As professional educators, we L&D types spend a lot of time telling our learners, “there’s no need to be scared!”, “a big journey starts with a small step”, “you can do it!” and so on.
We generally work on the philosophy that very few things are impossible, and that people are all equally capable of the same things but just haven’t been party to the right type of practice or teaching. Or perhaps they just have a mental block that needs to be overcome. We tell ourselves, and our learners, that people talk themselves into failure by declaring, “oh, I’m no good at maths” or, “I just haven’t got the skill/aptitude/patience to learn how to use Excel”. We believe it because, by and large, it’s true. We can each do anything if we just apply ourselves, feel the fear, and do it anyway.
Right? Well, yes. Probably …
I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when, after spending an afternoon with a learner (and delivering a lot of the platitudes I have listed above), I was told, “well yes, Mary, but that’s easy for YOU to say. You didn’t leave school at 16!”
Thinking about this afterwards, it occurred to me that most L&D professionals know that a large part of the block which some learners have is exactly what my student above, was demonstrating. Usually a poor or limited schooling experience. Then, having been out of education for some years, they are pushed back into a classroom setting (often not of their own choosing) and expected to produce a more grown up version of school work, sometimes with other learners half their age.
We know that this isn’t an ideal learning environment and most of us will try our hardest to empathise and help the learner get the best result possible. But how much do we – or can we – really understand?
The fact is that most of we L&D types did well in a classroom one way or another. We nearly all have degrees and usually higher level qualifications too. In fact, we all loved education so much we have chosen to make a career from it! If somebody told me tomorrow that I needed to learn Quantum Physics and pass a test by the end of the week, I may be a little bit apprehensive about my ability to absorb a totally new subject, but the other part of me would be excited and I would spend the days leading up to the course busily googling ‘beginners quantum physics’ and making notes. I am not scared of book learning or sitting in a classroom.
But suppose I were taken completely out of my comfort zone? How about if I had to learn something in an alien non-classroom environment, for which I don’t have an obvious aptitude? How would I feel then?
Last Saturday I took my six year old daughter, Rosie, for a riding lesson. She has recently started and absolutely loves it. She has asked me if I rode as a child and I told her I didn’t as I grew up in the middle of a city, but I always wanted to – “so why don’t you do it with me then, mummy?” Well, I told her, I’m probably a little too old to learn now. “But mummy, you are always saying that anyone can learn anything!” And indeed I am.
After her lesson, as she led the horse back, Rosie asked her instructor if her mum was too old to learn to ride. Her instructor said, no, of course not. In fact, it turns out he instructs a group of somewhat mature ladies who have all started riding, while their children have their own simultaneous lessons. Perhaps I would like to come along to that? They both looked at me. My heart sank and I mumbled something about checking my diary.
On the way home Rosie chattered about what fun this would be, both of us learning together, and how much she enjoys it. “That’s easy for you to say”, I muttered under my breath.
And this is, of course, exactly how my learner the week before felt, and how other learners I have worked with over the years have probably felt too. For me, the thought of being near a huge horse, not knowing what to do, in the care of an instructor half my age who hasn’t a clue how I scared I feel, in a learning environment full of other people who will see me making a fool of myself, sounds like pure Purgatory.
So, sensible as ever, I have now booked my first ever riding lesson. I am preparing to risk public humiliation, broken collarbones, and aching sit bones, in the interests of first hand research as to how some of my learners feel. It is fair to say that I am a little apprehensive (aka ‘completely dreading it’) but somehow I feel I need do this. And, if I am being honest, there is also a sneaky little bit of me that has always wanted to give it a go. Sometimes perhaps we just need to be pushed.
Ladies and gentlemen, fellow L&D professionals, wish me luck and watch this space!