The Jewels of Learning

man reading a book in front of an a room full of books

Right now, learning has a bad rep. This is in part due to a few myths about learning (that it’s too hard, or only for young people, or too expensive), but it’s also partially because people no longer think of learning as powerful.

This hasn’t always been the case. King Solomon, known to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, valued wisdom above his riches, power and long life. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, declared that human rationality was shared only with the gods. The medieval English scholar Aelfric of Eynsham claimed that humans were different from animals only if they improved themselves and learned. The French philosopher, Descartes, said that humans could only know they existed from their thoughts. These people thought that learning could change lives.

But what’s so special about learning? Apart from winning Trivial Pursuit, it might seem pointless to be able to recite the dates of famous battles or the names of different flowers.

The truly powerful thing about adult learning is that it is supposed to be transformative. When you learn, you don’t just memorise facts. Education is supposed to change the way you look at the world. This is most obvious when you’re learning something vocational – learning how to use a computer or drive a car can truly change someone’s life. However, learning is just as powerful with more theoretical subjects.

For example, I am currently taking a module with the Academy for Distance Learning on the Principles of Plant Growth. This week we’ve been learning about the Carbon Cycle and I learned something which really amazed me. Plants produce oxygen and carbohydrates through photosynthesis. We usually focus on the oxygen part, but carbohydrates are also essential for the respiration and growth of every species on earth. Photosynthesis is one of the only ways of producing carbohydrates, meaning that all life on earth is directly dependent on photosynthesis. Every time I use energy or take a breath, I’m only able to do that because plants have taken that energy from the sun. Do you understand me? Unfortunately, I can’t explain to you in a few sentences why this is so amazing. You either already understand from having studied it, or you haven’t learnt it yet.

This kind of transformative insight is called a threshold concept or a ‘Jewel of the Curriculum’. Learning experts sometimes say that mastering these jewels is the only important kind of learning. The Jewels of the Curriculum are why learning is so valuable. Education allows us to discover new ways of seeing the world.

If you are ready to discover the Jewels of the Curriculum, come and sign up for one of our online or correspondence courses at the Academy for Distance Learning! You can work year-round, at any time of day, and every course comes with unlimited tutor support and access to our online classroom.




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