Taking a course or being a learner?

England’s annual Festival of Learning is underway now and will continue throughout May and June. It’s a chance for organisations to showcase and celebrate adult learning and to encourage more people to ‘have a go’. You can find out more here.

The highlight of the NIACE-led Festival will be Adult Learners’ Week from 13-19 June.

ALWAdult Learners’ Weeks have become international events although the timings vary in different countries. As part of the Canadian Adult Learners’ Week, the NWT Literacy Council based in Yellowknife in the North West Territories hosted a guest blog by Jim Stauffer, a Community Adult Educator at Aurora College. His blog considered the difference between ‘taking a course’ and ‘being a learner’. You can read the full text here and or on Jim’s own blog, Way Up North, here. It is well worth reading.

Jim and the NWT Literacy Council have given kind permission for me to share his comparisons. They are:

If I am most concerned with getting the right answer, I am taking a course. If I am not satisfied until I understand how the darn thing works, I am a learner.

If I want to know what I need to do to pass, I am taking a course. If I get excited because something in class touches my “real” life, I am a learner.

If my motivation is to get the certificate, I am taking a course. If my motivation is to become better at something I love doing, I am a learner.

If I attend classes because I can’t get an excused absence, I am taking a course.If class is so interesting that I don’t want to miss anything, I am a learner.

If the best part of the day is going home to my family, I am human. If you wondered what that has to do with anything, it’s just my whimsy intruding.

If I only spend time studying what’s assigned, I am taking a course. If I get side-tracked investigating new ideas that aren’t directly related to assignments, I am probably a learner.

If I only discuss my studies with the instructor and others in my class, I am taking a course. If I can’t shut up about what I’m studying, if I bring it up with my family and friends until they get tired of it, I am definitely a learner.

If the most important part of my writing is punctuation and grammar, I am taking a course. If the most important thing in writing is communicating what’s on my mind, I am a learner.

If my biggest accomplishment is passing the test, I am taking a course. If I can’t wait to put my knowledge into practice, I am a learner.

If the class is too easy for me, but it’s required in the program or job, I might just be taking a course. If I just want to be in school even though the course content is too difficult for me, I still might be a learner.

If I am afraid to make a mistake, I am taking a course. If I give myself the freedom to try-fail-try again, I am a learner.

If I lay awake at night worrying about my grade, I am taking a course. If I lay awake grappling with the subject, I am a learner.

WEA students

It’s refreshing to see this focus on attitudes to complement the emphasis on skills and knowledge in educational debate. It chimes well with the WEA’s efforts to encourage critical action learning.

Imagine a society populated by lifelong learners and how different it would be.

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Norman Cornish, culture, education and value

A blue plaque has been unveiled at Norman Cornish’s Spennymoor home in County Durham.
Cornish

Norman Cornish was a contemporary of the internationally renowned Ashington Group of coal mining artists, who are the subject of Lee Hall’s hit play, ‘The Pitmen Painters’.

While Cornish is associated with the Spennymoor Setlement, the other pitmen painters’ story began in a Workers’ Educational Association art class taught by Robert Lyon in 1934. Lyon, a master of painting at a Newcastle college, was engaged to teach Art Appreciation to colliery workers in their own community. Finding that his slide-based lectures weren’t being well-received, he adopted a ‘learning by doing’ approach and encouraged his students to create their own art. The impact of his teaching and their talent has been astonishing.

Notably, the painters didn’t seek to make their fortunes out of their art. Money was not a driving force. Neither was a change in employment. They became friends of some of the most avant garde artists of the day and were feted by the British art world, but they still kept on working in the pit.

The Pitmen Painters’ work is now displayed at the Woodhorn Museum in Ashington.

The Museum’s website says that, “Today the Ashington Group is acclaimed worldwide, yet back in the 1930s none of them would have dreamed that a few evening classes would bring them such fame and international attention.”

The Ashington Group showed what can happen when we recognise that adult education and culture are not just for an exclusive élite or for direct financial return. That said, the small investment into those Art Appreciation classes has been returned in ways that could not have been imagined.

How many people across the world have been employed because of Lee Hall’s play about the group – arising from his own creative talent as a writer – and how many people have been inspired because of the pitmen painters’ examples?

