Challenge Eleven: Keep Learning

Whether pursuing a formal university degree or taking a music class for fun, furthering your education can make life more enriching and rewarding. There are many reasons to invest in your own education – perhaps you want to start down a new career path, or simply fulfill a life-long dream of playing Stairway to Heaven on the guitar. No matter what your motives, it turns out that advancing your own educational goals can create a positive ripple effect in the broader community too.

Armed with knowledge and skills, education gives people more opportunities to realize their full potential. This is good news for the individual as well as society at large.

Education gives people more options in their career and allows them to perform better at their job. Consequently, populations that achieve higher levels of education tend to have higher incomes, less unemployment, lower poverty rates, and less dependence on social assistance. This benefits everyone since there’s more money circulating in the economy and less strain on public programs.

From a social perspective, communities with higher levels of education tend to have less crime, greater tolerance for others, and increased civic engagement. Studies have shown that higher education levels in a population are linked to higher rates of volunteering, voter turnout, and even blood donations. In a nutshell, education provides a means for fostering safer, healthier and more engaged communities.

Furthering your education will bear the most fruit – both to you personally and to society at large – if you strike a balance between three domains of learning: the heart, the head, and the hand. Nurturing passion for your subject (heart) is the driving force behind all your work. Building a solid base of knowledge (head) provides the foundation to formulate your own ideas. And acquiring practical skills (hand) lets you put those ideas into practice.

I believe this is true for most subjects – whether you are studying at university to become a lawyer or an engineer, or simply taking an evening class to learn how to play the guitar. Whatever your reasons for furthering your education, with the right mix of passion, knowledge and skills, you’ll have everything you need to change your own corner of the world. To test this idea, I challenged myself to advance my education in each of these domains.

Educate the heart: Nurturing passion

“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion” – German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

In most educational settings, students focus on learning the requisite knowledge and skills in their field of study. From a pedagogical perspective, these are the learning domains of the head (knowledge) and the hand (skills). Both are important for developing proficiency in a subject.

However, there’s a third learning domain that’s often unseen and ignored, but it’s just as important as the others – the domain of the heart. Educating the heart means nurturing passion for your discipline. By cultivating an attitude of curiosity and enthusiasm, you will naturally strive to go higher and further in your field of study. In this way, passion is the fuel that powers your education forward.

To explore this domain for myself, I decided to take a beginner drawing class. As a kid, I always enjoyed drawing and so I thought it would be fun to revisit the subject as an adult. With pencils and sketch pad in hand, I eagerly set off to my first drawing class at the start of the month.

Let me paint a picture. Imagine taking a beginner piano class. Your only previous experience playing was 30 years ago when you took a few music classes in school. You show up on the first day, and the teacher puts some sheet music on the piano and says “why don’t you start playing this” without any instruction. After a half hour or so, the instructor puts some new music down and says “ok, why don’t you play this now.” This continues uninterrupted until the end of class – three hours later.

I kid you not, this is what happened in the first class. For three hours, the instructor set up various objects at the front of the classroom and then asked us to draw what we saw without any instruction. Surely, I couldn’t be the only one who found this frustrating – it was a beginner class after all. So in the second class, I bravely stuck up my hand and asked for some basic tips about how to approach the task. The instructor asked “what do you want to know exactly?” I think she was surprised when I responded, “how should I hold the pencil?” It turns out that for drawing lines and curves, it’s better to invert the pencil in your hand and hold it more like a Ping-Pong racket. I wasn’t alone in my ignorance of this fact.

My initial reaction to the class was disappointment. I was frustrated because I expected to learn something about drawing: the key theories, concepts and techniques that would help me improve. From this view, the class was a bust. Only in retrospect did I realize the error in my thinking. I was judging the class from the perspective of the domains of the head and the hand, rather than the heart. My primary motive for taking the class was to nurture a passion for drawing, not to build up my knowledge and technical skills. Even though I didn’t learn a lick about drawing – and, frankly, my drawings were terrible – it was fun to do something purely creative for a few hours a week. The class provided a safe, low-stress environment to tap into my inner kid, the little guy who simply loved to draw as a form of creative expression. Viewed from the domain of the heart, the experience delivered.

