What does learning feel like?

Stephen Heppell’s latest ‘Shoeless Learning’ photo

Every so often Stephen Heppell posts something about ‘shoeless learning’. This weekend it was a photograph which I retweeted and, as usually happens, it was met with reactions from those inspired by the idea to those thinking it was a joke.

I have blogged, and spoken, before about the inspiring group of boys in my last class who liked to disappear off into the outdoor quad to produce their videos. After the success of their sentence writing videos they took every opportunity to ask me if they could go to ‘the big house’ to work.

Whenever it was appropriate, I let them and thought little of it. However, when it came time to prepare for their KidsMeet presentation, I went to sit with them in the big house to talk about it- largely because there were no other spaces free for us to have a chat.


The house is a triangular structure of scaffolding poles, behind a garden shed, on which various plants have grown creating a solid cover. As I crouched down and walked into the house I was suddenly struck by how different it felt. The low sloping roof, the dark and cool inside, the rough concrete bench; the feel of this place was so different to the crowded classroom. This feeling was so strong, I am not sure that the boys learning videos would have taken the turn they did if they had not used this place- the feel of the videos as happening in both a physical and intellectual space which they own is so intrinsic to their power.

I think as a teacher I am often guilty of planning learning experiences in a very intellectual way. I think about the thinking that children will go through, how they could move through concepts and be encouraged to discover ideas. What I mostly don’t think about is what learning feels like.

How learning feels may seem secondary to the actual content, but until you enter the big house, or spend a lesson with your shoes off, it is hard to imagine how it can change the whole quality of the experience and even take it in totally different directions. Surely something worth harnessing?





6 responses to “What does learning feel like?”

  1. Doug Belshaw Avatar

    Great post, Oliver! You’re absolutely correct about the visceral element of learning. I’m reminded of this constantly by my four year-old who “just likes the feel of something” or, when asked why he insists we do something a seemingly-illogical way, it’s “just because”.

    I hope this inspires more teachers to consider their classroom (or other) environment a bit more. 🙂

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks Doug! I hope so too- certainly something I would be considering if I were setting up a classroom for next year. Sometimes I think it would be really beneficial to actually sit in an ‘feel’ the space for a particular activity rather than just thinking about it.

  2. Claire Lotriet Avatar
    Claire Lotriet

    I couldn’t agree more with you on this. I’ve been experiencing something similar on a personal. I’ve been dabbling with a bit if creative writing, but it just wasn’t happening for me in my usual spot in front of my iMac. I took myself off to local coffee shop and the whole experience was entirely different!

    Back in the classroom, I think it’s certainly worth thinking about how small changes can alter how learning ‘feels.’ I have previously experimented (for want of a better word) with music, lighting, freedom of where to sit (e.g. floors, under tables etc) and it’s something I’d really like to explore further.

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks for the comment Claire. Please do keep me posted on your experiments with this.

  3. Andrew Hiskens Avatar

    What an absolutely charming post, Oliver. And, I guess it is an obvious point, but somehow you wouldn’t have come to it unless you had actually experienced the shoes off-ed-ness of it yourself.

    Also, nice to reflect how we find these things. I came across your post from the twitter stream of someone who re-tweeted something of mine. And I also know Stephen, who has done some work with us here in Melbourne. Curious how connections work.

    Perhaps other people’s reflections can be as good as taking one’s shoes off, at least metaphorically…?

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks Andrew. Hopefully sharing reflections like this can approach learning from ‘taking shoes off’ in all different situations!

      Thanks for sharing the route by which you came here, such connections are really interesting.

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