28 May 2012

Living learning

In his recent essay in the Sydney Morning Herald, Hugh Mackay reminds us of a familiar concept, one which we occasionally forget: that lived experience is what changes us. He argues that we are not changed by someone just telling us new information, nor are we changed by witnessing the opposing argument. Hugh Mackay tells us that it is life's experiences which enable us to see or feel or think something which we may not have considered before.

This relates to the field of education for both teachers and students. In my undergraduate years, one of my lecturers stated that education at its simplest was "change". According to this lecturer, the aim was to change knowledge, skills, attitudes and competencies through the experience of learning. I agreed at the time and twenty-odd years later, I still consider that the essence of learning is experience which leads to change.

It's both a blessing and a curse that I teach English literature when it comes to experience. As readers and analysers of literary texts, my secondary school pupils get an insight into rich emotional lives through their reading experiences. Reading is that unique practice of living a life vicariously, and books can change you, we've all experienced this.

The curse is that, by default of age, most secondary school students don't have a broad life experience, so connecting with characters and ideas can be challenging. Students are probably never going to meet an actual Macbeth or Othello, so we English teachers find the points in a text with which students can connect. Once this process begins (much more detailed than I have time for here), students are challenged to change their views and attitudes.

From a teacher development point of view, it's essential that teachers have experiences that change their pedagogy. I'd like to see more time for experimentation in the classroom. Perhaps teachers could choose one module per year to play with. I don't use the term 'play', flippantly - the education of young people is no game - but I do mean that teachers should try to tinker with an existing program so that they explore a recent pedagogical innovation. Whether it is incorporating interesting software, constructing a collaborative project, or using a new resource, teachers challenge themselves and test their theories, creating experience which becomes the foundation for change.

As Hugh Mackay tells us in his essay - "changed circumstances produce changed behaviour, and changed behaviour produces changed attitudes." 

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