An episode of ‘no learning’: what can we learn from it?

I recently had a day out with the family to Greenwich: site of the famous meridian.

We went to the Royal Observatory to have a look around and found an exhibition of “steam punk” within the building. We walked around the exhibits to see what it was all about. By the time we left, I still hadn’t worked out what it was all about. I had learned nothing and am not even sure if I was meant to have learned anything. I freely admit that this may not have been a problem with the exhibition, it may all be down to me. But I wasn’t sure what I was looking at or what I was supposed to take away from it. I had clearly missed the point.

Maybe I didn’t have the prerequisite prior knowledge that was assumed by the exhibit designers. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood to learn, or maybe the exhibits were pitched at the wrong level for someone of my age? I don’t know the answer, but what struck me as I walked out was the enormous effort that someone had put into the exhibit which contrasted with the little effort I was probably making to understand what I was looking at.

Ok. So it didn’t grab my attention. So does that matter? What do I take from the experience? I was a learner who wasn’t learning. Something that has probably happened in the occasional classroom over the years.

There may be many reasons why learners fail to learn. One view that I find interesting is that teachers need to adopt the perspective of the ‘beginner’s mind’ (Fontaine, 2002). If materials are constructed with the expert perspective, they may not be accessible for the beginner.

This became obvious to me a few years ago when I was involved in the analysis of some e-learning materials that had been designed and validated by a series of experts in the field. The problem was that the structure of the resulting materials was superb – so long as you already knew the content. If you didn’t already know it, then the content was inaccessible.

It may therefore be a good idea for teachers to put themselves in the shoes of a learner from time to time, and try to learn something that is completely alien just to see why it feels like. It could be that you try to learn sign language or Japanese to see why it feels like to grapple with a new method of communication. Or if your field is very theoretical or text based, try to learn something practical like how to play a chord on a guitar or how to change a washer on a tap. Learning can be uncomfortable, and if you haven’t experienced that in a while, you may be losing a vital connection with your students.

Fontaine writes a fascinating glimpse of this when she gives an account of her learning Karate. Probably not a paper you will stumble upon by accident, but well worth a read in which the author reflects on what she has learned about university teaching from her experience being a novice student of karate. She asserts the value for even seasoned teachers to maintain a beginner’s mind that is “free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and to open to all the possibilities.” From this new position, the author’s awareness of what she does in the classroom shifts, as her respect for students has grown and her understanding of their feelings has deepened.

Further reading

Fontaine, S. I. (2002). Teaching with the Beginner’s Mind: Notes from My Karate Journal. College Composition and Communication, 208-221

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