Tag Archives: learning

Ancestry and learning

I don’t know all of what was going on in my family, but I do know that my parents were both the unexpectedly clever children of families who didn’t expect much on that score.

Things are better now than they used to be. It used to be the case that if you were a working class kid and showed no great signs of learning potential, you’d be off to the factory, or down the mine or whatever the local default was, and no one would much bother about whether you could have done more with a bit of extra support.

To become educated, a working class kid had to be stand-out clever. They will have needed to learn quickly without being shown. I think this creates a legacy where the assumption is that if you aren’t fast and able to learn with almost no input, you aren’t clever. If you come from a family that has been told, and has been telling itself for generations that no one in it is clever, it’s really hard to get past that and you may have to be astoundingly clever to get taken seriously.

One of the many problems with this is that you don’t get to learn how to learn. When you hit the limits of your innate cleverness, there’s a high risk that you, and the people around you, will think that’s all you had. You won’t have the tools necessarily to get in and graft, either. Not knowing how to learn will confirm the sense of not being so clever after all. There’s not much scope for a way out from there.

We all learn in different ways and at different speeds, and while some of that can look more impressive upfront, it is no measure of potential, really. The stories passed down in our families will do a lot to shape how clever we think we are, and what our apparent ability to learn might mean. Getting beyond those stories to find out what you might truly be capable isn’t always easy, but it is worth the effort.


Learning to learn

I’ve recently dedicated myself to a fairly ambitious learning project, and it’s made me aware of a number of things I have going on around learning and intelligence. When it comes to other people learning I have a clear understanding that room to make mistakes is necessary to the process. However, when it comes to me I have this feeling that I should be able to see something once and then know it, or be able to do it perfectly thereafter. In reality, learning is a process, and it takes a while to get things to stick in your head. What I’ve learned about learning – as it applies to me – is clearly rubbish.

Cleverness is often measured in terms of speed – that’s inherent in taking exams. To get something quickly may be seen as evidence of being a good and clever learner, and it may seem to reflect well on the teacher. In practice, learning is just showing up and doing the work. It’s just time and effort – it helps if you have good resources and guidance, but even if you don’t, time and effort can get a lot done. Cleverness and speed, without determination and application, doesn’t lead to much.

To go from seeing to doing is a leap. It takes time to build body knowledge – that might mean your hands developing the muscle memory for the shape of a tune. It takes time to learn exactly how a specific sort of pen, or paint works. The odds are that on the first go, you won’t perform a dance move in the best possible way. It takes repetition to build insight, familiarity, understanding and to find out how best to do it as yourself. But apparently I think I’m supposed to be able to do everything perfectly at once.

This is a story I have been told. The consequence of this story is not that I feel clever when I get something immediately – because that almost never happens for me. It means I feel stupid when it takes me a few goes. I feel useless when I forget things I’ve been trying to learn. I feel inadequate. I’ve spent the last three weeks fighting these feelings, telling myself the things I would say to anyone who was my student: it’s ok to make mistakes, it’s part of the learning process. It takes time to really consolidate learning and properly embed it. You are doing ok, just keep going over this and you will get it. And, after three weeks, I have learned how to draw and read the characters of the Japanese Hiragana writing system. It’s not exactly an alphabet, it’s phonetic. It was all graft – there’s no innate skill here, no natural gift and that’s fine because learning is mostly about graft.

Intelligence isn’t about effortlessness, it is about being able to effectively apply what you know. Intelligence isn’t about magically knowing things no one has taught you. That’s simply not how anything works. It’s nice when something makes sense quickly, but that’s all it is. It isn’t a measure of anything. How fast you can take something and apply it effectively may be a measure of something, but it’s not the only measure.


What is a child?

What we think a child is will inform how we treat them, how we teach them, and relate to them. What we think children are, and what we think childhood means is intrinsically wrapped up with what we think humans are.

