This man lived in a town, much like yours. He grew up with parents who were not wealthy but gave what they could so that he could be given the education he needed to get a job. The man hadn’t started learning when he first walked through the gates of that modest little primary school, of course. His teachers didn’t need to teach him his A, B, Cs and 1,2, 3s, and the boy seemed very well behaved to boot. Clearly his parents had started the boy learning quite early on.

So the boy who would later become the man sat at his desk and used the materials provided to him – both in his classroom and inside himself – to progress through each task and lesson, each week and year, until he was old enough to go to secondary school. The boy had been a what educationalists often call, using highly technical jargon developed over several decades of research, as a “sponge”.

He loved music and art. Even he admitted they were not areas of his greatest skill, however his mother still dutifully attached each and every painting and sketch to the fridge. His parents were grateful to the school for pushing the boy to read and borrow as many books as he wanted from the library. The boy sometimes read books intended for bigger kids but, since there were no age restrictions on the covers, he didn’t even notice. Any onlooker would have thought the boy was mad for reading some of them. Watching more closely, they would have seen that he quickly threw away those books he found boring, useless or too challenging. This, naturally, was a skill in itself.

He had good days and bad days. Nothing is perfect, even for this learner.

On from one teacher in one classroom, to several of each in a single day. Teaching was happening constantly though the boy noticed that he was less the focus of his instructors’ attention compared to the many tests he would do and the facts and processes needed to get a good mark on those tests. Unlike his primary school teachers, his many teachers had many more students to deal with and monitor, so he assumed this just must be reality.

The fridge was less adorned with paintings and sketches and instead became a repository of documents with letters and numbers prominently displayed as the central important feature – despite rung applied by the teacher rather than the student. The boys’ parents noticed that the boy was more concerned with getting work done as opposed to discussing what it was he was writing about. Their little boy who had loved reading and loved listening and adored art was now a machine for completing tasks for grades.

Perhaps ironically, they too had begun focusing more keenly on his performance. His time at school now had to be full of facts and figures and tasks and documented progress. Though they didn’t often discuss it at dinner – which was becoming more and more silent as they aged together – their boy was no longer happy.

He made his way through school, doing as he was told (generally) and producing what was asked of him in his various subjects. He chose electives that he considered valuable to getting into the best course after high school. He could only push himself to do his best when there was a clear benefit. Usually, no matter what he did, he seemed always compared to his classmates, and his grades shifted little.

As the time came for him to leave high school and he was becoming a young man, he felt that he had experienced lots of teaching and schooling and had even learned a thing or two. But for all those hours spent working, pushing through night after night on tasks to which he would never again apply himself – for he never wanted to be a life long exam sitter – he felt that he, as an individual, has stopped learning a while ago.

He hadn’t stopped remembering or being able to write answers to questions. He hadn’t stopped listening to others or doing assignments. He had, in very vague and foggy terms, lost his learning spirit. He did things because they were required and he had little time or inclination to learn for love or for the sake of it.

But there was one thing he was grateful for. One of his many, many teachers had pushed him to join an after school art club. Not for marks or for performance measurement did he attend but for a pulsing energy that pumped through him when light and shape and colour came together from his fingers. It was how he learned about texture and perspective and all manner of other secret things he had seen but not understood.

As he graduated and moved to the next phase of his life, less constricted by bells and uniforms, the man looked at his parents in the crowd and had the realisation that he had only stopped learning in class.