As a child I enjoyed formal education in swimming, taking but not testing for Bronze Cross because I was too young to be awarded the designation, and enjoying learning specific skills and receiving positive reinforcement. I also took five years of piano lessons through the Royal Conservatory of Music. While I learned from swimming that there was such a thing as a physical skill, embodied and progressive, and learning was developed through practice, I never made that same connection with piano, and was a mediocre player at best. My teachers were inconsistent, and I had as many teachers as years of lessons, many of them as uninterested in me as a student as I was uninterested in them as teachers. In hindsight, our lack of mutual interest in our time together was likely the cause of my unsatisfying performance.
I was a good student in elementary school, and was pulled out of regular classes to participate in advanced math, which I later learned was a test of the new metric curriculum. I was also given a chance to do advanced English, and to do a special class in film. When the choice came to attend a high school, I was given placement in the enriched program for the City of Toronto. That sparked my passion for teaching. This interdisciplinary curriculum for “gifted” students gave me a new perspective on education. I saw that learning could be integrated across subjects, that “academic” subjects were not the only place where important learning took place, and that critical thinking was a necessary and valued part of education. I also saw that students could manage their own learning about things that interested them, and that that learning often had a profound impact on their sense of self and agency. I discovered that I enjoyed critical thinking, synthesis of disparate topics, and creative problem solving. But by the end of five years, a steady march toward a liberal arts university education, the curriculum had become standardized, I had entered the factory education system, and I graduated with average results and the itch to move on.
My next step was the University of Toronto, a choice made purely out of financial need, as I didn’t have the money to live away from home. I chose subjects that had interested me in high school – Latin American Culture and Literature, History, and others. I chose Economics and Third World Development, because they seemed to be sensible, foundational subjects that might illuminate political issues I had read about in the news. I had a practical interest in social justice, and those subjects seemed to fit. In that first year, I realized that I wanted to learn about how humans have come to be where we are now, socially, politically, economically and philosophically. I specialized in History, and later added Psychology and Religious Studies as minors. People fascinated me. And the study of how people make sense of the world seemed like the only practical use of my time as a university student. I was able to study broadly and liberally before the human capital agenda took full hold of higher education, and I did not expect that my studies would translate into a job. I knew I had to make that happen. I recognized in my courses that I was being exposed to a variety of models of thought which stood in opposition to each other, philosophical stances that were often mutually exclusive, and learning how to think about those dichotomies with logic and a critical eye. I enjoyed classes with some of the leading thinkers of the time, including Northrop Frye, and Modris Ecksteins, thinkers who taught me to revere broad learning and excellence of analysis. I believe my ability to write and think was forged at this time. I also began to think seriously about teaching in university.
I later returned to formal education at Centennial College, a community college specializing in computer programming, when I was unemployed and wanted instrumental, job-related skills. The learning environment was very different from the university; more practical, task-related, skills focused, and project based. I excelled, partly because I was a motivated, mature student, but partly because I hungered for the chance to see the results of my work. I got immediate gratification from applying what I had learned to a practical problem. And I enjoyed the ease with which I was able to apply what I learned. It was from that learning experience that I launched my professional career.
I have been an informal learner all my life. I have a vivid memory of the first time I read a book all by myself, and the expansive sense of self-determination it gave me. I read voraciously and had a catholic taste, and was supported in both by the family and circumstances in which I grew up. I began school already able to read beyond my grade level. I learned to ski with my uncle and cousins, taught myself how to play cello, flute, and guitar, how to knit, paint, and garden, how to read vocal music for choir, how to build a greenhouse and tune pianos, how to make videos for my business, and am currently learning how to swim the butterfly stroke by watching You Tube videos.
I love to learn new things, and to learn in my own time when, where, and how I wish. Most formal learning is, for me, too slow. As a teacher, facilitator, or coach, I have tremendous patience for the individual needs of learners and love the challenge of finding the right fit for each learner; as a learner, I want what I want when I want it, and I am impatient of delay. If the other learners in the room have a similar goal and are similarly driven to learn, I will often enjoy short periods of formal learning, particularly the exchange ideas, and the insight into other people’s perspectives and ways of thinking. Informal learning for me is my primary choice.
Informal learning works for me for simple or common progressive skills. But sometimes, non-formal learning is necessary. As a young professional I needed to participate in non-formal learning for work and for my business, and I attended several certificate programs that taught me skills, but also gave me legitimacy in my profession. Microsoft and other IT training, St. John’s Ambulance First Aid, and management consulting education are just some of the experiences I’ve had that gave me a taste of the Behaviourist philosophy in workplace training. I also was able to observe the expression of power in the room, particularly when job security depended on achieving the certificate.
I undertook a number of non-formal learning projects that taught me about embodied learning. Voice lessons, the Japanese martial art Aikido, ballroom dancing, flying sailplanes, Embodied Leadership with Wendy Palmer, achieving the CanFit Pro and YogaFit teaching certifications, and learning to play the Bodhran, were all embodied non-formal learning experiences. I was able to experience the difference between embodied learning and intellectual learning; the frustrating experience of having to relearn how to pronounce vowels as a thirty-five year-old vocal student was humbling: the body has an excellent memory and unlearning is part of the learning process. Having been a learner in intellectual, embodied, and emotionally and politically charged learning environments, exposed me to many processes and impacts of a variety of teaching and learning methods. Watching and talking to other learners, critically reflecting on my experiences both at the time of the learning, and then synthesizing those reflections later across time to understand my own preferences and style in relation to others, the environment, and power, helped me define my philosophy of education.