At one of the first sessions of my First Year Seminar this year, we brought in Naomi De la Tour, via Zoom conference from the Institute for Advanced Teaching & Learning at Warwick University to lead a discussion on imagination, risk-taking and education. Naomi did a fantastic job. Regretfully, the internet connection was less than ideal, cutting out fairly regularly during the session. As a result, Naomi provided a post script to the discussion, which I include here:
I’m sorry I wasn’t able to participate in the class as smoothly and seamlessly as I would have liked. We seem to be having some issues with the wifi here.
I enjoyed hearing your stories of transformative learning experiences. Thank you for sharing them. One of the things I would like to invite you to think about following the seminar is the difference between how we experience our own learning and the way it is understood or described by the system in which we learn or those working within it. As I listened to your stories, the words ‘failure’ and ‘success’ or their synonyms came up a number of times. For example, one of the stories I heard on Friday described how one of you (forgive me; I didn’t hear the name) felt that a significant learning experience had been not doing as well in a spelling bee as hoped; they described learning the lesson that sometimes success doesn’t correlate to effort, and you can fail even if you have worked hard. This is a lesson I find I keep having to learn in different situations as my life goes on (I’m trying to move away from a conception of learning as something you tick off when you’ve ‘studied’ it and towards an idea of recognising the value — and inevitability — of learning apparently the same thing many times over, sometimes because the circumstances are different and sometimes because I am understanding the nuances or applications differently) but I’d also like to gently challenge the idea that such a learning experience was a ‘failure’. If we don’t get as good a mark in something, or place as high as we would like in a competition as we would like, do we need to use the language or emotion of failure to describe it? If we have learned something that has altered our understanding or way of seeing the world might it be that, in addition to the experience of failure, we can have a sense of gain or learning? This might sound semantic, but the language we use to tell stories of our learning experiences can create or reinforce ways of imagining what ‘good’ learning is, and we can embed those in our approaches to our own interactions with learning, success and failure and our own identities.
Below, I’ve offered a few prompts and questions as an invitation to you to think about the difference between ‘official’ or ‘institutional’ learning, (perhaps this might include learning that’s listed on a lesson plan, in learning outcomes or that we might be tested on officially in exams at the end of a semester or year) and ‘unofficial’ or implicit learning that might go unrecognised or unacknowledged. It was interesting to me how many of the learning experiences you described happened outside the ‘official’ environment of a classroom, for example. This is an opportunity to reflect on your experiences and insights as ‘expert’ learners who have succeeded in the system well enough to be studying at a prestigious university.
- This poem by Mary Oliver is set in a classroom.
The Poet Dreams of the Classroom
I stood up in class
and I said aloud:
why is algebra important?
Sit down, he said…..
Then I dreamed
I stood up once more and said:
Teacher, my heart is falling asleep
and it wants to wake up.
It needs to be outside.
Sit down, he said.
What is your response to reading it? What do you think the student in the poem is learning in the described interactions? Given the teacher’s responses, what do you think he has internalised and learned as being important in the context of this class? How is he teaching that to the student?
2. In this excerpt from Lynda Barry’s graphic novel ‘What it is’ she talks about her schooling teaching her to ask two questions of herself whenever she draws. What do you think of her questions and the way she describes learning them? What questions have you learned to ask of yourself in relation to your learning or about something that you love to do?
3. In Nick Sousanis’s book Unflattening (first chapter here), he looks at the homogenisation and standardisation that underpins some education and makes an argument for how we internalise that within ourselves. Do you feel this is relevant to your experience of education? If so, how? If not, why?
Finally, a few more questions for you to reflect on in relation to your own experiences
- How has your educational experience shaped your understanding of what ‘good learning’ is?
- What do you wish to do with your life,? What do you believe a life lived well would look like for you? In what ways has learning and education helped or hindered you with this so far?
- How you can you notice the stories you tell about your education?
- In what ways might you think about further developing your own autonomy and agency in your education experiences?
Thank you again for inviting me to join you on Friday. I wish you a learning journey of surprise and transformation as you go through your university life. Though, as surprise and transformation rarely happen easily or in spaces of intellectual comfort, you may not thank me for that wish for you 😉
Other readings that might challenge your thinking about education:
Neil Postman: End of Education
Paulo Freire: Teaching as a Subversive Activity
Maxine Greene: Releasing the Imagination
Naomi de la Tour