Sunday, 8 July 2012

Eg. Whin Sill

I like to learn by 'doing'. I refer you to stuff on experiential learning, constructivism or activist learning styles for more a professional understanding of the process. In the past I didn't understand my learning preferences as well as I do now and, in particular when I needed to revise and learn for an exam, I made use of photographic memory tools.  This was based on learning visual arrangements of words or keywords embedded in a very tight structural format with plenty of headings and sub headings etc, all designed to trigger the memory. The process was fairly lengthy but in effect I could regurgitate endless amounts of information during an exam. All well and good but not terribly inspiring!

I was/still am (underneath all that librarianish stuff) a Geographer. 

One of the characteristics of learning geographical information for exams is that you often end up with endless lists of egs of landscape features to learn (a photographic memory isn't a bad thing to have with this type of learning!). Desert eg. Sahara, Gobi, Mongolian. Volcanoes eg Etna, Mount St. Helen's. Etc. You get the point. Without boring you entirely  - but relevant for this post so do keep with me - one particular feature that I recall learning about is where molten magma seeps up towards the earth's surface from the centre of the the earth through faults and fissures, and solidifies. Where it solidifies along a horizontal fault line, and when it is exposed many 1000s of years later, you get what is called a 'sill'. Eg Whin Sill. I probably learnt this example at 14, 16, 18 and even at university.
A week or so ago I was in Northumberland determined to spend a day walking along Hadrian's Wall. (as well as 'doing' other touristy things)

Somewhat by chance I ended up following the wall along the top of - yes indeed - Whin Sill. I was rather boringly excited about this realising that I was in a landscape that I had rote learnt about. Finding that it actually existed, and there I was walking on it, was an experience; those walking with me suffered from my exuberance! The actual experience was so much better than just the photographic memory.

The visit to Whin Sill made me think about learning more generally. And how we ask our students to learn in the context of libraries!  What can we do to make the whole experience come alive for them, to the point where they leave the classroom excited (yes - why not?) and motivated? Have we ever been the participant in a session that is just like the ones we deliver ourselves and have we come away having had an 'experience' that we don't forget and where everything comes alive? Or, hand on heart, not....

The 'experience' is really important, and in so many instances it will be one that makes an impact because it hits the spot - it's personal to that students, it's timely, it's relevant, it makes a difference. However, it should also be one that is backed up with an opportunity to reflect on how the experience has impacted and supported learning, and it is this that makes a difference. Beaty (2003) summarises the potential and value of this by saying:  'the challenge for modem higher education is not simply to train the next generation of academics, it is rather to tie learning from experience inextricably to academic study and vice versa in a strong lifelong process of learning which develops the person and society'.

It strikes me that by ensuring that we consider both experience and reflection together we may be forced to re-examine what we do, how we do it, what impact it may have, and what the whole point of learning is. My rote learning of geographical features was semi-useful for an exam, but the subsequent experience will be far more memorable in the long run.

Beaty,'Supporting learning from Experience', In: H. Fry, S. Ketteridge, & S. Marshall (eds.) A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. London: Kogan Page