Iain Finlay Macleod | Tools for Learning
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Tools for Learning

Tools for Learning


In this post, I’d like to go over some ideas and resources I’ve found useful, transformative even, for developing my ideas about learning and how to learn.

I think there’s a lot of truth in Joi Ito’s comment that ‘education is something someone else does to you, learning is something you do to yourself.’ We generally go into the school system and try our best to adapt to it. We try to learn skills and sometimes it’s hit or miss depending on what teacher you end up with. There are plenty of times in the past where I’ve thought “I’m just never going to learn this. Maybe I just can’t” and then given up. But some of these people and ideas I’m going to talk about have totally changed that.

First of all, I’d like to encourage you to think about some of the teaching models you’ve come across.

I’ve been running a two day workshop with the aim of helping musicians who work as music tutors to develop their teaching practice. I ran one of these sessions with a number of young people who were just leaving school. There were two fairly simple questions which opened up a lot of discussion. The first was a discussion about teaching models – to discuss a bad model of teaching they’ve encountered, and a good model.

The good models got people thinking about the kind of teacher they want to be and what effect they want to have on others. They all encountered teaching which had inspired them. It doesn’t take much to light a fire in someone, to make them believe that what they’re interested in matters.

Some of the bad models of teaching people brought up have been pretty unbelievable. People being hit across the knuckles while learning a bagpipe tune. Bullying behaviour I thought had died out long ago. I took part in this exercise with others of similar ages once and it wasn’t a happy place for anyone. This kind of teaching can develop self-limiting behaviours which can be hard to get rid of.

I then asked the young people what they thought about what and how they had been taught. And the surprising thing to me was that it was the first time they had been asked that. All of them were extremely bright and able. They learnt things outside school. Most had stories about subjects they felt/were told they were terrible at. This gap between the talents of a group of young people, and the learning experience they had, was sometimes considerable.

Why is school like this?

I quite often start off sessions by watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk – “Do Schools Kill Creativity”. In it he makes the point that we routinely squander the creativity of young people. If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend you do that right now. He also makes the point that creativity will be increasingly important in a world where we don’t know what the world of work will look like in twenty… thirty year’s time.

One of the aims of the school system, when it was first developed, was to prepare a workforce for the developing Industrial Revolution. Children sat in lines at desks, time was ruled by bells. And one sort of learning was favoured above the others – the logical-mathematical. This is changing somewhat, for example, the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland employs a very different approach. But, as Robinson says, the pinnacle of the entire education system in the UK seems to be to produce University Professors. That seems to be the ultimate desired expression of our education system. Not everyone wants to be a University Professor.

I know a lot of people who came through school thinking they weren’t very good at very much at all. I’ve talked to plenty people who experienced this, and one person I talked to, now a very experienced singing tutor, said that what changed things a lot for him was learning about Multiple Intelligence Theory.

Before talking a bit more about this, remember that this is a theory, and as such, there are counter-arguments against its validity. But personally, I think it gives a good framework in which to examine your own learning style and experiences.

Dr Howard Gardner, Harvard University, published his theory in 1983. He posited that there were different intelligences that people draw on – not just the one we’re most used to strive towards, the ‘logical-mathematical’ intelligence of IQ tests and School exams.  Gardner says “students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways.” Here’s a an (affiliate) link to his book.

Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice

Here’s a video on the different intelligences he laid out, although I believe that this list is not exhaustive and closed. Like I said, its a theory. These intelligences are:

  • Linguistic intelligence
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence
  • Spatial intelligence
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence
  • Musical intelligence
  • Interpersonal intelligence
  • Intrapersonal intelligence
  • Naturalist intelligence

Why is this important for your learning? It hopefully gives you a much wider context in which to consider your talents than that which you encountered at school. It also says that maybe there are ways that you could learn things which would be more successful than other methods you have been trying. Your talents, whatever they are, are worth a lot.

We’re also maybe encouraged to see intelligence as a fixed thing. We judge people by IQ Tests – although the inventor of the I.Q test later said that the way it judged intelligence was too narrow. A good book to read in this area is called ‘Mindset’ by Carole Dweck. Here’s an (affiliate) link:

Dweck talks about how to develop a ‘growth’ mindset.  She posits that those with a fixed mindset develop an aversion to failure as they believe criticism is connected to their intrinsic intelligence. Students who concentrate on process, learning from mistakes etc can continue to grow into a skill. It’s the difference between thinking that your intelligence is fixed and deep seating, rather than something that can be developed. Here is an interesting Google Talk she did:

It’s a good thought. That whatever you want to learn, you can. If you consider how best you learn, gather learning materials around you that work with those strengths, you can learn anything. If you cast some daylight on your self-limiting behaviours, you can overcome them and build your learning confidence.

That’s quite a lot to start getting one’s head around, so I’ll leave it there for this post. But I’d like to leave you with one more suggestion – the Ken Robinson Book called “Element”. I’m a big fan of Ken Robinson, and in this book there’s a lot of inspiring stories on how people found what they should be doing in their lives, as well as finding how much their talents were really worth. (spoiler – sometimes… a lot. Of success and money.)


As an exercise it might be worth doing the following:

  • Explore what kind of models of teaching you encountered in your life and which had the greatest effects.
  • What has been your reaction to failing at something that was important to you, and also, what was the reaction of those around you.
  • What kind of learning styles have you leaned towards? What has and hasn’t worked for you?
  • What kind of intelligences do you think you favour? Examine them in different contexts ie school/hobbies/work.
  • Are you aware of any self-limiting behaviours you encounter in relation to your learning?
  • What do you like doing, above all else?






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