Educate Me!

I have been both a teacher and a student. For the past four years or so I have been a student. I have changed courses a few times until I found the right fit for me. I have studied at three different TAFE Colleges and at each I have found the teaching to be excellent. Unfortunately, I seem to keep coming across the same issues among students and since this is my blog and my place to talk about the things that are important to me I thought it’s time to tackle these issues. Even in an adult learning environment there seems to be a misunderstanding of education.

What You Don’t Know?
The first and probably oddest thing in education is that you cannot learn something until you know something.

Think about that for a minute!

You cannot learn something until you know something.

When I first heard of this concept it was like a light dawning in a dark place. I need to know before I learn. The best way to describe this in action is something that happened to all of us. When we were young, very young, we saw and learnt what a bird was. It was a flying thing. Then we see something else that flew like a butterfly and we point and get a quizzical look and say in a stuttering manner bir…bir…bird? We know that birds fly but this isn’t what we know a bird to be. Now we learn that other things fly. Now we learn that there is a thing called a butterfly. Your parent or carer who was with you probably smiled and helped you to learn this new information. That brings me to the ZPD.

The ZPD is a shorthand way of writing the Zone of Proximal Development. This theory is the work of the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. I am a huge fan of the ZPD and to me Vygotsky is almost a god when it comes to educational theory.

What is the ZPD? It is the difference between the known and unknown. Sound confusing? Well it is stuff you are learning and how you are growing from your current knowledge base to the next level up. Again I will go back to what happened in childhood. At school you learn the base word first such as “AT” then once you know that the teacher helps you to learn that it can be added to and changed. So you learn you can place an “M” in front of the word “AT” to form a new word with a new meaning “MAT”. You may have heard the word mat, you maybe able to point to a mat but now you can spell it and it is just a matter of placing a letter you know in front of a word you know. Then you find out about “C”, “H” and “S” so now from the base word of “AT” you can write mat, cat, hat and sat. Then a simple sentence is able to be said and written: On the mat sat the cat in the hat. The unknown becomes the know and again once you know something you can learn something.

The ZPD requires a scaffold. A learning scaffold. A teacher assists the learner to understand using a learning scaffold. This is by first spoon feeding the information. Breaking it down into bite size chunks. The teacher will continually question and as you go to answer will give you hints, clues and prompts until the information becomes learnt. So in the early stages of learning new information when the teacher asks the question they might even give you most of the answer until you fill in the parts you know.

I saw a brilliant display of this last Thursday during my class on Colour Theory. I am study a Diploma of Photography and Photo Imaging. This was our second class and Craig (the teacher) started off by asking refresher questions. Teaching 101. The important point is that as he asked and students went to answer he was giving hints, prompts and clues as they went to answer. No one seemed to notice the scaffold! He supported the learning process. No one felt they couldn’t do it. It was the ZPD in action to perfection.

Going back to my earlier example of the new word of “mat”. The teacher might ask, “in our last lesson we learnt a new word does anyone remember what it was?” As hands go up the teacher might say, “it started with mmmm.” As the student goes to answer the teacher might even start the word with the student.

The process is repeated as mat is transformed into “matter” further along in the learning process.

Now that we know that teachers know more than us on the topics being taught. It is clear that teachers really do know their stuff. Teachers are professionals just like other professionals such as doctors or lawyers. So why are students such complainers? Here I am talking of adult learners. Those who should know better.

I learnt a very valuable lesson from a good friend of mine when I was studying at university. I was getting a pretty inflated ego because I had learnt a few things or at least read a book or two and after a particular lecture was infuriated that the lecturer didn’t have the depth of knowledge that I did on the topic nor did they take into account x, y and z point of view. This friend listened to my rant and then calmly said, “Are you going because you know everything or you want to learn?” WOW! That stopped me in my tracks. “I am a student” I replied but was cut off by “Then be a student, shut up and learn!” One of the most important sentences of my life was just spoken to me.  Then be a student, shut up and learn!

I hear so many student before a class, in the break or after a class complaining about this teacher or that teacher knows nothing. Firstly, everyone knows something. Secondly, they couldn’t be a teacher if they didn’t know the course material. Maybe, just maybe you need to be a student, shut up and learn. Stop the excuses of this teacher doesn’t like me or I don’t like that teacher. This whine will never bring you joy.

This type of complaining can actually stop others from learning. People who may never have had an issue with that teacher may suddenly start to see the flaws you lovingly point out. Be a student, shut up and learn. If you stop someone else from learning then you just became a speed hump on the road to their success.

All singing. All dancing. 
Learning can’t always be a spectacular event. This isn’t Hollywood. Sometimes learning is just sheer hard work and determination. Not every lesson can be all singing and all dancing. Sometimes the shift in the ZPD is huge and needs not only the scaffold along with the hints, prompt and clues it requires effort on the part of the student. Learn is a verb. To learn means doing something. The teacher cannot magically place the knowledge in your brain.

Learning is like walking. None of us may remember the day that we chose to walk. What happened on the day you decided to take your first steps was you moved over to a chair or table. You reached out and took hold of the leg of the table or chair. With great effort you lifted your butt off the floor and got to a really shaky standing position. With a huge smile or a giggle you turned, let go of the furniture, stepped out and then fell hard on your butt. The important point is that the fall didn’t stop you. It was hard to learn to walk but you did it. Why do you think learning anything is easier?

Do The Learning
As I have already said I am doing a Diploma of Photography and the basic tool of photography is a camera. This is a practical course. The doing is important. Unfortunately, I see so many who don’t want to do. Sure, they do the minimum and I often hear “I just need to shoot blah, blah for my assignment”. We get a thing called open access to a fully kitted out studio. In fact there are three fully fitted out studios and if needed a green screen. This is professional grade equipment. People complain they don’t understand the classroom learning because they are not doing the practical stuff. They haven’t put the doing of the verb into action. Oh I hear the excuses… Oh I’m to busy. Oh I have children. Oh I’m married. Oh it’s too cold. Oh it is too hot. Here is a secret! Everytime I walk in the studio I save between $300 and $600! Yep! How? To hire a studio in Sydney will cost $300 for half a day and $600 for a full day. If I want to use a light it is extra. If I want to use a modifier it is extra. If I want to use the kitchen it is extra. I save every time I walk in the studio. I learn every time I walk in the studio. I practice. I attempt. I learn. Some shots take 3 or 4 hours just to set up. To get everything correct doesn’t just happen. I did an image of a quill not long ago and that set up took over 3 hours. Shooting it was easy. I learnt so much in that three hours. Photography is problem solving. I am so happy with the result. Could I set up for a product shoot now. You bet I could!

I go into the studio 2 – 3 times a week. If I take ONLY 36 images each time and I attend TAFE 40 weeks a year means at the end of the year if I only take advantage of the studio twice a week I should have 2880 images! If I do three sessions it is a total of 4320 images! That is by doing a minimal amount of work. 3 different setups per week means at the end of the year I have undertaken 120 scenarios. Talk about being industry ready! I can make it happen or make excuses.

Be a student, shut up and learn!