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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught me by Kate Clanchy

There’s 12 hours reading here even if you pause to make notes, make lunch and walk the dog. Kate Clanchy has been my weekend read. I go through most of it on one of those ‘stay in bed’, wet mid-December days in 2020 when bedtime became most of the time – at least for me, when not at work in the spare bedroom next door. 

I’ve reached the point of maximum hunger when it comes to learning about teaching. I will snatch at anything related to the subject if it is waved in front of me. This is the danger of shopping online; it knows my desires. 

I like this on teaching 

‘It’s a bodily experience, like learning to be a beekeeper, or an acrobat: a series of stinging humiliations and painful accidents and occasional sublime flights which leave you either crippled or changed’. (p.1)

Can teaching online via webcam be such a bodily experience? An ‘out body’ experience perhaps? It is not helped where none of the students are present – all have their webcams turned off. Like playing blind-man’s buff in a classrom – and at first, just as scary. Yet you are in your own space, not a darkened room.

Does teaching have to be negotiated when we each in our own domain? Who knows if the student is comfortable on the sofa, in bed, the back of Dad’s car, at the kitchen table or the only one in college at a desk in the learning resource centre? 

‘All children will behave perfectly … if they want to know something very much, about sex or anything else, and an adult sincerely sets out to tell them.’ (p.15) Kate Clanchy makes this optimistic remark about her students (she teaches in school). This confluence is surely a difficult one to achieve? ‘if they want to know something’ she states. It is the perennial ‘if’ which is too often answered by, ‘but they don’t’.

How do we know what they want to know? Are we more often than not trying to impart in them knowledge and experience that they feel is unnecessary or not for them? Yet they’ve signed up for a course. There is of course choice when it comes to HE, less so at FE and little at all in school.

What if neither the teacher not the students want to know?

Take ‘Black Lives Matter’. Not my view, but I have had others ask why it is being taught to a group of all white students – or harder, how to teach it to a class where one student is black. Should it be awkward? Would it be like teaching menstruation to a class of predominantly boys with one girl present? What if the class was entirely black but for one white kid? I think the teacher missed the point, the institution failed in selling the purpose of teaching the class on Black Lives. It is about diversity, respect and community. It is about difference, teasing and bullying. It is about the history of all people on a small planet. That we are all black – afterall, we all came out of Africa. Should it not be the case that only those who know what they are talking about get up to teach? Governments and institutions can be overly prescriptive. And why should a tutor in construction be taking such a lesson?

For ‘Inclusion’ read ‘Exclusion’

A further insight into the students comes where the Kate Clanchy sums up her experience of working with students who had been isolated in the ‘inclusion’ portacabin on the other side of the playing field. These children had misbehaved so badly or so often that they were separated from the rest of the school. Kate Clanchy is a saint; she has a lot to teach us. She tells a story of how she encouraged them to write her notes and put them anonymously in a box. Those that were scrumpled up and dropped in the bin proved more revealing as it told stories of physical and mental abuse and neglect. We know that how children are raised has a profound impact on their behaviour and response to the wider world. 

‘No one is bad, though many are sad, and a few are mad’ she writes on page 56.

I’m ‘consuming’ a lot at the moment. This is my immersion in learning without the ‘e’.

In between reviewing a 1 hour 42 minutes talk by Dylan Wiliam on ‘Formative Assessment’ and the need for actions in schools to be based on evidence and checking through Dave White on ‘Visitors and Residents’ in the digital world, I riggle my way through the rest of Kate Clanchy. 

There are no surprises that she uncovers systemic racism in poetry competitions she enters her pupils for; no surprises at how awkwardly church schools fit into secular and multiracial Britain; nor how middle-class parents point their kids towards middle-class and aspirational schools so extracing ourselves from the wider population and in this country leaving us unnecessarily fragmented. What unites the United Kingdom? Not much.

Very Quiet Foreign Girls is worth Googling for their poems.

Like ‘Dead Poets Society’ this is a group of underprivileged girls, rather than privileged boys, who met to read and compose poetry. The multiracial and international mix of students is extraordianry: Khurds, Iranians, Somalians, Poles and Hungarians, Moroccan, Afghan, Indian and Pakistani – a few Brits of Afro-Carribean, Irish and Scottish heritage with a suitable mix of relgions across branches of Islam, as well as Hindu, Cathollic and no religion at all.

