My Learning (and Teaching) Philosophy – aka the Zen of learning from experience

This post is based on the first homework I have had to do in a very long time: prepare for an introductory class on Teaching at Northumbria University.

In a nutshell, my view on learning and teaching boils down to learning from experience. It can be more difficult than it first seems, because pride and fear of failure are big obstacles.

Learning (and teaching) are iterative processes. Photo: Concentric Circles by Nagarjun Kandukuru, on Flickr, Generic Creative Commons Attribution.

The Teacher within

Learning and teaching are about letting intelligence emerge in a collaborative and reflexive way. As a total novice with next-to-no experience in teaching, I believe learning and teaching only happen together. To teach others is about showing others the teacher that lies within. Conversely, to learn from others is about enable others to learn how to effectively share knowledge with us. Just as the answer lies dormant within the question itself, I believe that, ultimately, knowledge is not be found somewhere ”out there”, it is not really created or even acquired. Learning is more about creating favourable conditions to allow knowledge to emerge. Awareness and mindset are key.

We know as we are

”We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” (Anaïs Nin).

Learning about oneself goes hand in hand with learning about the world. Being able to learn requires observing how one’s emotions, physical health, thoughts, and sensory perceptions can either support or hinder our goals and aspirations. For example, I see that impatience, self-criticism and perfectionism have repeatedly prevented me from learning as well as teaching or sharing constructively. Learning about social and emotional intelligence (e.g. Daniel Goleman), mindfulness (e.g. Kirstin Neff, Rick Hanson), and deep work / deep focus (Cal Newport) is as important as actual subject matters. This applies to all learning and teaching situations, whether in formal education, organisations, social groups or families. As humans, our propensity to learn and share our knowledge with others is connected to nearly every other aspect of our lives. As learners/teachers, we are also children, parents, spouses, colleagues, believers, consumers, etc.

Do, step back, and repeat

I am strong believer in ”learning by doing”. We need more opportunities to carry out participatory action research and hands-on learning at all stages of one’s lifelong education. Applying knowledge to make something tangible or contribute positively to the world are great learning incentives and outputs. Think internships, team work, role-playing, making objects, serious games, backcasting and collaborative problem-solving. Intuition, creative exploration, imagination, and aspiration can all guide learning in powerful ways. Learning can and should be fun. ”Fun” is sometimes treated very seriously in fields such as Human Computer Interaction (e.g. Picard’s ”Funology”). Questioning taken-for-granted knowledge and playing the devil’s advocate are exercises in flexibility, deep learning as well as empathy. Hammering in information is not effective. Knowing when to forget allows for memory to sink in properly. Reviewing before bedtime the events or lessons of the day is also helpful.

Learning takes practice, sweat, aspiration, and rejoycing in one’s fantastic capacity to make mistakes, again and again, almost ad infinitum, until habits become second nature. Feedback must encourage failure. I fail, therefore I learn! As Scottish author Samuel Smiles put it in his day (see Brainyquotes):

We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.

If you find Samuel Smiles was too much of a liberal or (pseudo)conservative, you can also consult Richard Branson, a very successful businessman among others (see Brainyquotes):

You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over

Experience is the only real knowledge there is. Like a tree, experience takes time to grow, which means ample time for reflection and listening to the wind for answers (ask Bob Dylan). Learning is a lifelong journey, because life is all about learning from experience.

Find your mentors

A charismatic or engaging teacher is helpful. Having role can encourage one to develop some of their qualities. Mentors can play a very important role in bridging the gap between one’s current capacity and the advanced capacity of identified role models.

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Cartoon by Brad Fitzpatrick and Chris Pirillo, 2006. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Attribution. Source link:


A Haiku for efficiency, and Have a good day

How to be efficient at learning? Lessons on how to be more productive and efficient apply to all areas in life, including learning. In her book How to Have a Good Day, Caroline Webb cites an anonymous haiku that was posted on Twitter some years ago, entitled “Productivity in 11 words”:

One thing at a time, most important things first, start now

This means: 1) dumping multi-tasking 2) knowing your priorities 3) not waiting to be perfect to start (since only practice makes perfect).

Samuel Smiles likewise recommended (see Brainyquotes):

The shortest way to do many things is to do only one thing at once.

Have a good day!


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