What Walruses Can Teach About Learning

The New York Times had a recent article entitled Who Is the Walrus? that I have been thinking about and processing for the past few weeks. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize how assumptions quietly sneak back into preparation and delivery of teaching and learning with adults.

walrusNow, I have worked in and around adult and organizational learning for most of my professional life, and every now and then something comes along to wake me up again to various assumptions and the like that I hold about learners. I know about andragogy, hegemony, postmodern paradigmatic structures, critical theory, and the like. I have studied all of these things and they have helped to transform my worldviews on teaching and learning.

Nevertheless, it is easy to fall back into the pre-learned status quo and teach as we learned. Enter, the walrus.

The article on walruses raised my thinking quit a bit, and I can’t help but think there is a lot here for us to learn about teaching and learning. So, what can walruses teach us? Here are three thoughts:

  1. Big scary things aren’t always as they seem. Yes, walruses can way over 2000 pounds and can approach very quickly, but as the author learned they are not as intimidating as they appear. In fact, he learned they like to play, are highly social, and are so intelligent that scientists use the term “creative” when discussing walruses. They don’t quite charge–they come over to play and love to have their faces blown on. How easy it is to miss this because we can’t get past the size, tusks, and noise? How often do we do this with learners, perhaps because of their organizations, hair styles, or use of professional language? Throw in culture, history, and status (using whatever measure is at hand), and you get the picture?
  2. Some things that appear mean are really only happy. It is easy to draw conclusions about the tusks and how the walruses bang into one another as if they are fighting. In reality, the tusks help them get onto the ice and out of the water. Fight? Walruses are so social and so like the company of other walruses that they climb all over one another, and if no walruses are around, will even seek out other moving objects (such as, sadly, a ship). Do we at times misunderstand what our learners want or have to offer, especially those who are (for whatever variety of reasons) different from us? Can we misinterpret their questions, as well as their learning needs, distractions, and levels of commitment to education they had no role in creating?
  3. Noise to some can be considered singing to others. A male walrus can be heard from 10 miles away, and can sing in complex forms using all body parts for days at a time. This singing is for the female walrus who can, amazingly, seem to distinguish the love song through all the noise of all the other walruses. Not everybody likes opera or rap, but some people really get into one or the other (or even both). Things that may appear like a confused mess can really be complicated processing by learners (ever seen a Philip Glass opera?). Have we ever thought something was wrong or nonsensical because we don’t get it, though our learners fight to affirm their experiences (that we in turn can easily dismiss)? How often have we ever claimed (even internally) that we know our learner’s context better than they do, and then handily proceeded from there?

I am still considering how much I learned with this article and the next few weeks of attentive reflective practice. While my perceptions and appreciation of this wonderful animal has shifted and grown, I so very want to bring this into my professional and academic work. Failing to do so will leave me unable to reach out to my learners in ways they need. 

After all, learning is most valuable when we reach the learners where they are in and as themselves. 

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