A few years ago a friend of mine introduced me to the world of MOOCs; Massive Online Open Courses. They are exactly as the name suggests… online training programmes which have unlimited participation and which are available for open access on the web. There are a growing number of organisations that provide access to large catalogues of MOOCs such as Coursera, EdX and Udacity, to name but a few. These catalogues are a mecca for learning, providing easy, free access to courses in a wide range of subjects across the arts, humanities, engineering, mathematics, sciences (social, health or otherwise) and personal development.
I love learning and was thrilled to discover this treasure trove of online courses available free of charge. I imagined that I might become conversant in Mandarin Chinese or perhaps take a course in Dog Emotion and Cognition before moving onto the grittier stuff like Particle Physics! Well, not quite. Roll forward two years and I have only managed one course, “Learning how to Learn”! This course completely changed my thinking on learning … and ironically ended my relationship with MOOC courses!
The title, “Learning how to Learn”, caught my eye because I wondered what there was to learn about learning. I expected a course full of memory exercises or strategies for studying. To my surprise, I discovered that notwithstanding a modestly successful education track-record, there was much that I didn’t understand about the process of learning! I grew up in an education system that rewarded accurate recall of information and my learning strategy was always to memorise as much information as I could as accurately as I could. This meant that I was pretty focused throughout my studies spending endless hours sitting at desks reading information and repeating it to myself in an effort to commit it to memory. What I discovered through the “Learning how to Learn” MOOC is that there are two modes of thinking, referred to in the course as the focused mode and the diffuse mode. I realised that throughout most of my formal education journey I had almost exclusively used a focused mode of thinking. It was only during my postgraduate studies that I gained some experience in using a more diffuse mode approach, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. The diffuse mode allows us to look at things broadly and lets information filter through our brain so that new neural connections can be made and new ways of thinking can evolve. What surprised me is the fact that neuro-scientists strongly suspect that you are either in a diffuse mode or a focused mode of thinking – you can’t be in both modes at the same time. Being in one mode limits access to the other mode’s way of thinking. Therefore we need to have strategies that allow us to benefit from both modes. That’s not something that I had ever factored into all my years of education, which were spent predominately in focused mode.
Why is this interesting? Well it has lots of implications for how I now choose to learn. Having spent about twenty years of my life learning within the formal primary, secondary and third-level education settings, I had never recognised the importance of a diffuse mode of thinking. Focused learning was the modus operandi. Now that I understand more about learning I’ve come to realise that I don’t need to do more courses to satisfy my thirst for learning. Instead I’m learning to use my diffuse mode a bit more. This means that I have to make a conscious decision to step away from focused learning and create the opportunity for my brain to formulate new ideas and connections between the information that’s already in there…. which leads me to the topic of reflection! Wikipedia defines reflective practice as the ability to reflect on one’s actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning. (I know, I shouldn’t be referencing Wikipedia but I don’t have time to go more in-depth and this is just a blog, not a peer-reviewed article!) Whilst I always intuitively understood the importance of reflection, I hadn’t appreciated how it allowed the brain to use information in a different way which leads to growth and learning.
Some might conclude from this that our education system is fundamentally flawed because it is too focussed on, well, focussed learning. I’m not sure that I would go that far. Education systems originally evolved from the desire to provide people with fundamental skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic. They were never, in my opinion, intended to be systems that shaped the entire person. Throughout the ages society, family environments, social circles and local communities have played important roles in supporting and shaping the upcoming generations. I believe that this should still be the case. I recognise the challenge that my childrens’ teachers face as they endeavour to teach classes of about 25 students in the fundamental skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. I recognise that they have to cater for all needs – from those of the children who struggle to grasp the basics to those of the children who are under-challenged and who are never stretched in a way that helps them to realise their full potential. I recognise that as a parent I have an important role in educating my children through the conversations I have with them, the experiences to which I expose them and, most importantly, through the example I set for them. And I learn lots in this process too. That’s why I’ve resisted the urge to acquire more information through the world of MOOCs and instead am affording myself the time and space to reflect on the world around me through a more diffuse mode of thinking. For now, this is providing the most interesting learning journey of all.
Are you aware of the world of MOOCs, offering free, online training programmes? They are an attractive option for anyone with a thirst for knowledge. I frequently meet people who bemoan the fact that it’s difficult to find training courses in their locality that are of interest to them. Well, you have no more excuses!
More generally, have you ever thought about how you learn? Do you give yourself enough time to reflect and to let your brain learn through a more diffuse mode of thinking?
And finally, how are you contributing to the development of upcoming generations? We all have a responsibility to support the learning journey of the young people in our communities and in our society. We can’t expect the education system to do everything! How do you inspire or impact positively on the young people with whom you interact? Are you role modeling the behaviours we want to see from the younger generations when we’re old? By the way, Trinity College Dublin have a nice MOOC on strategies for successful aging! I must take a look at that sometime!
On a different note, there will be a new development at www.reflections.ie over the next few weeks when you will start to see the appearance of guest blogs! All will be revealed soon!