Keep your engine running
Help stave off the advance of old age by drinking water, eating fruit and reading Bill Lucas, says Tim Brighouse
This is an indispensable guide for anyone who wants to learn and a welcome counterpoint to some of the published dross that assaults us in the name of self-improvement and increasing our learning power. Of course if there were ever a time which deserves the title "the age of learning" - coupled perhaps with "creativity" and "technology" in the strapline - it's the one in which we are living. What happens next is a moot point, just as it was with the "industrial" and "service" ages. The other day I came across one of those banal self-help bestsellers, crammed with slogans and assertion and written by snake-oil sellers for the gullible, which argued that we shall soon be in the Age of Dreams. I hope not, otherwise it would be a final farewell to reason.
No, the main hope of our society lies in education: still a race to be won, as catastrophe breathes noisily at our shoulder. So Bill Lucas's book is welcome. It intriguingly promises to find the key which will unlock one's hidden talents and it is devoted to promoting lifelong learning habits.
Moreover, it is refreshingly non-prescriptive and has a nicely judged interrogative style that helps it to avoid statements of the blindingly obvious and other pitfalls.
Bill Lucas writes with the same passion and commitment that is evident in his speeches and workshops. These are the very qualities that ensured he was picked out (by those with the eyes to see) at the start of his teaching career 25 years ago. He became a deputy head in a comprehensive school before going off to lead - very successfully - two voluntary organisations with unusual purposes: Learning Through Landscapes, which has inspired so many schools to transform their grounds environmentally and spiritually, and the Campaign for Learning.
Now Bill Lucas is a consultant, constantly refreshing his writings and presentations through research and by working alongside practitioners. In short, he practises what this book preaches, winning along the way many admirers and a few badge-of-honour detractors. Chris Woodhead, for example, was predictably outraged by Lucas's advocacy of "learnacy", a skill which, following in the footsteps of the creativity-in-education pioneer Guy Claxton, he argues should be put alongside literacy and numeracy as part of the vital foundation for a fulfilled individual.
And this is a book aimed at the individual. It is well set out and easy to follow and dip into. It starts with a "fun" questionnaire to check one's disposition and habits for lifelong learning, and the whole of the first section of five chapters is devoted to "you as a learner".
The third section provides a simple short starter guide to ideas, techniques and valuable information about learning, akin to a mini encyclopaedia. (It is here that Bill Lucas makes his one slip, renaming the famous educational theorist Jerome Bruner as John.) The book's heart, however, lies in the seven chapters sandwiched in the second and central part. Here are illuminating and practical examples on what the author calls the five "Rs" of "learnacy" -resourcefulness, remembering, resilience, reflectiveness and responsiveness -complemented by two on family learning and learning at work. I confess to being particularly interested in the section on "ageing happily", since I've reached that stage of life where I'm no longer as good at any of the things that I used to be good at. As this is not good for one's self-esteem, I've taken to learning new skills, knowledge and activities in order to have the pleasure of improving on my previous best at something (anything). I was pleased to learn from Bill Lucas's book that this practice is to be commended if only to fend off the accumulating impact of the accelerating death of brain cells; a concept which Lucas believes is not useful to dwell on, being both scary and not very encouraging.
Throughout the volume there are well-signalled "windows" for information and -to my personal delight - a host of useful and witty quotations. The book confirmed my strategy and adds a few helpful hints along the way.
For example, in the section on public speaking he quotes Mark Twain in support of his advocacy of the teacher's well-tried art of storytelling:
"Stories have the magic that make you run into the backyard at night and stare up into infinity to see what's there." The book is worth buying for this quotation alone. It aims for a broad audience, well beyond the usual suspects in the education system, for it offers much to most people. While the target audience is the individual learner, I hope it will appeal to teachers whose prime responsibility is to provide to their pupils an example of being learners themselves. They will find it a useful aid to extending their repertoire of techniques.
But that brings me to my one reservation. Lucas is so focused on individual learning that he doesn't fully explore the implications for practice in schools, organisations or society as a whole, which would make it easier for individuals to be lifelong learners. He covers this ground briefly with regard to the workplace but does not address the school, where it is my belief the habits of lifelong learning are established or lost. Until that book is written -and Bill Lucas has the insight, experiences and style to write it - the benefits of lifelong learning will elude those living in challenging circumstances. I'd better stop now and drink some water, eat some fruit and look for that elusive talent which will stave off the further advances of old age.
Tim Brighouse is chief adviser for London schools