A serendipitous derailing

7th November 2008 at 00:00

Kirstin's short story was going great guns until the top of page three, when her hero hit his head on a rock and "started slipping into un-conciseness". It's an unfortunate fate that befalls many of our learners, too, and who is not concerned these days about falling literacy levels? But Kirstin's turn of phrase evinced the brightest lol moment in my stint of marking on a wet and gloomy Sunday.

Yes, I know it's an example of poor spelling, and of how we rely overmuch on spellcheckers, and nobody proofreads anything and how even our best-selling authors can't spell "desiccate" (OK, I admit I had to look it up). But it's a joyous phrase, a serendipitous discovery to be treasured.

Teaching and learning. A fine coupling which goes together like love and marriage, a horse and carriage, and you can't have one without the other. Only you can. Learning is not always the inevitable consequence of teaching. And what will we learn? A skills and competence-based approach to teaching and learning can place both teacher and learner on a set of railway tracks, destination fixed and already anticipated with no serendipitous surprises en route.

There must always be room for discovery, for being sidetracked, for finding new ways of doing things and for encouraging creativity and originality.

It's no accident that our favourite writers performed poorly in their spelling tests. It's likely most of them were taught how to spell by the rote method, by sitting nicely on the train. In writing, they are engaged in finding new ways to say new things, using old and tired words. They're keen on unruly behaviour, wrenching that train off the railway tracks and into new and magical territory.

We are all familiar with the stories of the "Eureka!" moments in science and medicine, and the new benefits discovered accidentally. Where would the world be, for example, without silly putty, cornflakes, chocolate chip cookies or Teflon? But Louis Pasteur himself cautioned that chance favours only the prepared mind. And Isaac Asimov has said that the most exciting phrase in science, and the one which heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" but "that's interesting ...".

In FE, we aim to equip our learners with the tools to lead successful lives in a complex and fast-changing world. How do we best teach? How do our learners best learn? These are big questions but, for the teacher, the answers are usually discovered on a day-to-day basis with the individuals they teach. Who hasn't plucked an activity from the air in desperation when plans have gone awry and found it sets everyone buzzing? Teachers, like writers and scientists, have to find ways of derailing the train occasionally, and they too have to be able to recognise and embrace the serendipitous.

So is Kirstin's fallen hero home scot-free? Well no. The catch is that you also have to recognise the happy accident and to appreciate its worth. Without expertise in his field, Alexander Fleming would never have recognised his discovery of penicillin. So we're back to spelling and literacy and those railway tracks.

But I have learnt one thing. Next time I catch David in my Friday class surfing the web when he should be finishing his assessment, I will not assume he's wasting time - he's engaged in serendipitous learning.

Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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