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Learning...what really is it?

So, I've been pretty quiet on the Blog front in recent months! Largely because my focus has been on completing the final details on my PhD thesis and my head has been filled with such things as methodological rigour, inter-subjective agreement, researcher positioning and epistemological standpoints. It is with both relief and delight, therefore, that this particular adventure is complete and I can now use the small, yet significant prefix of 'Dr' before my name. There is, however, also a weird sense of 'emptiness' as I get used to life without the need to read, research and has, after, been an eight-year journey!

It does mean that I have gained a little more 'headspace' to think about other things that continue to intrigue me, so I thought I'd revisit my blog and share a few thoughts that have been on my mind in recent weeks.

A couple of weeks ago I took part in an online chat that began with the question 'what makes a great learning experience?' This, and the subsequent responses, really got me thinking; as have a few conversations in recent days that have all had a connecting theme of learning, and what we really mean when we talking about 'delivering learning experiences'. The conversations have ranged from the philosophical to the practical to the somewhat cynical...and all have offered different perspectives on this complex, interesting and highly individual subject.

I suppose a core reflection from these various discussions is that, for me, learning is both a process and an outcome. It is a process in that we all go through different stages in learning a new skill or subject; and it is an outcome in that, ultimately, we are able to say 'I have learned...' It also feels really evident that all of us 'learn' at different paces and in very different ways. We find interest in different areas and our imagination and attention is captured by different topics in very different ways. What I then find really interesting is the constant challenge of creating the most engaging learning experiences, and then the apparently burning desire to instantly evaluate the impact of each learning experience on the individuals involved.

Whilst having an office clear out last week (it was much needed!), I discovered a couple of note books from a couple of years ago and had a flick through each to see what gems I may have buried under endless research papers. My attention was drawn to a sentence I had scribbled down whilst in, what looked to be, a coaching related workshop. My words read:

"A good reflection is when something becomes meaningful and begins to make sense; something also changes."

I suppose this caught my eye because of the 'learning' questions that were whirling around my head and it felt like, perhaps this helped me make sense of some of the things I had been contemplating. It made me think about the process of learning and how we all seem to learn at different speeds, and also helped me make a personally meaningful connection between learning and reflection. It is probably something that, in principle, I already knew; something that I had read about, talked about and discussed in various formats over the year. In that moment, however, learning become personally meaningful to me and something changed. The words that I had noted a couple of years ago, and happened to stumble across by chance as I flicked through old notes, provided the prompt that helped me reach a learning outcome from a learning process. I can't attribute the outcome to one experience, rather the accumulation of a whole series of events that I was able to finally connect.

It actually feels largely irrelevant to share the 'thing' that I feel I learned (the outcome), because I have also become very aware that learning is a very personal process. What I feel I learned directly relates to my context and what was going on for me at that time. Someone else may take something completely different from the same set of experiences, and I suppose that links back to why 'measuring learning' is so difficult.

Anyway, I am not sure that this blog necessarily provides any answers to the question in the title...or that it makes particular sense beyond the boundaries of my mind. The intention, however, has been to offer an insight into how I have experienced learning about learning over the past few weeks. As a final reflection, I will share an answer I posted to the question 'what makes a great learning experience for you'. Strangely, I feel that my answer reflects the notion of the WB Yeats quote above, which was shared with me by a colleague in the middle of last week during one particular conversation about learning. Funny how things just seem to 'connect' at times.

I suppose ultimately it’s that I feel I have learned something or had my interest sparked! Often this means that I’m left with more questions than answers...which then sets me off on my own path of discovery. I also think there’s a need to re-evaluate how we define 'success’. If we accept that behaviour & thinking take time to change, by understanding the process of learning, maybe it’s possible to consider measurement in smaller, meaningful steps for both learner and learning experience provider?

Happy learning!

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