Monday, July 7, 2008

What’s learning about?

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you allstudent
I often wonder what learning’s about. It seems strange that I’ve spent tens of years observing it happening in my students, or not as the case may be, and I should still think this way. But it’s true. . .

I often wonder what learning’s about

From the moment of birth a child starts to learn. Children are like vacuum cleaners. They are capable of picking up anything and everything that they can learn and make sense of and a whole lot more besides. It is impossible to stop a youngster from learning without an act that would be either physically or mentally injurious to the child.

Some say the human ability to learn developed through evolution as a survival trait and that it has been passed down through the generations. Much to the exasperation of their teachers, this amazing ability seems to be lost, at least in part, for some children when they go to school. So what is it that progresses this ability to learn in some children but seemingly not in others?


Arthur Lydiard was born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1917. Late in 1978 I read his book ‘Run – the Lydiard Way’. His world-famous schedules helped me get my average marathon time close to 3 hours. The first few chapters of his book describe how his curiosity brought him to experiment on his own body, pummeling it with the most formidable vigorous athletic activities: running, sprinting, climbing and ultra-marathon running.

By experimenting on himself he learned how the body responds to physical activity, both beneficially and injuriously. Lydiard took the principles he developed to many countries where world-class athletes, coached by him, won Olympic medals by the handfuls. Lydiard had a drive to promote athletics. But the most significant thing he did for himself was to learn how his body reacted to physical activity. He learnt how to use physical activity to improve physical ability.

I often wonder what learning’s about

I was a hopeless case as a secondary school student. A snotty, skinny year 8, my only interest was Science, a subject that I’d an obsessive passion for. I progressed to year 9, dropping Latin, for my teachers were in despair that I could ever learn a single word of that language. Development in year 10 was not much different. The deputy principal warned me sternly that if no improvement happened in other subjects, especially English and Mathematics, I would not study Science the following year. That threat changed my life as a learner. The thought of not doing Science made me think of what I had to do.

With an average achievement in any assessment in Mathematics or English of no more than 25%, I decided to approach my teachers and ask for help. I got a falling-apart book from my Mathematics teacher. Though its pages fell at my feet on opening, it covered all the work for that year and had examples throughout with answers at the back. It was my first experience of what formative assessment could do for a learner. My English teacher got me into the school’s junior debating society. From then on I never looked back.

That year in Mathematics I achieved an end of year examination result that should have won a prize. But I was accused of cheating, though no real proof could be obtained as to how I did that. I also won a debating competition during that year when standing as the Scottish National candidate in a mock election. Even in Scotland at that time, Scottish Nationalists were thought of as walking jokes. Perhaps I assisted in some small way towards the eventual victory in 1999 when Scotland established its own Parliament. Who knows?

I can firmly attest that if it weren’t for my obsession with Science and the threat of having to leave that interest behind, I’d never have studied English or Mathematics the way I did - at least not at school. But it didn’t stop there. So much more had to be learnt about learning when I eventually earned a place at university.

I attended all the lectures, took notes, but my handwriting was abominable. Any attempt I made to study my scribblings came to nothing if I left it too long. I panicked at this, for I wondered how on earth I was ever going to learn from my hopeless note-taking.

I often wonder what learning’s about

I thought up a plan. By accident I’d found that I could remember enough of a lecture to make sense of even the most undecipherable writing in my notes, provided it was read the day I wrote it. What I’d to do was obvious. I’d to learn to write tidily. But there was no way I could write tidy notes quickly enough during a lecture. So every evening after lectures I transcribed my messy scribble into copper-plate handwriting, a style of my own design. I then had a tidy set of lecture notes that I could read and understand even weeks after I’d attended the lecture.

As well, I found that, through the process of transcribing, I learnt from the proximal thinking that I'd done. Writing comments from readings of relevant texts helped me further. This particular aspect of study practice was brought to mind most recently when reading Vivian Yonkers’ and Tony Karrer’s thoughts on “writing forces learning”.

Further ploys I developed were drawing on my interest in music - I’d played violin as a child. I found that this instrument was not the most relaxing one to play as a break from study. The guitar was better. Short 20 minute to half an hour intervals of studying with 5 to 10 minute musical sessions in between meant that a 2 to 3 hour study session was made easier and often seemed to speed past. So by having frequent breaks in my study, I was able to learn from published guitar tutors how to play folk-style and classical guitar - a bonus!

All the study methods I’ve summarised here, and more, I used through my undergraduate years. Erudite educators use the term metacognition to describe these tactical approaches, strategies learnt that help us learn, some of which we may hit upon by accident.

How do we entice our students to use their ability to learn how to help themselves to learn?

Ka kite anō - Catch ya later

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