Why do we learn?

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Why? Why is the sun yellow and the sky blue? Why do I have to put my shoes on? Why do I have to eat that? Why do I have to brush my hair?

We are all familiar with this routine from young childhood, and I suspect some parents of older children might secretly miss it, a little, no matter how exasperating they found it at the time. The relentlessness of the question why.

It goes away, of course, after a while. Or children stop asking it so openly, at least. But it is there for us all underneath the business of life. Why do I have to study? To get good grades. Why? To get to a good university. To get a good job. To do well in life. But – in the end – why? What is it for?

Much of what we learn at school has a intention, a plan, a scheme. There is a national curriculum framework. We go far beyond its requirements at Junior School with our Human Intelligence curriculum and in the first years of Senior School, but we still meet its targets on the way. Then learning is pointed at GCSEs. Then A levels or the IB. These exam courses are known as ‘specifications’. What a word that is, in the context of education! How precise! How clearly defined!

This learning, pointed at a goal, really matters. One of the three key aims of the school is ‘learning with purpose’ – alongside leading with confidence, and living with joy. But there is a problem here. Finding purpose in life is the key to finding joy. And finding purpose is very different to having it specified for you by an exam board. Achieving a goal is one thing. Working out which goals are truly worthwhile is quite another.

So true education must include and indeed cherish learning that does not link to an outcome, that does not serve as another brick in the road on the way to a set destination. Learning that surprises, baffles, might initially be forgotten until cropping up again in a whole new circumstance, ready to prompt another thought, another idea, another direction to follow.

There are all sorts of ways we encourage our young people to do things for their own sake. These might be acts of kindness towards an individual or the community. They might be activities that may not appeal but are worth a try, because they might surprise you and become passions. And this includes learning things that don’t apparently matter a bit, because you don’t know what they might one day teach you.

All this is prompted by Curiosity Week: the annual festival of learning at the Senior School that never ceases to intrigue, delight, surprise. This year I want to focus on just one talk from the raft of lunchtime lectures and lesson digressions and homework-free exploration at the heart of the week. These talks are given by students and staff in turn, and this one was by Aarini in Lower VI.

She talked about the ways language shapes us, and the ways in which our language shapes the world, and she gave a lovely example I’d never come across before. Some Aboriginal peoples in Australia are so rooted in a sense of place that they seldom use relative concepts such as left and right and instead use points of the compass: for example, if asking someone to move a cup on a table, they might ask them to move it to the north-east.

They also perceive the movement of time itself as following the path of the sun: so if they face south, time is flowing past them from their left-hand side; if they face north, from their right. It made me reflect that most of us, I think, imagine ourselves as facing forwards in time, and looking to what lies ahead. But of course ahead is the one thing we cannot see. What we can see is our past: so time really flows over our shoulders, and we look backwards down its stream. 

If we are to encourage our students to look to their futures – to shape their lives in a way that will help them find purpose and meaning – they have to look into the part of time they can’t see, and to do that, they have to look with nothing but their imaginations. So we must, over and over again, prompt and encourage them to imagine. As far as The Abbey is concerned, that is one answer at least to the question why. That’s what Curiosity Week, and all the wonderful learning for its own sake at every age range, is for.

Will le Fleming, Head

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