An Afternoon on Learning: Lifetimes to Change

An Afternoon on Learning: Lifetimes to Change
“My wife moved with our children to a town outside the village for them to go to school.  She’s strict.  She makes them study hard.”

Majeed was driving me to the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) to attend a session of a three-day event entitled, “Enhancing a Culture of Learning and Teaching”, beginning with a moderated panel discussion. The highlight of the event was a keynote speech by Dr Barbara Ann Oakley on ‘Learning How to Learn’.

Majeed himself dropped out after elementary school.  Later, as a young adult, he realised working with his father tilling the land would not support his wife and four children aged from six months to seven years. He left the village and came to Lahore.  His wife for better educational opportunities for their children also moved but to a town close to the village, where they could afford the rent. His mother joined his young family. 

His brothers have also left the village.  Neither of them completed their schooling.  They needed a job. Every month, Majeed returns to his family for four days to bring them his pay and to catch up on their lives.

“Their mother,” he tells me as he winds his way through the afternoon traffic, “she disciplines them.  She’ll keep them in school.”

His elder son and daughter are doing well, Majeed tells me with pride, and the middle, daughter, his favourite he admits, is just three.  She’ll start school soon.

“I know how to get to LUMS,” he says with confidence as he drives us effortlessly to the sprawling campus.  He drops me off near the athletics building and I find my way around to the Business Department where I’m relieved that I arrived early for the event.

I sit at the back of the room next to an educator from a government institution.  It doesn’t take us long to share our experiences as educators in Pakistan and the United States.

“I used to teach and now I am in administration,” she mentions.  She adds that she’s a guest at the event.

“Yes.  I’m a guest too,” I respond when she asks.

Next to us is a young mother with a stroller.  She has come early with her toddler and is too engrossed in caring for him to engage with us. This might have been his nap time. Like many young mothers, including Majeed’s wife, who is not yet 30, she struggles for balance in life.

In Pakistan, many young parents write off pursuing further education once they become parents despite a lifetime ahead of them.  Majeed too, in his early 30s, has planned to spend the rest of his life as a driver.  His efforts are now focused on his children’s future. His own has been destined.

In the US, and in other countries, parents like Majeed and his wife have benefited from systems like community college with open access to higher and technical education. Academic, age, linguistic, and financial constraints are alleviated or removed through this system. Would young adults like Majeed and his wife benefit from such opportunities? Or would cultural, gender, linguistic, and financial limitations restrict them?

Soon the educator and I begin discussing curriculum policies in higher education in our perspective home countries. We bond over our mutual frustration around curriculum planning guided through policies, not always in the best interest of students.  Policy makers, in general, are far removed from students and practitioners. Policies in Pakistan, she argues, focus on content, standardisation and assessment, rarely promoting learning, innovation, and creativity; curriculum in government institutions, in some subject areas, remains unchanged for decades.

“My father,” quips the educator, “studied the same curriculum that I did, and I received my degree many years ago. And it hasn’t changed since then.”

As we continue our discussion, the auditorium begins to fill remarkably quickly.  The lively conversations in the audience reveal the enthusiasm about the forthcoming presentation on cognitive learning theory with practical implications.

A team of educators from a private institution fills a few rows of the auditorium.  Many are female, symbolic of educational institutions of primary and secondary education worldwide.

Another educational enthusiast sits next to us.  An architect by training, his dissertation re-envisioned educational spaces to support egalitarian education.  He expresses appreciation at this opportunity to learn about learning.

Close by, another specialist on career technical education mentions he is also looking forward to this opportunity to understand current research on learning theory and to find ways to apply it to his field.

The room is soon jam-packed.  People stand in the aisles and in the doorway. Another room is made available with a simulcast of the presentation.

The event commences and silence prevails as a panel of university administrators and a business representative provide their perspectives on education in Pakistan.

The toddler begins to cry.  An administrator reminds everyone that the baby should stay; cell phones should be controlled.

I imagine the young mother’s relief at not having to leave the event despite her crying baby.  It reminds me of my beginnings as an aspiring educator and a mother of small children, trying to stay abreast with the world of education, technology and research, but not wanting to sacrifice time with my children.

