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Take a risk, it's how we learn best

In his three-hour presentation on "the conditions under which we best learn", Roland Barth, founder of the Principals' Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (above) started off by asking us to think of a time in our lives when we learned best.

The overwhelming features of our collective experiences were that we learn best when we take a risk and when there is a safety strap. Barth suggested that schools don't take this approach they play safe.

He argued that schools are information rich, but experience poor. He contrasted this with the philosopher John Dewey's assertion that we learn from our experience if we reflect on our experience.

By collating the audience's reflections upon situations when they learned best, Barth separated them into idiosyncratic and generic conditions for learning: The generic were: learn from mistakes; risk taking; urgency; self reflection; new experiences; emotional investment; support; funhumour; curiosity; challenge; feeling respected; going into the unknown; given a reason for learning.

Barth then asked us to think about how many of these conditions we met in our schools. The answer was predictably few. He suggesed that learning in school could be "informative" (information) or "tranformative" (changes you forever). He encouraged us to go for gold the transformative.

Barth slipped one little nugget in which I liked, but wonder how it might go down in Scotland. One district in the United States issued Permission to Learn cards to teachers and pupils. The card read on one side: "This card entitles the holder to take one risk in their own learning." On the other side, it read: "Today I took a risk it didn't go as well as I had planned, but I learned that... ?"

Would it work in Scotland?

Don Ledingham head of


East Lothian Council

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