The Importance of Falling

Aug 13, 2014 10:13:10 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf talks about falling - physically and metaphorically - and illustrates his point with a few memorable tumbling experiences of his own that ended on a positive note.

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Safer than insurance

Safer than the dead

… the safest person in this dangerous dangerous world

- Adrian Mitchell “Maximum Security Girl”

I am spectacularly adept at falling over in the street. I have taken dramatic tumbles on the Cromwell Road; have stumbled in Connaught Place in Delhi; have fallen as if shot outside Blues Alley in Washington D.C., to the mild amusement of the distinguished jazz saxophonist, David Murray who had stepped out for a quiet cigarette. I have found myself embarrassingly prone in most of the great capitals of Europe and, famously (at least among the faculty and senior administration). I walked obliviously into a noxious hole outside of the University of Ghana, Legon. I was wearing a suit and tie, and carried a rather impressive briefcase. This was five minutes before my scheduled meeting with the Vice-Chancellor.

Photo: Cromwell Road traffic by Tom Ingless

This is not, by the way, evidence of increasing frailty or senility. I have been doing this for over 60 years. I recall, at the age of 8, in 1955, pathetically crashing head first in Mare Street, Hackney while hurrying towards an assignation with Rosie Clayman, the siren of the Balls Pond Road. But that is another tragic tale. My poor old Mum used to say, while sewing up my school trousers “yet again”: “Why don’t you look where you are going?”

Despite that sage advice, I’ve spent a significant part of my life not looking where I’m going and this has had two consequences:
a) I get hurt a lot and have many trousers torn at the knees.
b) Some interesting things happen, like making David Murray and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana laugh.

This rather banal narrative is, I think, more than simply evidence of ineptitude and an autobiographical stream of consciousness. It is a metaphor, albeit rather an obscure one, for what we want for our students in education abroad. If you take risks you sometimes end up in a Ghanaian ditch but you may also have some unexpected collisions and encounters that are surprising and enlightening. If you always look where you are going, life may be “safer than insurance” but it will also be anodyne, painless, predictable.

Photo: Slippery when wet by Jaymar Turner

In direct contrast, international education has, somewhere or other in its implicit ethos, an embedded injunction to not look too closely at where you are going. We probably don’t want to take that too literally. For the most part, we want our students to look where they are going when they cross the Cromwell Road, Avenida de Julio, Hong Kou Qu, Kurtulus Deresi Cad., or Berry Street (examples of places where they should definitely look both ways before crossing). But, if you always look where you are going, life will not surprise you. To learn things, to experience the new, to disturb assumptions and expectations, we need, at times, not to look where we are going.

Learning is about taking risks, going into places where we cannot anticipate what will be there along the road, or at the end, or even if there is an end. The perils and possibilities we encounter on our travels may teach us more than we learn on reaching our anticipated destination. On the Yellow Brick Road to Oz, Dorothy gained much insight through chance meetings and odd conjunctions. When she finally meets the Wizard, he is illusion without substance, a cipher hidden by trick mirrors.

That may be one of the problems we need to grapple with as we struggle with the idea of learning outcomes and the assessment of those (once described by Joe Brockington of Kalamazoo College as a process in which “We set the rules by which we are to be hung”). The perilous possibility is that we develop a risk averse, mechanistic view of learning. If we assume that there are “inputs” and “outputs” we are applying an inappropriate industrial metaphor to a process that cannot be predicted with such certainty. What students learn is more complex and less accessible to external evaluation than the metaphor would suggest. Knowing that what we put in will lead to a product that conforms to our expectations is how we make widgets, broom handles, television sets and other products. It is not how we educate our children.

For that reason, at CAPA we have embraced ambiguity and built into our definition of outcomes areas of anticipated wisdom rather than precise and specific objectives. We have, as best we can, taken to heart Socrates’ assertion that “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” A flame can burn you but it can also bring light.

Photo: CAPA Sydney students, Summer 2014 by Heather Turner

At its best education abroad (all education we might argue) is profoundly disruptive and disturbing, intellectually and geographically. We ought to be taking students into new spaces where obstacles and opportunities, ditches and dreams, cannot be anticipated. My research supervisor, Geoffrey Moore, rest his soul, told me at the beginning of my doctoral thesis that “if you already know what you are going to learn, there is probably no point in doing it.” We know the place we are leaving but not the point at which we will arrive. As old Socrates knew, real learning is the product of awkward questions, problematic dialogues, troubled reflection. The only outcome that we can comfortably predict is that what students learn emotionally and intellectually is unpredictable; our product is uncertainty. “True knowledge,” Socrates said, “exists in knowing that you know nothing.” What we want our students to learn is the wisdom of unease.

The metaphor of learning as a journey is something of a tired cliché but it makes literal and metaphorical sense in the context of education abroad. Our objective is to move both body and mind to new places and, in so doing, create risks that are intellectual and physical. Nobody learns anything in comfort. In education abroad, we have a unique opportunity to build upon geographical dislocation to create a parallel sense of intellectual unease. Only the genuinely stupid or lobotomized are, I suspect, ever completely at home or entirely secure. The only place from which it is entirely impossible to fall is the grave.

With all filial respect to my old Mum, we need to tell our students: Listen, whatever else you do, don’t look where you are going. `Otherwise, you will never trip, or stumble, or fall.

Thanks Mike!

Topics: International Education