The best learning experience I ever had – Jon Bartlett

Thursday (1 week in!) and a post from Jon Bartlett. Jon runs his own consultancy Project Libero where he helps people as a coach and mentor. When not on his bike you can find his blog here and follow him on Twitter here

My headmaster, Mr. Follows, was a very correct man. His preferred choice of dress was a tweed three piece suit. If the summer was very warm, he might consent to remove his jacket and roll his sleeves up but never remove his tie. He was an ex-military man, had met his wife in the service and they lived in the small house in the school grounds. My education was at a village school in Dorset, a rural backwater where the great events of the day didn’t really penetrate, until 7th September 1979. The assassination of somebody called Mountbatten had been on the television and in the papers but it didn’t mean much to an almost 8 year old. There were constant killings in Ireland in those days and it wasn’t something spoken about to children.

When we arrived at school that day, the older children were informed that they would not be in normal lessons and that they would be with the headmaster in the main hall. This caused a bit of stir but once he had us all quiet he held up a copy of the Radio Times and explained how the day would be. He told us that the sole lesson for the day was on Lord Mountbatten and his contribution to Britain.

The day soon got in to a steady routine. We would watch a bit of TV, then Mr Follows would consult the programme listings, working out the best time to stop and we would discuss and extract the knowledge. We learned about Mountbatten’s position in society and relationship to the Royal Family. We learned about his Naval service during the Second World War and the composition of the military support for his funeral. Now, before you think this an exercise in jingoism or Imperialism let me explain a little more. We also learned about Mountbatten’s role as the last Viceroy of India and the fraught transition to Indian independence and the tension with Pakistan. We learned about Mountbatten’s killers, the Irish Republican Army, their politics and the background to “The Troubles”. In these examples we weren’t taught that either side was right or wrong but a real broad understanding of the issues involved. I came to understand about the importance of self determination to a country or people, about the wider issues of democracy, the fact that one country doesn’t have the right to subjugate another, that people are created equal and that skin colour doesn’t carry some in built right to rule.

So what do I think now as I reflect? Was it worth a day’s primary school teaching to understand state funeral protocol? Well in a strange piece of prescience I did go on to join the RAF and in my last two years was the second in command for the air force detachment to Royal Funerals. However on a more prosaic level I asked an old friend from primary if he could remember the lesson. He still does and echoed my views. We discussed what made it special

  • We were treated as individuals
  • We were encouraged to make up our own minds about the issues
  • We were encouraged to debate
  • We were respected by the teacher for our own views.
  • We learned from a variety of sources, TV, newspapers, teacher, each other.
  • We deviated from the normal lesson plans to extend our minds and views
  • We learned to question the perceived view, to examine history and the motivations of those who present current affairs to us.

Pretty heady stuff for a primary school lad and it’s fair to say that much of the learning came afterwards but even now I remember it firing in me a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to seek the truth of a situation. I wrote to Mr Follows when I was in the RAF to thank him for his unwitting contribution to my professional life. His response was (as ever) to challenge my thinking and encourage even more learning. He is old and frail now but we exchange Christmas cards and the occasional letter. It seems a small return for his investment of time and energy, for the gift of learning he gave me.


4 thoughts on “The best learning experience I ever had – Jon Bartlett

  1. Great story – the thing that really stands out for me is the encouragement to deviate from the norm. Not something you see often – and hugely powerful, as demonstrated here. Follows is a good leader eh (sorry couldn’t resist!) 😉

  2. What a great story and lovely memory, and such a great example of inspiring “educator”. Hesitated to use the word teacher which did not feel appropriate!!

    As a school governor, we talk about “learning to learn”, something that I am passionate and I get, unlike it seems many parents and politicians!!

    Jon, maybe a story to influence change in education?

  3. Pingback: The best learning experience I’ve ever had – the story so far… | Trainers Kit Bag

  4. Thank you for the story. Sometimes people take different lessons from stories, because people tend to interpret things in line with their beliefs. I take something different from your story: and since introspection is a poor measure I cannot say which of us is right. But for what it is worth, I think you remembered the day primarily because of its emotional characteristics: it was, as you say ‘not normal lessons… caused a bit of a stir’. Debate, and deviation from the norm stir the passions – and it is this which governs memory and learning. Ian Perry makes reference to the passion which, in turn, separates the good educator from the bad. It is regrettable that we have yet to find a way to formalise this, I think.

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