Iain McClinton: The Art of Learning

March 1, 2016 by American College of Sofia

Iain McClinton is the Head of College Counseling since 2013. Before that, in the period 2000-2013 he was an ESL Teacher and a UK College Counselor in parallel. In 2009, he was chosen by a students’ vote to address the Class of 2009 at their Senior Dinner when this event was held for the first time at ACS.

There are very few moments in a teacher’s life quite as rewarding as being given the opportunity to play a role both at the beginning and at the end of a complete cycle. I have known most of the graduates here this evening from the very first day they entered this school, and have had the pleasure of working closely with many of them as they brought their high school education to a close. I have never been the most ambitious of people and very seldom have I looked ahead to see what was coming round the next corner, which makes the unexpected honor of being asked to speak in front of you this evening all the greater.

Pic 1 Iain McClinton an hour before delivering his speech

Iain McClinton just minutes before delivering his speech to the Class of 2009

Few teachers are confident that all is well in the school system at home and abroad. Much as we’d like to believe that our schools are fashioning enlightened, capable, and responsible adults, many of us fear that they aren’t. I hope that, if not now, at some point in your lives you will come to understand how much this school and its faculty has tried to give you the necessary tools to continue in life; tools that will help you to find your place in society as competent, accountable, and well informed citizens.

When I recall my own school days, I am well aware that I don’t remember very much at all. This is not because my school days were boring, bad or full of teenage torment. In fact, if anything my time at school was incredibly unremarkable. I had great friends – we thought we would remain friends forever, great grades – I never questioned what they signified in the big scheme of things, great teachers – my basis for comparison was pretty limited, and my first great love – we thought we would remain in love forever and I never questioned what that might signify in the big scheme of things, and my basis for comparison was pretty limited.

The truth is that most of our school day memories very quickly fade, or rather concentrate themselves into a simple essence. I don’t remember much of most of my classes but I remember where I sat in particular classrooms. I have forgotten almost everything about chemistry but remember a particular moment when the teacher caught my imagination when describing the structure of atoms. I don’t want to even think about school lunches but there are still certain puddings that bring a smile to my face. I have probably confused the face of my P.E. teacher with that of my History teacher but I still remember the aching pain in my legs after cross-country running and the aching pain in my head after a history exam.

There is a moment, normally at high school, when something happens that changes us all; we learn the art of thinking on our feet. Most of us are never really sure at what moment this phenomena has occurred. Did it happen because of the buildup of lactic acid in my leg muscles during those cross-country runs? Was it those words used to describe the structure of atoms? Was it the fact that I had randomly chosen to sit at the front or the back of a particular classroom, or was it just that steam pudding that they always served on Wednesdays in the cafeteria? For whatever reason, whenever the moment, we learn to think on our feet. We learn how to learn; learn what to learn. We learn how to use information for our own personal gain.

I walked away from my school days with a clear idea of what I wanted to do, to study, to achieve. Of course, the “what I want” part of a person’s life changes all the time as we grow and take on new challenges, but the enjoyment in learning, discovering, being challenged and challenging oneself never changes.

Continuing your studies abroad is a bit like falling in love; at first everything about it seems amazing. Then you gradually discover the little faults. Then you start to find these faults charming. Later on, you adopt these faults yourself and start to irritate old friends with your foreign habits and new cute foreign accent. Studying abroad can be a lonely experience, especially in the first few weeks. So, make a point of socializing and pushing yourselves into new situations. Don’t work so hard that you never leave your student accommodation.


St. Patrick’s Parade with the preps in spring 2008

Learning how to think is really the whole point of going to university because, to be honest, it is one of the few periods in your life when you are given enough time to think at all. Unfortunately, it is also a period when you have a lot to think about – from the possible origins of the universe to how a can of Red Bull and a jar of marmalade could make such a nutritious meal.

Like any skill, successful thinking takes practice and the secret is in knowing what you are supposed to be thinking about and why. Spending too much energy on the Red Bull and marmalade dilemma might not really help you understand the origins of the universe.

If you get really good at thinking while at university, you may be able to think of a way to carry on thinking – and thus avoid actually doing anything – once you leave.

Unfortunately, the art of thinking and gathering information so that you can think even more can become so addictive you never get around to doing anything with it. Just remember that no one will realize how competent and well-informed you are if you keep all the information to yourself. One of the hardest tasks for first year students is to get to grips with the way university differs from school. Your lecturers may encourage more disagreement with their views than you are used to. It can be a shock when teachers start being really pleased if you answer them back, and, it’s is true that you don’t have to hand in your homework for weeks and weeks. One of the biggest differences from school is that teachers won’t keep on at you about deadlines, or even tell you how many hours of study you should be doing. Indeed, you may find that no one bothers to tell you what you are expected to do in terms of academic work – or even whether you are expected to do any at all.


Iain McClinton at the ACS Faculty Follies show, 2011

Until now, you have been told by others what to learn and when to learn it. You have been taught and tested, you have been assessed, you have been quizzed, you have been assigned tasks and judged, you have been marked up and marked down, you have been graded and monitored and, one hopes, commended and sometimes, unfortunately memoed. Your heads have been filled and filled and filled. What is that all about? Where are you in this scene? What were you actively doing in this picture of passivity? You were done to, but were you also doing? Yes, of course, young people have to be educated, but I often feel they are smothered by the education system and at times need to be left alone to educate themselves.

Let’s remind ourselves of the grammar principal at work here. Passive voice is a voice that indicates that the subject is the patient or recipient of the action denoted by the verb. You therefore have been the recipients of an action. I grew up in Scotland. I was educated in Scotland. I somehow managed to actively do the growing up part on my own. I grew up. But, the education part was done to me by others. I was educated. I was the recipient of the action!

Learning how to become the active agent in your own life is really one of the major benefits of going to university. It is also a period when you have a lot to be active about. Like any skill, successful activity takes practice and the secret is in knowing what you are supposed to be active about and why. It is up to you to cut your own path and discern for yourself the appropriate from the inappropriate, the useful activity from the useless one. What I want to see are you, all of you, in pursuit of knowledge rather than knowledge in pursuit of you. You will have to work all this out for yourself starting with how to read.

Learning how to read is largely about knowing what’s worth reading and what’s not.  The booklist given to you by the professor probably is worth reading – but only so that you can get rid of most of its suggestions. A quick scan through various introductions and conclusions will probably be sufficient for most of the stuff on the list. Everybody knows that much of what academics write is pretentious nonsense. It is your job to find out what is really interesting and necessary. The important thing is to think about what the books might contain without actually having to read through all of them. And anyway just remember, the best way to avoid plagiarism is to avoid reading anything written by somebody else.

You will now have to work all of this out for yourself, for a teacher, a good teacher, makes himself or herself progressively unnecessary as the learner becomes more acutely aware of him or herself and moves from passive learner to active learner. The faculty, as present here this evening, has, I hope, taught itself out of a job. The best teachers, your best teachers, the ones you connected with, have suggested ways and inspired thoughts in you that will allow you to teach yourselves. They have opened the door, but you’re going to have to enter of your own accord. We can only hope that the building blocks provided by us for you have been sufficiently strong to carry you across that bridge from passive to active.

I hope that, if not now, at some point in your lives you will come to understand how much this school and its faculty has tried to give you the necessary tools to continue in life; tools that will help you to find your place in society as competent, accountable and well informed citizens.

On behalf of the faculty of the American College of Sofia I wish you all the greatest of success in every new venture that you undertake. I hope we have prepared you well and that you, in turn, will represent your country and the college well, as you continue through life.

This material was first published in June 2009 as part of the ACS Alumni Magazine.



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