There are those who see all children as innocent, and those for whom children are monstrous little barbarians who have to be humanised and civilized. Here the science is fairly clear. Children by nature have a pretty good sense of fair play (sorry, no links, but this stuff isn’t hard to find).  It appears that the more selfish and unpleasant behaviours are the learned ones, not the innate ones.

However, if we believe children are uncivilized monsters by nature, what we have to do to ‘break them in’ and tame them becomes an issue. This doesn’t tend to go with gentle, child-centred learning. It does tend to go with colonial mindsets and beliefs that ‘uncivilized’ people are inferior.

When it comes to education, it’s been popular to think that children are blank slates, or empty vessels and that filling the child with ideas is the job of the educator. This isn’t supported by the available evidence – children absorb impressions and ideas from the moment of arrival in the world and by the time they get to school they definitely aren’t empty vessels. They learn naturally through messing about and exploration – something the entire western approach to education ignores in favour of making them sit still and learn to do as they are told.

One of the most pernicious stories about childhood is that children do not know what they want or need and must have adults make those decisions for them. A child who is allowed to develop and hold opinions will have no trouble doing so. A child who is never allowed to learn through their own mistakes or evolve personal preferences won’t know how to do that. It’s not about what children are capable of, in this area, it’s about what they are allowed.

Do we think children need to be punished for mistakes, or educated to do better? Do we raise them to be questioning free thinkers, or do we want them to be quiet and obedient? Do we consider them capable of genuine malice? Do we look at their behaviour and ask where they have learned it? Do we think they should be sitting down quietly or do we think they belong outside? Do we assume they will automatically be natural in nature, or might they need some guidance?

It is so easy to project personal values and assumptions onto children. They aren’t well placed to resist. They are malleable and informed by their environments, so what adults decide is true and real for them can be imposed and made real, often. Treat a child like a monster, and you may well end up with a monster. Or a child who is anxious and can’t function properly. Treat a child like they can’t think for themselves and they won’t learn how to and you’ll get teenagers who cannot function. Treat a child like they can do things and they will – there’s a great deal of evidence from indigenous peoples around this one.

A child is not an empty thing waiting to be filled or shaped by adults. When we treat them like people, they have a much better time of it.


The right to make mistakes

For me, there is a world of difference between carelessness and needful mistakes. To get something wrong because you weren’t paying attention, is negligent and people should be held to account for that kind of thing. However, an honest mistake is a different consideration. An honest mistake comes from acting on insufficient information, most usually, or as a consequence of not having fully developed some relevant skill.

Without the freedom to make mistakes, it is difficult to learn anything. Only when we can make mistakes do we have room to explore and experiment. It’s not always obvious what will work, or what will suit us. Maybe you don’t know what kind of job you should have, or whether you should live in a yurt, or if you’ve found the perfect person to spend your life with. When we judge people harshly for making life choices and then regretting them, what we’re telling each other is that we shouldn’t take risks, move outside our comfort zones or do anything unfamiliar.

If you are drawn to the most obvious way of life and want the kind of job a five year old can understand, then it’s ok to go through life never making mistakes.  If your soul’s calling is a branch of the sciences that you didn’t even hear of until your thirties, how are you to know? If your yearnings are for something unusual, you may not have words for your desires, or any idea of what you crave until you encounter it in person. It is hard to make good life choices when you’ve never seen the thing that you will turn out to most want.

The narrower your life and experiences are, the less chance you will have at making good choices. The more diversely you experience, the more scope you will have for knowing what you want before you have to make firm decisions about it. If you live surrounded by people who are free to make mistakes and explore possibilities, you’ll know a lot more about your own options. If the people around you don’t feel allowed to make mistakes, you’ll see far fewer options playing out and you won’t know what might be available to you.

Too often, we frame integrity as consistency over time. We don’t allow ourselves to change in light of new information and experience. You can think you are one thing, or want one thing, and only find out that was a mediocre choice for you when you run into a real alternative. We also need the space to go off things. No one should be tied to their early choices. Consistency might make us more predictable and less work for each other, but freedom to change allows us to grow.  The choices we make when we are young may not be right for older versions of ourselves, and being able to let those go as mistakes and move on, is really helpful.

