Extreme learning

What does it mean to be an extreme learner? In my role as a teacher educator I get to observe some interesting lessons. During my time working in post-compulsory education I went to some amazing places and observed some unconventional lessons.

From watching outward-bound and outdoor education teachers while sat in a canoe, or from over the edge of a cliff; standing in surgical greens and mask, watching operating nurses teaching their students while a patient lay unconscious during open heart surgery; observing chefs flambé, footballers kick, hairdressers bleach and bricklayers build; watching one of my students teaching a belly dancing lesson in a garage. You could say I've seen it all! Not quite, but my time doing teaching observations was quite eclectic and in some cases you could say - extreme.

Far more extreme is the high workload some students take on to achieve their goals. Sadly, some students put in minimal effort, and they often fail to achieve their full potential. Others work extremely hard, giving up their sleep and sacrificing their comfort to ensure they secure the best possible outcomes. I see this happening all the time as a university lecturer. But I can only speak authoritatively about my own learning experiences.

While I was studying for my first degree, I knew that the clock was ticking. My job was coming to an end and I knew that I needed a good degree to be able to advance my career in the right direction. I had a young family with three small children at the time, and they were constantly in the back of my mind. So I enrolled on an Open University degree, studying psychology. OU degrees are usually part-time at a distance, completed while students are working and/or caring for others. It's not the easiest route to a degree, but for those with no other option, it's the University of the Second Chance. I decided I was going to complete my degree, part time, in just 3 years. This meant simultaneously completing two full courses each year. I spoke to my tutor, who told me it couldn't be done. Several of my colleagues who had completed OU degrees also advised me it was impossible. Doing an OU degree part-time, while holding down a full-time job (and my evening job teaching 3-4 nights a week at the local college) was not conducive to good health, I was warned.

So I took all their advice into consideration. And I went and did it anyway.

When someone tells me something can't be done, it's in my nature to do it at least once, just to prove them wrong. So I worked all the hours I could, giving up sleep, forgetting to eat, sometimes working around the clock, to manage the huge workload of a part-time degree programme. I was completely out of my comfort zone. And I was enjoying it. I caught up with sleep when I could. I ensured that all my reading was done ahead of time, and that when it came to writing my assignments, I focused completely and utterly on achieving the highest possible grades. I ate, slept and breathed psychology, and probably became a huge bore to all those around me. 'Look, there's that psychology bloke' - people would say, pointing me out (usually while I snoozed standing up in the lunch queue). In its own way, it was extreme learning, and I put my body and mind (and my relationships) through a lot of stress to achieve my goal.

I achieved a first class honours degree in three years from the Open University, and almost immediately walked into an academic (research) post at the university. Extreme, but necessary. I was highly motivated and it paid off. It just goes to show - if you want something badly enough, you'll do almost anything to get it. You can learn anything if you want to. What about your students? What motivates them to extreme learning?

Photo by Laura F on Flickr

Creative Commons License
Extreme learning by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Martin King said…
Having the education system tell me I couldn't do something - I and so many others have had this experience ... luckily it is balanced by a few good teachers but mostly I characterise education as conservative and risk adverse.

We could apply Arthur C Clarke's first two laws to education

Clarke's first law
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Clarke's second law
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

For education "think outside the box" http://goo.gl/sYohvh
mihaela tilinca said…
Couldn't infer the story from the title at first, but then recognised myself in it so much. Could also notice both similarity and some differences in the nature of ‘extremeness’ of our extreme learning experiences but, surely, in both cases, grit and motivation played the essential role. So, an invitation into exploring the motivation of our own students and the ‘benefits’ (or at least the effects) of extreme learning is welcome and productive.
For you extremeness took the form of an unbelievably short and intensive period of initiation into a new discipline, towards acquiring a degree and the dreamed job. For me, the form of a dangerously long and bumpy period towards the same ends (only that I changed jobs while writing the thesis, against all advice). It took me 10 years to accomplish my 2 in 1 doctoral research experience (and degree): from ABC to PhD in a completely new area of study (literacy) and from ABC to PhD in understanding and doing (empirical qualitative) research. I did not want to miss any experience that was on offer, I did not want to miss any resource available for a limited period of time, I found myself lost so many times in the academic maze (a couple of times literally lost in the University Library)...and then it must have been also a sort of ‘Peter Pan syndrome’ in its academic form. However, I think in both our cases, extremeness emerged from us trying to prove to ourselves and to others that we can become genuine professionals even when odds were against.
It is interesting for me to see that my extreme learning experience left me with unconditional love with everything I have learned, learned to do and learned to be in the period of ‘extremeness’ (besides some light form of dyslexia when I type on a keyboard and some burnt circuits with digestive effects). I believe that to us both (and to all those that experience it in a form or another) extreme learning comes with two solid character traits: self-confidence and empathy for other learners.
N.B. Studying at Lancaster University after having graduated in a Philology Department in a Romanian University in a time when we did not do empirical research at all and when there were no MAs to prepare us for doctoral research...finding myself in the role of the disciple learning about and researching literacy with people who are authorities in New Literacy Study, with mentors who were/are Applied Linguists recognised globally, in an academic culture where dialogue and empirical research were/are at heir best, with access to resources I could have not dreamt of, put me under a type of extremeness that almost paralysed me.
Steve Wheeler said…
Ha, love it! Have to remember those next time I'm meeting with *certain* academic colleagues :)
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Mihaela - we do sound as though we have a lot in common, but the most important similarity is grit and determination, true :)

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