How can we learn to learn?

By Fr Des

This time of year  teachers  come together to talk about teaching. Often the talk is about pay and conditions but there may be  teachers who would like to talk less about pay and conditions and more about what they have to teach and the level of stress they have to endure. Teaching should be a happy occupation, often it is stressful, and sometimes disastrously so.

In a second level school some years ago one of the staff brought students together and talked about the stress endured by teachers. “We know  students are often  under stress but so are teachers, so  could we bring both together and discuss how to make life stress-free and pleasant for us all?” Students found it hard to believe they were  really damaging teachers, even after hearing  how in school staff rooms there were obvious signs of it, signs of tension and sometimes breakdown. After all, there has always been a kind of battle going on between the learned and the learners, in which pranks and sometimes insults were weapons. But on this occasion teachers were just as hard to convince – if they talked on level ground with students  would they possibly lose authority?

Years before that we had seen and wondered  at an American  film called Blackboard Jungle and people said, Thank goodness we don’t have that problem here,  teachers afraid to turn  their backs to their pupils. But times change and what is in America one day can be  in Ireland the next  and schools do have problems: some of them are attacked, some destroyed, some unhappy. That attempt to bring students and teachers together to create a more enjoyable environment came to nothing. However, as time passed schools came to rely on good friendly relations between students and teachers more than on rigid external discipline and everybody was the better for it. Looking at the result today you see a new level of self-appreciation  among young people, a new level of enjoyment.

But some things seem to have question marks over them. One is the things  people are expected to learn and  how much of it  really enhances their lives; another is whether we really believe education should mean learning how to find out things ourselves as well as happily receiving facts. An old idea of education was that we should control not only what pupils learn but what they should not learn –  people even talked about  schooling as an inhibitor of learning  rather than introducing students to a world in which there is an infinity of things to learn if you only know how. Trouble is, some of the things some people want us  to find out are awful.

Nowadays with nearly every student clutching a tiny instrument that scans the world – or the universe –  who can hope to control searching and learning ? Education then becomes a life- enhancing discovery of everyone’s own ability to decide what is worth knowing and what is worth avoiding. The  old external discipline – or rather disciplining – was symbolised by  uniform, rules, marching,  rote learning, much of it now  disappearing in a cloud of digits. For some of us frightening, for others exciting and liberating. As for what else should be learned, maybe some time  the schools and university programmes will be decided by teachers, parents, students and other educational providers and receivers meeting together every year at conference time to make that decision. What an educational revolution that could be.

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