Who packed your head?

When I finished my degree with the Open University in May, I decided that as soon as I got my final result – and if I passed – I would write about studying with the OU.

My result arrived at the end of July but I realised I didn’t know what to write, or – more to the point – what not to write. It’s been an on and off experience that started twelve years ago with the last three years being the most intense so there’s a danger of a lot of back story. I sat down and started to write something two weeks ago, but it became a rather dull account of the courses I’d taken, and as I was writing it I was saying to myself, ‘No, this isn’t it. This is crap.’

I don’t want to jump up and down yelling, ‘I’ve got an honours degree!’ I never began adult learning to get a degree and I’m glad I didn’t take that approach. I took courses because I wanted to know stuff and I wanted to use my brain. I became addicted to opening my head and tweaking with the wiring. The degree has been a bonus – which has arrived just at a time when I can’t afford to take any more courses (now called modules).

There are points I want to make about learning and thinking; about the connections between learning and society, and about how less statistical, less mechanical-based learning and a bigger focus on discussions, ideas and theories might not only make us more curious and open-minded but might also make us better and more useful members of society ready to consider new ideas and with the skills to challenge things.

Of course there are facts, of course there are statistics, of course there are rules in any field, but I think they should all come with a zipper like a luggage bag that we can open up in order to challenge the contents and ask who put them there. And, I think most importantly, that this “Did you pack your bag yourself?” type question should apply to our own brains too. We need to examine what’s in our own heads: Did you pack your own brain? Did you look at what went into it and why? Do you know what’s in there and who put it in there? Is it all stuff that you need and is useful to you? I see you have the times tables and periodic tables in there – is that really going to be useful to you where you’re going? And your holiday reading: ‘Exact and Accurate Facts About the Romans: you’d better believe it.’ by Professor Pompous N. Narrow-minded – Hmmm… are you sure you wouldn’t prefer ‘How to Make an Interesting Picture of Roman Life Through Archaeological Finds’ by Many and Various?

School seems to have tried (pretty unsuccessfully) to teach me who did what and when, what happens when you mix this with that, how to sit quietly, how to obey rules. How not to think for myself… I didn’t see the point of carrying on with this kind of education and I still don’t find it very useful.
I remember sitting in a physics lesson and the teacher telling the class “this does that” and “that does this” and me thinking, ‘Why…? Why though?!?’
In history lessons, we were told, “So and so did this”, “another person said that”, “the people thought something else.” ‘But, how do you know?’ I thought. ‘You’ve only given me one person’s word for this.’ And as for telling me we know that God and Jesus said and did things based on some books that a bunch of blokes wrote down years later…! Well…

Other people seemed to accept the “facts”, the rules, the processes as sets of information to be memorised and regurgitated. They repeated them in tests, they scored the points. I didn’t learn like that. I don’t learn like that. I needed a point, a reason; proof of how we know something and how it might be useful. I want to see things working, being applied to life, otherwise what’s the point?

I don’t mind uncertainty, experts having different opinions, and having to weigh up a rough probability based on different evidences. I wish I could go back in time and try this approach on the young Rachel. Would she have responded differently? I know that when our youngest comes home from her Church of England primary school telling me that God did this and Jesus did that I want to shake her and say, ‘Question your sources! Don’t accept things just because that’s what the person telling you believes! Your beliefs should be a result of looking at all sides of things.’

Some people’s studying always has an end goal by choice or by financial/career necessity. But having an end goal, studying for that one purpose, concentrating on what it takes to pass, managing to stick with that, achieving that and getting the desired job that requires that set of knowledge doesn’t fit with the way my mind works. It doesn’t fit with my idea of educating people for life.

What I’ve found through studying many and varied courses with the OU is how to take a good look inside my own brain. It’s taught me to think about what I think and why, what I want to know and why, and how new knowledge from many different academics in many different fields has helped me not only to see that learning is not the same as facts, but that being anxious about memorising stuff was seriously hindering my learning process.