A mistake is not a failure. It’s a point a change, an insight and an opportunity. Mistakes can be where we learn most about who we are and what we want. Freedom  to admit when things didn’t work and to go on and make new and different mistakes, is truly liberating. I do not think our integrity lies in our consistency, but in our commitment to finding what we most need to be and how we should live. It shouldn’t come down to a handful of early choices. Life should be more of an adventure than that.


Learning from life

Usually I find my content for blog posts by sitting down of a morning and asking ‘what do I know that I did not know before? This week, finding blog posts has been hard, and this morning I asked myself why that was, rather than asking what I have learned.

This is a week of more hours working away from home than is normal for me. As a self-employed person, I mostly work from my home computer. Up until this summer, I’d had a bunch of routines and strategies that allowed me a flexible working life. At the moment I’m getting to grips with a selection of new jobs and this week I’m spending a lot of time on one of them. I know a lot of things I didn’t know before, about where things are kept, what of the paperwork needs revising, and I’m working on some longer term strategies. None of these things make for blog posts.

When I’m on top of things, my day to day life leaves me time for reflection. I get to step back during the day and think about what I’m doing and what’s impacting on me. It’s only since I’ve stopped being able to do that, that I’ve noticed how inherently contemplative my life normally is. At the moment, all of my reflection time is being used to figure out things about the various new jobs. In all the things I’ve taken on, part of the job is to figure out what the job should be and how to do it to best effect.

What I’ve learned this week is that I learn most when I have time in a day for contemplation.  What I’ve been doing for some time doesn’t look like the structure of a conventional spiritual practice, but it has worked that way. A process of reflecting on my experiences as I go has allowed me to learn all kinds of things, and to bring depth and richness to my life. Sometimes it’s when something isn’t feasible that its true nature becomes properly visible – that’s not an ideal way to learn, but it will do!

This period of chaos has given me scope to notice things about how I’ve been living. I look forward to getting back to calmer waters with more scope to think about things. I feel like I’ve got a lot to process right now, as well as a lot to do. What do I know that I did not know before? That I need more thinking time when I don’t have to think about anything specific. Also that there are considerable personal benefits to pondering things as I go, day by day, in the informal way I’d been doing it.


Life lessons

Here are some things I’ve learned recently. Some of them should have been blindingly obvious all along, but there we go. That these are things I have had to learn is perhaps worth mentioning in and of itself.

I’m not an infinite resource. I can’t keep giving and being patient, and accepting, and not making a fuss when things aren’t ok for me. I can’t keep pretending to be ok when I’m not. If I do that, I don’t get to feel like a person and it gnaws away at my roots and eventually I will fall over.

I should expect people to care about me, and care if I am not ok. I should particularly expect this of anyone who claims my friendship. If a person is inclined to claim my friendship and make use of me, the very least I should expect is that they care about me. If I love someone, or I love their work, it does not give them a free pass to treat me any way they like. There is nothing unreasonable or demanding about needing to be something more than a resource to use.

If a person finds me too difficult, unreasonable, hard work or anything else of that ilk, it does not mean I am automatically obliged to try and make them feel more comfortable.

It is not my job to fix everything. If I cannot fix something, I need to admit defeat and own that it may not be mine to fix. I need to recognise my own limits. If I have to make myself smaller, tolerate pain, or sacrifice something of myself to fix a problem, I should really question that rather than cracking on with it.

I have some bloody amazing people in my life who have no qualms about challenging me when I’m being self-harming in these ways. I am going to pay a good deal more attention to the people who care whether I am ok or not, and who want the best for me. I am going to listen when they tell me not to do things, and I am going to take their concerns for me seriously. I don’t really know how to take care of myself and I’ve spent most of my life treating that like it doesn’t even matter, and not resisting the people who want to treat me like I don’t matter. I can listen to the people who do not want to watch me getting hurt, and I can learn from them.