Learning from the past and shaping the future

Successful adult educators and students learn from the past, embrace change with enthusiasm and adapt to new ideas and circumstances. At best they innovate and lead development. The current round of Annual General Meetings in the WEA brings these activities to life as we reflect on the 2013-14 academic year and share plans for this year and beyond.

pastpresentfuture-300x225

As an educational organisation with more than 110 years of history, we can look back on a proud tradition and core values that keep bringing us back to our abiding vision, values and purpose.

We want to make sure that our educational movement is as relevant to future generations as it has been in the past.

Our recent AGMs and get-togethers have been upbeat with a sense that we are refreshing our democracy and looking to the future with even more resolve to improve people’s lives through adult education that challenges and inspires.

WEA NE Banner

The WEA North Eastern Region’s banner

The WEA North East Region’s Annual General Meeting, 15 November 2014

The banner on display at the North East Region’s AGM captures some of the WEA’s spirit. It’s made from traditional silks and patterns but includes 21st century images from the Region. Campaigning for adult education – the right to learn – is at its centre.

Moira Riseborough, Ian Roberts, Russell Porteous and Michael Crilly, who are voluntary Regional Officers and a Trustee, steered us through the usual AGM formalities. Students, tutors, volunteers, members of governance and management and friends from partner organisations all took an active part in the meeting, focusing on the present and very recent past, with some stories of notable practice in teaching, learning and volunteering.

Greg Coyne, the Regional Director, brought the Annual Report to life by using the example of a gardening course taught by Amelia Luffrun. Amelia had encouraged students to stretch their learning beyond practical gardening skills to think about wider environmental issues and sustainability. The students had gone on to enrich their experience by sharing some of their new-found skills with men attending the Day Centre at St Clare’s Hospice in South Shields. The students taught the Centre users how to make bird-feeders from recycled materials.

“Giving something back”, is a theme that we often hear from students who become involved in voluntary activities as a result of their learning.

Greg Coyne's final comments on the gardening course in South Shields

Greg Coyne’s final comments on the gardening course in South Shields

The Right Reverend Martin Wharton, the former Bishop of Newcastle, spoke from the heart at the meeting. He described his own experiences as an adult learner, acknowledging a debt to the WEA that surprised those of us who didn’t know his background. He spoke about how he had left school with few qualifications, but  took up part-time study with the WEA as a mature student. He built on this learning and went on to gain a degree at Durham University before training for the ministry at Oxford. His story is one of countless examples from the WEA’s history, but progression to become a Bishop is a one-off student outcome – as far as we know!

We celebrated Kath Connolly and Grant Crichton’s achievements as worthy winners of WEA Awards before a session on the WEA Manifesto and some lively group discussions looking to the future and sharing ideas to develop and support our:

  • tutors;
  • branches;
  • sustainability.

Nigel Todd, a WEA Ambassador and Regional Committee member, shared this cartoon. It was a good stimulus for discussion in the group who concentrated on sustainability.

climatesummit

The groups came up with specific ideas for action, so we ended the meeting with a focus on the future after we had celebrated the past.

P.S. We love a bit of rousing singing in the WEA.

NESocChoir

The North East Socialist Choir

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson divides opinion. His stint as a castaway on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last week prompted a wave of responses from educators. You can hear the broadcast online here or download a podcast here.

As a contemporary thinker and communicator, Sir Ken has a comprehensive website here. His biography says that:

Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business. He is also one of the world’s leading speakers on these topics, with a profound impact on audiences everywhere.

You can get a flavour of his thinking in this RSA video.

RSA animate

Some commentators claim that he’s an ego-driven self publicist, popularising his arguments through charm and persuasion. Others see him as a brilliant creative visionary who can save education from a system that isn’t working for far too many people. Of course, neither of these extremes of opinion is mutually exclusive and both are simplistic. One is about assumed motivation – and it can only ever be assumed – and personality and the other is about promoting a single approach to teaching and learning.

I heard him talk to a comparatively small audience several years ago. There was no doubting his charisma but his arguments, to educators and policy makers, were also very compelling. The quote below is typical and especially relevant to adult and community learning, where we often work with people who didn’t flourish or find their skills and confidence before they left school.

