Mess, stings and untidy endings

Rob Husband and Andy Howie encourage us to take a child’s approach to learning

We are in our fifth (Rob) and sixth (Andy) decades of life, and we have been learning all along. Our first two decades were our most intensive period of learning. We learnt to walk, to talk, to feed ourselves, to read and write and add up numbers. We learnt that people sometimes do good things and sometimes bad. We discovered that hearts can be broken, egos bruised and dreams shattered. We acquired knowledge of where places are in the world, what happened in the past and who wrote what books. We found out what freedom feels like and how many fun things there are in life. And we began the lifelong process of understanding ourselves.

In the decades that have followed, our rate of learning has slowed rapidly. It is not that we have ever stopped absorbing information, acquiring skills and understanding a bit more, but it is just that our heyday of learning passed in our tender twenties and we moved on from being primarily students and trainees to adopting roles as teachers and facilitators.

It is a natural course of events, you could argue. We all spend the first quarter of life learning things and the remaining three quarters forgetting it all! But joking aside, what does happen to our ability to learn as we age? Why do we seem unable to maintain our childhood propensity to learn?

The anthropologist, Margaret Mead, in saying “It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age”1 seems to suggest that such a pattern of life is not inevitable; it is a choice. Is she right?

For many years we have been helping people learn – focusing on relationships and communication – at the same time as continuing to learn ourselves. We have an increasing sense that the traditional ways in which adults are expected to learn through workplace training are perhaps not the most effective and that the human race’s most prolific learners – children – have much to teach us.

They don’t really want us to be creative

During the programmes we run, we have found that we often get responses from people that are really saying ‘tell me’, ‘show me how to do it’ or ‘solve it for me’. In other words, people want answers. Perhaps this is what they have come to expect from workplace training. A typical brief, set by a commissioning organisation for a training provider, is clearly defined with what it expects its people to learn through the training and what they will be like in their jobs as a result. Organisations say they want to encourage problem solving and creativity but, in practice, this often clashes with other, more dominant, organisational values. Creativity and problem solving are, perhaps unconsciously, inhibited and constrained.

During a recent commercial awareness programme we delivered, we encouraged the participants to think creatively and imagine new possibilities of creating income. They responded to this freedom with an initial burst of energy, but they struggled to stay with it and see it through. We heard people say things like ‘they don’t really want us to be creative’ and ‘we are too bureaucratic for this’. Such statements made us believe that the people in the room had been conditioned by forces within their business not to think creatively and, as a result, had fostered a belief that this is how my organisation is, how working life is and, perhaps, even how the world is.

No splashing in puddles

It is maybe this conditioning that results in us, as adults, often being fearful that we will not learn unless we are constrained. We may begin a process in our workplace training, but if things are getting too messy or we deviate off topic we are wrenched back to the plan by the facilitator, rather than being allowed to roam. Leaving the scheduled agenda can cause us, at best, some discomfort and, at worst, panic! But in denying a freedom to explore whatever emerges we are effectively creating no-go areas. This may mean that we get our boxes ticked in respect of subjects covered or outcomes achieved, but is it really the best way to encourage deep and long lasting learning? Would it not be like giving a child a pair of wellington boots, taking them out in the rain but stopping them from splashing in puddles? Where, in our workplace training, is the space for inhibitions to be shed and curiosity and wonder to be our only guides? Would our learning be much more enduring if we resisted the temptation to tie up all the loose ends and simply let whatever happens happen?

In their book Riding The Blue Train2, Bart Sayle and Surinder Kumar admire the unconstrained way in which a young child learns and have called it ‘Magical Thinking’:

‘At birth, a child goes from the sheltered existence of the womb into the sensory richness of the world. She arrives ready to take everything in, her mind driven by curiosity and wonder. …The child’s work is to play and, as she plays, imagines and fantasises, she does all of it in an optimal learning state.’

They set out a convincing argument that leaders of organisations should promote a culture of ‘thinking the way a child thinks, believing anything is possible, and asking, “why not?”’

A playful experiment

In an attempt to regain some of the purity of our childhood curiosity and wonder, and understand how it can help us to reach ‘an optimal learning state’, we decided to conduct a playful experiment – one in which we tried to think in the magical way a child would. One morning, we set off on a walk together with no purpose or constraint, no errand to run, no fixed distance to cover and no eye on the clock. We ambled along past a pond, but realised that no child would pass a pond without stopping, and so we paused. A group of ducks swam over to us en masse and our initial thought was that they wanted food, but with our childhood heads on we revised that judgment and instead concluded that they were just friendly ducks. Rob decided to venture off the main path and make his way around to the far side of the pond, just for the sake of exploration and, ignoring Andy’s warnings that he might sink, Rob waded through the mud. The pond looked different from the opposite side and it was thrilling to be in what felt like a secret place.

