Friday, 28 March 2008

How long does it take to learn?

Answer one: If you're ready you can learn very quickly.
Answer two: As long as it takes.

Many teachers would love to have students who are ready to learn, who absorb the new material quickly and are able to reproduce it perfectly in tests or exams. But is this a guarantee of learning? It may, in fact, just prove that the students can retain certain information in their short term memory for the purposes of recall. If that is what our assessment system requires, then we may have a perfect match. However, is this real learning and is it what we as teachers and learners ourselves and as parents in some cases want? Those of us with NLP training repeatedly refer to learning in the muscle which NLP expert Robert Dilts suggests we aspire to in order to really have the new learning fixed. Learning in the muscle is the feeling that you now carry the new knowledge skill or information in you in mind and in body and that in some way. That you are a different person from when you didn't know it. So, a useful question at this point is whether we really want to learn something or if it is just a temporary knowing that we seek. If we really want to learn we have to engage our full presence in the act: our mind, body and soul.
We learn what we want to learn, what we perceive as useful to us. Helping our students to establish wants and needs is very important as otherwise they may be physically present in our classes passing time, picking up things which may be incidental and enjoying the social interaction, but not actually committed to achieving a tangible addition to their skills and abilities. Any activity that we do to set goals for the term, the year or the course will help students focus on that. It doesn't even matter if almost subconsciously they learn something different to what they say aloud – what is important is setting a purpose. Imposing our purpose or that of the school is usually less effective unless the students share the purpose. It is their commitment that matters.
Whether our students are ready to learn what we have to teach can depend on factors way outside our control. They may have the academic preparation but whether they have the internal motivation, beliefs, desires and experience to make the most of our classes is unknown to us. Some will, others will fall short, be uninterested, start in a blaze of enthusiasm and then fade out. We are busy complex people living in a complex world and our energy and attention are often attracted in a dozen different directions, a fact which complicates our learning process.
Answer two is perhaps an even honest response to the question and yet the one that may most frustrate teachers and school heads. This is because our education system has been largely structured into packages and syllabi that pretend that in one year XXX will be learnt and that after a certain number of these years a student will graduate as proficient in YYY subjects.
What we can ensure as teachers and administrators is that the material is available as input. Can we guarantee that our students learn it? No. Even if we test it, we know that there can be a gulf between regurgitating information for a standardized exam and actually having the learning incorporated. It is a big challenge and dilemma for modern education. Teach to the exams or teach for lifetime learning. This is because we know deep down, however much different methods claim the contrary, that learning is individual and is not so easily programmed. We know that some people learn on the road to Damascus and have revelations in which everything falls into place. We also know there are people who take driving tests scores of times and still cannot handle the controls of a car despite hundreds of hours of classes. We know that some students pick a concept up with a simple explanation and others can pore over notes and diagrams for months and never show that they have grasped what we want them to. And we know of students who are whiz kids outside school in their own sphere of interest and seem to be brain dead when they sit in our subject. We know that there are learning blocks and moments of inspired flow.
What can we do then?
The first thing is to know that we cannot learn anything for another person. If they can't or don't want to learn they won't. We do know that certain factors help to foster the learning process.
1. Treating all our students as individuals and as unique and appreciating them for their uniqueness.

2. Ensuring that the conditions for learning are favourable – that the students feel safe and comfortable and appreciated as members of the class.

3. Creating an atmosphere of experimentation, play and discovery, which allows us to make mistakes and change our hypotheses. Neutralising the concept of failure is very important here. A concept that is regrettably widespread in many educational systems.

4. Giving students repeated exposure to the material in a variety of forms – that allows intake through the senses (VAK) and for the varied multiple intelligences to be employed. Also important is to give them repeated opportunities to put their learning into practice or test it against what they already know.

5. Helping students to become aware of the process of their learning and not just the content or the goals. This is a particular challenge as our students often focus more on the tests and the results of these than in what is happening to them as they learn. When they become aware of their own learning styles, they possess the tools to influence their learning in any subject and not be dependent on the type of teacher or method of learning they face. As part of this, our feedback and our planning of spaces for them to reflect on the feedback they get from others following their effort are two invaluable contributions for learning.

6. Believing that all our students can learn. Our faith in their potential to learn is fundamental. If we regard them as no hopers, they will prove us right.

7. Being patient. Everyone has their internal times. Some people take months or years to acquire a skill or knowledge that others pick up in hours or days. The difference is that the second group is ready to learn, has the appropriate preparation, motivation and mental programmes that facilitate fast acquisition. Others, for many reasons, need longer, need more practice and exposure, more chances to try out the material. They may progress relatively little in our class because they need the time to consolidate past learning or acquire other skills prior to those we are actually presenting. This is something that our education system often forgets.

We know that as teachers we can be extremely influential in fostering learning. We may also tend to judge ourselves or be judged on external results. But how can we judge externally, the inner processes of mind, body and spirit? We can expect visible results but ultimately the richest reward for a teacher is knowing that a student has fully acquired some new skill or knowledge which will be with them forever.
And that we know seldom takes place from one day to another or in a steady predictable way.

© Resourceful Teaching 2008