February 8, 2024

I was reflecting on the best way to help people learn after a session about maths and English with a young girl who is just starting high school. What were my best learning experiences? I thought back to sitting in my aunt’s kitchen when I was a teenager as she helped me learn to crotchet, to cross stitch, to sew, to bead. I don’t remember feeling frustrated or stupid as she patiently demonstrated each technique and gently corrected my mistakes. Was it because she was so good at each of those techniques that she made it look easy? Was it that she was a kindly soul and so there was never any fear on my part about the consequences of getting things wrong?

When it came to high school, who were my best teachers? Of course, there were the people who were clear conveyors of information. But I think back to a couple of subjects where I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. Both teachers gave me worse marks than I was used to but in one case, the feedback was given in a way that showed me a path to improvement but in the other, I just felt brutalized. The result was that I lost respect for that teacher and any enthusiasm for the subject matter was undermined.

The most boring learning experience I have had was a more recent one. It was TAFE course on teaching which felt somewhat ironic given that I’d been teaching at universities for years. It was meticulously designed to ensure that the same curriculum could be delivered across the country but there was no incentive to do well. The results were either pass or fail. There was no room for imagination. No room for challenge. No room for doing anything more than regurgitating the rules.

Of course, learning is not just about the teachers and the curriculum. It’s about how much we want to understand. It didn’t matter that my French teacher had a degree from the Sorbonne if I was embarrassed by the sound of my pronunciation and didn’t want to open my mouth. It didn’t matter how brilliant my statistics lecturer was if I was distracted by the social life offered by university and  had utterly lost interest in the subject. But in both cases, I had the chance to learn. In a recent article in The Monthly, it was claimed that the adult literacy rate in Tasmania was 50%[1]. What do we need to do to ensure that people are offered the chance to learn?

Part of being a manager is to provide opportunities for people to learn. This can happen through providing formal learning programs but also through the day to day sharing of information, the  provision of skills and the conveyance of values. As I said in The A to Z of Arts Management:

‘Learning should be part of every organisation. As a leader and manager, you should be taking up training opportunities to improve your skills and knowledge. And if that’s true for you, it’s also true for everyone else in the organisation.’

I think back to Auntie Dot and the example she set, sitting around that kitchen table, in creating a positive learning experience for me. Sharing her knowledge. Correcting me kindly. Helping me create. Celebrating my new found skills.

If only all managers were like that.

[1] Feik, N 2024 ‘The rotten core’ The Monthly, February, 33.