Monday, October 29, 2012

How We Learn

How do we learn?

That is the question that has been on my mind of late. We are trying to educate over 1,000 children in Sierra Leone and we are now at the point where we are really seeing just how well we have been doing – kids are sitting secondary school leaver exams. We are learning lessons all the time and I am determined for us to be a group of people who take our knocks and celebrate our successes but above all else learn from every experience. 

Learn. Develop. Improve. And learn some more.

Recently our Education Specialist and I, along with various other members of staff, have been seeking to learn from the experiences of others and it has been a thoroughly thought provoking exercise. One thing has been clear – everyone we talk to struggles with many of the same things that we do. They share many of the same frustrations and, while everyone is approaching things in their own ways, they have yet to find any silver bullets either. Another thing is clear – there are some exceptional people working in the area of education in Sierra Leone, both national and international people of knowledge, experience and above all else, devotion. Conversations with these people are edged with a sense of potential that sends the slight hint of a tingle up my spine. The Irish Catholic Sister who has been here for more years than I have been alive and shares from those experiences with generosity, honesty and humour. The Sierra Leonean teacher trainer who responds to questions by sitting forward and pointing at you with a smile and a widening of his eyes as if this was exactly the thing he was hoping you would ask. The American non-profit founder with the quirky, slightly bohemian sensibility and the ability to see genuine successes and progress where others might be too near-sighted to find anything other than disappointment. Our own Education Specialist whose slender frame and patient, polite demeanour seem to stand in contrast to the tenacious love and ferocious determination that underpin the steadfast endurance of her service to our children.

Another thread woven in to each of our conversations has been that there are many things which, be they systemic, cultural or otherwise, would seek to impede us and cause us to despair. How then have these people with greater experience than I managed to keep going? When I first met our Irish Sister, she shared the story of a priest who had served here for a lifetime - “some really great work” was her summary. On his deathbed he had expressed his disappointment that, though he was unsure of what they were, he felt that mistakes must have been made because he did not see that things had gotten any better. When asked how she managed to stay clear of the emotions of the jaded, she smiled. Someone else in the room suggested, “The Spirit of the Most High God” and she smiled again. “I hope that that is part of it, yes”, she commented. But she then continued with a particularly honest earthiness I have seen in a number of Catholic leaders saying, “Although when I am in a bad mood that can sometimes go out the window!” She collected her thoughts for a second before turning to me and answering, “It’s the children.”

And so I come back to the original question and the question that automatically follows. How do we learn? And, that being the case, how can we help the children? Our schools are focusing on improving the way we teach English and I have been involved in extra lessons for our older students we are calling “English Club”. I have been learning a great deal from our Education Specialist and another Education Consultant currently serving with us as well as these many other conversations and experiences with students about the structures of a language I always just “knew” and never had to really “learn”. And how do you succeed in building critical thinking skills in others? Anyone who has seen a Sierra Leonean jerry-rigg a vehicle or a generator with a piece of a t-shirt and the hammering of a rock knows that problem solving skills are present but to truly think critically, reflectively, our students need a lot of development. It’s fascinating thinking about how to impart such knowledge and skills on to others, a task which comes with a burden of responsibility that weighs heavily. But we are learning a lot about how to proceed. 

Learning. Developing. Improving. And then learning some more. 

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