Experiencing an unusual sense of writers block on the train this morning, i looked out of the window and caught the most wonderful view. The train takes me through the New Forest and today, thanks to an early meeting, I headed through at sunrise. The view was of a wide open heathland, dotted with ancient oaks, heather and tussocks of grass. The whole scene was dusted with a heavy frost as the sun burnt through the thin haze in a display of reds, oranges and gold. There were also a dozen of the wild ponies that live here clustered around the river. All in all, there are worse things to be staring at before your first coffee.
I had been intending to write about virtual mentoring but, contemplating the view, i decided to focus on the real world instead. We learn a great deal online and, of necessity, my thoughts are often bound up in the digital realm, but my other love is the great outdoors, getting away from everything and everyone, and it’s an environment that teaches me every bit as much.
Reflection is often the thing that we miss out when designing learning experiences, but when you’re staring out of a window or, better still, walking through the forest, it’s something that you can indulge in. Reflection is not day dreaming (although that is a perfectly satisfactory pastime too), but rather the process of aligning what we learn with what we know. It’s the process of modifying our worldview, of deciding if we agree with something or not, of deciding if we want to change what we think. The process of learning.
Virtual environments are great for communicating, for finding things our, for interacting with people, even for testing skills and exploring, but they are not always good spaces for reflection. Staring at a keyboard and screen, even a screen as cool as the one on my iPad, closes us into a small world, whilst it broadens our horizons, it can narrow our perspective. It’s a great place to visit, but we need to temper it with the real world.
I suppose this is obvious in many ways: it’s why we have holidays! But it’s more than just relaxation. Space for reflection, the chance to appreciate the real world, to be closer to nature, to relax our horizons and expand our perspective, this can bring us closer to ourselves. Walking is a continual process of discovery: what’s over the hill, behind the trees, how does the landscape unfold, how do we read it. It’s not dissimilar to how we learn in the wider context. The analogy between walking by the river, exploring round the bends, fits nicely with how we learn online, exploring one piece of information, navigating to the next. We build our knowledge incrementally, discovering new places and new things, relating them to old ones. The juxtaposition of one fact to another is no different from that one one valley to a hill. Relationships are everything.
It’s no coincidence that the analogy of learning and exploring is strong: our skills in navigation are innate, our ability to roam and discover is a behaviour that we apply to virtual environments, to the world of knowledge. It’s not something we’ve had to invent to survive online, it’s something we’ve applied.
Personally, when i look back at what i’ve learnt throughout my life, i feel that i’ve learnt knowledge from books, from lectures, from research, from people, but i’ve learnt about myself, my strengths, my limits and the power of the mind to overcome the mere physical from exploring the real world. My proudest achievements are not from degrees and books, but from expeditions and conquest. And my fondest memories are of times spent by the river.