The learner's role in their search for learning

In ‘The Spirit of Professional Learning’, Tina Blythe utilises the metaphor of searching for driftwood on a beach to describe the process of connecting learning opportunities with our particular needs. The beach wanderer passes by many items which do not meet their needs. Only a few of the pieces of detritus will fit the wanderers needs, maybe fitting into a particular project or perhaps offering enough possibility to be collected for one yet to be imagined. For the professional learner, the journey is the same. They engage with many ideas, strategies and solutions, but only a few are implemented or saved for future use.

“Sometimes, I go to the beach and I know exactly what I’m looking for: sea glass of a certain color, shells of a particular shape or size. Sometimes, I see something that catches my eye, and I’ll pick it up and bring it home, even though I’m not sure at that moment what I’m going to do with it. - you never bring home the whole beach.”  
Tina Blythe

I particularly connect with this metaphor of searching for driftwood. It points to the role that the life-long learner plays in the process of learning. Rather than expecting to be immersed in learning that shines a light on the path forward the notion of searching for driftwood that suits the learner’s needs is very empowering. It requires an imagining of learning as a very active process where the learner is aware of their context, their current understanding and what they might need to move forward. It demands a conscious practice of reflection and a disposition towards taking charge of one’s learning. It is a very agentic view where learning is something that you do, not something that happens to you. 

It also connects very nicely with how I use Twitter. There is a small ocean of ideas available on Twitter and one could never hope to read, let alone embrace every good idea that passes by. A small number of the ideas that are encountered will seem to fit perfectly with what you need. Others might challenge your thinking and encourage you to look at something from a fresh perspective. Some posts and threads are best ignored; freedom of speech was never meant to come with a guaranteed audience. I like Twitter most when it hints at a question, when it leaves me wondering why and wanting to know more.

This metaphor of searching for driftwood extends my understanding of the role of the facilitator, particularly in professional learning. If the learner’s role is to search for and collect what they need then the facilitators role is to make that process possible. If as a facilitator I demand that the learner accepts what I offer, then I take away the possibility for them to find what they need. The facilitator's role is one of supporting the learner in their process of making meaning, finding what they need and valuing what they find. An effective facilitator relies on great questions that encourage reflection, not a pool of knowledge. Rethinking the role of the facilitator helps me see the value in a question like ‘What makes YOU say that?’; not as a test of understanding but as a way of helping the learner clarify how they arrived at the statement or belief that they have shared; a prompt for a very personal reflection on thinking and a question for the benefit of the learner.

What I find challenging in this, is how such a learner centered notion of facilitation and professional learning fits with how many people seem to view learning. If our only experience of learning is traditional teacher led learning, then it is very natural to expect all learning to be like this. This experience hard wires our thinking about the process of learning and shapes our expectations for what the learning experience will be like. If I expect the teacher to teach and me to thusly learn, how will I ever become a self-navigating life-long learner.

The challenge is how might we shift the learner’s mindset from a view of learning as a consequence of the actions of another, to a process that we are in charge of.

by Nigel Coutts