they are covering. “Because it’s on the specification” isn’t in itself the greatest of reasons. To my mind, there is a vast difference between knowing something and having ‘learned’ it. How much of it is really of any use other than for those who intend to take that subject forward?

It seems to me that people who lack a wide working knowledge are at an intellectual and functional disadvantage, quite apart from missing the inherent pleasure of knowing stuff. I know that I retain some of what I was taught at school, though most of it – even in my own subject – was mainly secured by revisiting it later in life. I also retain the residue of many other subjects, but it is as nothing compared with the disparate knowledge and skills I have acquired serendipitously along the way. One of the satisfactions of ageing is the breadth of working knowledge acquired – as in the way that random factoids that you didn’t even know you knew just appear out of the blue when doing the general knowledge crossword. Again I’m not sure how much of that is down to any consciously-undertaken process.

The same applies to skills; both in my music and my other interests, my proficiency has undoubtedly grown over the years. I suppose it has been a matter of doing the same thing time and time again over decades; I’m not really very sure what school – or even any formal teaching – ever had to do with it. Maybe it’s just temperament – the introvert within me is inherently interested in deep skills. It’s not always even been a particularly pleasant process – my back and arms ached for months while I gradually improved my violin posture, but the will to improve carried me through. Conversely, for people who aren’t temperamentally so-inclined, I wonder how much we can really do for them. I find it a bizarre notion to contemplate a person who only knows that which they have been formally taught in school. For all our Learning Objectives, lesson plans and swish resources, how much can we really get someone to learn if they are not predisposed so to do?

“An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing.” Nicholas Murray Butler

So much though it grieves me to say so, I think that the  modern experience of formal education has little to do with real learning, and everything to do with validating the system that delivers it. I know many people who have gone through the system, even to the highest levels of great universities – and some of them seem to know precious little about much at all. No doubt they are expert in their chosen fields, and good at their jobs – but when it comes to breadth and general application… And some of them are teachers. So what price having learned a lot about something specific if the cost was a loss of perspective about the world at large? Is this a failure of the education process, or a shortcoming of the individual concerned? To be fair, I also know individuals whose highly specific knowledge provides them with daily insight in their wider lives – it all depends on what you do with what you’ve got…

This is perhaps why the emphasis shifted to learning skills: the idea is that skills are transferable, and as we all know, eminently useful for employers. Except that most skills we teach at secondary level are still so generic that they cannot be of much use in any specific line of work: it’s another edu-myth. What’s more, skills are useless without something to use them on – namely knowledge, and this as we also know, has been out of fashion until very recently.

Rather ironically we don’t actually teach perhaps the most relevant skills of all, except to a small group of older students, through the medium of Critical Thinking. From my experience, the ability to dissect a proposition or piece of information methodically and dispassionately, to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses, is perhaps the most valuable – and transferrable – skill of all. Pupils who take this course tend to find it a revelation, and in many cases they apply it widely to other subjects. But we still leave these skills largely to chance!

When we talk about what pupils have learned, I think we often mean something different. In terms of information, it may well be that pupils leave a lesson aware of information that they did not have at the beginning – but there is a significant difference between current awareness of something and having learned it. Likewise, the fact that a pupil may have executed a certain procedure during a lesson may mean that they have physically done it, but whether they have learned anything is less clear. In both cases, the real learning is the processing that happens in the mind following exposure to a new experience – or perhaps multiple exposures to it.  The problem from the teacher’s perspective is that we can’t really control what pupils do with the stuff we expose them to. That is too much wrapped up in the innate functions of their brains, not to mention the cultural filters through which they perceive the experience.

And in both cases, I’m not completely clear how the experience of discrete learning is really connected to the fundamental result I think we all desire – the development of an effective, autonomous individual who is both able to live a fulfilled life them self, and to contribute to the wider well-being of us all.

I’m certainly not going to decry our efforts to promote the acquisition of either knowledge or skills, not least because it is a significant source of inherent satisfaction in my own life – but how it becomes ‘learned’ is a different matter.  People who go through life knowing little seem to me to be significantly impoverished for it, and Google is no substitute. Likewise, people who never develop their skills (of whatever sort) beyond the basic miss out on a huge source of satisfaction – that of getting better at things, becoming expert even. Without my accumulated expertise in my own particular arcane interests, life would be immeasurably the poorer.

But I think we deceive ourselves if we claim that what happens in a classroom has a direct impact on what remains in people’s heads throughout their lives. The notion that a single one-hour lesson can implant anything usefully and permanently in a brain is deluded. That is why lifelong learning is important, though it needn’t mean a life spent in a long succession of evening classes.

Certainly we create possibilities, hopefully stimulate processes that continue well beyond school-age, and yes leave residues of knowledge in people’s minds. Some of what we do may indeed be genuinely learned, though whether it is any more than a random occurrence I don’t know.  But to say that we generate learning – let alone that we can specify and measure it in the short time we have with our pupils – is a step too far, another sign of how presumptuous modern teaching has become. What’s more, learning can only be measured by its application and this requires the perspective of time and context that we can barely hope to recreate in a regular working classroom. As I said above, retention rates are not always impressive, though one might hope that more has actually ‘gone in’ than pupils are actually able to retrieve on command during an assessment situation. But in real learning (as opposed to exam results) terms that doesn’t matter unduly.

I have said before that teachers are merely planters of seeds; we might create the possibility for learning, but I don’t think we can claim to have much control over the thing itself.  One thing that can help is to focus on the ‘unknown unknowns’, where the potential for progress is perhaps greatest and most immediate – and yet modern education seems intent on restricting itself to knowable, pre-definable outcomes from lessons.

For all that fMRI scanners can show us about the brain, genuine learning remains a largely mystical process that occurs autonomously in the unconscious mind.  Trying to fill an unfillable vessel seems like the height of delusion, so maybe the best we can hope for is to chuck a few logs on the fire before our pupils leave us. Whether they burn is really  up to them.


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