The Learning Process

I was a good student in school. Often, I picked up things quickly. I was a people pleaser, so being able to quickly understand a lesson and receive the teacher’s good graces fed me. It was the kind of attention I lacked at home, and I thrived on it. I am a great test taker. I knew how to read test to gauge what kind of answers they were looking for, and was capable of making educated guesses for the ones I couldn’t figure out. I am quick to recognize a sequence or a pattern and follow it. These skills have served me well during my school years.

Yet, life has taught me that being a great student doesn’t always add up to actually learning the content. More often than not, I could cram lots of information in my head for a project or a test and promptly forget it shortly after. This was clear when I left high school Spanish for college Spanish. You always build on top of previous knowledge in Spanish. If I hadn’t been taught something, or if I forgot it, it was hard to not waste a lot of time in playing catch-up.

Because I was such a good student, I was a horrible learner. My educational process consisted in what I could do to make the instructor happy as opposed to actually learning new skills. Even as a teacher, I can see what section of students are there to “please” me, what section of students actually got things easily, and what section of students were really struggling to wrap their brain around the information. (We’ll leave out the section of students who didn’t care at this point.)

As a teacher, it is easier to play to the students who want your approval or get it quickly. They make your life easier and can give you a false sense of accomplishment because you can rationalize that it was through your efforts that they succeeded. In reality, these students would do well in any class. The students that make you pull your hair out to find new ways of explaining concepts, made you serve as coach to motivate them to keep trying, and cheerleader when they finally got it….are the students who really make you earn your paycheck.

Often, teacher preparation programs do little to really help you teach. Teachers often rely on their own experiences with learning to help them break down a subject to teach. If you were one of the students who got everything quickly, there can quickly be a barrier between you and the students who don’t operate the same way. Sure, several schools have employed diversity programs, special education training, and other programs to help ensure that teachers meet students at every level, but I think that they can sometimes miss the mark entirely. I think what a teacher really needs to do is to be placed in a situation where they are forced to learn something new that takes them out of their comfort zone.

For instance, I tried to pick up knitting. From the first second of just trying to cast the yarn onto the needle, I was miserable at it. Alex, a quick study to knitting, had the patience of a saint while he was trying to show me how to do it. I was easily frustrated. I was use to things coming easily to me, and couldn’t believe how I couldn’t get how to tie a piece of yarn onto a needle. Besides just getting the yarn to cooperate into the appropriate knot, you also had to be consistent with your yarn tension, pay attention to the knots being the same size, and worry about your yarn not falling to the floor and pulling out the last segment you had been working on for the last hour.

Although I had all the time in the world, had a great teacher, motivation, and the tools to do it, learning to knit still took a lot of effort. Because it was foreign to me, I had to retrain my brain to do something. I had to make what my mind was thinking and translate it into a physical response. If this line of communication didn’t work, it showed in my garment. Patience was a critical element to the process. I had to be patient enough to understand where communication in my body was breaking down, examine it, and tweak it. I had to be patient enough to understand that I wasn’t going to get it right on the first try, and needed to work my muscles out to respond to my mind in a way that was fruitful to my project. I had to be able to take critical feedback and respond to it positively. I had to separate the criticism from an indictment on my own personal worth. If I was having trouble doing one aspect of the task, it didn’t mean I was stupid, it just meant I needed more practice.

I also had to learn how to deal with frustration. If I didn’t check it, it had a tendency to build and grow until it could find a way to escape. This could happen in something as physical as tossing the project and all its materials across a room, to excusing myself to the nearest porch to sit in rage. In order to check myself, I needed to make sure that all my other bodily functions were running smoothly. Was I fed? Did I have to go to the bathroom? Was I hydrated? How was I feeling before I sat down? Was I in the right mind space to be taking this on? Was I safe? Did I have the energy to invest in this endeavor?

This is what students go through every day. They might not think about it consciously, or they may not have the necessary communication skills or the maturity to recognize it or give voice to it. As a teacher, you are supposed to recognize it with or without a student’s help. When you are surrounded by 150 students on various points of the spectrum, it is easy to miss a few.

When I put myself in this place, I can finally connect to what my students have to sift through in order to really learn something as oppose to regurgitating it. I can relate to students who get so frustrated that they just give up and check out. What is the point if you can’t see the benefit? Sometimes, you have to learn to just trust that there is a beneficial outcome if you can’t see it. If you have any trust issues, this can be the hardest part of the learning process.

Over the course of several months, working little by little, I finally finished a scarf that I presented to my sister for Christmas one year. It was not perfect, but I had finished what I had started. It felt good to finally finish what I had started, and even better to have something to show for it. Often we ask students to work on things that they won’t understand the benefit of for another decade or more. We then ask ourselves why are they not motivated? It is because they can’t see the payoff and they don’t trust your interpretation of it.

I had a chance to employ my learning process again with a magic piano app put out by Smule. I downloaded it over a year ago. I instantly loved the idea of pretending to play a real piano. It had a Rockband style of play that I was totally jazzed by. Even though I had great motivation to learn it, I realized quickly that my current skill level was not enough. I had rhythm, but I lacked the physical strength in my wrist to play what my mind was asking it to do.

I began playing a little every day. Sometimes my wrist would hurt and I would have to stop. Frustration would surface when I couldn’t play at the level that I wanted to. I would go without playing for days, and then pick it up again. At the time, I just enjoyed it enough to tinker with it.

