Zen and the Art of Mindless Learning

Learning – I’ve engaged in it all my life, worked in it with young people and then later in life with businesses, leaders and managers. So I’ve earned my money throughout my working life from it apart from the odd stint as an actor and director. I’m not sure why in the end I chose it over forestry or anthropology; two of my other options….or becoming an estate agent which was another, albeit one that I quickly snuffed out. Maybe it is in my blood – my Dad was a teacher all his life. He started his career by working in a remand home (these days known as Borstals) for boys in Lower Wortley – this meant that a number of my early playmates were from the remand home; some people say that has had a lasting effect that is still there today! He went on to work in a number of Leeds schools and then moved into Adult Education, firstly in South Leeds and then north of the river.
Having a teacher for a father didn’t seem to help me very much in my learning experiences at school. I spent most of the time bumping along the bottom of the learning pond; the structure and process of schooling didn’t really fit with my preferred approaches to learning. The sport and theatre part of school suited me perfectly, the rest was a struggle.

I remember a school report at my Junior School when I was seven years old that said: “David is always getting up out of his seat” – that was pretty much all it said actually; they liked brevity in those days. I like to think it was because I was social and liked to share my learning experiences with others, others might say that I had a short attention span; that was also true then for the kind of experiences I had with my teachers. Another memory about that school comes back as I write – being sent into the corner to stand with my face to the wall because I couldn’t remember my multiplication tables. Everyone, including myself, was surprised when I passed my 11+ exam and went to the local Grammar School where I consistently managed to appear towards the bottom of the class in my academic work.

Looking back I am still surprised at the number of “learning experiences” that were accompanied by threats and physical or mental pain, both in Junior School and Secondary. Fear shuts down learning for many reasons but mostly to do with the effect of fear on the physiology and neurology of our body and mind. Yet during my days at school, education and fear stalked hand-in-hand through the labyrinth of my life. I think it is now different in schools and that can only be a good thing – the focus is more on the learner rather than the teacher.
The rag – bag of my education changed when I finally made it through to the sixth form and encountered the eccentric, talented and learned Dr Mark Burke who taught me English Literature and the more “normal” but equally talented Marshall Grainge who taught me Physical Geography. As different as chalk and cheese, both were passionate and totally committed to their subject areas – they were excited about what they did and that excitement transferred to me. They created powerful, vibrant environments for learning rather than simply trying to “teach”. I got the message very clearly and it has never left me – do what you love and learning will flow. So I promptly immersed myself in the things that I was excited about, that spoke to me because they enabled me to express something inside me whether through, literature, physical geography, sport, theatre…whatever.

Someone once said, “If you think Education is expensive, wait until you see the cost of ignorance.” Openness to learning is the most valuable asset we can develop in our lives and the experiences I’ve briefly outlined above have shown me that the most effective learning experiences are open, democratic and contain lots of opportunities for fun and play as well as focus and practice. The learning dynamic is inside out as well as outside in. Trusting what we know inside and bringing it out into the open through connecting with others we trust, whether as mentors, coaches, teachers or co-learners and co-creators is the most powerful way to accelerate learning.

My learning environments have been classrooms, hotel conference rooms, the mountains of Peru and Chile, Lakota Sioux Sweat Lodges, a Buddhist temple, around the dining table, cutting wood and chopping trees, watching my Rugby League team play, walking in our local woods with my wife and with friends in restaurants. It can be anywhere that you feel “right” in. You are the Hero or Heroine of your own Journey, there is no map, no final destination, and “the road goes ever on” as Bilbo says in Lord of the Rings – enjoy it NOW. Don’t worry where it will take you, though don’t let that stop you making the plans and deciding strategies – just know that what will emerge, will emerge and that the comfortable external narratives we construct for ourselves will often be pulled apart by the complexity, changeability, raw power and beauty of the emergent real ones. The important thing is to be ready!!