Reflections on Learning

An unplanned, unplugged conversation with a learner at The Integral School, Hyderabad

Soaring temperatures. Fans that whir but only buzz hot air. Lethargy in the air as energy bounces off the walls. Books that are excited, some for being touched, others for being ignored. An ambling gait precedes a gangly young man who plops down on an empty chair next to us. You can see he has been working and needs a break.


“So, how is it all holding up,” I ask. Staccato will have blushed to hear the curt “good”. The curtness smoothed over with a crinkly smile.  Silence in the air, just the faint sound of well oiled nuts and bolts alternating with rusted ones that try to remember the smell of oil.


Sometimes, all you need is to ask. And then keep quiet.


I ask “ What do you think about your learning?”


“I think it is coming on well. I am more relaxed and comfortable as an independent learner”.


Are you an independent learner?


I am. Of course, I have to now stick within a framework because of exams but I am independent.  I get to choose the topics I work on, the order, the pace, the depth to which I move out of the box, and where I want to take my learning. In that sense, I am independent although there is a framework.


However, I am not very concerned with the framework. The framework gives me an idea of what may be logical extensions of my research, it helps that way. It also helps me plan my processes better and understand my learning objectives better.


Is that important?


I think it useful as we do not always have a particular goal when we start. Something interests you and you think you want to know more about it. Sometimes, you just start exploring to see where it goes, not necessarily because you want to reach a particular goal.  The goals may change as you keep going further in that topic.


A goal is ideal to have when you start, but things are rarely ideal. This can be a problem because you may lose interest in what you started, the roads may have changed, material may become tougher to understand, or it looks so extensive that you forget why you started or you just become bored. It helps if you can ask someone if you are stuck. But that means that someone has to have an interest aligned with your interest and should know to just point you in the general direction. Don’t give answers. Sometimes we want to just talk without needing an opinion. Just listen.


How did you reach independent learning?


I wish I knew. It certainly did not happen overnight. Maybe gradually and I cannot think of a particular time or phase. What I do know is that at sometime I felt the excitement of finding answers far outweighed the fun of hearing it from others. It is not like a switch turned on, it is just that I started to walk away if people only give me answers.


What do you feel is easier? Independent learning or Structured learning?


Don’t be fooled. Independent learning is not at all easy. It requires a lot more hard work than structured learning. Work internally as well as the external work. You need a lot more discipline, you need more clarity, you need to know how to identify paths and you definitely need to know when to stop a topic. You need to know if you got what you wanted, which means, you need to identify what you want. People think independent learning is about freedom, it is not. There is freedom but freedom without clarity of what you need is not very useful.


Do you think everyone can be an independent learner?


Anyone can become an independent learner. Do they become one is the question. Let me be plain, not everyone becomes one. Some need the comfort of the structure. They need the external discipline, they are not yet ready for the internal discipline.  Sometimes, they may never be. I know a friend of mine who is doing well now. Acing exams, classes. He struggled with the independence.  He is capable, smart but the independence sort of freaked him out. He did not know what do with it. He would choose a topic and by the time he thought through it and had to start, he will lose interest and want to do something else. Was he learning, definitely yes, but if you asked to see an output, there was nothing to show in terms of completed projects. He needed a structure. “This is what you need to find out, this is when you have to finish, we need to see this.” When he got the structure, he was different.  Things were completed. It does not matter how you learn, it matters whether you learn. Some need the independence,  some need the structure.


Are there criteria that sets out who can become an independent learner? How do you identify an independent learner?


There is only one criterion. You have to want to become an independent learner. You should want that so badly. You can’t become one by looking at someone else or just because you are in a system. You should want that. That is a lot of hard work, responsibility, accountability to self, and discipline. You should want to take that challenge on. If you really want to, you are on the way. It is about you.


We need to start preparing early. It is not like a switch is put on at a particular age. We need to start early and systematically.  It is important that parents understand and buy in. You can do all the hard work at school encouraging us to explore and if the first thing we hear when we get home is parents just giving all the answers we need, without a chance to explore, everything just falls apart.  Parents have to encourage the independence. Not needing to know your answers does not mean we do not respect you.  Just that we prefer finding our own answers.


How do you think we can start early at school?


As I said, for some, we need to accept that they need the structure. They need that. Just like learners, some facilitators cannot give a structure. They don’t have it in them, that is not the way they are built.


How do we start early? I see that you are asking me to reflect more deeply on my learning. I need time.


Can I record this conversation?


Seriously? Well, you can. You can do a video, show my face as well. These are my thoughts and I can own up to them. Let me think over the starting early bit and get back to you.  


I did not record but have tried to remain faithful to the words, attitude and essence.

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