How Do you Learn?

We’re about to embark on a trip through the wilderness that is education. The trails that we know are well-traveled, but they may not be the most direct and effective path.

Socrates said:
I cannot teach anyone anything. I can only make them think.
After you have become accustomed to something, how often do you think about it?

Imagine you’ve just been born. You suddenly have all these new senses coming at you. PANIC! You are wet and getting cold. You have a sudden instinct to suck this cold dry stuff into the lungs you didn’t know you had. The sounds you were comfortable with are no longer filtered through a fluid and are much louder and harsher than you could ever imagine. Your movements are not restricted. You no longer hear Mom’s heartbeat. They clean you off and put you near your mom and she holds you close, and you begin to warm up. She may sing to you or speak softly to you, and you recognize the sound and you become less frightened. You don’t think about breathing anymore because now it seems to be automatic. You are not at all in control of your body, and it makes weird sounds and gives you weird feelings. But it doesn’t take long for you to start to recognize things.

You become accustomed to how you eat, how you breathe, and how you relieve yourself. You get more comfortable with the sounds you hear, the movement of your limbs, the feel of your clothing, and the area around where you lie. This is carpet, this is a playpen, this is grass, this is a blanket.

When you, as an adult, walk, do you have to concentrate on which foot to move and how? You do after surgery, and it’s weird because now you have to concentrate on what makes your leg move. How does it feel when it’s right? What did you do to make it feel right? What compensating behaviors do you use to remediate the weakened muscles and the feel of the new hip or knee in action? Now, if you continue your compensating behaviors, your “new” walk includes a limp and may misalign your back! You have practiced getting from A to B but not the walking process. The destination, in this case— B, is not as important as the journey! You have gotten the mechanics of badly walking perfected. Was that what you were aiming for? You might want to check out Monty Python’s Minister of Silly Walks. You have effectively trained your body to accept something that will ultimately cause you pain and wear down your bones causing more surgery.

How often do we do that? Not much, you say? HA! Let’s return to the baby again. Do you remember Sweet Pea in the Popeye cartoons? He wore a one-piece baby garment like a nightshirt. How about Maggie from the Simpsons? I babysat one little girl whose parents put her in the one-piece nighty. When she crawled, she would inevitably put her knee on the inside of the nighty, and it would cause her to bang her head on the ground. She learned that to get around, she had to do a worm-like movement with a foot kick. She managed to pop off all the buttons on the front. She then transferred that movement when she graduated to little-girl clothes. One of my kids scooted on his seat. Another one pushed himself backward under the furniture. Another just rolled into place. Obviously, that is physical movement. None of these kids remember doing that now. They don’t have to because they walk.

People learn behaviors, thinking processes, self-images, and speech patterns and then use them, right or wrong, in every situation they find themselves in. They make rules for themselves.

  • I can’t remember names.
  • I can’t be on time.
  • I could never drive on the left side of the road.

There is nothing but their beliefs that keeps them from remembering names, being on time, or driving on the left side of the road. Why would you make a rule like that?

Think about that for a while.

We tend to learn what we must, put it in a box, and never explore any other options. The biggest progress we make is when we UNLEARN how we thought we learned.

How many of you use a modern hand-operated can opener?

Do you see that little shelf below the cutting wheels? Did you know that was designed to go on top of the can, not the side? The little grooves in the top of the can act as a guide for that little shelf and keep the opener from coming off the edge. It does tend to get paper stuck in the gears and that would encourage people to use it incorrectly with the shelf on the side of the can. So many use it incorrectly now that I bet this little diatribe is brand new to you. Using it correctly is much less frustrating, but since Mom had us open cans, and Grandma did it the same way, we’ve come to the conclusion that the incorrect way is the only way. We’d have to UNLEARN how to use the can opener.

We make the same assumptions when we learn things and when we teach things. We assume that since some brainiac came up with teaching children at little desks all in rows with students of similar age, watching the teacher spout her wisdom and give her examples, that this is the only way to teach. We also assume that all children should learn at the same speed and in the same way. How would you present material to audio-centric learners differently than how you’d present the same material to visual-centric learners? How could you ensure that these children would remember this material? Why would we assume that blind children have only the audio sense available to them and deaf children would only have only the visual sense available? We all have five senses, so wouldn’t it be probable that we would use more than one sense to learn something?

When we discover that the actual material we teach is not as important as the process of discovery and curiosity that we instill in our charges, then we’re actually teaching. It is in the development of self-awareness and situational awareness that the students learn how to teach themselves. This is the long-term goal of any teacher—to make life-long learners. And the first step is to actively think into everything we do.

Published by Rebecca Fegan

To be a better anything, I have to be a better person. My results come from the quality of my thinking and it is something I always work on.

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