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An ah ha moment: You can't 'make' learning happen

I was talking to a delightful lady from Northern Ireland the other day, who is on retreat for 3 months in New Zealand. We got to talking about how important it was to take some time away from all the gadgets and devices, and to take some time out. I mentioned how lucky John and I were to have a bit of land up in Northland, near Kerikeri, and much of time there we used to plant trees.

Since 2008 we have planted about 30,000 trees, shrubs, and flaxes...most of them about 20cm tall. We carefully prepare the soil before planting and then: plant, stake, protect, mulch, feed, water, weed the tree (and yes, I am sometimes seen going around and tickling the odd leaf and have been heard murmuring encouragement)...and then, all we can do is wait. Sometimes, in spite of all we do the tree will die.

It struck me during the conversation with this lady that we can't make the tree grow. As well as the nurturing we can provide, there are genetics, drought, flooding wind, pipe clay, an interesting left over from all the volcanoes called 'pan' (compressed ash deposit in the soil that the trees find it tough to grow in), insects, escapee sheep and so on.

After this realisation I then made the leap to learning (and I'll try not to extend this analogy to the point of tedium! :-p). As with the trees, you can't make it happen! You can provide opportunities that are likely to suit as many learners as possible, you can nurture the learners with conditions that will support their non-cognitive needs as well as their cognitive ones, and, depending on the environment in which you work, you can make sure that everyone is warm, has enough to eat and drink, and are generally as comfortable as possible. In addition, you can encourage your students to be self-advocates and impact their learning environments, you can encourage the parents, whanau, and wider community to get involved and to take more of an active part in supporting the learner(s).

However, there are always factors you won't be able to influence...things over which you have no control. While this isn't a 'get out of jail free' card (i.e. of course you pursue every avenue you can), there will be learners you can't reach...and certainly cannot make learn.

John and I have found it invaluable in our tree-planting to try different approaches to the planting and nurturing, often informed by talking to our wonderful neighbours about their own tree-planting experiences, and, using social media, reading, listening, watching, and talking to people about what they are doing around the globe. We just keeping planting, and tweaking our approach as we learn what works best in the various environments we have here. As we plant we have noticed many positive things...the older surviving trees (some now twice as tall as I am) create a nursery for the younger trees, we have some self-seeded trees growing now...and the birds are beginning to come back. The soil is improving, and we are delighted to have lots more worms, and greater drought and flood tolerance.

As I said, I am not going to extend the analogy to breaking point, but, for me, it has been a useful way to think about learning...especially the realisation that with both trees and learners, a 'one size fits all' approach never works.

Image: cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Hazel Owen:

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Comment by Adam Fletcher on October 31, 2013 at 12:14

Thinking about this some more Hazel, I'm tempted to go all the way towards suggesting that there really are no "weak" spots in engagement. I mean, really, when there's something that I want to be sustainably, richly engaged in, I do that.

We don't often think about what we're engaging in before or while we're engaged in it. Instead, its often in reflection that we look back and make the connection - "Hey, I was engaged in that!" 

When I write about engagement, I'm largely thinking of those things that are deep enough to sink in, rather than the immediate choices we simply choose in the moment. I have found that anything I can choose in an instant, I may not be truly capable of engaging within. If the same is true for you, you may not be capable of engaging in running, horse-back riding, and planting trees, if those are spur of the moment choices that mean little and have little impact on your longer life. If, however, you feel deeply about those things, consider them with meaning and purpose, and connect them to your longer arch of life, happiness, and purpose, then you may be able to engage in them.

Ultimately, this is the tie-around with students in schools: We ask them to engage in the instant, in the moment of activity we're facilitating in a classroom or similar environment. Instead of that, we should seriously consider working to help them establish deeper, richer connections through learning, teaching, and leadership, ultimately eschewing momentary blips of connectivity in order to foster lifelong engagement in learning.

Maybe we should do the same thing in our own lives by learning to release the tension, pressure, or stress of the daily choices in order to hold the engagements of longer, wider, and deeper purpose clearer within our hearts and minds and throughout our lives. Maybe.

Comment by Hazel Owen on July 11, 2013 at 22:48

Your Tree of Engagement article resonated with me on many levels. First, I really enjoy your style of writing (storytelling), which I find inviting, with a good 'seasoning' of description, and a frisson of intrigue :-p

The canopy level - Universal the moment I am reading a book called 'The man who planted trees' (not the original, but one based on a guy in the States who is cloning all the champion trees he can find). In the book there are several scientific observations, and one is that trees provide so much more that we realise. As well as CO2 to oxygen, the canopy it is proposed, provides a previously unrealised, 'aerosol' of nutrients, 'good' bacteria, moisture, and other elements that are vital for health. This chimes in with what you write "It is what the seemingly unrelated things around us depend on in order for the world to go around", and also illustrates that sometimes these things may be invisible until we become engaged, and figure out their possible relevance.

The whole notion of community, shared conversations and experiences, I feel, is essential. While focussed on the 'I', we can have interesting, life-shaping experiences...but so much of the experience is in the sharing of it afterwards. Conscious reflection, and recounting is what makes it 'real' somehow, and it helps with stickability in the long-term memory.

You ask some questions at the end of your article: How does it grow in your life? I'd say that after a shaky start as a seedling and sapling, my tree of engagement has thrived. As I have found my feet and grown in confidence, so have the roots gone deeper, the trunk become stronger, and my awareness of the canopy has grown.

Do you think it has ever fallen over? For me, no - but only because of a love of reading, a joy of horse-back riding (and wanting to find out absolutely everything I could about horses), and some wonderful grandparents who were supportive, and would give me gifts such as a year's subscription to the Young Ornithologists magazine! Primary school, as far as I remember, did not help nurture my tree of engagement :-(

Since its impossible to be truly disengaged from everything, all the time, what would you say is your weak spot of engagement? Good question. I'm pausing here. Probably dis-engaging enough to relax and re-charge my batteries. Running, horse-back riding, and planting trees are the ways I find best to help with this process. The other area I need to work on is remaining engaged, and open-minded, when I am reading or listening to or watching, something I might not agree with. And yet I know from experience, these sometimes uncomfortable moments can lead to a greater depth of understanding, and/or a realization that I need to work on my own biases.

Thanks, Adam :-)

Comment by Adam Fletcher on July 11, 2013 at 8:43

I like your analogy here a lot Hazel. I think it works on a lot of levels, and makes me happy for an article I wrote called The Tree of Engagement. Its a PDF of my site at - Let me know what you think!

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