“We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”

How do we decide on the validity of his theses and respond to the counter claims of his critics?

I’m with John Dewey on this. We all filter evidence through the lens of our personal experience. I’ve read and listened to some of the pros and cons relating to Sir Ken’s approaches and tried to be objective but personal experience of learning and teaching tells me that he talks good sense. Are people suspicious because he does so with such panache? Being a good communicator isn’t the same as dumbing down.

What do you think about the RSA video and Sir Ken’s vision for creativity in education?

10 quick lessons from educational thinkers

Praxis, the combination of theory, reflection and practice is precious – as in ‘valuable’ – but it’s not something to be precious or pretentious about. Educational theory is of real use when we reflect on it and apply it in practice. The list below features 10 quick lessons drawn from some of the people featured so far in this blog’s ‘Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame’.

Number 10 is specifically about the WEA but has wider application in adult education.

  1. Socrates – Active learning through questioning and discovery leads to deeper understanding of a subject.
  2. Mary Wollstonecraft – Prejudice leads to ill-informed and unfair assumptions about people’s academic potential.
  3. John Dewey – Previous experiences of life and education shape individual students’ personal responses to learning activities.
  4. Benjamin Bloom – Learning can take place at many levels ranging from ‘rote’ learning to active creativity.
  5. Paolo Freire – Education shouldn’t be based on a ‘banking’ system that attempts to deposit knowledge in students’ minds.
  6. Robert Gagne – ‘Teachers have three primary functions: to be a designer, manager and evaluator of learning.’
  7. Jack Mezirow – Transformative education has the potential to set people free from their limitations.
  8. Carol Dweck – The language we use as educators can reinforce the development of ‘fixed mindsets’ or ‘growth mindsets’
  9. John Hattie – Teacher credibility is important in promoting ‘visible learning’ through feedback about students’ progress.
  10. R H Tawney – The purpose of the association [the WEA] is to provide for men and women who want to take their bearings on the world, opportunities of co-operative study, in congenial company, with a leader who knows enough of his (or her) business to be not only a leader but a fellow student.

This blog complements others that I follow, including Pete Caldwell’s at wp.me/p1ynaa-a1 and several others. I’ll list a few in the next blog.

What snippets would you have chosen from any of these or other thinkers to inform practice in adult education?

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – What about Socrates?

The best education encourages students to ask questions rather than to accept someone else’s answers in a mechanical transfer of assumed ‘knowledge’. Questioning steers intellectual curiosity and active learning. It’s especially effective in adult education in engaging students as partners with their tutors and with other students in shared learning processes. It should be integral to the WEA’s practice as we aim to, ‘challenge and inspire individuals, communities and society’. Do you agree?

medmo-einstein-explain-questioning

Many questions lead to more questions. They develop threads of learning that continue to play out and lead to a more considered understanding of subjects. Learning through discovery is a much deeper process than the simple acquisition of information. The art of critical inquiry is a precious skill in all aspects of life as we try to make sense of the world around us, especially in an ‘information age’ where we are spoon-fed ‘facts’ via mass media. Questioning trains our minds to engage with and to analyse information, to check facts, to consider other viewpoints and to become more inventive and adaptable when we try to deal with new challenges.

Socrates and Socratic questioning
Socrates, the Greek philosopher, was born in Athens around 470 BC and sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning in 399 BC after a trial on charges of ‘corrupting the youth’ and ‘impiety’. His alleged crimes had been the posing of philosophical questions about Athenians’ commonly acknowledged gods.

Socrates

Socrates

He accepted his fate with dignity and was said to have been humble about his own perceived lack of knowledge.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realise how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Socrates

His students, most notably Plato, wrote about his life and work including the concept of Socratic questioning. The Socratic method still forms a sound basis for an inquiry-based approach to teaching, learning and assessment and Socrates’ ideas have influenced many subsequent educational theories, including Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. They support the notion of teachers as intellectuals who continue to learn and of students who are active, critical thinkers.

The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think – rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.

John Dewey

There’s more detail on ‘The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching and Learning’ on the Critical Thinking Community’s website at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/the-role-of-socratic-questioning-in-thinking-teaching-learning/52 and more on Socratic Dialogue at: http://www.socraticdialogue.be/socrates.html.

