Taking Agency in Learning

The drone of uniformly delivered content to rows of kids locked into desks is the initiation into formal learning that many of us come from. A system designed to output little industrial cogs who are themselves uniform. This is a system that is unfortunately devoid of passion and builds a habit for learning that places the student in the position of passive absorber while the teacher forces information into them with an archaic set of tools.

When we leave this world of rows and lectures we can find ourselves ill equipped to truly take advantage of the bounty of learning that is available. Suddenly we find ourselves in a place where learning comes in many different forms. Where teachers are often less invested in helping any individual struggling student. Or where the tools of delivery are unfamiliar to us.

I remember as a guitar student I discovered my own learning method quite early. I needed to spend lots of time working on rudimentary chord changes in a repetitive manner. I would sit at home and move back and forth A, C, A , C, A, C, from chord to chord. Simple and repetitive drills were the best for me. Then I encountered a guitar teacher that wanted to teach me something and then jam with it on the fly. This was the opposite of drilling. He would offer something up and then start playing along and I would freeze up. He would then get frustrated that I had appeared to be a good player and yet couldn’t seem to learn. We’d both leave the class dissatisfied. However I would take the song of the day and bring it home and proceed to break it down into the lesson as I needed it. When I returned a week later I’d have truly learned the song and he and I would jam along to it happily and competently. Unfortunately, he’d then throw another song at me and want me to play along with it immediately, leading again to our circle of frustration as teacher and student.

I needed a different manner of delivery than he was offering. I needed space to apply my own drilling method. He needed to open his eyes and truly see me as a collaborator and partner. Yet we were both caught into the grade school hierarchy. He was the teacher so I felt bound by whatever method he had to offer. I was the student, so he felt that his job was to apply his method to me no matter how fruitless.

This is the beauty of adult learning that so few of us (teachers or students) truly realize. As students we are not forced to be in the class environment, we choose to be there. Our teachers are not task masters or drill sergeants, they’re hired agents who themselves are there to deliver knowledge to us on a subject they are hopefully passionate about. It is not a hierarchy, or certainly does not have to be, it is a collaboration where each person has a role. The teacher as expert with information to share. The student as learner, who comes with desire and agency to acquire new knowledge.

In my guitar tutor example, what I could have done was let the teacher know how I need to learn. Work collaboratively with them to help find a system for teaching and learning that worked better for both of us. He was certainly a talented player. Yes, he could have done the same with me, but the point is that in the adult learning environment there is space for either teacher or student to take a leadership role in defining the process.

Group classes never allow for the customization of one-on-one learning but this is where individual learner agency becomes even more important. The more that I can help my students recognize their own learning methods and that I can encourage them and leave room for them to adapt what I’m delivering to their own style and methodology the more information I can transfer and the happier everyone will be.

I remember one day walking around my fencing class and stopping to correct a student. They turned to me and said “I don’t need that kind of correction right now. What I need is this…” I love this kind of comment. This is a comment without hierarchy. This is a student who knows how they learn and what they need and is prepared to ask for it. They acknowledge my role as teacher and help guide me so they can get more as a student!

I am now years away from grade school and my unfortunately frustrating guitar classes. I have had the benefit of being a teacher for many years and that has helped me become a more engaged learner. Now when I take group classes I ask myself: What can I do to learn best here? I allow the teacher to bring what they bring both in their knowledge and their approach, and I seek to bring what I have as an experienced student. Sometimes I ask the teacher for certain types of advice. Sometimes I step out of class for a moment to practice on my own. Sometimes I rework through all the same material in my own way as soon as the class is over. All of these things are how I take my own agency in learning. I know how I learn better than anyone and I see it as my responsibility to bring that knowledge to bear.

How do you learn best? Are you a visual learner, an auditory learner, a kinaesthetic learner? Do you absorb best when you pass information on? Or when you write it down? Or when you have time for extra questions? Does where you stand in a class matter to your ability to absorb? Does taking notes during class help you? Do you know how to help your training partner be an even better partner for you? If you know things about how you learn, start applying them to your classes. If you don’t know how to apply your knowledge of learning, ask your instructor for guidance. If you don’t know how you learn, it’s time to start observing because it’s the most powerful bit of information you could possibly learn about yourself.

Great teachers are a powerful force in our world. So why not start learning to be one? Even if your only student is you.