Deprivation can be a shocker

We get the social worker’s inside view of the way some children live, their poverty, how treated at home. Clanchy makes the point that the uniform is a release for a child from having to find anything special or different to wear, shoes in all weathers a pair of flip flops, travel to London from Essex, let alone ‘abroad’ a signal of something ‘beyond’ and out of their reach to the point of feeling like impostors to be with anyone so privileged. 

‘Poverty is stronger than plumbing’ Kate Clanchy writes (p.160), ‘stronger than medicine, stronger than art’. 

[The first taste I personally got of a sense of poverty was on benefits in London in April 1985; not an expected path for an Oxford graduate who’d been spoilt for choices at the end of the Milk Round the Year Before. Then doing odd jobs, in a flat in Willesden and joining the Tricycle Youth Theatre and being around as many black faces as white. I’d not lived; I’d not travelled in my own country. I’ve been rubbing off the all-male public school experience ever since. I has taken a long time to reclaim Oxford too; I’d had a tendency of late to state that I went to ‘college’ – even university was a confession too far for a period.]

Education is national, it is the community, it ought to be a melting pot, it ought to be a leveller.

It should not be the fragmented, privileged, excluding, isolating experience that it is in Britain where too many children’s experience is amongst ‘their own kind’ geographically, and by race, religion, class and wealth. 

Kate Clanchy has made this a weekend

My working week extended with the Dylan Wiliam SSAT keynote online talk to digest (it will take three passes through my gut like a cow chewing the cud). What surprises me is when out of the blue Kate Clanchy drops her thoughts on poetry and the Inclusion Group and macks into Black and Wiliam and Formative Assessment (WALT) with the enthusiasm of a vengeant pugilist.

I like her for it. My first notes on Wiliam are to question the keynote I have just sat through as a self-serving literature review which makes a lot of poor research conducted in the States so that it provides him with something to destroy. More of Wiliam elsewhere – I applaud ‘evidence based’ responses to any problem, though not, Kate Clanchy would say, if this is at the expense of creativity and poetry. Is Wiliam and his brand of formative assessment most suited to math and engineering rather than the arts? Would fine art, pottery or make up courses benefit from or be destroyed by formative assessment?

At what point, by way of example, does formative assessment in the training of a competitive sailor have to give way to intuition, for the musician to play the piece their way? Is formative assessment the scales and these alone will make for a dull clone?

We get into the apostrophe in English as a defining standard for how well it is taught, or not, and taken up by Grammar Schools but not the Comprehensive – or not. It is a detail too far for me. I take her point that the simplest advice to those in doubt over the use of the apostrophe is to never use it.

From p.207 to p.217 the PostIts I used to indicate where I need to quote and make notes cover most of each page. Her attack on formative assessment is heartfelt. I have, in the US parlance, a lot to ‘unpack’. Kate Clanchy ‘began teaching thirty years ago’ (1990s). Since when there has been ‘the inexorable rise of the thing called ‘formative assessment’, and its lumpen classroom equivalent, the WALT’. ‘(p.207) 

WALT stands for ‘We Are Learning To …’

They should head a trainee teacher’s lesson plan and guide any observation.

The theory goes, Kate Clanchy explains, is that WALTs ‘interact seamlessly with the curriculum and let everyone know where they are at’. 

‘They break up the lesson into simple learning objectives that the children themselves understand’. (p.207) 

‘This is formative assessment because it forms and changes he student as well as marking them’. (p.208).

[I can only think in terms of old school essay writing for homework. Formative assessment at its most successful, for feedback and differentiation – surely? And then the five hundred year old Oxbridge tutorial were students armed with essays debating one with their tutor and mentally marking their own effort as excellent, average, mediocre or non-existent, while forming a view of their own months, even years before any summative assessment into a formal written exam]. 

‘Formative assessment does not allow for ineffable processes,’ she writes (p.210) as she expands on a case study of a student who grew into himself and developed self awareness and confidence as a result of his creative writing, something she is sure would have been stymied by WALT and overly prescriptive formative assessment. 

She has a dig at something called the ‘Black Box’ which is an idea that Black and Wiliam also developed around WALT and formative assessment; I am currently ignorant of it. She argues that often there is less need for this kind of formative assessment and a greater need for summative assessment in the form of a concluding ‘well done’. (p.210).