The baby settles down and the panel continues discussing the challenges of scale, employability, and the eternal conflict of a liberal arts education versus preparation for the workforce.  How can educators balance the breadth and depth of an education needed to create critically aware citizenry with the skills needed to provide a sustainable income to provide for a family like Majeed’s?

Systems in Norway, China, and Singapore are discussed, but the challenge unique to Pakistan is the exponential population growth over the past few decades.  With a growing percentage of youth, the country has an opportunity to be creative in restructuring its educational system.  However, an astronomical increase in resources will be needed to respond to local needs by customising innovations from other systems in other nations.  

The discussion includes option for more online learning as one way to address this need.  But there is no doubt that parents today are motivated to educate their children to prepare them for the competitive workplace of the future.

The panel discussion is followed by a question and answer session. Inquiries abound about language choice in education, segregation based on academic performance, student-centred education.  Like all well-facilitated discussions, it ends leaving the audience wanting more.

After providing a local context, the keynote speaker, Barbara Ann Oakley, Professor of Engineering, takes the stage. Professor Oakley’s research in STEM, engineering and learning practices in education, has been described as “revolutionary” by The Wall Street Journal. She teaches these concepts in a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Learning How To Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects in which over 1.8 million students have enrolled world-wide, and continues to enlighten students and educators alike.

Her books include Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential, A Guide for Kids and Teens, and A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra).

Professor Oakley’s ease at engaging with the audience is refreshing for an academic.  She is, without doubt, initiating an educational revolution in content as well as style.  Her expertise in learning theory is also based on her own experience of transitioning from a language specialist to a PhD in Electrical Engineering beginning the process in her mid-20s.  Her presentation style reflects her writing style, straightforward and practical.

Using neuroscience to teach students how to learn, she summarises her course in the presentation.  She begins by sharing her own experiences and how she taught herself to learn math in her twenties by “re-wiring” her brain.  Metaphors, she argues, are key to learning, and this is based on the theory of neural reuse, which proposes that a metaphor uses the same neural circuit as the concept it supports.

Then she presents the two modes of thinking that help the brain to learn: “Focused” and “Diffuse”. In the “Focused” phase, learners concentrate on material and in the “Diffuse” phase the brain rests.  This is when connections in the brain can occur.

To help avoid procrastination she recommends the “Pomodoro” technique, 25-minute stretches of intense work followed by a reward like taking a walk or listening to music. And then to ensure deeper learning, she suggests “chunking” information.  A mental collection of well-practiced neural chunks of information can help build expertise, and that’s where the concept of memorisation is beneficial.

And finally, learners need to realize that all learning is personal and each individual should identify what works best for them.

It had been a fulfilling afternoon, with a lot to consider.  As I leave the auditorium, enthused by this information, I wonder how to connect what I had just learned about learning with the task of educating generations of students.  What metaphors would best help understand the problems and the solutions?  What chunks of information need to be understood to build on?  Where should the collective brain be “focused” and when and how can it be “diffused”?  And, most important of all, how can all this learning benefit families like Majeed’s?

As Majeed and I leave the campus, I am interested in his perspective, particularly since his four children are indicative of the larger population that will be educated to support the growth of the nation.

“Would you want your children to learn English?” I ask.

“I haven’t thought of it,” he responds.  The daily challenges he faces are more urgent.  They are of the present. Only after those have been resolved can one luxuriate on theorising and conceptualising.  Despite his job requiring hours of waiting, his thoughts are most likely about the practical aspects of paying bills and the daily challenges of life with a young family. 

After some thought, he says, “They should learn in their own language.”

I ask him whether that would be Urdu or Punjabi and he tells me it is a dialect of Punjabi, and I wonder about the curriculum development and teacher training that would entail.

It’s been a long day and even though it is nearing evening the temperature is still stifling.  We continue home in silence.

Majeed will probably miss his favourite daughter’s first day in school, but I hope he gets to see his youngest say his first word or take his first step.  In the meanwhile, his wife will be steadfast that her four children in their rental home away from the village will receive a college education and avail the opportunities that she and her husband will forgo in this lifetime.

Anniqua Rana is the author of the novel Wild Boar in the Cane Field