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My Journey: Learning to Learn

I left school thinking I was thick. I was always ‘street wise’, quick-witted, had lots of common sense, knew a lot about things I was interested in… but I hated school. I didn’t get it! Sitting in a classroom being talked at day in day out, treated like I knew nothing, copying notes down in the belief the knowledge would stick. And don’t get me started about exams! I left with poor GCSE results, attempted A levels, believing this would be a much more ‘adult’ way of learning. I was wrong.

Fast forward to my first ‘proper’ job, after having a hippie stall on the local market for a few years to fund my social activities. Working in education in a college was a real eye opener, and where I had my first epiphany. I’m not exaggerating. This is where I discovered how I learn.

As part of an apprenticeship programme I was exposed to the amazing world of learning styles. This was in the shape of Honey and Mumford’s learning styles. There are many other theories, models and assessments out there as I discovered later, but this was my first exposure to this world. And I was astounded.

At the time I was in school, late 80’s/early 90’s (that ages me doesn’t it), compulsory education was a ‘one size fits all’ affair. As described above, talked at for an hour at a time, all at the same pace, writing notes, reading excerpts from books, sitting tests and later exams. I just could not retain the information from any of these activities, had no revision or learning tactics and just seemed to have to work harder than my friends and peers to get lower grades. So, when I discovered I was a raging ‘Activist’, this made absolute sense.

Activists learn best by doing, by getting stuck in, problem solving, working with others. They do not learn by reading, lectures, solitary thought. This was one of those movie moments where everything that went before flashes at light speed through my mind and where the system had failed me. Not in a melancholic way, in a solution-focused way; I need to try stuff, get stuck in, get out of my seat and feel it, play with it, put myself inside it to learn it. As I learned more about learning, and for the first time I was interested in learning about something other than music or dogs, I realised I can actually learn anything! I just need to do it my way.

Now as I said, I was a raging activist at the initial point of discovering learning styles. As my passion for this subject grew, and led me down a route to training, education, human resources, organisational development and ultimately a Masters in Managing Innovation and Change, I refined my learning style. I became a more pragmatic, reflective learner (I suspect this is also linked to age and job roles to some degree). I even managed to learn the HR models when working towards my CIPD qualification. And I did this, as I describe it, by ‘getting in the map’; I put my team, my organisation into the model then I could picture it, I could understand how to apply it, I could understand the benefits and I could use the model in different teams and different scenarios. And I could teach others how to use it, explain how it worked, and help them find the best way for them to learn.

Why is this important? This gives me power over my own destiny that I may not ever have gained without this discovery. It ignited a passion in me not only to learn, but to help others learn and to challenge their negative experiences at school. As a result, I have trained as a trainer, coach, lecturer, and Organisational Development specialist. I have taught on professional and Post Graduate programmes and gained a merit for my Masters dissertation. Me! Thicky McThicky! That person who thought they couldn’t learn, who left school with no qualifications to speak of.

This has driven my approach towards learning with every course, programme, lesson I have delivered, and was particularly useful when I first started to work in mental health. Many of those that walked into my training room were carrying many of the anxieties I carried with me as I started my learning journey. The baggage from a negative, and often stressful, degrading and disempowering experience can prevent us from ever risking feeling that way again. Our self-preservation is strong, even when we are in no physical danger. This prevents many people from taking up learning opportunities as an adult, when they have so much potential to expand their knowledge. As a result of this learning, I incorporate two things into my training and development programmes. Firstly, I ensure there is something for everyone’s learning style; interaction, reading, reflection, experimentation, and additional activities that those who want or need to access at their own time and preference. Secondly, a safe learning environment where people can take a pause if they need, short sessions with opportunities to discuss, ask questions, explore issues. It’s not actually rocket science, but it always surprises me how regimented trainers can often be with their training environments.

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