There is more than one way to see the world.

Posted by sustainable on June 18, 2012 

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 Sometimes places and people remind me of things I have done that seem to have helped someone learn new things.  They remind me of things I have done in learning to be a teacher, a coach and researcher since 1965.

During the early eighties, when I was developing undergraduate courses at the University of Wales, Bangor, I met a pupil to whom I had introduced the ‘delights’ of rugby union football during my very first year in teaching.  He recognised me but I did not recognise him.  That was perhaps understandable.  He explained that he had only been in one ninety-minute class with me when I was a replacement for an absent colleague.  He reminded me of the field on which we were ‘learning’ the game about which I was so passionate.  (I was, and still try to be, passionate about everything I try to teach and learn.)  It was a bleak, wind-swept and grey mountainside in the pennine hills of North Derbyshire.  It was raining.  It was often raining.  Even after nearly twenty years he remembered that lesson and thanked me for it.  He had not enjoyed it.  He said that afterwards he had vowed never to play rugby again!  It was not the game – just the ‘horizontal’ weather.  The emotional consequences of the wind and rain and the frustration of a ball that did not bounce properly were too much.  He went back to playing with a round ball.  He was, after all, a talented soccer player.  He also began to take his art increasingly seriously and eventually graduated through Art College.  He is now a successful potter.

Examining the unintended consequences of things we do is often a good way of calibrating our understanding of the world and the things we do in it.  Acknowledging such unexpected consequences can enhance our capacity to vary the perspectives we adopt in relation to the things that matter to us.  In grounding an experience in the different viewpoints we might take we can explore and elaborate our theoretical understanding.  If an unanticipated outcome is not understandable using our current framework for explaining things, then we need both to rethink the conceptual structures on which we normally rely and examine why, how and what we are doing.  However, as a former, much respected colleague once said, ‘if your data do not support your hypothesis you are just doing the wrong experiments’.  Of course we get most excited when findings are counter-intuitive but turn out have a perfectly sound theoretical explanation.  In the field of learning and knowledge exchange, and especially in education in institutional settings, the intuitive but demonstrably not the best approach often still hold sway.  This is in spite of evidence pointing to different and better ways of doing things and different ways of explaining them.

Much of what I taught undergraduates in universities was about how people learn.  I taught about the practice conditions that lead to adaptive expertise.  I taught them about how experts continue to practise to enable them to perform in circumstances that less expert participants find distressing and disruptive.  Colleagues taught about self-determination theory, social learning and cultural development.  We applied the theories to the shaping and structuring of our students’ learning experiences.  We devised ways and means that allowed direct experience of the theoretical constructs that they were studying (understanding is seen as the multi-dimensional space of experience).

We applied those ideas in how we were exploring the content of the courses together.  The key was to create a ‘micro culture’ that recruited the power of social learning and provided opportunities for learning that were not inherent in the pre-existing culture of the university.  The lock to be opened required structuring variations of practice in perspective, process and product that strengthened both the capability to do what was required and the sensitivity to the contexts which demanded variation.  The counter intuitive feature of this is that whilst the ability to do something is logically separable from the perception of what is required, the two facets are functionally inseparable.  Practising one always has an impact on the other.  The force to turn the key in the lock was the intention to succeed and we celebrated success.  These elements promote the disposition to be a ‘good learner’.  They are the conditions that are explainable as the grounds for developing powerful intrinsic motivation to learn.  The door this key and lock open is access to emergent adaptive expertise.  That idea and the related one of developing a strong disposition for ‘good’ learning have to be strong precursors to potential solutions to much of what we are now concerned.  We have to build them into our attempts to develop sustainable leaders, social learning capability and adaptive knowledge managers.

Next month I shall be leading an intensive workshop in writing, finishing and publishing academic papers with the colleagues of a former student.  He was one the participants in the learning experiments that were my early courses and is now a university course leader.  There is a sense in which this exemplifies sustainable learning.  It persists.  What I have learned also persists.  We will be back in Derbyshire.  If it is raining, we will be indoors.  I like to believe that I can now better predict the outcomes of what I do!

This entry is written by John Fazey