I don’t think I would have come to the place I am today if it wasn’t for the Open University. Where else can you chop and change course like that, have many many interests like that, obtain a degree that’s in not one, not two, not three but several different areas like that? How else can you improve yourself like that without even leaving your house, fit everything around family and work, and send assignments sitting up in bed at midnight? I’ve realised that I don’t come easily packaged, I don’t want to shine in one area, I am happy to be a jack of all trades – easily distracted by something I haven’t tried before. I am a human being first and foremost. An imperfect, curious, questioning, open-eyed, open-minded person. I’ve learnt to question myself, and challenge my intolerances (most of which I had no right to have) and preconceptions. I’ve learnt that poetry is not actually scary or that difficult! I’ve learnt that statistics are a feeble way of trying to prove an argument, and I’ve learnt that people can’t be trusted and yet people can be trusted. I’ve learnt that having a degree is not necessarily the same as knowing loads of things or the same as being a good learner.

I think it’s really important not to plonk ourselves in one field in life: to only look at things from one perspective. I think it’s important to see thinking and information as unfixed, as fluid, as never-ending.
I studied technology, social sciences, the arts, psychology, health and social care, literature, creative writing, and in my daily life I am interested in music, in writing, in taking photographs, how the news is reported, how we are affected by TV and media. I’ve seen how philosophy runs through all of these things: how we think the way we do, why we live the way we do, and most importantly how we must observe ourselves and all of humankind and discuss these things.

Many times over the last 2 weeks whilst thinking about writing this piece, I’ve thought how things I’ve heard or seen apply to what I want to say here. That just goes to show really how important learning and keeping learning, how thinking and discussing and challenging must be available to all and must be encouraged.

We can’t just rely on packing our brains with preconceptions, or unchallenged information delivered mechanically.

We need to know ourselves to improve ourselves.

I’m proud of myself. Very proud that I’ve looked inside my head and allowed it to be challenged, tweaked, added to and, for the purposes of being a life-long learner, I’ve had a zipper fitted.

I’m glad I’ve got a degree but above all I’m glad I improved my way of looking at things. I KNOW it has made me older, fatter, messier, untidier, frustrated, cynical… a much better person.

10 thoughts on “Who packed your head?

  1. It’s all horses for courses, isn’t it? I am so glad that there are people who set out with an aim and a goal of what they want to do – doctors, nurses, dentists, maybe even lawyers. It doesn’t suit me either. I studied all sorts of things at Uni – the benefit of a Scottish education – and feel I am a broader, more informed person for it.
    You know what saddens me? That I’m going to die without knowing all the other stuff that’s outside my brain. The universe, it’s a bit bigger than my brain and I can’t fit it all in 😦

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    • Yes, I have that problem of wanting to know about everything. It makes it difficult to focus on anything for long.
      And I agree: it’s a good thing that some people are able to set their sights on a valuable profession. I had a good friend at school who was determined to be a doctor and didn’t waiver from her chosen path. She worked very hard at school. I was one of those who wondered why I had to be making decisions about my adult life in childhood, and I still find it difficult to say what my plans are and stick with them

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  2. I think a lot of people are left behind in school because they don’t know why they’re studying and the idea of learning just to advance a career has never held with me either although I was good at absorbing facts and regurgitating them under exam conditions. I did a Physics degree but towards the end struggled to understand the point of some of the courses and didn’t get as much out of it as I should have.
    I think the OU offers something different to people that education passed by on the first lap and is something we ought to admire and protect.

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    • I totally agree with you Pete. What a shame the OU has put its fees up and no longer has the government support it once had to make it “Open”.
      There is a terrible one-size-fits-all (- only it doesn’t, it only fits those that it fits!) approach to learning in mainstream education. And I think the present government (- I use the term loosely!) are compounding this. They are trying to define success in a way which will create a two-tier system of achievers and non-achievers within a narrow definition of the word “achievement” that involves aiming for places at elite universities and obtaining prestigious jobs.
      Until testing I was doing very well at school. I was always in the top sets for everything. I seemed to pick things up very quickly. It was frustrating that I could absorb information but didn’t have a very good storage facility and passing exams seemed all about memorising stuff. I felt constantly anxious and this was debilitating. And when things become geared to passing exams and tests as part of a series of stepping stones it becomes boring and perhaps risks stilting the curiosity that makes some of us want to learn.

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