Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The emotion of learning

I’m breaking a self imposed rule with this post. I’m writing it while on holiday. The reason is simple,  I’ve achieved a boyhood ambition - decades after the seed was planted.
Today I created fire.
Not with a match.
Not with a lighter.
With a magnifying glass. 

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to do it.  Memories of summer delights as a boy have resurfaced – as a boy / teenager I used to use a magnifying glass to burn my initials into my summer thongs with a magnifying glass.  My public explanation was that it made it easier to find my thongs when “the gang” came over and all our thongs were piled up by the back door.  True enough – but the other truth was that I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed seeing the snail trail of my initials “magically” appear as a result of nothing more complicated than the sun and some curved glass.  However, given the long, tinder-dry grass in the paddocks that surrounded my boyhood home,  I never attempted to  light a true fire – despite a burning desire to do so (pardon the pun).

Today, decades after my teenage years faded into the fog of time, I finally tried to light a fire using nothing  more than the material I wanted to burn and a magnifying glass.  In theory there was no doubt that it would work and I knew that it would take marginally more effort than using a match. But I wanted to do it – simply because I wanted more than intellectual knowledge that it would work. I wanted to actually do it.   So I did.

It occurred to me while I was holding the magnifying glass that there were broader lessons in the action.  I needed to maintain focus – my own and that of the magnifying glass. The pin point of concentrated solar energy had to be held over the same spot and I had to concentrate to ensure that this happened. It is probably dignifying the action a little to say that I needed to employ a technique but in a sense it was true.  If I didn’t hold the glass in the correct way nothing would happen.    I also needed to clarify my own definition of success.  Was singeing the paper the same as creating fire?  I decided “no” - but it was probably acceptable as an encouraging sign.  Was creating smoke (after mere seconds) creating fire?  Again I decided “no” – but it was probably proof of concept.  What did I mean by fire? I decided that it was flame that consumed the material that I wanted burned and that only that could be considered success.  After passing through the first stages towards success I needed to adjust my approach by  getting some smaller twigs from the garden – which, in academic terms could be considered refining my practice in the face of observable results.

So I was learning.  But the feeling of success and achievement when the flame burst into life was out of all proportion to the lack of effort required to achieve it.  It turns out the lighting a fire with a magnifying glass is as easy as it is reported to be.  But the key aspect for me is that now I know it, I’ve done it myself.  Second hand knowledge has been replaced by experience. 

The other aspect is that this was a fiercely personal objective. I doubt any of my family or friends share this desire to “achieve” this goal.  In world terms it is insignificant. But in personal terms it brought a glow to my face that was not simply a reflection of the fire. 

It occurs to me that this is true of all personal learning.  Is this why musicians try to reproduce the sound of their favourite guitarist when the mp3 player can do it effortlessly for them?  Is this why painters use pigment to capture the landscape when a camera can do a more accurate job in an instant?  Is this the feeling of truly significant personal learning?  If it is, then surely we as teachers owe it to our students to let them experience this success in Iearning or achieving something of personal significance?   I wonder how many discipline problems would fade away and how the motivation levels of our students would increase if this feeling was a regular part of our classrooms? 
Easily the most popular post on this site is one I wrote dealing with PBL.  If I may say so my-self it provides a good summary of the concept and links to a host of  very useful resources.    My experiences today re-affirm my reasons for writing that post; we need to meet the personal interests of our students in our programs.  Adding the emotion of learning to our classrooms may be a key ingredient in a truly motivated learning environment.

Truly personal learning is significant; it produces emotion in the part of the learner – not just intellectual advancement.  If it doesn’t then maybe it isn’t as significant to the learner as it is to the teacher.
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