Jack of all trades

Yesterday’s post featured a rag rug, with a design drawn by my other half. I know three ways to make rag rugs. There are a great many other crafts I can do a bit, numerous musical instruments I can play passably, and a vast array of other things in which I have dabbled over the years. I like to dabble, I get excited learning new things, and I get bored if I spend too long doing all the same things. However, while I’m pro dabbling and experimenting, it’s not without hazards.

If all you end up doing is learning new stuff, you can find you don’t develop anything properly, never get beyond beginner stage, never learning to push and never doing anything for long enough to have it bear fruit. It can be a way of avoiding dealing with happens when you commit. As a dabbler, you may never finish anything, never really achieve anything but there’s always a new exciting project to wave at people. All the attention, none of the exposure of making something people can experience for themselves, and maybe judge.

Without a doubt, the best creative work comes from a mix of inspiration and dedication. It means building a skill set so that when you have a fire in your head, you can make best use of it. It takes a long time to become truly good at something – the general estimate seems to be about ten thousand hours. The more time a person spends dabbling, the less scope there is to get to that point with any given skill. But on the up side, you can become an expert in learning how to quickly learn things, and there are plenty of times in life when being a Jack of all trades is more useful than being the master of one.

I find that when I dabble, I deepen my appreciation for people who do the things well. When I know more, I am better equipped to enjoy and appreciate. I think this is because I’m pretty good at staying realistic about my own skills and insights. If you do a single course, or a brief session and you think you are then an expert, that can have some seriously distorting effects on how you see other people’s work.

Dabbling enriches my understanding of the world, and anything that teaches me feeds back into my writing. It keeps me fresh, and interested, and hauls me out of ruts and gloom. If something isn’t working for me I will eventually stop banging my head against it and pick up something else for a while. Dabbling is play, and fun and often what I do with my leisure time. I like making things, I like exploring.

As a creator I’m increasingly interested in what happens when disciplines collide. Not just putting words and images together, as with the graphic novel work, but putting music and images together, exploring stories through craft, how I can use my body more in spoken word performance… I love stories made out of fragments and ephemera, and that means I need to learn how to make more of the pieces.

So, I advocate dabbling, exploring, and playing. Know that’s what you’re doing, don’t mistake it for having the same depth and breadth of knowledge as someone has when they’ve worked on a skill for many years. Don’t use it as a substitute for seeing a project to conclusion. Don’t require yourself to achieve at the same standard as an expert when you’re only playing with something. Don’t lose sight of your personal goals, vision etc in the muddle of trying to learn to do ten thousand things. Sometimes a new skill is just a shiny distraction from the things you need to be doing. Pausing regularly to take stock helps make it all work.


Eternal Student

Is there a point where we can rest on our laurels and feel that we know it all? Obviously not, because there’s far more to learn than any one person can know. Is there a point when we know enough that we can consider ourselves an authority and not study further? Then it gets interesting.

Of course the most obvious risk if you stop studying is that what you know becomes out of date. Other younger, sharper, hungrier creatures will outlearn you and pass you by. You’ll become irrelevant. The applications for this in any aspect of work are pretty obvious, but it’s easy to think that in spiritual matters, the person who has it figured out doesn’t need to keep on sitting in the student seats.

The person who knows it all, who is wise and enlightened and really spiritual, doesn’t need to keep studying. Or so it may seem. There’s a point of achievement imaginable that says now you are the authority, the guru, others should learn from you now. For me, that’s a bit of a warning sign. I don’t think any of us humans ever get to be so clever and wise that we have nothing more to learn. I do think there’s something distinctly off when people aren’t excited enough to want to learn.

To learn is to admit that you didn’t already know. Or that you weren’t the best you could be. It requires a healthy ego, able to aspire, rather than fragile and unable to admit there’s more to do. To my mind, being human means there’s always more scope. There’s something very healthy about taking off the authority, the teaching role, the status, and rocking up somewhere as a student. It’s releasing. It allows us all to be imperfect works in progress. Also, learning new stuff is great fun.

