Ever since I participated in a three-day workshop about inquiry based learning with Lane Clark back in 2001, I have kept her words in my head: “Are we educating our children for our past or their future?” As I spend more time pondering the relationship between formal and informal professional learning, I try to keep in mind what is essential, what is desirable, and what is probably unnecessary in the programmes we develop. We take care to unpack and differentiate between the phrases ‘just in case’ and ‘just in time’ learning, but I can’t help but wonder where all the ‘just in case’ learning goes at the end of a programme or course. Two key thoughts arise for me:
- Just by describing a skill or competency as essential, we automatically make this a priority. But does this mean it needs to be taught via a formal presentation or workshop before learning that is deemed desirable, or can learners participate when they are ready for this experience?
- What is the most effective way to cement essential learning and ensure that it makes it into our teaching practice?
I believe that in order for effective, long term learning to take place, learners need to be able to experience, experiment, fall back, fall forwards, pick themselves up and try again. It is a natural instinct to learn this way when we are young but rarely makes it into the realm of adult professional learning. Why is this? What is it about an experiential learning approach that is deemed less favourable for teaching educators essential skills and competencies relating to their teaching practice?
Babies and young children are the ultimate experiential learners, always figuring things out on the job. They don’t stick to a formal learning program. We have basic learning objectives and desired outcomes for them (walk, talk, etc) but they are not aware of our agenda; they probably wouldn’t care if they knew, anyway. Parents support their babies’ learning as they figure out each vital stage in their development, but ultimately they work out how to sit up, pull themselves up, experiment with sounds, start taking tentative steps, and do things when they are ready. A pre-designed plan doesn’t come into it, yet the outcomes are usually quite successful with long-lasting results.
Early childhood teachers recognise children’s natural tendencies for experiential learning and have used these concepts as a basis for the ECE curriculum. A good teacher recognises the value in finding out what their learners are currently able to do, knowing where they what their student to end up, deciding what the next learning step should be, and supporting them in order to achieve success. I would like to see us do more of this when it comes to professional learning in the workplace. Just as we wouldn’t expect a baby to go from sitting up to running in one giant learning step, we need to be mindful of the goals we want professionals to achieve and ensure well-scaffolded learning pathways exist
So how can we make professional learning for educators as experiential as the learning that we experience in our first few years?