Then she bemoans how an English test has been reduced to using a Wikipedia entry on Titanic to compose a nonfiction essay. A task that she considers thin and limited because it starts from not much and has little opportunity to flower the way the simple experience of listening to a poem and then writing one of your own can have. (p.211).

‘In my dreams,’ she writes on p.212, ‘we never need to write another WALT. In my dreams my colleagues are trusted to choose great, rich texts to teach, and we all trust the texts to teach the children. We assess both creative and critical responses to them as their final exams’. 

Some decades later Kate Clanchy spotted this her most promising student from those days of poetry and creative english. She got up the courage to contact him by LinkedIn.

‘When we read books with you,’ he wrote, ‘the world opened up. Your lessons were I learnt who I was,’ he continued, ‘became conscious of myself, grew up. That time was important to me, a free space’. (p.217) She goes on to provide illustrative anecdotes for dyslexia and ASD I like that as much is devoted to what those with such issues can do, rather than what they can not do. Then we cover body image, the Audrey Hepburn like nymph who gains weight so quickly and others too, another raped and a third caught up a child marriage or engagement in Pakistan. 

And so endeth my weekend of learning about education. I read Kate Blanchy cover to cover. I took copious notes on a second viewing of a 1 hours 42 mnutes Dylan Wiliam lecture then Q&A on the woes of education in England and how Fomative Assessment is the cure-all … and I even foundd time for a fourth or fifth viewing of Dave Williams on his ‘Visitor vs. Resident’ thesis that provides a simplified description of how we behave online – we are task orientated or live there, and can wear different hats when we do so.

Take risks and do not worry about getting it right first time eu

So advises Google as you undertake 12 hours of self-directed online learning to become a certified educator – Level 1.

Easy said, harder to fulfill if you are being overlooked by your employer, scrutinized by your peers and exposed to unsympathetic and potentially cruel students.

Talking it through

When Stephen Hawking lost the ability to speak in 1985 he realised with great frustration that he could no longer talk through a problem with others and in so doing clarify his thoughts.

For a student to be able to talk through a subject with tutors and fellow students is a vital component of learning that risks being absent where e-Learning is supposed to provide all of that. Face to face in tutorials and at other events, such as in a debate or subject-some specific society is ideal. The next best thing is having formal a Google hang-out and other interactions that are live (synchronous) as well as asynchronous.

Chunking

Computer Free

Gone is the computer. Here is a fountain pen and paper. It is easier to spread out, easier to gather up ideas in bundles … better for brain? This has the makings of a dissertation.

Familiarity and mastery

Your head gets into a place it never wants to leave. You take command of a subject and want to build on it.

Or should do. I resist mastery in favour of novelty.

So I have to find ways to keep everything fresh. To seek out the challenge.

Study Sets … like the Polish resistance

polishresistance

Is this the perfect ‘Set’?

 

Serendipity has me at the home of my 91 year old father-in-law. Considerably less active than he once was, he still spends his day either reading from an iPad, or, with considerable difficulty, writing and reading emails. (He is blind in one eye with severely limited peripheral vision in the other). Reading only from a screen about 7 or 8 words fill the screen. A young granddaughter is researching a piece about being a ‘war child’. Zbigniew Pelczynski was 13 1/2 when the Germans invaded Poland. He revealed something about learning that I had not heard before.

You’ll soon understand the relevance to learning and the relevance of posting it here: I interviewed Dr Pelczynski on the Oxbridge Tutorial system in relation to learning and the Master of Arts: Open and Distance Education. He is a former Oxford Philosophy Tutor (Hegel) …  and East European Politics, and the founder of ‘The Schools for Leaders’ in Poland and other East European countries. Has he retired? Probably. He published his last book four or five years ago and made his last trip to Poland about three years ago.

One of his grandchildren, just started secondary school, had the following questions for him.

1). How old were you and your brother at the beginning of the war?

The war began 1st September 1939. I was then 13 1/2, and my brother was 12.

2). How did the war change everyday life e.g. did shops close?

Shops did not close and in many way life went on as before, however, with time food became more and more scarce and expensive. People who were poor had a very hard time. 

3). What did you do for family entertainment?

