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The Learning Burden: Why the ‘L’ word has become a thorny issue in our household.

I am a terrible eavesdropper. I have to warn you. Two weeks ago, I referred to an overheard conversation in the queue of JD Sports, and this week I want to start with a conversation my wagging ears found in December, whilst working on my dissertation in one of my local coffee shops. They were sitting next to me, they were early twenty-somethings (so spoke full volume) … it was impossible to ignore. Anyway, they were discussing next steps after their upcoming finals. One suggested to the other that she could do an MA and the immediate response was, ‘Oh no! I’ve had enough of learning!’ Now, this got me thinking, as I was sitting there, aged forty-two years, completing my MA: Is this the feeling we all have when we throw our mortar-boards in the air? Are we all thinking, ‘Thank God that’s over!’? And if we are, doesn’t this suggest something is very wrong with our use of the word ‘learning’?

It was an eye-opening conversation with my eldest lad last week that sparked my memory of this eavesdropping. He laid down his 15-year plan: ‘I want to be a Youtuber, but only in my late teens as I plan to become a footballer for my proper job.’ He asked me to record him discussing his top seven Youtubers. He’d improvised a flip chart with his scrapbook and finished the recording with, ‘Thanks for listening!’ He was good; very eloquent and charming. But, of course, I have a problem with this aspiration. My 15-year plan for my obviously highly able child would be to finish school and head to a good quality university. But these expectations mean nothing if, for him, going to university is simply to tick a box. But he will be university material, I am sure, and should crave such an environment, so I am bothered that these Youtubers seem to offer my son something that maybe is being switched off in the school context.

Billy and Jezza (number one on my son’s Top Seven Youtubers), otherwise known as ‘F2 Freestylers’, have started to grow on me. When my son discovered them, I would be preparing dinner to what I considered the most obnoxious soundtrack: music with beats heavier than lead weights being swung against my head and squeals equivalent to those of nails down a blackboard, compounded by the sounds of their ‘lad laughter’ cutting through this cacophony every few seconds, it was like a drill slowly driving through my ear drum and into my sanity! However, my son started to demonstrate what he had learnt from these two highly-skilled footballers through mimicking them in the garden; he describes in detail the challenges they set one another and with great hilarity explains how they messed things up and had to go again. He watches these videos with wonder and giggles with glee. There is, I would argue, a learning interaction which truly engages and inspires him.

Referring this back to the coffee shop conversation about reaching the end of ‘The Learning Burden’, my son made a very interesting statement about this too. We were comparing his feelings in the classroom with those he experiences at his football training: ‘I think I’m happier at training because Mike and Louis know my personality and my potential, whereas my teacher only knows me as a learner.’ Already, there is a clear distinction in his mind: you are ‘a learner’ at school but elsewhere you are … you. His tone clearly suggested a thorny relationship with the word. Mistakes at training are dealt with as a ‘these things happen’ scenario and an opportunity for demonstration and practice, whereas in the classroom he feels nervous about making mistakes as he fears he will be perceived as a ‘bad learner’, unable to record full marks and therefore not performing ‘up-to-standard’ (a phrase he has heard this year). Already, there are hints that learning, as he understands it, is becoming a burden.

It seems as though his school has taken ownership of the title ‘learner’. In all correspondence, the children are referred to as ‘our learners’. Of course this is meant to be a positive acknowledgement of their hours within the school walls, but I do see problems with this phrase. Firstly, my son has linked learning with assessment and performance – a dangerous limitation on the meaning of the word. And secondly, I actually would prefer my son to tell me that his school teacher, with whom he spends many hours, sees his personality and his potential, recognises his quirks and character traits just as his football coaches do. My concern is that, although he is demonstrably learning from his coaches and has made incredible progress this year with his football, he believes that school is where he is a learner, nowhere else. And, sadly, learning in the current primary curriculum is associated with achieving set criteria via the writing of targets in your books and reviewing these with ticked boxes. For example, I had the most frustrating, if a tad entertaining, post-school chat with him a few months back which highlighted this. It was something along the lines of:

Child: We did suspense today.
Me: Oooh, excellent! So, you had to create mood.
Child: What do you mean? We did suspense.
Me: Yes, I know. Suspense is about building the mood, isn’t it? Making the reader feel tense in preparation for something frightening or unexpected to happen.
Child: What are you going on about? We just had to write suspense.
Me: Okay, so what did you have to do?
Child: We used empty words and short sentences.

Boom! There it is! Two boxes ticked but no understanding of what the purpose of the task was. Does he understand that short sentences and empty words can be used when writing with a different purpose? More importantly, does my child, along with his peers, understand why we write…apart from ticking the set criteria? However, on the football pitch, my son can explain what skill he has used, how he did it and why he has used it, plus, he can apply it to a number of different moments in a game. Now, in which scenario has he really fulfilled the role of ‘learner’? He thinks it’s in the first and if he continues to think this, he will undoubtedly be sitting in a coffee shop at the age of twenty-one, counting down the days until he can remove ‘The Learning Burden’. I think it is in the second, and I have great respect for Louis and Mike, and a level of affection for Billy and Jezza, for inspiring the joy of learning my son experiences on the football pitch. I do really worry that it’s not the same within those school walls.

John Steinbeck, one of my literary heroes, once said, ‘Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.’ What a truly wonderful way to see the profession. The idea that it is an art. Something which you are always seeking to improve, to reflect upon; where there is no sense of perfection, but a wonderful journey based on human interaction and connection, crafted to inspire students’ minds and spirits to learn. To become true learners. Lifelong learners. So exciting! But I feel this is far from the experience our children are entering into today. Teachers are being sold the profession on a promise of a quick promotion. How sad that we are not selling it on Steinbeck’s definition where teachers are the valued impetus for learning, and true learning remains a treasured expectation for all.


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