Learning – How? What? Why?

I Italian Renaissance Garden, Hamiltonhave been pondering a lot recently about learning.  My own learning, my students’ learning, my colleagues’ learning.  How do we learn? What do we learn? Why do we learn?
I have worked in schools for nearly 30 years, I went from school, to university and then back to school again.  It is probably not the best thing to do but it is the pattern for many teachers and sometimes results in a lack of understanding about what life outside the hallowed walls of an educational establishment is like.
I have “taught” a wide range of young people with all sorts of learning styles and abilities, from different socio-economic backgrounds.  I have battled with teenage boys and girls who really didn’t want to be cooped up in a classroom, who were obliged to follow a curriculum that stifled their creativity and made them feel stupid because they didn’t, or couldn’t, meet the standards that were expected of them at the time that was imposed by an academic calendar.  Take those students out of a classroom and into a context in which they feel has meaning for them, give them some choice and autonomy over what they learn and when and they come into their own.
I have also taught “bright young things” who thrive in a system that spoonfeeds them information that they can memorise and then regurgitate at the required times in order for them to be measured against their peers, classified into categories and progress onto the next place of “learning” or the world of work.
The current educational system works for many all over the world and it is not all bad.  There are thousands of inspiring and dedicated teachers out there enabling learning in all sorts of innovative ways – you only have to follow the #edchat twitter feeds, go to conferences and look around your own schools to see that.  I was never a “top” student; I worked hard, I was biddable, I followed the rules and I came successfully (although not outstandingly) through the system.  I had teachers who I remember with fondness because of the interest and care they showed in me, I had teachers who I aspire to be like because of the way they taught me, I also had teachers who I remember because they were quirky or “out there” bucking the system and doing things differently and sadly, but not surprisingly, I had teachers who didn’t seem interested in the vocation of teaching and learning, it was “just a job”.  They may have been worn down by the system, they may have had their own personal stories, they may also have ended up in the job because they didn’t know what else to do.  I am a languages teacher because my very first French teacher was the most inspiring and enthusiastic and passionate teacher I have ever had and so I wanted to work hard for her.  Thank you, Miss Francis, for the path you started me on!
I have never considered myself an intellectual; I don’t think I am good at analysing things and grasping abstract concepts and explaining them with clarity.  I find writing essays difficult but I love reading and I am curious.  I am a hands on person – the sort of person who only reads instructions if I get stuck on what to do next!   I don’t often ask for help, I try to work things out myself first.  I think that may have been because I was always terrified of asking questions; I come from the generation in England that was told to “speak when you’re spoken to”,  “be silent and not heard” when in company and “it’s rude to ask questions; if someone wants to tell you about themselves they will”.  It has taken a long time to have the courage to break out from that sort of brainwashing and I am still uncomfortable doing it.  I often find myself the “answerer” rather than the questioner and come away from meeting people with them knowing more about me than I know about them despite a curiosity to know!   I know too that it has impacted on my learning – I used to think negatively because I would often struggle to understand but now I think that maybe working things out for myself, adopting strategies to find the answers actually benefited me in the long term.  It has made me self-sufficient, independent, resilient; I know that if I stick at something, I will work it out in the end.  I think it makes me more aware of how my learners might feel.  It makes me reflect on what is going on behind the scenes in my students’  lives, what they might be hiding and what inner struggles they may be having.
I am and always have been passionate about lots of things but nowadays, I only learn about the things I want to learn about.  I still shut off when people are trying to teach me things which I find dull,  uninteresting and more than anything, pointless!
I hope that I have managed to inspire some students along the way, that even if they didn’t like learning French or Spanish or German, they still learned something in my classes and I helped to engender a desire to learn more about anything!
I am not sure where I am going with this now – writing is cathartic – I have realised that I enjoy writing.  It is often something I turn to when I am in “limbo”, when my mind is … not confused … but in commotion – there are lots of things swirling around and I can’t quite catch them and pin them down.  Maybe I should stop…?