Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Learning can be painful

Not knowing how to do something is often a scary business - especially when the learning process may result in injury! Today's Calvin and Hobbes cartoon illustrates this admirably.
This is part of a series of strips in which Calvin's father, an avid cyclist (who obviously entertains visions of taking father-son-bonding-type cycles with his son) is trying to teach him to ride a bicycle.

Calvin's lack of motivation for the task, his non-athleticism and his overactive imagination (not to mention the fact that his legs don't actually reach the pedals!) are enormous barriers to learning this skill. More than once in the series, he comes a cropper and gets injured.

When it comes to sports or physical activities, I have a low tolerance for the learning curve. I don't want to learn how to do a thing. I want to know how to do a thing. I want to know how to do it well. Now. I want to win. Today.

Years ago, a boyfriend tried to teach me to play squash. He was confident that my natural aggression and competitive nature would make me a natural for the game. The very first time he took me out on the court, he regretted it.

The thing with squash is that the ball has to heat up before it will bounce properly. The problem is that you have to warm it up by hitting it, which means you have to be able to hit before you know how to hit it, if you see what I mean. I found this teeth-grindlingly frustrating, and kept trying to murder the flipping thing. Each successive failure caused my aggression and frustration to rise until I was seething. It was at about this point that the ball finally warmed up enough to behave the way it does when hit by "proper" players. With every ounce of pent up emotion, but with absolutely no skill or control, I smashed that ball... straight into the hapless man's, well, man bits. He sank to the floor with nary a sound.

To give him his due, he did continue to teach me, and I continued to learn. But I confess that I hated the fact that squash courts have glass backs, putting my ignorance and incompetence on display. Sadly, my knees started to pack in long before I learnt sufficient control of my temper to become as good at the game as I might have been. However, by the time I was forced to give it up, I had broken at least one racquet and caused myself uncountable bruises by miscalculating the distance to the wall. I had also decorated my boyfriend with several of those telltale circular bruises.

Unlike Calvin, my pride will not allow me to give in, and I keep stubbornly returning to the thing I can't do. Like Calvin, I regularly sport the evidence of my ignorance.

An aeon ago, when I played netball for the school team, I would go out onto the court with guards on both elbows and knees. Opponents often assessed me as being injured or fragile and therefore easy to get past. Actually, the guards were there to protect me from injury, because I would risk life and limb to prevent a ball from getting past me, and spent a lot of time picking myself up off the floor. If I had had more skill, I might have known how to put myself where the ball was going to be (a la Wayne Gretzky who famously answered an interviewer's question about his superior skill by saying that other players skate to where the puck is, while he skated to where it would be), but I hadn't learnt that level of analytical play, yet - I never did, to be honest - and my ignorance caused me (and my fellow players on both teams) many an injury.

So why do I say that learning can be painful, when it is plainly the ignorance that hurts? Well, take today's cartoon. If Calvin's Dad had never decided to teach Calvin to ride. If he had never bought the bike, Calvin would never suffer the injuries he sustains in the series. But... he would still be ignorant. So it's in trying to reduce (banish?) the ignorance that we can get hurt.

It is Calvin's stated goal never to learn anything from any situation. There is a where his teacher asks him what state he lives in. He says: "Denial". She resignedly admits that she can't argue with that! We could buy the house next door to Calvin in his blissful home state, or we can tackle the ignorance and take the consequences, which may not always involve physical pain, of course.

We have to allow for the learning curve. We have to accept that there will be a transition phase. We can't just go from "not knowing" to "knowing" without first passing through the dangerous valley of Little Knowledge.


Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...

I think you've hit on the reason that many older people STOP learning. It is difficult. It is frustrating. It is infuriating to come to the fact that we've lived however long and are still ignorant about some things. As they say, "Ignorance is bliss" but I think its bliss because it sure is comfortable.

We must teach students to be constantly willing to come face to face with their own ignorance and be willing to learn something new. Then, after we learn something new to start over again.

I am married to an engineer and one of the major premises of engineering is a state of constant improvement. A state of never arriving. A state of perpetual learning. We all must become like that.

Another great post, Karyn. It is good to see that you've kept up the great work. I've been on vacation and your blog is one that I've missed!

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Vicki - you've been missed!

Harold Jarche said...

Mark Oerlert reports some interesting findings about change & pain here

PS: Lucas appreciated your comment on his dragonlance blog :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the pointer, Harold - it's a good post. I might give it a shout out in my own post later today.

And no problem about the comment on Lucas's blog. I have a budding author of my own in the house (his stories are more like the Alex Rider stories by Anthony Horowitz), and I know how far a little encouragement goes.