(I have read that in Poland things like cinema and football clubs were banned)

Well, entertainment was very much limited to the family and especially to birthday, christmas and Easters which in Poland are celebrated in a very big way. Cinemas were open, but the films were controlled so that one was only able to see that the occupiers, the Germans, wanted us to see. There were some interesting German films, but most of them were propaganda. I remember Jude Ze. about a a cruel Jew in the middle ages who caught children who cheated everybody and murdered children for blood. There was a tail that the Jews used the blood of Christian children for Jewish feasts. This was meant to make us feel very hostile to the Jews who were being greatly persecuted by the Germans at the time, put into Ghettos and later sent to extermination camps.

(The film he refers to is ‘The Eternal Jew’ )

There was no theatre, just light music entertainment, but only for the German soldiers who were stationed there and German officials. There were however some concerts in cafés, specially on Sunday at lunchtime which were very popular. 

Sport. The Germans didn’t allow any sport. All football pitches, running tracks and swimming pools were taken over by the Germans and used by their own soldiers or recovering soldiers. 

You were allowed to play handball or netball at home in your yard. Not allowed to play at school. Not allowed to kick a football about a schoolyard. So the only thing we did was play pingpong at school. In the school there were long corridors in there were several tables and you’d sign up to be allowed to play and there would be competitions. There was the Vistula in Warsaw, where we went swimming or canoeing or in a small sailing boat. 

4. Did you have rationing coupons for food & clothes?

There were no clothes coupons, but there were certainly rationing coupons for food. They would change from year to year, even month to mont and they kept being cut again and gain. Each family was registered in a particular greengrocers shop and you went to buy your rations once a week. However illegally food was imported from the countryside and sold under the counter in the same shops or others shops or in open market, but the price was very high compared to the official regulated price of the rations. 

Things were particularly during holidays when it was very difficult to get the various delicacies, for example ham for easter, or chicken or goose for Christmas. 

5. How did things change for children in primary school?

There was virtually no change. Some of the text books were banned as they were thought to be too patriotic of ante-German. 

6. How did things change for children in secondary school?

This was changed. The Germans did not allow any education whatsoever after the age of 16. And only if the secondary education was combined with ‘Fachschulen’ (specialist schools) – that is a ‘trades school’. I, for example, went to a school that was supposed to train electricians, one of my friends went to carpentry school and another went to gardening school. But very little time was spent on these trades, say a day a week, the other days were much similar to what we had before the war. The exceptions, no foreign language was allowed except German, Latin was banned, Polish history was banned. However, very early in the war, the teachers started organising secret courses called ‘sets’ where five children and one teacher taught Latin, French and Polish history. After age 16, moving to the equivalent of A’Levels there was no school education at all in the ordinary way. Those who continued with these sets of 5+1, would say meet on a Tuesday, and have 3 hours being taught Polish language and Geography, then another teacher would come and teach say Physics … so in this way, instead of studying in large classes, we had what you might call seminars. It was possible, the atmosphere was very informal, made it possible to ask question and disagree. This education was illegal. If the Germans had discovered these the teacher would have been arrested and sent to prison.

I went on like this until 1943 when I was 17 1/2. The Polish Secondary education was modelled on the French and German with four or more subject examination, I did Polish Language, German Language, Latin and Trigonometry. I passed this examination. 

7. What age did you start going to school in secret, tell me about what it was like.

See above

8. How did children help in the war effort?

It very much depended on your age. Children who were very young did not participate at all, expect  perhaps taking secret newspapers from one family to another. The Polish Secret army told their story of what was happening in the world, otherwise we were limited to German propaganda. Later on you could join a secret scout movement. You were trained in what was known as ‘little sabotage’ for example, painting slogans on public places, ‘Hitler Kaput’ meaning ‘Hitler is finished’. On one occasion we went to church on Easter morning very early, and the whole of Warsaw was covered in these ante-German slogans and symbols of the Polish Resistance (a symbol of hope).

Most Poles are Catholic. During the war people went to church for services and holidays and the Germans didn’t interfere with that. Some of the priests when they preached sermons put in some references to Poland was not free, but the time would come when it would be free again. If caught as there could be spies in the congregation they would be arrested and sent to a concentration camp.

