Can you remember an event when you learned something unexpectedly? A ‘learning collision’. Let me explain.
I had been at a conference in London and was traveling back to Norfolk by train. When the train approached Cambridge we were informed that passengers had to go by coach to Ely and than onwards to Norfolk by train. This came as no surprise to travellers that day and we all shuffled through the train station towards the front of the building where the coach was expecting us. Unfortunately, there were more than just a few people waiting for the coach, in fact, hundreds of passengers were waiting patiently to be taken to Ely to catch the next link on their journeys. Eventually, a bunch of us got together to share a taxi: a lady from Northern Ireland, a pensioner from South Creak, a bishop and a Swede (this could have turned into a rather good joke I think!) and eventually managed to catch the next available train without being delayed for too long. A seemingly dull and potentially cumbersome trip turned into a very interesting and rewarding experience because of this slight miss-hap.
I had the pleasure of sharing the last leg of my trip with the bishop. He told me that education was very close to his heart as well and that his current role involved working with a lot with young adults. ‘Learning, I mean real learning’ he said, ‘takes place when you least expect it’. He went on to explain that the biggest impact his teachings ever have on his students is when they go on pilgrimages because each student experience something different to the other ones. The impact of their learning journeys continue after the pilgrimage, in later lessons and beyond. Talking to this friendly man got me thinking about how our students learn, why they learn and when they learn best. Isn’t it true that learning stays with you longer when you experience it and when you take an active part in it?
My wife and I spent a week in Dorset a couple of years ago and we also spent a few hours in Tolpuddle. As a History teacher this area is particularly interesting. Tolpuddle in the 1830s was a quaint little village where a small group of farm labourers joined together to protect their wages which were decreasing in this part of the country . The government, worried about workers rebellion, and worse case scenario revolution, encouraged local landlords and employers to come down hard on this small group of men. Eventually the six men were transported to Australia. They became known as the Martyrs of Tolpuddle – or The Tolpuddle Martyrs.
I always found this story especially interesting as the six men were treated so harshly for something rather peaceful, namely discussing what they could do to ensure they could feed their families at the end of the week. According to historical documents the ‘Topuddle Six’ gathered by a large oak tree to talk. When we arrived at the village my wife took a series of photos of me posing in front of ‘the tree’ which I could use to show my students. Suddenly an older gentleman stopped his car and asked why we were taking snaps of the tree. I explained the reasons for our peculiar behaviour but he interrupted me and asked if I really believed that the Martyrs would have sat by that particular tree. He then went on to explain that his great grandfather, his own father and himself were all brought up in Tolpuddle and he had been told that the six men never, and he repeated ‘never’, sat by that tree. ‘Guess why they didn’t?’. I was unsure so he said: ‘If that’s the Manor Farm and they sat there (pointing towards both locations), do you really think they were that stupid to sit 20 yards away from the boss?’. I had never questioned the legends or even local documents. Examine the photograph, find the tree, the manor farm and then think about it, would they really have sat there? Of course not. i just had a ‘learning collision’ which I will not forget.
I came across a very interesting feature in WIRED UK (Agust 2009) on Peter Funch. Funch is a photographer and uses a very particular method when he creates projects, namely, shooting a series of images from the exact same location then examining them for commonalities. He will then mash together what he considers to be the key theme amongst the hundreds of images and the result is astounding. Take a look at the image below for example to get a flavour of his work. You can visit Peter Funch’s website to view his fantastic portfolio.
What’s particularly interesting about this way of working, especially for us teachers, is the skill of synthesizing information as well as blending features together to create a new learning experience. We can challenge students to think more laterally, holistically, about the way they view ideas, concepts, problems and so on. For example, provide them with a range of resources, like texts or statistical information and ask them to explore what key themes or messages might be hidden in the depth of the material given to them. Educational mashups can easily be created and Funch’s examples can give students a more concrete insight into what we want them to achieve with other material such as text.
“…someone who takes a position he or she disagrees with for the sake of argument. This process can be used to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure.”
This is of course an essential part of any successful collaboration and the process of innovation. However, if you “test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure” before having explored the idea fully and to its natural end, you run the risk of destroying a remarkable opportunity and a potentially innovative idea in a flash of a second. How can this happened one might wonder? You have heard the words before: “Do you mind if I play Devil’s Advocate for a second?’. This phrase does three things well: it will give the ‘Advocate’ in question the possibility of thinking in a non-productive fashion; take no responsibility for their words as they have taken on this new persona; and stop the creative process.
If you work in a successful team that brainstorms often and effectively you will notice that ideas, the good ideas, appear after lots of suggestions, tweaking and discussion. New ideas will also appear which can be listed and explored at a later date. When we write together or prepare for workshop sessions, we always start with a blank canvas and then thrash out thoughts and ideas on the page. After a few hours of serious ‘mapping’ we eventually begin to see something concrete, worthwhile and interesting. If one of us started playing the dreaded ‘Devil’s Advocate’ then we would never have come up with the books, websites and workshops like we have today.
Also, let’s not forget that a successful mapping/brainstorming session ends with a good idea which has been created by the team not the person. You have probably heard someone utter those words “That was my idea”. This completely undermines the whole creative process of collaboration and brainstorming. The idea of course appeared as a consequence of a lot of hard work and interesting/not-so-interesting ideas.
We are not saying that the birth of an innovative idea should not be followed up with critique. We believe that evaluation of ideas and critiquing projects are essential ingredients for the success of the collaboration/product or idea. However, one must allow the creative proccess to happen and for it to flow and not shoot down an idea before it has had a chance to flourish. Think about how many brilliant ideas that have been ruined or inventions that could have made a difference because of the Devil’s Advocate?
We say: encourage creativity and constructive, thoughtful and solution-focused discussion.