Saturday, August 2, 2008

'tis a gift

Learning is an interesting thing.

Much has been written about teaching, but not nearly as much about learning.

I don't recall any time spent in any school I've ever gone to that was dedicated to teaching anyone HOW to learn.

If this culture wasn't so messed up, that might be legitimate.
Babies don't need to be taught how to learn. Learning is what they do, totally focused and un-selfconsiously.

Come to think of it, my kids haven't ever needed to be taught how to learn, either.
But then, they've never gone to school, either.

I did.

And although the elementary school I went to from 2nd to 6th grade was an awesome place, indeed, and I started junior high with a somewhat different mindset than average, apparently, somewhere along the way, I picked up some bad habits that I've had to struggle to overcome.

The most obvious one, the one I see all the time, is the "teach to the test" syndrome, where classes are taught only in order to enable the students to pass a test. In return, the students, more often than not, study and regurgitate only what is needed to pass the test, and remember it for about that long. For example, how much do you remember from your high school classes? If you took those final exams right now, today, would you pass them?

Didn't think so.

Since a lot of the stuff taught in those high school classes has relatively little, or sometimes no, real world importance, that's not a huge problem.

But lately, I've seen it in classes where I would hope that the students really want to understand and be able to apply the subject matter. EMT classes, for example. There seems to be about a 50/50 split, from my limited experience, of people who really want to know, and those who needed the certification for one reason or another, but were not particularly interested in the subject. They just wanted to pass.

This is a hazard with any class that has a certification exam. OFTEN, the teaching is geared to that exam. People need to pass it.

It's a scary thought.

The other school-induced learning disability I see often- and I'm not immune- is where people who normally find most subjects to require relatively little effort to "pass," don't usually expend the extra effort required to MASTER the subject. And, when they find themselves up against something that is difficult, they don't have the skills required to be able to meet the challenge. They've never had to work that hard to learn anything before.

This, among other things, is what I find enormously appealing about fencing.

When I first started fencing, I was in that category of people who had not really found anything difficult to learn before. What I didn't realize, and therefore, didn't expect, is that while I was very good at intellectual learning, I had very little practice with physical learning. And understanding how to do something, and being able to actually do it, are two very different things.

In other words, it seriously kicked my butt.

And I loved it.

It forced me to learn how to learn in ways I had never had to experience before.

For one thing, I had to learn to allow myself to have difficulty with something, without giving up. I had to appreciate learning as a process rather than as something that just "happened." Perhaps most difficult of all, I had to learn to accept guidance from someone else, rather than being able to figure it out myself.

I've seen this issue with suddenly finding something difficult manifest in two distinct ways, and I wish I had the time and energy necessary to do a serious study of this. I find it fascinating.

Category one is where I started out. At the very beginning of trying something new, I had trouble. A lot of trouble. Finding this a novel experience, and having it happen right at the start of something, I accepted it as part of this new thing- fencing- and every step I took, every bit of progress I made felt like an accomplishment, which was enormously rewarding. So I stuck with it long after I might have given up, struggled through frustration, and here I am today, still learning.

I have had several students who have also been in this category. They tend to continue for a long time- often until they move away, or for some other reason are unable to continue. Most of them do not just quit, or disappear. They keep in touch after they move away. This is so predictable that I particularly enjoy having students who have tremendous difficulty as beginners.

Category two is less common.
These are the people who DON'T find it difficult at first. Like everything else they've ever tried, it's pretty easy. It might require physical effort, a hard workout, but they pick things up quickly and easily, without the bouts of frustration that seemingly plague the category one people. They progress quickly, and greatly enjoy what they are learning. These are the people that some people might view as "naturals" or gifted in some way. Often, they ARE academically gifted, if you want to call it that.

But then...
eventually, they hit that place where it suddenly isn't easy anymore.
Because they hit it after months or even years of finding fencing easy, they don't understand what has just happened. It sucks the joy right out of them. They are, generally, unable to make the shift to appreciating the difficulty.
And they quit. Abruptly.
It's not "fun" anymore.

I have had several of these students, too.
They do not keep in touch. They disappear.

I would love to see studies done on this phenomenon. I've seen it primarily in the limited area of learning to fence. Is it consistent across other fields of study? I think it might be.

If so, then perhaps being "gifted" is not always such a gift.
Maybe it's better to have to work for things.

I sound like my mother.

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