I can also recommend the Critical Thinking Community’s ‘Begin here” pages at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/critical-thinking-where-to-begin/796

What do you think about integrating Socratic questioning in teaching, learning, assessment and in everyday life? What are the pros and cons?

Any other good resources, examples, ideas or comments to share?

The Secret Teacher, senior leadership, management and focus

A Secret Teacher writes....

A Secret Teacher writes….

‘Senior leaders are drowning in paperwork rather than inspiring others’, says Secret Teacher, in the Guardian‘s ‘School Leadership and Management Hub’ on Saturday at http://bit.ly/ZwlyWh

Senior staff need to be brave enough not to be distracted from the focus; that of creating a culture of good learning. We need to keep in mind what’s important and shift the focus back to enabling students to do the very best they can and getting teachers to feel as empowered and motivated as possible..”

The WEA isn’t a school but we face similar issues. We’re a voluntary sector adult education organisation with more than 1700 tutors across England and Scotland. The quotation above is a good guide for our senior educational leadership and management. This blog is about what we’re doing to ‘shift the focus back’ following a recent restructure and review of priorities.

We’re usually swimming against a tide of emails, deadlines and competing priorities as Secret Teacher says. We do risk drowning in paperwork but we’re trying to make careful choices along the way as we develop new ways of working.

10 things we’ve done recently to focus on a “culture of good learning”

1. We refreshed our vision and reaffirmed our commitment to adult education for social purpose. This gives clearer direction for our teaching and learning.

2. We cut the number of posts in our Senior Management Team. This aimed to cut overheads.

3. Trustees took part in a development event in October, using ‘active learning’ methods to focus on their roles in promoting excellence in teaching, learning and assessment. They wanted this to be at the forefront of strategic planning as the restructured Senior Management Team began to work with them in new ways.

4. Trustees now have a standing item on ‘teaching, learning and assessment’ on the agendas for all their meetings. Using this precise wording is creating space to ‘shift the focus back’.

5. ‘Teaching, learning and assessment’ is also a standing item on the agenda for all Senior Management Team meetings and teleconferences, reinforcing colleagues’ deep and shared interest and ambition for the WEA.

Our senior managers care about teaching and learning

Our senior managers care about teaching and learning

6. Trustees have changed the way that they run their Education Strategy Committee. They concentrate on an individual aspect of teaching, learning, assessment and impact for part of every meeting. Committee members have agreed that they will always ‘challenge the status quo’. Chris Morton, the Chair, invites people with a range of roles within and beyond the WEA to take part in these sessions so that the Committee members learn from different perspectives.

7. We have rooted our self-assessment, improvement and development processes in our work. Many people take part in determining what’s good about our teaching, learning and assessment and what we should improve. Using the AfL approach (Assessment for Learning), our self-assessment is FOR progress and not just OF progress.

8. We now manage student services and support from within the Senior Management Team so that we know about students’ needs, opinions and learning experiences as we make plans and check progress on teaching and learning.

Fiona Parr, Director of Student Services

Fiona Parr, Director of Student Services

9. We are encouraging people to exchange views about theories and practice of teaching, learning and assessment so that we’re actively thoughtful and thoughtfully active about how our students learn.

10. We are continuing to develop Community Learning Volunteers who work beside some tutors and provide classroom support. (This direct learning support is in addition to many Branch volunteers who organise courses and to other active volunteers.)

We’ve got a lot of work to do and I don’t underestimate the challenges but Trustees and senior education managers are regularly asking the question that Secret Teacher poses: “Is it going to directly improve learning?” We need to keep asking the question throughout the WEA, no matter what distractions there are. It’s also a message that all education policy makers, from Government Ministers to teachers, should apply whenever they make professional decisions.

We have to rely on colleagues with expertise in other specialisms to run excellent services alongside education. Teaching and learning would be impossible without them. Their vital roles and professional skills deserve equivalent status and the more that they do to free up educators to educate the better.

It would be interesting to know how senior managers ‘keep the focus’ in other educational organisations. We’re unusual in having such a dispersed and democratic model but we try to be open about what we do and we’re always willing to learn from others’ good practice as we develop.