Zeno’s Shipwreck: Insights From a Good Learning Journey

Zeno of Citium was the son of a wealthy trader in Ancient Greece. On a journey from Phoenicia to Piraeus, his ship and cargo were lost, stranding him in Athens.

There, he discovered the teachings of Socrates and took the first step on a pathway of learning that birthed the Stoic school of philosophy.

According to one biographer, Zeno joked “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey.”

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In the same spirit, I decided to frame this pandemic as a shipwreck and make it the beginning of a good journey.

Here was a chance to strengthen learning habits and use time better. Here was, in some ways, what we’d begged for all these years. Here was the ‘more time’ we could never find.

Scarcity became abundance.

Once a decision is made, one can only hope the ‘mighty forces’ Basil King described come to our aid.

Almost a year later, while I can’t report divine intervention, powerful situational forces have certainly influenced the journey. Fate was very kind, as it was for many ‘knowledge’ workers fortunate enough to maintain employment with minimal interruption, aside from staying home.

The impact of intermittent lockdowns has been so varied that, while broadly affected in the same way, at the granular level experiences reflect the same diversity found in the population.

As management and containment made kingdoms of households and entire worlds of neighbourhoods, a withdrawal inward was natural.

For many of us, this proved confronting. That said, history also testifies that we are not the first to tread this ground.

Yet unlike other pandemics, from the Antonine plague to the Spanish Flu, an important difference in the COVID-19 experience is marked by the hyper-connectivity we know through technology.

We effortlessly pass time with on-demand media via endless platforms. We doomscroll news feeds and social media – always on, always hunting. We play online games, make and watch videos, all the while sliding into life as digital content super consumers.

There is literally more distraction to hand than any human being has ever known. There are more rabbit holes than rabbits.

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Could Robert Frost have truly known the extent way leads to way when he wrote the famous poem?

What would he make of Google? Would he catch himself at 2am searching for celebrities who served in World War Two?

In lockdown, screens became portals to socialising and work, exponentially enhancing potential for passive dead time far in excess of the dosage we need and well beyond one that is good.

Additionally, digital life in the pandemic proved a kind of Hogwarts sorting hat, dividing idiots and kooks from the rest.

It exposed and laid bare a confronting truth. Namely, that which divides us and how readily we organise into tribes bound by social proof and norms outside the blustery, rigorous shaping of the past.

Social media has left many of us proverbial frogs in the well. The sunlight and nurture of these narrow spaces are curated by feed bubbles and algorithmic echo chambers. We agree to this somewhat Faustian pact when we tick ‘yes’ to ‘I have read and understood the terms and conditions.’

The net effect is stronger division. We are all right and correct beyond former burdens of proof. We all possess evidence to support our claims. We all know the real truth and everyone we know knows it too.

It was almost like a second, digital shipwreck from which to launch another good journey.

Which leads to a question – awash with such information, supported with alleged facts and what now passes for reason, where should we place our faith? Who or what do we believe? What is the best bet?

Recognising this, amid habitual scrolling of socials and endless dead eyed info-gorging, which often left me miserable, I withdrew into analogue books and the voyeuristic electronic realm of Twitter. This is a well understood forum of hateful debate, but also a place of learning if you do it right.

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Wearing an educator’s hat, this exploration revealed how little I truly knew or understood about the process of learning as opposed to the art of teaching. It forced me to reflect on my understanding and beliefs around what made for good teaching and learning.

In turn, this led to the educational battleground between devotees of knowledge rich and skill-based curriculum models.

In educational debate, one soon learns to be both aware and wary of often conflicting ‘research’. One also learns to resist the allure of halo lit fandom of edu-celebrities.

There is also good reason for wariness of one’s own thoughts and beliefs.

Reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow revealed the litany of cognitive biases we carry as human beings, supporting the need to foster the habit of sensible and healthy scepticism.

It can be really hard to distinguish gold from micah, but one ‘good bet’ Bronwyn Ryrie-Jones and many others argue for is cognitive science.

Why science?

In a world where scientific knowledge is so readily dismissed and overlooked, why should we lean on what science tells us? Why not believe the celebrity chefs, sports stars and comedians? Why not listen to the politicians?

Carlo Rovelli, quantum physicist, declares the answer is easy.

“Science is not reliable because it provides certainty. It is reliable because it provides us with the best answers we have at present… It is precisely its openness, the fact that it constantly calls current knowledge into question, which guarantees that the answers it offers are the best so far available.”

Carlo Rovelli (2017) Reality is not what it seems. The journey to quantum gravity.

The implication is that science provides the most certainty while allowing room for growth, hopefully avoiding inertia and stasis, or worse, the wasted time and breath involved in waging intellectual civil war.

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I am also wary that the often derided and debunked ‘fads’ in education were once solid ground to build your professional development. I attended sessions on learning styles, multiple intelligences and thinking hats. I lived through the coloured paper trend and distributed overlays to dyslexic students. I conducted the ‘which learner are you? audits.

I remember thinking that content was just a contextual vehicle for important skills. Teachers should be free to choose any material they liked and curriculum statements should codify skills, thereby reducing explicit content within vast documents more suited to propping open doors or curing insomnia than providing teachers with actionable information.

A bigger mind shift was required. I’ll admit to being a skills-focussed teacher who thought content was a dirty word.

The thing is, at some point you need to take action and stop thinking and pondering.

I like the responsive , explicit, quality teaching movement because it reflects the truth of small changes repeated over time and their measurable impact. It is the recognition or reminder that almost everything we do in a classroom has an effect, good and bad.

The central and adjacent thought leaders here are people like Willingham, Lemov, Wiliam, Bennett, Sherrington and Christodoulou, to name a few.

Via Twitter, Frost’s way led on to way and the research and experience of Rosenshine, Hirsch, Sealy and the Murphys passed across my view. They became the mentors and guides of this good journey across all manner of relevant and thought provoking ideas.

Lost at times, inspired and energised at others, I always returned to first principles.

Teaching is an act of service for our students. How do we best serve them? By helping them make their way forward, by encouraging and picking them up when they get lost or fall behind, and by helping them approach life and the world with a sense of excitement and a desire to be involved.

Ultimately, they make their own choices, but while they are in our rooms, we have an amazing power to set the climate of the classroom and provide access to learning that helps them move forward.

The ‘tingly’ moments in teaching, addictive as any pleasure or vice, are not enough to live on. Nor, alone, do they provide nourishment. They can only serve as the sweet fruit for the journey, rewards for repetitive nurture and toil.

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These good, repetitive and effective actions must be informed by good bets, not only intuition.

If we are being honest, skills without knowledge are just accidents or beginner’s luck.

Cognitive science and theories of learning offer solid information on how the brain works and by implication, how people learn. This is critical knowledge to inform our practice.

As custodians of the teaching profession, it is our duty to avoid the temptation of smarmy criticism and social media warfare from the secure digital bunkers. We must, to paraphrase Seneca, turn ‘words into works’.

Teaching is an act of good in the service of others. It must be that at its core, for anything else feels petty, constrained and useless.

Again – good teachers must seek to move and guide our students forward from wherever they are to a place they can access the substantive knowledge and skills to contribute and produce in our society and world.

It is a bold and worthy objective. It is a wicked problem to realise and the summit of hard fun and productive struggle.

A blend of knowledge and skills is critical. It is also critical that these knowledge and skills are grown in the blended environment of digital and analogue.

If we start with science, adopting Zeno’s mindset, then our direction is based on a good bet.

Until we have better answers, these must light the way.

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Published by charliehynes76

Learner. Teacher. Writer. My aim is to nourish and share a curious mind so that we might honour the gift.

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