Andy decided to head in a different direction and a digger in a field caught his eye, so he went to take a closer look. The size and brightness of the machine drew him in – the caterpillar tracks were particularly impressive – but when he got closer it was something else that absorbed his attention. In the barrenness of a winter hedgerow he saw some yellow gorse and then some leaves which had blown into and caught on the gorse. It began to feel like being in a cascade of noticing, seeing details more clearly and quickly moving from one thing to another without feeling it necessary to dwell on anything for too long.

We linked back up again and headed for a nearby nature reserve. At the gated entrance there were various signs, which we stopped to read – ‘Beware! Shallow water’, ‘Children must be accompanied by an adult’, ‘Some plants sting or prickle’ – but they didn’t put us off and we bravely ventured in anyway. We were not concerned about a few stings.

We eventually returned home a little dishevelled and with muddy shoes, but content with our morning’s activities. But what did we learn?

We learnt that stopping can present opportunities for new experiences, that leaving the path set out for us can help us to see things in different ways, that following something which has grabbed our immediate attention can lead us to a completely different destination and that mess, stings and untidy endings are not necessarily bad things. It was a lot from only one morning’s fun! It felt like time well spent.

Helping others to learn like children

Our playful experiment has reinforced our conviction that the conventional methods of workplace learning are not always the most effective. So what could we do differently as facilitators, trainers and teachers to be more effective in supporting people to learn and develop? How can we help others to rediscover their childhood habit of learning which was driven so strongly by curiosity and wonder?

Four principles we apply to our own practice, which we believe help us to lead others in regaining the childlike inquisitiveness and openness which can result in deeper learning, are:

Work with the person

Children don’t give themselves permanent labels. Children are simply who they are, and they are all artists, musicians, inventors, dancers and writers. Adults in workplaces do have labels, but through training we make it our practice to work with the person inside the manager, teacher and employee. We encourage people to break free of the constraints their job titles place on them and allow them to share and express more of their interests, passions, experiences and concerns – not just work-related ones.

Play alongside

An exhibition of the work of the photographer, Ansel Adams included this statement of how his relationship with a friend, Sieg, had helped him:

‘…Sieg did not so much influence me, more being around him helped me to reveal more of me to myself’.

When we play alongside a child, resisting the temptation to interfere with what they are doing – instead simply questioning and non-judgmental commenting – it can be a much richer experience. We have realised that, as facilitators, we don’t always have to be doing and leading; sometimes we can just be with others as they play and explore.

Take risks

When children learn to walk it is not all plain sailing. They wobble and fall, hurt themselves and suffer crises of confidence, but nearly all keep on trying and make it in the end. To the child, it must feel like a risky process, especially those first tentative steps. The learning process is messy, there are ups and downs along the way, and it can take longer for some than others.

We can manipulate the outcomes of the programmes we run by controlling the agenda but if we take some risks, allow experimentation and permit learning to occur through experience, the impact is likely to be much deeper. The author and poet, David Whyte, said that ‘Without the fiery embrace of everything from which we demand immunity, including depression and failure, the personality continues to seek power over life rather than power through the experience of life.’3 We are trying to help people learn by offering them freedom to explore their experience of life rather than constraining them with the planned content of our programmes.

Have fun

It is natural for a child to have fun and do things simply because they know they will enjoy the experience. Pleasure-seeking is not an embarrassment to them, and they don’t feel guilty about time that could have been better spent. They don’t separate learning activities from play, they learn through play. Albert Camus, the French philosopher, novelist and goalkeeper, is famously quoted as saying: ‘All that I know most surely about morality and the obligations of man, I owe to football.’ Play is a rich seam of learning, and we find that restricting the fun in the classroom to an ice-breaker activity as a pre-cursor to the serious business is a waste of a powerful training technique.

We have learnt much from our experiment in thinking like a child, and we are convinced that we need to continue to nurture the attributes of curiosity and wonder in our own lives, as well as encouraging them in others.

As we draw to the close of writing this article, we find ourselves searching for an orderly way to sum it all up, a neat summary, an insightful sentence of conclusion. But, let’s be honest, children wouldn’t conclude an experience in that way. They are comfortable with untidy endings, confusing finishes, adventures trailing off into the unknown… so we’ll just leave it there!

A fully referenced version of this article is available on request.


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