Deep Learning: Freedom, Responsibility & Questions

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What does it mean to learn and how do you create a space most suitable for it?

I have been active in the educational field for seven years, working with teenagers as well as adults, in obligatory school as well as voluntary workshop settings. Sometimes teaching german grammar, sometimes piano, sometimes personal development, sometimes dance, and sometimes entrepreneurship and innovation.

What I have found from my experiences is how essential freedom is to deep learning, i.e. learning that is grounded and integrated. The freedom to figure things out for oneself; the freedom to explore and hit dead ends; the freedom to make mistakes and create one’s own definition of success. It’s a learning you feel, you breathe, you fully immerse yourself into and experience so hands on that you cannot help but learn from it.

Freedom not only makes space for unique learning experiences, which is elemental enough — every human experience is unique to the human experiencing it. That’s as true for everyday experiences as it is for learning experiences — but just as important is the fact that with freedom comes responsibility.

Creating a sense of responsibility for the learning process in the learners themselves is a much greater motivator than any exterior forcing or grade will ever be. If you manage to create an inner urge to learn, the learning outcome will be that much greater. The goal is to turn the learner into their own authority and evoke a sense of leadership in them. This will not only empower them in the learning situation they are currently in, but will empower them for the rest of their lives.

So, how do you do this?

First of all, it is crucial to accept that most learners struggle with confidence and harmful ideas of right and wrong. How often haven’t I been asked: But how is it supposed to look? (the way that seems right to you!) Do you think this is the correct way? (there isn’t such a thing as the correct way) Do you have an example? (sure, but it will block your creativity, so I’m not going to show you). They expect the answer to lie outside of them, but really if it’s something that really matters, it’s all inside of them (otherwise it’s probably only a quick google search away).

It will take some time to give them the confidence to believe in their own ways of doing things. Praise out-of-the-box thinking and creativity. Take all ideas seriously and support the process of exploring them. Yes, not all ideas are sensible and will prosper, but it is much more instructional for the learners to figure that out for themselves than to get a dismissive response right at the get-go. That only strengthens the right-or-wrong belief system so harmful to all of us.

Second of all, learning is so rarely about the answers and so often about the questions. Answers are fragile; Questions are resilient. Answers demand a certain context to be relevant. What might be true one moment, will be inadequate the next moment. Questions, however, open up for exploration and reflection. Questions are timeless and welcome individuality.

For that reason I don’t care that much about the answers themselves. From the viewpoint of understanding the person giving the answer, they are very valuable of course, but the answers themselves don’t mean that much to me, in the sense of: It might be true to you, but I will need to explore that question myself to get an answer that’s true to me — yet, very interesting that you answer this question like that right now. Please note the right now in that example. As we and our context changes, so do our answers, making them nothing more than a snapshot of “ the truth”.

That’s why I love teaching through questions, sometimes even without ever hearing the answers. Teaching through questions teaches learners to think critically and for themselves, to reflect and to stay curious. It takes away fear and tunes them into themselves. The learning process suddenly becomes an act of creativity and self-reflection.

A wise man once said:

the only thing I know is that I know nothing – Sokrates

and I think is exactly what he meant: Let’s explore and keep exploring by using questions as our most powerful tool and our curiosity as our greatest fuel. Let’s acknowledge that life is a mystery and have fun exploring every inch of it. Let’s not take any answer for an answer — not in the long run anyway.

That’s learning for me: The willingness to explore, the action of thinking for yourself, and the openness to trust your own way, with all its ups and downs. Freedom is the way, responsibility the motivator, and questions the tool.

Passionate imperfectionist, life artist, human.

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