Never Too Late To Learn

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Hands up who hated school? I’m rather anticipating a sea of hands, here – but mine will probably be the most eager, the one reaching most determinedly sky-wards – because pretty much as soon as I’d learned to read, I was over mine. Upshot is I left at 16 with a total of six ‘O’ levels to my name (and one of those was Art), leaving a pair of grey school knickers hoisted up the flagpole as my ultimate farewell gesture while I skipped, danced and cartwheeled down the street. Marking the occasion with a final, joyful flourish by carefully placing my loathed school straw boater hat under the front wheels of a 119 bus.

I then, however, enrolled in what we all call ‘the university of life’. There are those who don’t know what they don’t know – but I did know what I didn’t know. So I became a human sponge, determined to make up for my lack of qualifications by spending time in the world’s art galleries and concert halls, convinced that travel itself also broadened the mind. But formal learning? Not my thing, I was always convinced.

They say it is a woman’s privilege to change her mind, however. And lately, I’ve done just that – having discovered that there is a much, much more interesting way to learn about pretty much any subject I fancy than sitting in a classroom, fashioning ink pellets. (Oh, children of the gel rollerball pen generation: you don’t know what you’re missing.)

The advent of TedTalks, iTunes University and other online classes means that I can learn about anything I fancy. I’ve become addicted to vodcasts and podcasts – and I can’t help feeling that my exasperated teachers would have been gobsmacked by my passion for knowledge about daily life in the French Revolution, the Milky Way (did you know that it contains as many as 100 billion earth-like planets?), and even mycology (inspired by a recent trip to Kew Gardens’ Fungarium research department. And yes, you read that right: putting the fun in fungi). Spending time on any of which feels much more worthwhile than adding a ‘like’ to someone’s Instagram feed or watching X-Factor highlights shared on Facebook.

The opinion of some education experts, actually, is that the days of formal schooling are numbered. We’ll no longer be bundled off to draughty institutions to learn, but will do so via our screens at home. When a friend’s teenager found herself school-less mid-term recently (don’t ask), a very viable option was the on-line classroom – made up of fellow students studying the same subjects across the UK (like some kind of Skype school), to prepare the students for the formal GCSE qualifications which they still need. They’re not nagged about what they’re wearing, given letters about skirt length to give their parents or told off for chewing gum – all of those ways in which schools seek to control their charges, while force-feeding then with dry facts and testing the hell out of them.

And when I was a teenager, how much would I have preferred another approach to education – the Reggio Emilia system, developed in Italy, which encourages kids to develop their own curriculum, based on what interests them the most – delving into the subjects they become passionate about on the way with the help of their teachers? I think the ‘Reggio Emilia’ approach is what I’ve probably embraced now, actually – and my newest and most joyful discovery is a website called masterclass.com.

True, I was first attracted to it by the online course in home cooking offered by California-based chef and organic foods pioneer Alice Waters – but I’m so impressed by the calibre of Masterclass’s ‘teachers’ that I’m broadening my horizons. Yes, I absolutely DO want to learn about photography from Vanity Fair’s Annie Liebovitz. Am I interested in having Dr. Jane Goodall teach me about conservation – or even Steve Martin share the secret of comedy? 1000%. Masterclass has gone straight to the top of the class in on-line learning, recruiting only the very best in their field to produce beautifully-filmed, instructive courses – we’re talking Serena Williams on tennis, for instance (won’t be taking that one), Gary Kasparov on chess, or Marc Jacobs on fashion design.

An all-class pass has cost me £140 a year – or a little over a tenner a month. (The price of a shortish central London taxi ride.) But it’s an investment in my health, as much as anything. As they say: it’s never too late to learn – and vital to do so, actually; according to Alzheimer’s experts, it’s important to think of the brain as the muscle, keeping neurons firing and stimulating it to develop new neural pathways by challenging it daily.

The other day, my husband slipped a newspaper supplement onto my desk about MBA courses. Really?, was my first reaction. And then I thought: how fascinating would it be, to take a part-time university course? I’m still mulling it over. But for now, I’m signing up for a 30-series course with Martin Scorsese on film-making, via masterclass.com, scheduled for early 2018.

And if school had been this interesting, trust me: I’d have had a flawless attendance record.

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