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Not a blank canvas


It never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to forget the things which are so obvious and so well known.

The presentation I did at the recent OpenCetl conference started by acknowledging the previous learning of OU students. My notes read:

Open University students, not surprisingly, are not blank canvases when they commence their OU studies. They bring with them a wide range of learning experiences from previous educational settings as well as a lifetime’s experience of informal learning in a wide variety of different contexts. The challenge confronting educators is how to enable students to maximise their use of existing learning skills while encouraging the development of new learning skills and strategies which are useful not only for study, but for life.

Further on in my notes, on the same theme, I wrote:

OU students are not a blank canvas. On their journey to becoming a student, they have engaged in formal education at school and possibly at college or university. From that experience they bring a range of expectations of what education offers and how learning is done. Alongside the positive experiences, they bring skeletons in the cupboard of poor teachers, badly prepared materials and negative feedback.

Many OU students bring with them experiences of workplace learning and training courses. Again, a mix of the good, the ugly and the indifferent, but again colouring expectations both of the learning experience and of contact with fellow students.

Almost all OU students will have engaged in a hobby or developed other specialised interests. Many will have learned the skills necessary to manage a home and care for a family. Some will have specialist knowledge of the care needs of people with disabilities or increasing frailty. Others have learned to cope with the challenge of a learning disability.

Increasingly, students will be familiar with the use of technology to obtain information or to manage aspects of daily living.

OU students like other adults are informal learners. They bring their informal learning skills with them into the formality of a structured academic course. How do we enable students to evaluate their informal learning toolkit, refine it and incorporate it into a new toolkit alongside the formal learning skills they will acquire during their OU study.

This morning, in the lab meeting, the focus was on learning and knowledge transfer and acquisition. I was reminded of Hager and Hodkinson’s (2009) comments about a person entering a new workplace – they bring with them knowledge, skills and experience, but the knowledge and skills will be changed and adapted and modified  and expanded through the experience of the new work place and belonging to a different community of practice.

Quinn makes a similar point in speaking about making connections with prior knowledge.

During the discussion this morning, the fairly obvious point was made that in any class of adult learners, or university students, everybody will be starting from a different point because of what they already know, their interests beyond study, etc.

Reflecting on this, I think of the number of times I have been involved in facilitating training of different sorts  or have been engaged with a member of staff in discussion about possible career progression. So often, my starting point has been talking about considering the ruc-sac of skills, abilities, experience, knowledge, ideas that we all carry with us and trying to move from the idea of compartmentalising what we know into discrete domains, into connecting the contents of the ruc-sac to whatever domain we happen to be occupying at the time. It strikes me that connectivity is an important part of any examination of adult learning – and connectivity is more than transfer.

Hager, P., & Hodkinson, P. (2009). Moving beyond the metaphor of transfer of learning. British Educational Research Journal, 35(4), 619 – 638.

Quinn, C. N. (2009). Social Networking: Bridging formal and informal learning. Learning Solutions Magazine.


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