Going Forward to the Past – Garry Smith

A couple of weeks ago I started to learn how to ride a motorbike. I passed my full UK car driving licence 39 years ago when I was 17 years old and have driven regularly for almost all that time. I have driven a car in 16 different countries too so I am a fairly experienced driver and I once hired and rode a scooter for 3 days in the South of France many, many years ago. That 3 days on a scooter is my only riding experience apart from the fact that I do cycle quite a bit. Riding a bicycle on our roads requires a very different skill set to driving a car and here was I stepping up to a bicycle with an engine…..

So the adventure began as I started training with a company called Bikesafe, a little research led me to them and after an initial assessment and familiarisation session one Sunday morning I signed on as a learner.

Let me tell you now, stepping out of my car and onto that motorbike was stepping right out of my comfort zone, literally. No comfy seat with music playing and a metal protective shell around me and a seat belt and air bag to boot, now it was me sat up on my 125cc beast with some fairly protective clothing and a helmet, and after a couple of days on a car park, stopping, starting, slow control, weaving in and out of cones and doing the figure of eight, u-turns and how to negotiate different types of junctions safely, all great fun if quite difficult I might add, it was a 2 hour assessment out on the road.

Yes the road, full of cars, lorries and buses that would be trying to kill me…. Well it was OK I obviously survived and I passed my Compulsory Basic Test, the following Thursday I say and passed my Motorcycle Riding Theory Test, after quite a few hours working right through the official manual and practising the hazard recognition tests. So now I am ready to go out on the road with my instructor and put the hours in training.

I struggled like mad at the beginning and found the transition from car to bike very difficult, on the first day whilst most of the class went out on the road after just a morning doing the above car park stuff, I was kept back, my instructor told me she thought I was not quite ready, I told her she was damn right and I happily stayed behind to practice more on the car park, those cones would be mastered. The next training day I cracked it on the car park and really enjoyed it out on the road, after our two hours out, I had certainly put into practise everything learned to date on the training and my road experience certainly kicked in. It felt good, I love learning new things, I was on a roll.

I love learning, the phrase lifelong learner certainly applies to me, I remember applying to go to college on an access course to university, I had no formal qualifications, when I was 29 years old with a partner, daughter and our own house, I was a window cleaner, self employed but a job with low status. Filling in the application form I described myself as an autodidact, big word that for a window cleaner, but calling myself an extensive reader across many subjects was something of an understatement, I devoured books, was thirsty for knowledge and that is why many friends pushed me to go on a full time access course.

Well no need for the details, I successfully completed that course and did so well I was admitted straight onto the second year of my degree course, I got a 2:1 honours degree in 2 years. I am not bragging, I left school with nothing, worked damn hard labouring and window cleaning but self educated. The formal courses were fantastic and attending the Northern College and Warwick University gave me experiences I could not have got elsewhere.

My personal tutor at Warwick was president of the British Sociological Association and I made very good friends with the head of the International Sociological Association, we used to like to have a fag and a cuppa in her office. At both institutions I was exposed to some incredibly intelligent, knowledgeable and skilled teachers, I learned from them in so many ways, especially how to teach.

I went on to teach myself in further and higher education, including teaching post graduate students and gained post graduate qualification too, not bad for a former window cleaner. The thing is it was not easy but it was not hard either, because I had the bug, the desire to learn, my brain was spongelike in soaking up information but the formal education honed my critical ability. It was 4 years of self indulgence and I kept on cleaning windows right through my ‘education’.

I will not even try to list the range of subjects that I am interested in, I also train in Ju Jitsu as you know, and I teach Ju Jitsu to others. I just love learning and cannot see a point when I will stop short of death. Worryingly that brings me back to the motorbike. I am not in any rush to buy a motorbike, I may not buy one although I have been checking out a few, I will do the full test though and it is not a mid life crisis, I am past that in more ways than one. What drives me, excuse the pun, to learn to ride a motorbike is a desire to learn something new, about myself.

I have just read a nice book by Sebastian Faulks, ‘Human Traces’, set at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries it revolves around 2 main characters both involved in the very early developments in psychiatry. Much of the discourse revolves around discussing what it is that makes us human, as seen from the perspective of the 2 main characters and their studies and experiences, it contains some profound thoughts for their day that now are pretty much commonly known and accepted facts. We all experience reading differently even when we read the same printed text, because we all approach it from our own particular perspectives, so we will all take our own view.

What touched me most was how the novel dealt with our evolution as a species and the development of the brain, remember this was in the context of what was known at the time the novel was set. Woven into the novel is a great deal of educational information and the story is beautifully constructed. The triune brain is not referred to as such but this was when the first discussions on architecture and function were taking place with the debate around evolution vs creationism still raging in the background. What is it that makes us human? Well my take on this is very simple, that we are learners. Trace our roots back as far as the archaeological and socio-anthropological evidence can go and it is clear our early ancestors adapted to their environments and eventually not only managed them but changed the almost beyond recognition.

We are a species of learners, we are by definition, and should strive to be Homo Sapiens (Wise Man). Other hominids existed, our ancestors outlived them, may well have exterminated some of them, but certainly out-competed them. Our brain is the most oxygen thirsty organ in the body, it is also thirsty for knowledge, its capacity is huge. I remember reading ‘The Wisdom of Bones: In Search of Human Origins’ a few years ago, it was an incredible read of an incredible piece of exploration, it led me to read quite a few books on similar subjects, see how it happens.

One new discovery, to me that is, and off I go, the brain rules. Learning appears to be my addiction and it appears I inherited it through my physical and cultural evolution. In many ways I have come full circle for a while as I am enrolled on the motorcycle training course but I remain, stubbornly remain, an autodidact, I celebrate the fact that I am in charge of my own education and here is an example of why. Becoming a learner again in the role of student motorcyclist has already helped me to learn how to be a better instructor. I have gone back to school and alongside learning to balance my throttle, clutch and rear break for slow manoeuvring I am learning to learn again, and because I found the just described procedure difficult I was lucky enough to have 2 different instructors teach me how to do it. As I did before I am learning how they teach not just what they teach and reflecting on how I teach too. It is a really nice experience, sit back, listen, try, evaluate and progress, that is how I do things.

We are all learners, we just need to be conscious learners to be more effective learners. We sometimes need to step out of our comfort zone to find new ways of doing things, just like our ancestors, right back through time. Learning is part of our species being, it is what makes us human.

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