I and my younger brother joined the Resistance Movement in 1943. Even before that he decided to help some friends in the resistance: the people who formed little units in the forests and attacked the Germans, and stole their weapons, and blew up their cars. Kazik had a friend who was very active, and this friend wanted to store submachine guns somewhere so Kazik agreed and would store them in our grand piano which was never used because neither he nor I played. I got suspicious because this friend would come and visit with a violin case. One day, this friend came, and Kazik locked himself in the sitting room, and I listen and realised they were putting something in the piano. I looked and there was a brand new Sten-gun in the grand piano. 

When I was older, 18 1/2 I joined the Resistance Movement and trained as a soldier. We were often asked to store hand-grenades and rifles. We would attach a rifle to a small fruit tree and put straw around it. 

9. What age did children join the Home Army?

There was some military training in the Scout Movement, at 14 or so, maybe 12. Then first of all they were involved in ‘small sabotages’; and then given military training so in 1944 they were involved. 

You joined the underground, the secret Military movement, when you were 16. When the uprising broke, out and the young people were the bravest of all. One friend of mine, who was 16, was awarded two medals. 

Distributing leaflets and illegal leaflets.

Training in the home army, we must in five + one, Meet in someone’s house, once a week, and a military instructor would come and tell us how to use a gun, or blew up houses.

Once a month there was a trip to the nearest forest. It was easy to go for the weekend. Military training was much more serious here, you played at setting an ambush, or crawling under barbed wire or attacking a position. Amazing that the Germans never discovered what was going on.

The point that had me wake in the dead of night having mulled this over was the importance to him of ‘the set’, or seminar, what in fact became for him the lifelong love for an commitment to the ‘tutorial’ : not a seminar, a class of students, but a small group, relaxed with tea, coffee (or sherry), reading over each other’s essays for the week, being able to falter, make mistakes, received praise and correction.

This works. I believe it works online too. I have had plenty of experiences of it on OU modules where from my tutor group a small ‘break-out’ group forms. These are never exclusive, but rathe a handful of people usually three or four, who form an affinity and begin to confer, converse and meet regularly online to discuss the course and its progres.

I recommend it. Blog, Use Facebook or LinkedIn or Google HangOuts. Make use of platforms offered by The OU. Be part of a group. Form a group, or what I will now call a ‘Set’ or perhaps, in Polish ‘Zestaw’. 

Here’s his biography.

zbigniew

What’s a MOOC from FutureLearn life? It’s as easy as turning the pages of a book

Fig.1 Alice in Wonderland pOp-Up.

FutureLearn MOOCs are as easy and as pleasurable to do as a child turning the pages of pop-up book on Christmas morning surrounded by friends and family.

Engaging. Puts a smile on your face. Teaches you something. Leaves you wanting more. What content is presented and the way it plays out changes things. The interaction with others matters massively.

My interest is e-learning. A decade ago it was web-based learning and before that it was online learning … as compared to ‘offline’ learning on an intranet or in a computer learning centre. Across this period, whether on Laser disc, CD-rom, DVD, or online the key words to describe a successful piece of learning might include: easy to use, intuitive, effective, measurable results, gamified and impressive. ‘Impressive’ for a corporate client has always been important – they want to see how their money is spent. It matters to jazz a thing up, to find a way to deliver exception creative qualities in both the ideas and the execution of these ideas. In H.E. this ‘impressiveness’ has been thin on the ground the experience and view of H.E. that someone talking to camera with a slide show or whiteboard will do the job; it doesn’t, not any more.

At the risk of writing a list I want to think about the ‘enhanced learning’ experiences that have impressed over the last 15 years:

Audi Shop DVD – Gold Award Winner at the IVCA awards. Stunning animated 3D animations of the engine. Like a 3D animated Dorling Kindersley

What are you like? – Gold Award Winner at the IVCA awards. An interactive life and career guide for teenagers done in the style of ‘In Betweeners’ and ‘Some Girls’ – nailed the audience with creative tone and visual effects. This won BAFTAs, the IVCA Grand Prix and NMA Effectiveness Awards.

Ideafisher – first on floppy discs, then a CD. It did in the 1990s what various websites do today by linking vast collections of aggregated ideas and concepts that it filters out and offers up. The closest I’ve felt to AI for creativity.