I read other authors to learn from them. I’m going to some writing workshops this summer because I know I’ll learn things by doing that. I’m doing a free online course in eco-linguistics. I like picking up new craft skills when I can. I like the challenge of learning a new job.

I also really like what happens when, within a community, people pass the ‘teacher’ hat round and take it in turns to hold temporary authority. I like it when everyone is able to sit down and listen to someone else’s teaching. I like how it reduces feelings of hierarchy, superiority and power over, and increases feelings of mutual respect and recognition.


Choosing to Learn

I was very taken recently with Imelda Almqvist’s blog about Trump as a teacher (read it here). Imelda’s underlying philosophy is that we are all here to teach each other. I have a similar line of thought – that everything has the potential to teach us, but it’s up to us to decide what we want to learn.

Any situation can offer multiple outcomes in terms of what we might choose to learn. We could choose to learn from Trump that we can’t have nice things, the world is full of hate and there’s no point trying. It’s not the only possible teaching available, as Imelda points out.

Choosing what to learn is about consciously choosing who we want to be and the direction we want to move in. The trouble is that the vast majority of learning we do through life is done unconsciously. We absorb information from what’s around us and from the experiences we’ve had. Often we don’t dig into it, so we get knocked down by the people who attack us, and demoralised by the shit peddlers and we learn to compete and control and scrap over resources as though they were finite when they aren’t while wasting other resources as though they were infinite… which they aren’t…

Imelda’s blog post is not just interesting in its own right, it’s a map for taking a journey. If we want to choose what to learn, we’ve got to step back and contemplate things, put them in a wider context, delve about in them. A deliberate, contemplative engagement with the choices we have opens things up for us and gives us all the opportunity to take what we need from our experience, not what’s being pushed at us.


The teaching of Druidry

I’ve done quite a lot of teaching, in various shapes over the years. At the same time I’ve become increasingly uneasy about the most conventional teaching model, where the teacher offloads wisdom to the student. I don’t like the authority, the power imbalance and the risk of creating dogma. I don’t like the way all of this can set people up as gurus – which does them and their students very little good in my opinion. I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s path.

Recently I read Solala Towler’s ‘Practicing the Tao Te Ching’ (proper review going to Spiral Nature). The Tao Te Ching (depending a bit on the translation) talks about what the sage does – the sage does by not doing, primarily. Being neither sage nor Taoist, I’ve previously found this interesting, but of no great use. However, this book talks about how we teach each other, and takes the ‘do by not doing’ to be about avoiding formal teaching in favour of just doing the things you were doing and letting other people learn from that if they want to.

I like it as a line of thought, and I think this blog may be a case in point. You rock up here when you feel like it, read as much or as little as you like, agree and disagree with me as you like. Many of your regularly respond to posts by adding breadth, depth, examples and alternatives to whatever I’ve said – which is awesome. I just float out whatever I’m doing or thinking about, and you do with it as you see fit, on your own terms. There’s no real authority in it – it’s just a blog. Much of my writing is about me groping around in the dark trying to make sense of life. But every now and then I say something that sparks something for someone else. I’m not a sage, I’m just doing what I’m doing and people can encounter it and make what use of it they will.

I like it because it’s a more collaborative approach to learning. I have no problem with experts, and there are things for which formal qualifications seem like a very good idea – any activity where you could kill or maim if you get it wrong, or where you have to make life choices for other people. But most of the time, the things we want to learn aren’t like that. We can afford to be responsible for our own learning, and we don’t need to be taught to do things someone else’s way. We need tools, resources, ideas and places to start – this is true of anything spiritual, creative, subjective, and where developing our own imagination and critical thinking is of value. The default setting of hierarchy of teacher over student isn’t an unassailable truth, it’s a habit, and we can do differently.