Eventually, Alex caught on to the game. He had a natural knack for it. Even though I had already been playing for more than six months, he developed more skill in minutes than I had in months. I kept playing. The idea of buying a subscription so we had more access to the song library came up. Alex bought it without hesitation. I was so jealous, but I kept playing in free mode. Eventually, the boys asked me why I didn’t buy the subscription if I loved the game so much. I couldn’t justify spending money on such a superficial thing until I realized that I really did enjoy it that much. So, I took the plunge.

Having the song library open up was like Christmas to me. I enjoyed bouncing from pop hits to classical pieces. I at first played it for the joy of playing it. Alex than showed me the “achievements” section. There were several tasks designed to help you explore the game. To this point, I had enjoyed jumping levels as a measure of my progress, but this opened a whole new level to the game.

I must take a moment to mention that I had never finished a video game before. Alex and Max can whip through a Super Mario Brothers game in one night. I have never had the sensation of “winning” a game like that. I am also the type of person who HATES the process/journey. I like doing shows with short rehearsal schedule because I hate rehearsals. I just want to get on stage and do the show.

So, I looked at this “achievements” page as a challenge. I had accomplished several of them over the course of the year I spent playing in the free mode, but there were TONS that I had not checked off yet. Alex, being the astute guy he was, had already checked off most of them in the matter of a few months.

I began playing with a different focus. Instead of just playing for the fun of it, I got down to business. I was checking off achievements right and left, pounding it out. I learned new instruments, played at higher levels of difficulty, and played songs outside of my normal genres. Each time I clicked off an achievement, I felt more and more accomplished.

Eventually, I only had one achievement left to unlock. I needed to play 1000 songs. At first, I felt like I had played so many that I had to be close to getting there. When I looked at my progress tab, I saw that I had only played 178 of 1000 songs. What? I had been playing this app for over a year and I had only played 178 songs? I then committed myself to hitting 1000.

I am not a super goal oriented person. I thought of the diets I have been on and how I would obsess over calories to the point I would become unmotivated and quit. I am quick to toss off minor achievements as nothing. Still, I wanted to set a goal and achieve it. In this arena, nothing was dependent on the outcome. I was free to do it or not do it. This is why I believed I could stick with it to the end.

For over a week, I was constantly playing Smule. I would get started and look up several hours latter wondering where the time had gone. I was a machine. I noted that playing the songs became less fun for me because I was just playing through them to check it off of my “to do” list. I would check in with Alex, who was trying to do the same thing. Not that we really had a competition going, but feeling a little competition with him was motivating.

I would play Smule on the toilet till I couldn’t feel my legs and played some more. I played Smule until my wrist went numb. I ignored my cat, who kept nuzzling the phone to get my attention. I ignored my hunger and bodily functions to keep playing. My eyes would cross and I could barely see, but I still kept playing. I had to reach my goal at all costs. I than added one more stipulation, I wanted to do it before my subscription was up for renewal.

I would play for hours and see my progress jump a fraction of a percent. There were days were I was over it, but I continued to play. I played so many Asian pop songs, that they all began to sound the same. Finally, on one Sunday, I realized I only had 178 songs left to play. I sat down and played over 8 hours of Smule in order to cross the finish line. I had to force myself to take a break halfway because my eyes could no longer focus on the screen. I began to wonder if I was causing permanent damage, but I kept going.

Unfortunately, when you get to this achievement, there is no special animation. No princess being unlocked in a castle. I had to keep toggling between screens to find out when I finally crossed the threshold. I took screenshots of before and after. Eventually, I hit 1000 and sent out a Facebook notice and a text to Alex. He texted me back a lovely picture with animated fireworks. I noticed that Smule only had a catalogue of 1011 songs, so I played the last 11 as a victory lap.

In less than three weeks of having a subscription, I basically beat Smule. Through my sore eyes, numb, and hungry body, I felt like a victor. I had finally achieved a goal that I thought would be hard to obtain. I was able to get past obstacles of time and life to make it happen. I built up the muscle and coordination I hadn’t had before in order to achieve my goal. Even though my goal meant nothing to anyone else, I still found the motivation to achieve it.

I know that some might find obsessing about a video game as pathetic, or even little dangerous, but it was powerful to me. Games are just virtual worlds. If I spent the same time and energy on trying to learn a real piano, wouldn’t it been more worthwhile? Possibly. Still, the whole experience reinforced that I could achieve any goal I set for myself. I could see how the same sacrifices I made to win this game could be done to achieve goals with a little more value at stake. I realize the importance of an accountability partner and a little healthy competition. I felt how one could get over lack of motivation during more lackluster times, and how to make parts of the process exciting with mini goals and challenges.

In the end, it was a powerful lesson for me. I saw how I operated in certain situations and learned more about my tendencies. I understood my drive to pound things out and how it can be both positive and negative. I found ways to channel my frustration into motivation to achieve my goal. I also could see how I could incorporate this same experience into my teaching.

So, if you are a parent or a teacher, or someone who would like to see yourself achieve a goal that you think is impossible, I encourage you to step out of the box and try to learn something new. You may pick up a new and useful skill. You may learn something new about yourself. You may also learn how to be more empathetic to those going through the learning process and pick up new ways to help them make the necessary connections to find success.

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