MMC – online marketing courses. These were, for me, in 2010, an early example of stringing the face to camera lecture together with course notes to create a course. Still more like a self-directed traditional lecture series but the volume of content was admirable and some of the tools to control the viewing and reading experience were innovative.

TED Lectures. Are they learning? Or are they TV? Are they modelled on the BBC’s Annual Reith Lecture series? Top of the Pops for the lecture circuit so tasters and Open Education Resources for grander things.

Rosetta Stone – iPad App

Pure simplicity. I love these. I gave a year to an intermediate course in French, learnt some grammar and fixed several problems with my pronunciation. Like that game ‘Pairs’ you play as a child: a pack of cards with pairs of images on one side that you pair up. With considered, only sometimes over art-directed photography. Repetitive, always in the language you are learning. The next best thing to being dropped in amongst native speakers as an infant. It just works.

iTunesU – The History of English in One Minute.

Not so much a course as a series of stunning and memorable cartoon pieces that galvanise your interest. The next step is to follow through with a free trial course through OpenLearn and perhaps a nudge then towards a formal course with the Open University proper.

FutureLearn – the entire platform.

As easy as reading a book. I’ve done eight of these and have another three on the go (two for review rather than as a participant). Across the myriad of subjects and offerings there are differences, all gems, but some are more outstanding than others. It is no surprise that those MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) produced by the Open University are some of the very best; it’s what you’d expect with their experience. Other university’s shine through for their confidence with the the platform too, for example, ‘How to read a mind’ from the University of Nottingham.

MOOCs I love enough to repeat:

Start Writing Fiction: From the Open University

I may have been through this a couple of times in full and now dip back into it as I get my head into gear. I’ll do this as often as it takes to get the thinking to stick. It’s working. I read as a writer. I will interrupt a story to pick out how a succinct character description works.  I’m also chasing up a myriad of links into further Open University courses and support on creative writing. For example: next steps, creative writing tasters, and audio tasters on iTunes. 

MOOCs I may repeat next year … or follow similar topics from these providers:

Word War 1: Trauma and Memory: From the Open University with the BBC

World War 1: Paris 1919 – A New World: From the University of Glasgow with the BBC

MOOCs I admire that target their academic audiences with precision:

How to Read a Mind: The University of Nottingham

Shakespeare’s Hamlet: From the University of Birmingham

Web Science: How the Web is changing: From the University of Southampton

 

Learning how to learn online with FutureLearn and The OU

From E-Learning V

Fig.1 My progress on The OU MOOC on FutureLearn ‘Start Writing Fiction’ (c) FutureLearn 2014

More than any module or exercise I have done over my four years with The OU, it is a MOOC in FutureLearn that is giving me the most thorough experience of where the future or learning lies. I’m in week seven of eight weeks of ‘Start Writing Fiction’ from The OU, on the FutureLearn platform. Just in these few weeks I’ve seen the site change to solve problems or to enhance the experience. Subtle lifts and adjustments that make a positive out of constant adjustment. Those tabs along the top: activity, replies where under a tab. I think ‘to do’ is new while ‘progress’ was elsewhere. This is a responsive platform that listens to its students.

In the final week we submit our third piece of work.

As assessments go these are far less nerve racking than a TMA. The first piece was 300, the second 500 and the last will be 1000. These are assessed by fellow students. In my case I had one, then two reviews. Most people seem to get at least two sometimes three. The system is designed, I’m sure, to try and ensure that everyone’s work is reviewed at least once. Tens of thousands, certainly thousands of people are on the course.

We’re here to the 19th of December or so … if you follow the tracks as laid.  

I hazard a guess that between 20-100 have posted there final piece already. Some, I know, got to the end of the entire course a few weeks ago; I looked ahead to see out of curiosity. There have always been 20 who post comments one, two even three weeks ahead. If 20 are posting I hazard a guess knowing my stats on these things that another couple of hundred could be clicking through the pages to read and observe. They may, like me, be coming back later. They may only be following the course, but not participating. Often, it is like standing on a stage looking into the gloom of the auditorium. Someone probably out there. One or two let you know. The rest don’t.

