Fifteen Insights into Learning.

Chrisanicholson’s reply to my previous post prompted the realisation that it could be read as a justification of the kind of unaccountable personal philosophies that have arguably caused a lot of damage to education over the decades. This was not my intention – but I stand by my view that the only first-hand experience of learning (and of life in general) possible is our own. Everything else depends upon observation, proxy indicators, assumption or at least interaction, the accuracy – let alone transferability – of which is indeterminable.

I also suggested that this may be why it has proved so difficult to move professional discourse beyond the anecdotal and value-laden. I hoped to show why that might not, however, be as problematic as it might seem.

I was categorically not rejecting the insight that sources outside ourselves can provide (far from it), but this need not run contrary to the argument that each individual’s starting-point can only be their own experiences – even if it does contradict the current technocratic view of teaching. In some cases, these experiences can run deep enough to constitute an individual world-view that it is difficult, and perhaps undesirable to challenge. Given the nature of teaching, our practice cannot but be grounded in our own experiences of the world – starting with our choice of subject. It may also be worth remembering that in other ‘caring professions’ such as psychotherapy and social work that also depend heavily on individual participation, practitioners themselves regularly undergo introspective analysis for both training and therapeutic reasons.

One would hope that by virtue of being teachers, we can reasonably assume ourselves to be educational ‘successes’ – even if the route by which that was achieved was not always straightforward. (It is simplistic to assume that the route to wisdom is inevitably a direct and predictable one, and neither is it necessarily the same as the formal educational validation one holds. That is part of the problem!)

Therefore, time spent reflecting on the nature of, and route to that success may well be productive – even if we then seek additional  interpretation elsewhere. And given that our own formal education may be rapidly vanishing into the dim past, it is perhaps worth examining more recent experiences, and indeed seeking them out as a means of professional (and personal) growth. Furthermore, I would suggest that we consider all forms of learning, not only the obviously formal ones.

So I have compiled a list of my own conclusions to date. They may make sense to nobody but me – I hope not – but that may be the very point. Some have only become fully clear as I have sought external interpretations, but they nonetheless remain among the most important instruments of my own practice, and at least as useful as anything more institutionally derived.

  1. Growing up in a home where education was valued to the point of being in the oxygen was, I now see, essential for my later-life values. But this is not at all the same thing as having learning pushed (too) hard at me by my over-anxious parents, which if anything had the opposite effect. Their best ‘lead’ was by example.
  2. Finding one’s metier is important.There are some things in life that appear to have in-built fascination. This is not always explainable, though they may hark back to early-life experiences of which I have at best dim awareness. That interest is experienced emotively, and it is a very useful motivational ‘hook’.
  3. A key motivator has always been ‘benign envy’: the inspiration of encountering people who could do things that resonated with me, and which I desperately wanted to emulate. The best of those people were humble about, but assured in their abilities. Yet outward competitiveness has done me few favours; my main competitor (and critic) has always been myself.
  4. This envy was gradually augmented by a growing sense of autonomous self-conception, whereby I grew to understand the things that were of value in my life. This I later saw as having a sense of (self-generated) purpose. Purpose is important.
  5. Intrinsic reward trumps extrinsic reward every time. The side-effects of ‘success’ are not unwelcome (for example my earnings from my writing) but they were never a significant motivator in themselves – and pale compared with the rewards of gaining expertise. Extrinsic rewards can be perversely limiting.
  6. Knowing stuff is fun, and starts a virtuous cycle. A good factual grounding is empowering and provides the foundation upon which further insight is built. There is a buzz in encountering something new that somehow ‘fits’ with what you already know, but which offers a new angle on it. Expertise and refinement make you appreciate things that others don’t see; depth is rewarding.
  7. Mastery is important – but not in simple ways. Getting better at something is pleasing, but it can also lead to complacency. Accepting that you don’t have mastery can create a powerful hunger to get better.
  8. Flow is a massively important motivator. Things that provide deep reward (but also challenge) make learning so easy it is unconscious. It is commonest to experience flow in things that have that initial buzz for you – but the more you experience it, the more it becomes possible to find it elsewhere. But looking too self-consciously for such things makes them disappear.
  9. Micro-management by others is more likely to apply the brakes than anything else, because it kills autonomy. Even where formal instruction is needed, consent is important. This is not the same as rejecting external help – rather that learning has to be consensual, even if not actively sought. You can take the horse…
  10. Long-term effort is nearly always worth it. Formal instruction is not always enjoyable but it is a necessary discipline particularly in the early stages while key competencies are being acquired. I gained most from being given a strong lead, if only because the structure provided a useful discipline for keeping going, before the benefits of perseverance had really become self-evident.
  11. Discipline boundaries are necessary but artificial. I started out with a few specific areas of interest – but as my knowledge grew, it expanded into disciplines far from where I started – let alone where I ever expected to find interest. But learning is not necessarily transferable: playing the guitar is not much help in learning the trombone.
  12. Problem-solving is a great way of learning. Experimenting with one’s knowledge develops understanding (this is what is valuable about a ‘tinkering’ hobby such as model-making). But it only works once one has a reasonably secure command of the requisite knowledge and skills, otherwise it degenerates into unproductive dabbling.
  13. Some experiences provide insights that are intense enough to appear self-evident. But one must remember that they may not be so for everyone. People in different disciplines often think in very different ways and tolerance is a virtue. It is unlikely that one will ever learn everything without any guidance along the way – even from unexpected sources.
  14. Maybe life’s lessons can only be learned at life’s pace. I wish someone had explained some of these things to me when I was younger (although whether I would have listened or understood is another matter entirely…).
  15. The key to it all is the Enquiring Mind. If you have one of those, then the sky is the limit. If you don’t, then nothing will work very well, and life will be dull. Exam results are not a reliable signifier of an active mind.

I am still left wondering how one might fully appreciate such insights, other than through one’s own experiences. That, after all, is where wisdom actually takes root – in our own minds – and technical competence alone does not a truly great musician (or teacher) make.

The question is, how can we best translate them into something useful to our pupils? I am not convinced that treating education as an economised ‘good’, a technocratic hoop-jumping process – or as a form of amorphous self-discovery-through-play – even get near the matter.

I suspect that traditional scholars knew more than we sometimes credit.


One thought on “Fifteen Insights into Learning.

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