Becoming a Learner, by Sean Bellamy

When I first went up to Cambridge University, I didn’t find Europe’s largest library for over six weeks. I never went to a single History lecture, despite being told that some of the country’s finest minds would be sharing their theories with me. When I did find the library, it was like a cathedral of glass with endless rows of cleverness that petrified me. I was paralyzed by the sheer volume of intelligence crammed into one space.

It soon became a place to catch up on sleep.

The life of a ‘fresher’ is essentially nocturnal. When I did eventually churn out an essay on the English Reformation or Calvinism in Europe, it was only destined to become a piece of art in the hands of my disappointed tutors. My black scribble was invariably superimposed by their red and mildly derisive comments.

I had been an A* pupil at my grammar school and yet here I was utterly at a loss as to how to learn. This continued all through that first term until I decided to change course.

History at Cambridge was not for me.

I chose Archaeology and Anthropology – ancient civilizations, stone circles and muddy knees. Indiana Jones meets the Historian of Doom. Apparently, it was the recommended choice for the quirky, the ‘jocks’, the slightly weird, and those who were unable to handle the academic subjects.

That sounded perfect. I was probably all the above.

It was only then that I realized that this was the first time I had ever made a decision about my education. Despite being a talented student and having strong opinions of my own, I could not remember ever having made any real choices about my learning. I was chosen for teams, I was chosen for school plays, I was chosen to be a prefect and although I chose to do my homework it was only because of the consequences of not doing it. Not because I wanted to do it.

I never chose what to wear, you can’t when life is a uniform, and never chose what to study in class. I didn’t even choose how to behave because there was an accepted norm to which we were all expected to conform.

Punishment and stigmatism accompanied those who rebelled.

I didn’t even choose to go to Cambridge. The school suggested that I should try, and I was flattered. I was in fact much too young because I was one of those precocious children who gets accelerated through school as if the purpose is to eject students from the machine as soon as possible. Kind but persuasive pressure was applied from then on. Everyone told me how proud they would be of me if I managed it. No one had succeeded in getting to Cambridge from my school in the last ten years.

From then on, I was steered towards that goal, and, as I was an obedient pupil, I went. I am not saying that this was a mistake, or that I didn’t have a say, or that I was passive in the process of getting there. I am only saying that I was not in the habit of making decisions about my education.

I had lived in an environment in which it was considered the adult’s role to direct and the pupils’ role to comply. This is probably still the position in most schools today. It was a poor preparation for any university, particularly Cambridge. From the moment I arrived, there was no adult who told me what to do and, liberating though that was, I was utterly adrift.

I soon realized that I didn’t want to do ‘school’ any more. I didn’t want to study and I didn’t know how to. So I drank coffee, stayed up all night talking, hung out in cafés and discussed life, ran, swam, and talked some more. I sat on the grass in the sun and remained determined to avoid learning.

This experience probably resonates with many new students to Sands who on arrival go through a similar process – sitting on sofas, sitting on the stairs, having long conversations with new friends, lots of coffee, cafés and sun-bathing and very few classes. However old you are, there seems to be a process you must go through if you are to regain ownership of your own learning after conventional schooling.

Choosing to change course did something to me. I was suddenly aware of being responsible for my actions. Former Sands pupil Josh Fein-Brown expressed it like this:

“Sands left me with a wonderful sense of my ability to take responsibility for myself.”

At Cambridge, I needn’t ask for anyone’s permission and I did not need anyone’s approval. What I chose to learn became an active extension of my personality and I realised that I had been acting like a good pupil my whole life, unwilling to take risks and happy to abandon the things I really loved in order to avoid failure and do well. And this pathological fear of failure underpinned my behaviour. It was a subtle voice that accompanied me in school and eventually stripped away my agency.

And it was that fear of impending failure that acted as a catalyst for this first radical, autonomous choice at Cambridge. Had I been just a little less incompetent, I would have remained on the course and continued as a passive participant in my own learning journey.

This choice was scary, but it was exciting.

I was eighteen years old, not much older than our oldest students at Sands and I can understand how rewarding and essential it is to take control over one’s own journey through this thing called education. Adults are often afraid that if they allow children to choose between learning and leisure they will always choose leisure. My own first reaction to freedom was exactly that. I now see that if you are to help young people to truly engage in learning for life, you just have to run the risk that they may choose leisure for a while.

My whole attitude to the university changed.

Lectures became attractive, books were no longer merely useful pillows and I began talking to fellow students about ‘arch and anth’, philosophy and even the thing I thought I hated, history.

It had become cool to learn. Those ten weeks in the social wilderness, not doing others bidding, allowed me the space to let go of previous patterns of choreographed learning and begin a different more personal journey through education. Many Sands students have a remarkably similar experience.

I remember the precise moment when I became a learner.

There was a visiting Professor of Anthropology from Canada. He was an expert in the Inuit people of the Canadian North. His lectures were part of an additional programme that was entirely voluntary. They took place in the afternoons, when I would normally be on the river, rowing to the point of exhaustion.

I attended every lecture and was transfixed by the topic and Lewis Binford’s passion for his subject.

Others found the subject dull, but I ordered from the library every conceivable book on the Inuit and spent my Easter vacation lying in bed reading them. Strangely, I was time-warped back to the feelings I had had when I was ten years old, reading The Lord of the Rings, Alan Garner’s Weirdstone trilogy and even The Famous Five’, tucked up under a quilt, transported to new and wonderful worlds. I cared about what Lewis Binford was telling me.

It made an emotional and intellectual connection with me.

No longer was I a student, directed by and performing for others. My connection with the learning was not driven by fear of failure or hope of success. Something deeper was at work. I wanted knowledge in the same way I wanted food, and learning had become a form of leisure.

Choosing to learn had released my potential as a student. Taking responsibility for that knowledge gave it a substance and weight that meant it was held in the gravitational field of my own interests. My character, my personality, were choosing to engage with the material. I was no longer just some ‘pupil’, an actor on someone else’s stage.

And an accident introduced me to my first act of genuine learning. I wonder if we allow time for accidents to occur in our linear, outcome based schools? Do we allow time for anything but productivity? Do we allow time for the absence of education?

This holistic approach to learning is what we encourage at Sands. We want children to engage in the process of education as naturally as possible. If this requires them to step away from class for a while to unlearn previous habits or to challenge their motivations, then we feel that the loss of a few weeks and months of education is more than compensated for by the sincerity of their engagement on their return.

Learning to learn seems to involve much more than the acquisition of certain skills. I can teach children how to construct arguments, how to think through and around a problem, and I can show them techniques for memorizing vast quantities of facts and how to pass exams and I can do that without their emotional involvement.

But when that connection between their personality and the material happens, I see children make a leap towards a deeper, more permanent and profound experience as learners.

So, at Sands, when you see students on the stairs, on sofas and drinking coffee when you think they should be in class, then know that there may be method in their madness.  

Sean Bellamy is the co-founder at Sands School in Devon. Providing innovative education since 1987, Sands is an independent school for 11 – 17 year-olds. They offer child-centred teaching in small classes with a democratic ethos that fosters trust, mutual respect and self-directed learning. Sean is also a mentor for start-up education projects all over the world including Charlotte Church’s The Awen Project.