Tag: beginners mind

7/29/12 “Learning How To Learn”

Good morning, team.

This week’s challenge is about learning how to learn. That may sound redundant, but honestly, now that I’m trying to learn something new, I’m realizing some things about how I learn.

I’m learning about horsemanship. That is, I’m learning how to ride a horse, how to care for horses, how to speak horse language, how to relate to these amazing four-legged animals. Call me crazy. A friend of mine recently commented, “Wasn’t falling down a flight of stairs last October scary enough? Now you want to ride a horse? Isn’t that dangerous, particularly for someone your age?” I know this doesn’t sound like something a friend would say, but her comments did come from a deep concern for my well-being. I tried to make the case that since I haven’t done so well on two legs, perhaps being on something with four will actually be safer. I’m not sure I’ve convinced either of us yet.

Truth be told, part of why I’m learning to ride a horse is to get over my fear of falling from high places. Getting on a horse for the first time last weekend was scary — shaking in your boots kind of scary. As I sat there in the saddle, feeling my whole body quiver, I realized that the only way to get beyond this was to be patient enough to just sit there until it stopped. If I could wait and the horse would just stand there, I knew the shaking would stop eventually. Of course, it did, and I embarked on my first horse ride in 40 years.

It’s been a long time since I last learned how to do something brand new, and I have to say, I’m really not fond of being a novice. I’m one of those people who grows quickly impatient if I can’t do something well right out of the gate. I don’t like how it feels when something is foreign to me — all that new information can be overwhelming. I quickly think, “This just isn’t worth the time or effort. It’s going to take too long to learn how to do this.” Part of why I never learned how to play a musical instrument is because it takes an enormous amount of time, practice and patience to become good at it. I have great respect for musicians because I have no idea how they have the persistence to keep at it year after year.

When I’m learning something new, it helps if I can find small accomplishments within the larger experience of the learning. For example, when I rode for the second time yesterday, I could already get on the horse better than the week before. I gave myself a little nod of encouragement by saying to myself, “You see, you’ve already learned something new.” Between that and my teacher giving me kudos for a few things, I’ve been able to overcome the negative attitude that I can’t do this.

When I was in grade school, teachers weren’t aware that different children learn in unique ways. It was all about delivering the information in the curriculum so that we could complete our lesson plans. But the fact is, a lot of us didn’t get it. For one thing, all of the information was delivered either via the teacher talking to us and or through our own reading about it. For many people, these methods are the least effective to learn. They are boring. How many of us remember sitting in school and listening to the teacher begin to talk about something? After about three minutes, the mind would go blank. On the other hand, I clearly remember every moment of my sophomore biology class when the teacher allowed his pet boa constrictor to crawl all over us. I’m an experiential learner. I like to learn as I’m doing rather than reading about it first.

I’m sure my computer skills have suffered because of my aversion to reading manuals. Short instructions that come from recipes, I can handle. But just looking at the front page of an instruction manual gives me a headache. I can’t keep my attention glued to a written step-by-step process. But throw me into the pool with a vague idea of how to keep my head above water, and I’ll figure it out.

When I was in college, my physics teacher realized that I wasn’t learning anything in his class. Maybe it was how I always sat in the back row hiding behind the tall guy. Eventually, my professor asked to meet with me after class. I dreaded the meeting. I knew I was in over my head, but I needed the science credit to continue majoring in anthropology.

“Not getting much out of this, are you?” he asked.

I could feel my face redden. With down cast eyes I replied, “Nope.”

“Do you know how you like to learn?”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” I said.

“Well, he went on, everyone learns a little differently, and the trick to learning isn’t so much about the subject you’re trying to learn but rather about how you like to learn things. Once you figure out how you like to learn, you can learn just about anything.”

This was a new idea for me.

“Let’s try an experiment,” he said. “Let me explain centripetal and centrifugal forces to you, and you can tell me what you’ve understood once I’ve finished.”

He proceeded to explain the two forces and how they work. As much as I tried to listen, he lost me at, “a mass underdoing curved motion, such as circular motion, constantly accelerates toward the axis of rotation.” What?? He might as well have been speaking Greek to me. When he went to the blackboard and wrote out an equation illustrating his point, I was truly lost. He could clearly see that I wasn’t getting it.

“Okay,” he said patiently, “let’s do it your way. Come with me.”

I followed him down the hallway to his classroom. He asked me to get on the stool that he generaly sat on during class. It had a rotating seat, which made it easy for him to turn toward his students and then back to the blackboard when illustrating a point. He asked me to get on the stool and hold my arms in close to my body. Once I did this, he came over and gave me a spin. “This is fun,” I thought as I spun around in circles on the stool.

“Now, hold your arms out,” he instructed. I did this and immediately began to slow down. He came over and spun me around again, this time asking me to bring my arms in and to extend them out as I spun around. Each time I held my arms out, I slowed down. When I brought them back in again, I would speed up. He explained, “When I spun you around, the energy I was using created centripetal force upon you. When you extended your arms out, the opposing centrifugal force created by your extended arms in space slowed you down.”

He went on to explain that there were other laws of physics at work here in regard to Newton’s laws of motion, but this was one small illustration of some of these physics at work.

“Does it make more sense to you now?” he asked.

I had to admit that it did. “Why can’t I always learn it this way?”

“You actually can,” he replied. “You just need to ask for more of a demonstration so you can see how it works. It’s called ‘visual learning,’ and for some of us, seeing how it works is the only way we can learn it.”

When we made it back to his office, he went to the bookcase and handed me a textbook. “Here,” he said, as he handed it to me. “This is my gift to you. Do the exercises in this book, and I’ll pass you in my class.”

The book was called “Physics for Poets.” I laughed. How appropriate, I thought. A book about physics written for people like me!

As I turned to go after thanking my professor for teaching me a lifelong lesson, he remarked, “Promise me that you won’t take physics again. I don’t think it will be your area of expertise.” With a great sigh of relief, I assured him that I wouldn’t take physics again but that I would never forget what he really taught me: how I like to learn.

This week, take a look at how you like to learn things. If you haven’t learned anything new in a while, choose something. Do you like to read about it first, assimilate the information and then try it out? Or maybe you’re like me — you’d rather learn about it as you’re doing it. Perhaps you enjoy the interaction that comes from learning from someone else. Do you prefer doing this in a larger group or one on one? Maybe you’re someone who enjoys going online, watching a video of how someone does something while you take notes and then try it yourself. Some people learn best by telling someone else about what they are learning. My horsemanship instructor suggested I tell my husband what I’m learning. She understood that if I have to explain it, I’ll learn it more quickly.

However it is that you like to learn, this is the week to experiment with it. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

Have a good week!


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