On Teaching & Learning: Part I – Garry Smith

Welcome to the first series of articles on teaching and learning from the Conflict Research Group International. Here we will tease out some of the key terms and concepts related to teaching and learning, we are laying the foundations of our building so to speak. We will not jump straight into discussion on what makes a good teacher or how to ensure learning is taking place as efficiently and effectively as possible. That would be a huge mistake, we need to gather our resources for the journey ahead and prepare ourselves properly. So today as a starter I have one simple question to begin to answer, remember these are articles of introduction not doctoral thesis.

Learning, what is it?

Simple question really. We all do it, have done it and are surrounded by millions of others doing it. It’s just learning innit?

Well a simple answer would be something like the process of getting knowledge or a new skill, Humans do it, animals do it and even some machines do it.  There that’s it, done, let’s move on.

The thing is it is not that simple, we do not need to overcomplicate something but just getting knowledge is certainly an oversimplification. Gaining new knowledge or skills is not the same as getting some new tins of beans from the shop, you do not just pop out and pluck them off of the shelf oh were it that easy. Those of us who have studied for long periods in formal education know this to our cost, but was it so bad really. I look back on my formal education, college and university with nostalgia, I enjoyed it, it was a time of indulgence for me (especially as I was able to sink my teeth into the subject of education). However, it did involve long hard hours listening, discussing, reading, evaluating, analysing, writing, presenting and ultimately thinking.  Formal learning involved a whole load of identifiable processes or stages because it needs to be evidenced and measured. But we only enter formal education after a great deal of learning has taken place.

I used formal education, in this case higher education, as an easy to grasp example, it could easily have been school or kindergarten as examples. However, we are learning from birth, some would argue earlier but for me birth is early enough, our dramatic and violent moment of entry into this world as light, sound, smell and touch bombarding us with our first sensations. Our brain, already well developed then goes on an incredible growth spurt as we begin to learn how to be human¹.

Our brain has evolved greatly as we have evolved as a species and how it processes complex data is still a fascination to us. I remember reading about the discovery of the skeletal remains of the Nariokotome Boy found near Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1984 by Richard Leakey’s team. Over 1.5 million years old the boy would have been about 1.6m tall and resembled modern humans in that area in most ways. He differed in that whilst his brain was larger than expected he had virtually no capacity for speech. He was a creature incredibly well adapted to his environment and culture. His capacity to function fitted what we know of his environment. Our capacity to learn grew as our ability to manipulate the world grew, learning is not a biologically given process, go and read about feral children to compare, but culturally driven, nature and evolution has provided the means, culture and socialisation the tools, learning is what takes place when nature and nurture come together, we are social rule governed beings.

Think about how much we learn in those first months and years of life.  My grandson is now reading and doing maths, he has an extensive vocabulary, is capable of sophisticated thought and reasoning, uses humour effectively and can create new realities on a whim, he is four years and four months old and has been in school for six weeks. His learning in his first four years has been phenomenal, the Nariokotome Boy was about twice his age but intellectually they are incompatible, neither would survive in the others environment. Today our grandson is gifted but he is far from unique or extraordinary, except to his adoring family. The thing is the bulk of his learning up to now has been informal.

His induction into our species and our particular culture took place within the family, this was his primary period of socialisation, the lifelong process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs and ideologies, providing an individual with the skills and habits necessary for participating within his or her society, alternatively called enculturation. He has now formally begun his schooling which together with an exposure to a wider field of adult role models, different media communications etc he begins to experience secondary socialisation. Socialisation is contested concept but I use it here to encapsulate the sheer magnitude of how much we learn to become functioning beings in complex cultures.

So let me throw in something to give us something to hang this learning tag onto. We know learning can take place formally and informally, it occurs in everyday life, within the family, peer groups and in institutions, it can occur of our own free will and it can be compulsory. Throughout the eighties and beyond the term Lifelong Learning gained tremendous currency around the world. For me it was a bit of a no-brainer, of course we learn throughout life, I personally crave learning but for others learning, and whether or not they do it is at best confusing at worst completely mystified.

AS part of my learning I was introduced to the work and thoughts of Charles Handy who has written thoughtfully about learning in life. The following quote from ‘The Hungry Spirit’, encapsulates why learning matters so much. It both encourages us to go on learning, and challenges us to think about the consequences if we don’t.

“I have argued that life, for most people, is a process of discovery – of who we are, what we can do, and, ultimately, why we exist and what we believe. It is a circular process, because when we discover what we are capable of and work out why we exist, it changes the way we see ourselves, which can send us off in new directions, discovering new capabilities and new reasons for our existence. This spiralling journey is the true meaning of lifelong learning, and it remains, for those who pursue it, an endlessly fascinating experience, one which enriches not only the individual but all those around.

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