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It's the thirst that makes knowledge worth having

PASSION is back in fashion. The barometer is always my media studies classes. Mostly straight from school, they traditionally take to college life like ducks to MacCaig's glue.

They know just how college life should be because they've seen it in the Australian soaps. It's all about relationships and looking super-confident in floppy hair and designer trainers. Work? That gets done somewhere along the line, between impressing your mates and pulling the wool over your lecturers' eyes. It doesn't do to look too keen. You've got to look and be cool.

But no more. This year, the media studies groups are into education in a big way. Halfway through the first block, they have finally convinced me it is not just a big send-up. They are in deadly earnest. And it's not just media studies. All my classes have become, well, passionate about education.

I find myself being caught up in conversations which could come straight from the pages of a Bildungsroman. Jamie was worried because he had been away from education for four years: "I hated school. I started work on a building site and thought I was great.

"Archie, one of the labourers, told me I was stupid. 'Look at me', he said, 'grubbing about on my hands and knees in the dirt at 60. Is this what you want? See if I'd had your chance of an education? I wouldn't have thrown it away'."

The conversation could have been between Coulter and Thaw in Alasdair Gray's Lanark on the business of being a man. But it was Jamie who was doing the growing up here. "I thought Archie was just old and stupid. But he was right." So Jamie's back. He's over-anxious and trying a bit too hard but he'll settle down.

At the moment he's worried because the rest of the class seem to him to be whiz-kids straight from school. At 20 has he left it too late? Considering my oldest learner this year is 87, I think he has got time on his side.

Teaching in college is always sweet because our learners choose to be there. They choose to come, to learn and, it seems, to enjoy. Perhaps all formal education should be a matter of choice. Author A N Wilson recently offered a solution: schools should be voluntary. Is it any wonder non-bookish children play truant from the self-righteous hell-holes that we force them to attend? It's an interestingly provocative comment.

Tuesdays are school link days, when pupils from neighbouring schools come to do modules. I know because on Tuesdays the corridors are barricaded with pot plants and the 8ft-tall weeping fig takes a notion to travel up and down in the lift all day just for a change.

Phantom button pressers ensure that if you are in a hurry the lift stops on each of the nine floors, just for the view. My media studies students have been caught up in this jolly wheeze and find it not at all amusing. Though they have been out of school and in college for only six weeks, there is a world of difference between them.

What turns naughty schoolkids into reasonably sensible students? A whole complex of conditions, and a little bit of magic, I suppose. The fact that they choose to come to college and choose what they learn is obviously a major part of the answer, but it is not the whole story.

Most full-time classes have to undertake communication modules or units and if you have come to learn dance, beauty therapy or electronics you might not particularly want to do English stuff.

In further education we do see a great many of what A N Wilson has termed non-bookish students, and part of our work is to turn that attitude around. Wanting to learn is the first and most important step. Finding a way to unlock the potential is the second step and the lecturer's main task.

I suppose the secret is that lecturers and learners feel they are in this business together. A partnership, a team,

a marriage - however you label the relationship, passion is a vital ingredient. At the moment, it's in the air in FE. And that makes learning easy.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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