Educate the head: Building knowledge

“If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins” – Benjamin Franklin

Nurturing passion is important, but passion alone doesn’t make an education. I may be passionate about music or architecture, but that doesn’t mean I can play an instrument or design a building. I’m an admirer of these disciplines, not a practitioner.

To translate your passion into a real-world contribution, you also need to build up a solid foundation of knowledge (the learning domain of the head). If passion fuels your interest in a subject, then knowledge provides the bedrock to create and contribute your own ideas. If you want to design a building, for instance, it helps to have a firm understanding of the key theories and concepts in architecture.

This lesson was driven home to me early in my career as a university instructor. Like most post-secondary educators, I was hired for my content knowledge, not my teaching ability. I thought teaching would come easy. I’d glide into class each week and effortlessly dazzle the students with all my knowledge of the topic. How naïve. I was a complete hack in the classroom and I bored the hell out of my students with my long lectures. Honestly, I feel sorry for the students who endured my first forays into teaching.

I’m still a far cry from Mr. Holland’s Opus but I’m getting better. Practice has helped, but one big reason for my improvement is the time I’ve put into learning the theoretical concepts and methods of teaching. This month, I decided to further develop my knowledge base by taking a course on instructional strategies. The essence of the course was to learn how to motivate students to think critically and creatively about a topic.

It was no surprise to learn why my first trials in the classroom had flopped. I had strived to be the wise old sage who transfers his knowledge to his pupils from the podium at the front of the room. In pedagogical terms, this is an instructor-centred approach to teaching. The problem is that it doesn’t help students to think for themselves.

The best way to motivate students to think critically and creatively is to get them actively involved in their own learning. Rather than pontificating from the stage, the instructor serves as a trusted guide who helps students to develop as independent thinkers. The instructor uses a range of hands-on learning strategies to get students engaged in the learning process. This flips the traditional post-secondary class on its head, turning the spotlight from the instructor to the students.

Sure, it’s possible to learn an essential piece of knowledge in your field through trial and error, but why struggle? Education lets you fast track the process. And the sooner you can acquire that golden nugget of wisdom, the better prepared you’ll be to leave your mark on the world.

Educate the Hand: Acquiring skills

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand” – Confucius

Anyone who has attended a university lecture can attest to the heavy emphasis our educational institutions place on the learning domain of the head. This has its benefits. Cognitive learning lets you expand your knowledge base and enhance your critical thinking skills. It equips you to better understand and analyze issues, arguments and ideas. In a nutshell, it helps you build book smarts.

However, book smarts alone don’t create change in the world. For example, a strong understanding of the theory and history of music won’t make you a musician. You also have to practice, and eventually master, all the skills necessary to play your instrument. This is the learning domain of the hand.

This domain includes all the hands-on skills and competencies needed to practice a discipline in the real world. Just as a musician needs to be proficient with her instrument, so does a carpenter, lawyer or accountant with the tools of their trades. Even an academic needs to have competent communication skills to effectively share his ideas with the world.

In light of this, I decided to take a writing workshop this month to hone my skills with the pen. The half-day workshop was led by Vancouver-based writer, Regan d’Andrade. Joined by eight other budding writers, Regan led us through a series of hands-on exercises to practice creative writing. In each exercise, we were given a fixed amount of time to write freely on a single theme. In one exercise, for instance, we had 20 minutes to write our life story. The time pressure was intense, but even more nerve-racking was reading my work aloud to the group at the end of these exercises. There’s a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that goes: “do one thing every day that scares you.” Check.

Still, I learned some good techniques for tapping into my inner creative voice and for overcoming the tendency to self-critique and edit my work in the early creative phase of writing. Useful skills for anyone who wants to share his ideas with the world.