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Can real learning ever happen in a classroom?

A month or two ago, I boarded a train at Bristol and wound up chatting to a lecturer in environmental science, who kindly offered me a glass of wine. We soon found ourselves shooting the breeze, and ended up discussing what makes people really learn.

He told me of his experience that the only time any of his pupils seemed really to learn anything was when they were round a camp fire at the end of an energetic field trip.

To my scientized ears, this all sounded pretty fluffy. Surely kids are learning all the time in school, after all. Indeed, the phrase “tree hugger” popped into my mind, without any of the positive feelings I get from actually hugging trees. But by the time I got off at Oxford, three glasses of wine, an hour, and twenty minutes later, I was pretty convinced he was onto something very interesting.

His main evidence was his own experience, but something like the following just about captures (I think) what he effectively argued:

  • Only changes to deep aspects of thinking (the ‘paradigm’ of your thought) count as real learning, because all other kinds of learning (factual retention etc) happen quickly if you actually care and bother to try. They’re trivial by comparison with deep changes to your perspective.

  • Changing your perspective is difficult because it inevitably amounts to adopting a whole new emotional relationship between yourself and the world, and all of your social, bodily and intellectual habits resist such change.

  • Habits cling to contexts, so familiar, comfortable contexts interfere with any attempt to change deep aspects of thought. In a classroom, you’re just too comfortable, safe and inattentive to be stirred to make yourself emotionally available to learn anything deeply new.

  • If this is right, then if people are to begin to change their thought in a deep way, it’s vital for them to be taken into a new context, a new ” emotional space”. This seems pretty uncontroversial.

  • That new emotional space has bodily, social and situational dimensions. Simply going to a new place isn’t enough: if you remain in the same bodily and social habits, you bring your old context with you and you won’t be able to change.

  • A change in social and bodily state takes at least two days to filter through and truly renew your mind (think how long it can take to unwind after setting off on holiday, or to begin really enjoying a music festival).

  • Adding this all up, you need an expedition of at least two days length, with plenty of physical activity and a whole new set of social interactions before someone is going to be capable of assimilating any deep change to their perspective.

Here, specifically, was his method for making people think anew:

a) Take a three day field trip to a new and isolated place (in his case, normally a river-basin somewhere).

b) make sure everyone gets vigorous physical exercise, that they have no mobile phones, that they collaborate with unusual intensity.

c) Wind up round a camp fire on day three, with everyone relaxed yet tired, and miles distant from their normal preoccupations.

At this point, people should be ready deeply to feel and accept that a change in their thought is something they can permit themselves, they’re ready to cease self-identifying with their opinions. Once this is done, you just:

d) Let conversation flow

e) Observe beginning of shifts in perspective (although they may take several months or even years to play out, he said).

This makes sense. I imagine it takes quite a teacher to pull it off, normally this happens among friends without a teacher present. I can see that a teacher would help, though.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the field-trips I went on at school (and which ever happen at schools) involve too many people, too little time, and no unpoliced camp-fire denouement.

And when you think of the disastrous social, emotional and bodily dynamics in the classroom, of the accumulation of negative habits in those stale contexts, you really begin to think that a years school would be very effectively replaced by a handful of well-designed expeditions.

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