I hope those that race ahead come back …

I find that if I get ahead then I slow down and retrace my steps. To learn in this connected and collaborative way you are far better off in the pack … it is not a race to get to the end first. In fact, those who do this have already lost. They’ve missed the point. I’d suggest to people that if they have the time to do the week over. That’s been my approach anyway – the beauty of these things is everyone can come and go as they please, at a pace that suits them. Skip a bit. Go back. Follow it week by week, day by day … or not. Whatever works works?

There’s another very good reason to stay with the ‘pack’ or to come back and do a week over – the platform depends not on tutors and moderators commenting and assessing work, but us students doing a kind of amateur, though smart, peer review. This is what make a MOOC particularly vibrant, memorable and effective. Not listening to an educator telling us what’s what, but the contributors sharing, figuring it out, answering each other’s problems in multiple ways. We all learn in different ways and at a pace that shifts too. I find that often a point I don’t get first time round, on the second, or third, or even the fourth visit to an activity someone, somewhere puts it in a way that suddenly brings complete clarity – their way of seeing a thing, or expressing it, makes more sense than the writes of the course could manage. Because they can only write one version, not the ‘tartan’ that comes from an intelligent, threaded online conversation.

Start writing fiction: a free MOOC through FutureLearn with The OU

From E-Learning V

Fig.1 Something I wrote 40 years ago ! (age 13)

The last five weeks I’ve been following the FutureLearn MOOC ‘Start Writing Fiction’.

Extraordinary. I’m on my second pass. I came through early, and now return not wanting to get ahead of the conversation. Particularly useful as I am actively writing at the moment, so this is the best of all learning because it is applied. Regarding character it about giving them shape, depth and ‘points of interest’ – more 6D than even the 2D we are asked to get away from. I visualise characters as hedgehogs with many prickles, but only a few of these matter to the story – though all of them matter to the notebook which I’m gradually coming to care about more and more, cursing the times I ‘have a thought’ and don’t get it down somewhere safely. I am hugely pleased to be here and very proud to be an OU graduate already – not, sadly, from this faculty: yet!

I’m finding the oddest of balances in my life too:

  • Writing for myself from 4.00am to 8.00am.
  • Picking up work from 10.00am.
  • Evenings from 5.00pm to 9.00pm

I am often ‘poolside’ teaching or coaching swimmers.

Delighting yesterday evening to be back with some squad swimmers I last saw four years ago – now in the mid teens, some achieving amazing things in the water, all at that gangly stage of youth development my own children have come through in the last year.

The issue then is how or where or why I fit in the OU module L120 I committed to. Learning a language is daunting and outside my comfort zone. What I do know now, not surprisingly, is that all learning comes about as a result of concerted and consistent effort over a long period of time.

From Lewes, East Sussex

The River Ouse at Southease, The South Downs Way

Walking and taking photos yesterday afternoon after a morning writing – for me that was 4.30 am to 11.30am I resolved a character/plot issue in a novel I am challenging myself to complete in first draft in a month. This is part of an online ‘Write a Novel in a Month’ thing that has been running since 2002: recommended. It has all the joy and connectivity of learning in a supported environment that you could want.

This is an OU course too. A lot is said about keeping a notebook. I have ‘issues’ with this.

During this walk I decided that I had to make the protagonist’s only friend his nemesis and enemy. I also figured out a story that has been on my mind for 25 years about a 9-year-old girl buried in a school garden … however, there was something else knew that I thought I’d remember but had forgotten by the time I got to the car sad I could have tapped a cryptic message on the phone’s notepad, phoned home and left a message on the answer-phone, recorded a note on the iPhone, or scribbled a note had I pen and paper … the issue I have is that when you develop a habit of jotting down ideas it can bring your life to a grinding halt: you stop to take notes, pull over in a lay-by to write something down, let something burn in the kitchen, don’t answer the phone, wake up in the middle of the night repeatedly … this happened to me. I could not sleep for long without having an idea about something. And then I ended up managing that database, and having more ideas in a crushing spiral of brain pain no gain self-defeating, bean-counting, self-analysis, deconstructive, non-creative nonsense. Be warned smile

The answer is to work as a tree surgeon. My solution is to fill a reasonable part of my life, paid and as a volunteer, teaching and coaching swimming to kids, adults and disabled people. That keeps my head, hands, feet and soul gainfully occupied.

Learning can be an obsession; look at me. I know that learning with The OU fills such an important space in my life that even when the money has run out I want to keep doing more sad

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