Learning is mysterious

writingDaphne Loads  Learning is mysterious: I know that.  But I was still surprised earlier this month when I took part in two successful learning events that seemed to be the exact opposite of each other.  Event Number One was a writing retreat.  Some fourteen members of the Scottish Higher Education Development group (SHED) met to write together.  What worked for me?

1. Legitimation:  We reminded each other and ourselves that writing is real work, and expected of us in our professional roles.  We weren’t being selfish or lazy: we were working.
2. Space:  We met in a beautiful light-filled room, with big windows and views of a loch, swans, trees and mountains.  Well away from our usual workplace, there was a blissful freedom from unexpected visits, telephone calls and email.
3. Money:  The event was organised thriftily and our employers covered our expenses.  One of our group negotiated a good deal for us, and none of us had too far to travel.
4. Support:  I got a powerful feeling of support as I worked silently in a room with others who were writing at the same time.  I felt “I can be at home here. I’m accepted: these people are friendly and enabling.”
5. Icebreaking activities:  We were welcomed with tea, coffee and home baking.  As a way of loosening ourselves up, we were invited to choose an image from a collection of postcards and to write: “I see, I feel, I think.”  After a lunchtime walk around the loch, colleagues were asked them to bring back three items (for example leaves, pebbles or feathers) and to explore what these objects told them about their morning’s writing.  They responded eloquently.

Event Number Two was the first class in an experimental writing course offered by the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh.  Here, twelve strangers who had never met were squashed together in a tiny room.  We wrote and shared our writing.  It was also a great success.  Why?
1. Legitimation:  This wasn’t work: none of us had to be there and we weren’t accountable to anyone.
2. Space:  We met in an unprepossessing room, so tiny that we were forced to interact.
3. Money:  I’d paid good money for the course and didn’t want it to be wasted.
4. Support:  I got a sinking feeling that I was on my own as I waited silently and uncomfortably for the course to start.  The other students were all strangers to me.  I thought “What possessed me to sign up for a course in experimental writing?  How can I leave, without looking rude?”  Then, just, “How can I leave?”
5 Icebreaking activities:  We were plunged in at the deep end.  The teacher wasn’t exactly gushing.  At one point he turned the light off, and plunged us into darkness, so as to give us a sense of “altered consciousness.”  He also got us to play “the exquisite corpse”, another name for “consequences.”  Oh, and we were asked to write off-the-cuff for 15 minutes and then read our writing out loud.  To my amazement we all responded eloquently.

Two very different approaches to helping people to develop their writing.  Both worked.  As I said, learning is mysterious.


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