Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Blogphilosophy: share your learning story: formal education shackled me, so I got out …

Formal education does not lead up to much for a big portion of its content. After leaving school (university, high school…) the learners often lack the skills to truly be prepared for the working world. There are many hypotheses on why that is actually the case. My hypothesis is: some people feel that formal education shackles them, and a lot of the time this happens to learners from less fortunate classes, as they do not see or learn the benefits from higher education, nor its unspoken rules and social interactions.
So what do learners do that feel shackled by formal education? Those types of people will either rebel (get out, start for themselves), or get numb (becoming machines of society, obeying whatever they are asked to do on the professional floor).

I got out.

Downward spiral
So I paid for it, due to my lack of knowledge on how to get sorted in life. For years I did rather numbing jobs. I compensated these jobs by putting them on hold each time I earned enough money. Unfortunately if one is ill equipped for life, one risks to get in a downward spiral and … I did. At a certain point – well in my twenties – I had nothing: no house, no passport, no work, no nothing (well, I did have one bag with around 12 books and some clothes). In that time I slept on the street and in squatted houses, some of them clean, some of them so filthy it looked as if I was living in a Zoo of rodents and piles of shit (no euphemism). I did not know any better, and such conditions creep up on you (see the wonderful movie Nobody Knows from Koreeda. I did not think I was worth anything back then.

One person makes a difference
After yet another police raid and yet another friend hanging herself from a banister out of sheer despair, this lifestyle got to me. Luckily a friend gave me an option to get back on track with all the bureaucratic paperwork (he made me a deal: work three months for free as a trial, if I did this, he would provide me a job and help out with all the necessary bureaucratic stuff (yes, one person can make a difference, I know that thanks to him, thx Patrick).
After working harder than I ever did for one year (all hours of the day and night, at least 6 days a week) eventually my paperwork was back in order and I rented a small home. My grandfather (72 by then) gave me my first furniture: a rug, a sleeping couch, a small table and two chairs. He even came over (2 hours drive each day) to paint my house and get it fixed. I did not think much of it then, but I know now that such kind gestures make a huge difference.

Discovering I could think
Once that year was over, I quite my job and went back to school. I studied to be a administrative sales secretary (after cleaning and waiting tables, this was a big deal). This time round I did not quit education, but once the course finished I knew I was not fit to be a secretary, I was – and still am – rather disorganized when it comes to paperwork, and my mind needs to act not react. So, I realized that I needed to look for something different: a job that would suite my sometimes rebellious mind and that would frighten off most people from even considering to apply for the job. What better job to choose than a very chaotically described job in a feminist equal opportunities organization? It worked, they choose me to do the job because nobody else wanted it: bad hours, low pay, and quite a bunch of tough thinking women discussing political issues.

Why critical political organizations can make you better
In that environment I really learned a lot: how to organize events, how to lobby with politicians, the importance of a network, how to look at society through your own critical mind, how to rally for human rights, how to change laws to better fit the need of the few (or many).
Although I started out as a secretary, I moved on to be a staff member getting funds, writing articles… But I wanted to learn more and get better, so I got myself enrolled in a post-graduate course (feminist theories and media). I got accepted thanks to the willingness and open-mindedness of one professor, allowing me to enter although I had no formal degree. Again, my learning was enabled by an individual, not an institution. I followed the course successfully on top of my work. It felt good, and I could apply what I learned immediately in my job. It felt like authentic learning and… it was given as an online course, which intrigued me.

The start of the eLearning concept
At that time I also started with giving lessons on how to use electronic devices and services. As most of the members of the organization were working on a voluntary basis, I started providing feedback and updates through mail… hence I rolled into eLearning without giving it the ‘proper’ name.
Because I learned all these new things just by doing stuff, just by being immersed in a group of very intelligent and engaged people, I suddenly realized that my mind just might be capable of more. So I quit my job and went back to school once again (now well in my thirties).

Never accept a ‘no’ that restricts you from accomplishing your personal growth
It was not easy to get into education. I wanted to learn more about eLearning, and the only thing I could find related to that topic was IT/web design. Unfortunately, educational institutions do not allow maverick learners easily. I was an administrative sales secretary with a post-graduate in feminist theory… it just did not sound comfortable to them. So I turned to my network, and another friend. He told me I could make a chance if I was willing to take an IQ-test, showing that my mind was on the same level as alumni from universities (this might sound strange, but there was indeed this one IT course organized for technical graduates that could be entered that way). So I took the test and I got in. I started the IT course and found myself between engineers and all sorts of technical graduates that wanted to specialize themselves in one particular field (you could choose between programming, network skills, and web design). I was again the odd one out, but by then I knew that role would fit me well. I was given a wild card and I was more than eager to use it to its full potential.

Against the odds
It was a tough time. The courses were very difficult as I did not have the technical background, so I was learning all the basics at home, while trying to keep up with the more advanced course during the day. I fell back on well-fare, which really challenges your financial creativity, luckily I knew what to do thanks to my past.
When I looked at my learning colleagues, I was well aware that I was not the best of them technically, but I did stand out in the combination of technical and human skills.
So they were technically better equipped, they were sure about themselves. I struggled through it. By the time the course almost ended, I knew that IF I wanted to make a chance in getting a new job aged 38, I needed to aim at the odd job out once again. I found it in a strange profile description, with loads of demands that were both soft and hard skills, and which required working with different cultures, speaking different languages, it was entitled 'webmaster for eLearning platform'. I got in, again for the same reasons: the other people were bailing out as the job talks progressed, the job just seemed too undefined for them.
By that time I knew I could let any odd job fit my strengths: so I observed what was there, what was lacking, I got to know all the people involved, and I learned whatever I thought would allow me to construct this job to one that was both challenging and possibly lift the institutional eLearning to another level. I choose a specialty (mLearning), read up on it, and started researching it. By now I also knew the strength of sharing knowledge: so I put everything I learned out there for anyone who might be interested.

But where do I go from here? Have any ideas?
For me informal learning in addition to high contact immersion with knowledgeable people, access to courses of choice, and opting for wild cards really made and makes a difference in my learning life.
For sure, at every stage most of the people said I did not make a chance. But I never had a chance for years, so I knew never to listen to negative vibes, they just do not see what you know is inside of you.
The great thing is, now, I still want more. Where formal education could not charm me in my teen years, I am now looking to learn more, know more, get better! So a year ago I started a master in DE. For I know that with this formal course, my mind will certainly see a path to informal learning that will lift me higher, and that will lift my professional work as well.

I am nearing my thesis route, so I am pondering about possible topics. If you have any wild card topics that you would like to see researched, let me know. I want to go for a wild card thesis for the same reasons I had in the past: the wild card does it for me.

Feel free to share your learning story, are there more of us wild cards out there?

To finish a song that has inspired me on many occasions:
Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The revolution will not be televised’ (an early version of 1970)