Few would argue that life-long learning is a worthy goal with real benefits for our long term mental health and happiness. Engaging with new ideas, concepts and ways of doing things is the ideal strategy for a healthy mind and a disposition towards better understanding the world and challenging our entrenched beliefs. According to many life-long learning is also an essential disposition for coping with a rapidly changing world. As teachers the notion of life-long learning has an additional element as it is both a personal goal and one that we set as an outcome of our teaching. We hope that our students will leave school with a desire to continue learning long after we have said our farewells. Perhaps the best way we may achieve these goals is to allow our students to see us as learners who seek new learning and enjoy the challenges that this brings.
During the summer holidays I enjoy taking on a project. With long days and free time available a project has been the perfect way to keep productive while learning a new skill set. A chance to do something I would not normally do as part of my teaching routine. This break I have been constructing wooden workbenches and even though it has been a project for school it is one that has challenged my minimal carpentry skills. I have mastered the shaping of mortise and tenon joints (having cut eighty of them), developed an appreciation of applying repeatable processes and enhanced my understanding of the properties of different timbers. I have aimed to make each workbench slightly different and this has led to some creative re-purposing of materials and storage containers. Each bench has something that it makes a little bit unique and quirky and each includes elements that should make it a functional combination of storage and workspace. Hopefully when they are placed into classrooms the students enjoy using them and they encourage some effective making. I also hope that over time the students adapt them to their needs and add ideas of their own.
Part way through this process I read an article by John Spencer on his Blog in which he argues that ‘Teachers need a genius hour, Too’. Such a concept is an ideal way to tackle the challenge of being a life-long learner amidst the business of our lives. The key is that it is time set into our schedule and it is for us to achieve learning important to us. John stipulates that this time is not to be used for anything work related, that it is time dedicated towards personal learning not professional development. John describes how his family has been able to make adjustments to accommodate this time and ensure it is a part of their schedule. Just as for students the choosing of what this time is used for is an important element of its success. It is interesting that an idea that started with adults working in industry has migrated into schools and is now being appropriated by teachers in their personal life.
Spending time on Twitter reveals a small ocean of people who are engaging with their personal learning and sharing its benefits through their networks. The value of our personal learning networks is a combination of avenues for sharing our learning and for engaging with the learning others have undertaken. Social media has opened new realms of shared experiences around and through learning but much of it occurs away from where it may be spotted by our students. There is a danger our well crafted personal learning networks serve to reinforce the notion that we are experts who know the right way to solve any challenge we face in the classroom without the need to learn. If only our students saw how hard we work behind the scenes to learn and enhance our craft.
If we want our learning habits to rub off on our students then we need to ensure they catch us in the act of learning and that we describe our processes for learning to them. Metacognitive reflection on our teaching practice is all very nice but it is more likely to influence our students if we share the process with them. For this to happen we need to move past the fear that if we are not seen as experts with all the right answers chaos will ensue. This challenge extends to school leaders who should be encouraged to share their stories of learning with their teams without fear that they will be viewed poorly for admitting they are continuing to learn and develop.
In an environment that encourages a growth mindset it may be essential that students see their teachers struggling to overcome challenges. Talks about the need to embrace failure and to see obstacles as a learning opportunity seem hollow unless they are linked to personal experience. Bringing stories of our personal learning into the classroom adds a new dimension and honesty to our discussion of how we may best attack challenges. Letting our students see us struggle with a challenging problem takes this to a higher level, allowing them to offer suggestions goes even further to sharing the reality of a shared learning environment.
Google is widely cited as starting the trend of giving staff time for personal projects. Their ‘20% Time’ model has been copied and borrowed widely as a way of encouraging people to pursue projects they are passionate about but not at the core of their responsibility. In schools this type of personal learning could be the way to allow students to see their teachers learning and problem solving. Just as we may model reading habits during quiet reading times, taking on a Personal Passion Project in parallel to our students may bring new opportunities for shared learning and a greater appreciation of the benefits of life-long learning.
By Nigel Coutts