03 May 2006

On nostalgia

Yesterday I grasped the nettle. I am actually retired, so I went to my first course at the Retirement Education Centre. It is a brilliant initiative in our town, which has now been going for a quarter-century or more (and with which I had occasion to argue twenty years ago).

The REC decided they wanted to add an extension to their building, and sought planning permission for it. In so doing they drew the attention of the local authority to the planning permissions which attached to all the properties in the Square where the REC is located; and it became apparent that the building in which I then worked did not have planning permission for use as a teaching facility. So we had to move out to a temporary building on another campus, where we stayed for nigh-on twenty years. If the REC had never mentioned it, our Social Work Education Centre might still be in that wonderful old Victorian house...

I signed up for a Cambridge University Extension course on epistemology, but I missed the first session last week, unfortunately. We are a group of about sixteen people; I may be the youngest, and the oldest is clearly well into his eighties (I hope I am as acute, when/if I reach that age). We are also, sadly, entirely white and --I suppose almost by definition-- middle class.

However, I got a course outline (two sides of A4) which specified a "syllabus" with "aims" and "content" but no "objectives", a sheet of guidance for the essay (it was already clear that submission of the assessment was primarily to ensure the continued funding of the course by the university, and had little to do with assessment of learning, although one can apparently accumulate credits towards a certificate if so inclined), and a reading list.

The session was around two hours, with a coffee-break. The tutor lectured, with occasional questions and thought experiments directed at us, and occasionally (well, quite regularly) having to field spontaneous questions from "students". He had a white-board, on which he wrote basic propositions, about three times. There were no handouts. There were no transparencies. There was no PowerPoint.

It was brilliant.

I can't wait to go back. This was andragogy at its best. There was absolutely no sense of being patronised; there were no assumptions ("objectives") about what we should "learn"; here was a teacher simply exposing his knowledge so that it might be shared by others, for no reason other than that it is interesting.

It was not about the tutor's technique. (He might of course read this, although it's highly unlikely unless I tell him about it.) He was clear, sometimes pedantically so. Occasionally he put down a contribution from the floor rather flatly, "No, that's incorrect, because..." (And he effectively told me I would have failed the undergraduate module on this because although my answer was right, I did not have the correct reasoning to reach it! Fair enough.) He made no concessions in terms of academic integrity to his audience of old buffers, which was great. I could see ways in which he could have judiciously illustrated some concepts to clarify them. But it was not about technique or tactics.

(I am not just basing my remarks on this one occasion; I have observed my students teaching here for several years.)

It was about "strategy" or really values. The REC's strategy/value base is clearly one of respect for their self-determining learners; they probably have to claim health benefits or something in bids for funding, but it's all run by the members. I know little about their funding streams. Members/students have to pay a subscription and a fee for each course, so they may be a self-financing "club" (which will of course exclude quite a lot of retired people, who have other financial priorities). Clearly the Learning and Skills Council will not be interested, because members have by definition finished "work", in the sense of making an economic contribution.

However; this is what "life-long learning" is really all about, as far as I am concerned. Who knows what people are gaining from it? Who knows how it is affecting the economy? Who knows whether these economically unproductive people who are about to die, will pass on their knowledge to their grandchildren, the workers of the future? Who cares?

Still, the bottom line is that somewhere there are still scholarly learning opportunities for intrinsically motivated learners, which are about liberal education, based on the conviction that it is a Good Thing. Per se. Deontologically.

Long may it continue!

See also the University of the Third Age

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