What informs learning?

This is not the typical type of experience that I would share with the kind of people that make up the majority of my main twitter feed, most being developers and testers who I tend to think pride themselves as being scientific, rational and most seem agnostic or atheist in their beliefs. But still in the words of Nicole Kidman this experience ‘is what it is’. My attitude towards science is that it’s a subset of truth and that’s what I’m sharing here.

When I was seventeen or eighteen I spent a whole Saturday surrounded by books, magazines and essays (this was before the internet) sifting through them to find quotes and insights to use for my first speaking engagement. The topic was ‘the importance of education’. No biggie, it was just a church talk, but it was to be in front of a few hundred people and that kind of thing is scary.

So I wanted to nail it and besides, getting an education really was the most important thing for me at that time. I’d left home earlier than most and paid my own way through the last two years of high school. I was now working 30 plus hours a week, apart from a grant I had won, paying my own way through a full University year.

Education also was a topic I was conflicted over. A lot about school and University education system angered me, particularly how much of it I felt was irrelevant, various unfair flaws in the marking system, the disconnect between what I was learning and what I could see myself using. And the feeling you get from school that getting a C, B or A made you a “C”, “B, or “A” person.

I’m not surprised that the day probably influenced the dream I had that night. I dreamed I was walking through a church and a minister stopped me in the hall and said; “I want you to go on a mission”. Hello? He wanted me to go wandering around knocking at stranger’s doors interrupting their dinner time, wearing clothing that looked like it came out of the 50’s, live 24/7 with a perfect stranger and worse -stall a University education that I had invested so much in? Even though I was just dreaming, my chest felt heavy and my heart sank to the floor of my stomach. Whilst thinking more such thoughts, a calm voice spoke right in my dream ear and said; “The most important education in life, is the education of character and all other forms of education are towards this end, or secondary to it”.

It woke me up. And I lay quietly mulling that over for some time.

Now, here’s the interesting thing. Whilst I lay there, the dream started to replay while I was still awake. Literally it was like a slow screen flare that opened to display a 3d see-through movie image, right in front of my eyes and below the ceiling above me. I froze and I stayed very very still, stilled my breathing, stilled my body and thoughts, I didn’t allow myself to think or analyse what was happening. It was just the most curious thing and I didn’t want to spook it. When the hallway reformed, I heard again the same words, but this time the voice spoke not just in my ear, but clear and audible from all sides.

Throughout the years thereafter, whether teaching kids, mentoring young adults, coaching candidates for job roles or getting to know the number of people I’ve interviewed for high tech roles, I’ve seen how much character impacts on your ability to learn and grow. I’ve met quite a few PHDs who have worked more than 20 years in factories and a number of Bachelors, Masters and Doctors of Academia that live sour lives in low paid work far below their intellectual capability and their career expectations. In contrast others I’ve met who’ve succeeded without degree or other academic qualifcations.

In recent times, when I’ve explored in interviews the whys or wherefores of either group. I’ve seen or heard that their ability to have success, has depended more on traits like resilience, passion, courage, ethics rather than their formal education alone. Resilience to knock-backs & upsets. Passion, enthusiasm or curiousity that fuels ongoing learning and improvement. Courage to attempt at things that they could fail at, or courage to take a risk when problem solving requires it rather than be hand held through to a solution. Open mindedness to open themselves to ideas outside what their past which informs them on things they don’t actually know. Ethics; that gives a person a pride in producing quality work.. and so forth.

An academic education is a boon, but I’ve seen for myself that much of our capability to learn and grow is rooted in character.



Small events that hardwire you for life

I saw a picture of people in the community of Ferguson, standing in front of the doors of local businesses to turn looters away. Their resolute faces got me thinking about those who choose to commit crimes and those who don’t, even though they come from a similar environment.  It reminded me of a social worker I met once, who wondered the same thing of me. She asked ‘why I didn’t go the way of many troubled kids she dealt with, given the similar kind of experiences of multiple homes, violence, molestation that kind of thing’. Why hadn’t I got into crime or trouble of any sort? I ignored her (nosey woman), but I remember that it was due to the impact of one small event.

When I was 3 nearly 4 years old I remember picking up a deflated balloon off the floor at Woolworths. It had fallen off the counter. And I put it in my pocket because it didn’t seem wrong if it was ‘rejected’ on the floor. I knew stealing was wrong. But this didn’t seem to be it. Later we’re in the old Humber driving the long way back home and I sitting in the backseat, brought it out of my pocket to play with. My grandmother was driving glanced at the car mirror and saw me.
Asked me where I got it, I told her, her face went resolute and she sharply turned the car around and drove alllllll the way back to return it. It cost less than a farthing (which is like less than half a cent today). It was a really long way back, or so it seemed to me as a child. But my grandmother’s logic was that it didn’t matter whether it was a farthing or $100.00 the taking of it would make me a thief.

That one thing totally stuck in my head, her absolute honesty, that this is something you just didn’t do. It imprinted on me and I think hardwired me from that point on – that there was no other way to behave than the example she set.

It’s a small thing, but it strikes me as I remember other small happenings – just how powerful a small action a person can take that it can completely hardwire you for the rest of your life.