Just try thinking about the blackbird in the hedge;FE Focus

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
MY NIECE Emily had been following the progress of the fledgling blackbirds in the laurel hedge. "How are they doing today?" I asked her, expecting an enthusiastic update.

She shrugged. "Cat got 'em," she said flippantly, in what I discovered later was perfect mimicry of next door's roofer who, all grown up, probably hadn't thought about sparing her feelings.

Maybe not, I suggested. Maybe the cat wasn't to blame. Maybe they had been old enough to fly away. My suggestions fell on deaf ears as she marched off to jab with solitary concentration in the sandpit with her spade.

Ten minutes later she was back. "Let's talk some more about the little birds," she said, with all the care of a summit negotiator. This pattern of interaction was repeated several times, discussion followed by quiet introspection, as she carefully collated the information available and weighed up the contradictions. Learning can be hard work at three.

That is the ideal pattern for learning, though. Learning when you want to learn, a bit at a time, having time to consider and to consolidate. "Lifelong learning" may be buzzwords at the moment, but it is a culture that is intrinsic to further education - learning when you want to learn, what you want to learn and at the pace that suits you best.

Three of my mature students admitted to being technophobes but desperately wanted to master word-processing because they thought it would help them with my course. They've signed up to "Computing for the Terrified" and can't quite believe their daring. Retired? Not from learning they're not.

At the other end of the age scale, Ryan achieved his Communication 3 module after a history of disasters at school. "Yes! Yes!" he shouted, punching his arms in the air. "I can enjoy the summer now." He was genuinely delighted. He is coming back for a Higher National Certificate. Who knows what he will achieve in the future - HNC, BA - whatever heights he scales, or however long he takes, he has had a taste of success that is hopefully addictive.

When I go into neighbourhood resource centres to deliver courses, I meet people who are lifelong learning junkies. Louisa, silver-haired and with a penchant for Black Watch tartan, is part of a group of people who prepare community newspapers and their ages range from 18 to 78. They are all regular learners, enthusiastically using the resources provided in their neighbourhood and discovering that the more they learn, the more there is to learn.

Louisa's centre is organising a trip to Paris. "So I'm learning French," she said. "I go to conversational French on a Wednesday and my daughter bought me an early learning pack - it's got little cards with the days of the week on them - it's really for kiddies," she confided, "but it's getting me started."

Delivering a course to a group like this is a bit like talking to Emily. We go at the pace they dictate, and they take time to talk about their own experiences. Sometimes, too, there are other urgent matters to discuss. Last week, tea was to be provided after a meeting, and Tony's Fish Bar was offering a special deal for orders over 10. "Is that limited to fish suppers, though?" Frank wanted to know. "Or does that include pudding suppers?" Learning here is a social thing, woven into the fabric of day-to-day lives, and that's fine by me. I know all about Sharon's problems with her contact lenses, and how Louisa's grandsons in Lewis betray their reluctance to be hauled in from a game of football to talk to granny on the phone - and I hope they know a wee bit too about how to organise themselves to get a good story from an interview. I learn from them, and they learn from me - that's fair, I think.

The culture of lifelong learning means that one day you may be the tutor and the next you may be the learner. I have just finished learning Quark Xpress. It's been great fun and updates my skills.

My tutor builds on what I know, doesn't try to push me too hard. If I want to go off and dig in the sandpit for a while that's fine by him. He's pretty good, in fact. So he should be. He was a student of mine eight years ago.

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

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