Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Learning How You Learn


David Schwartz’s intriguing and revealing post,  Suguaro By the Numbers. Maybe, displayed how one (his) creative mind thinks.  It generated lots of responses from the I.N.K. community of thinkers and creators.  It's a window into the mind of a life-long learner. It may well be that the most important thing any individual can learn is what their individual learning style is.  Last year I heard a speaker who had become a teacher despite severe learning disabilities.  But because she had severe learning disabilities, she knew exactly what she needed to do to learn something new and could articulate it.  I was struck by her self-knowledge and started thinking about how well I know myself in this regard. What spurred me to start dwelling on this, long before I read  David's post, was a quote at the bottom of an email.

The quote was by General Eric Shinseki, who said, “If you do not like change then you will like irrelevance even less.”   "Wow!" I thought.  Are we ever caught between the clich├ęd rock and a hard place!  Change is now hitting a number of established ways of being and doing—publishing, education, and social interaction.  With the new focus on the Common Core Standards, emphasizing the acquisition of skills that enable people to learn, educators are starting to recognize that learning to learn is a skill for a lifetime. Even we, who learn and create for a living, have to master new skills to adapt to change, or we become irrelevant.  It’s helpful to know about our own learning styles and how to be patient and kind to ourselves while we’re at it. Cuz it ain’t easy!

For myself,  I know that learning is a process.  Some concepts or skills I “get” right away.  That’s because they are only slightly different from what I already know.  But there are other concepts that are foreign to me and are not so quickly acquired.  I call these the “tearing-out-the-hair” challenges.  So I have learned that learning takes time, although I am very impatient with myself until I gain some proficiency.

Sometimes life hands you a catalyst where previously unrelated learning comes together in an instant “aha” moment.  Years ago, when I was just starting as a writer, I had worked on a couple of books with a friend and neighbor—another young mother like me.  One day she called me up and said, “Vicki, we both like to cook.  Why don’t we write a cookbook for kids?”  I replied, “Let me think about it.” (An excellent phrase to have on the tip of one’s tongue.)  I hung up the phone and started walking towards the window in my living room with an internal monologue
going on in my head that I remember to this day, forty years later: “I don’t want to write a cookbook for kids.  I want to write science for kids.”  At that moment the title “Science Experiments You Can Eat” popped into my head.  I had an instant vision of the work.  I knew enough about cooking and enough about science to immediately sit down and write an outline right off the top of my head.  As it turned out, I wrote that book by myself and it was published in 1972, revised in 1994 and is still very much in print.  (I’d LOVE to revise it again but, with the crisis in publishing, HarperCollins is not offering me a deal.)

But most of the time, before I write something, I’m not tapping into a deep reservoir of prior knowledge.  I have to learn about it. So I treat my brain like the computer it is. First I gather as many sources as I can—mostly books from the library. This is what I call the data-feeding or “gozinta” stage.  At some point, and this could be weeks later, I get inklings of the “gozoutas.”   I figure out the BIG idea behind the book, which gives me a direction for further research when I begin the purposeful research that uncovers the information I use to decorate the concepts behind the topic.

When I’m coming from a dead start, without absolutely no prior knowledge, like teaching myself how to make videos having never held a camcorder, I might peruse the manual to find out how to turn the thing on.  But I’m too impatient to stay with the manual very long.  I’m an experiential learner; I can’t wait to start using this new tool, knowing full well that I’m going to make mistakes.  So I intrepidly plunge right in.  My very first video featured my grandchildren from two different families doing a science activity together from one of my books.  These kids live far apart and see each other once a year.  That evening, I proudly showed their parents my rough footage to the delight of all.  Automatically, I rewound the tape after the screening, not thinking that the tape was in the camera.  The next time I used the camera, I erased all that precious footage.  An unforgiving  error!  But, one-trial learning.  I NEVER did that again.

I am not a scholar.  My impatient nature is not suited to dwelling on difficult texts.  So I start by attacking many books on the same subject until some author grabs me enough for more close reading.  I quit when I tire and, at the beginning, my attention span can be quite short.  But I’m persistent; so I keep at it.  I regard tough reading and writing like knitting.  I pick it up and do a little, time after time, until I get there.

I don’t like to learn under pressure.  I give myself deadlines with plenty of time and start to work right away.  I usually finish early.   I also give my brain deadlines to come up with solutions to knotty problems where the answer is not obvious.  Then, I forget about it. Amazingly, my brain does its thing and at some point, when I least expect it, the solution to the problem I gave it comes to me.  I have no idea how it happens, I just know how to make it work.

Sorta like learning how to use all this +_)(*&^%$#@! newfangled technology.  

1 comment:

Jim Murphy said...

As always, Vicki, a great and informative post. I once explained to a group of kids how I have to (in effect) give myself a series of 'courses' on whatever subject I'm working on so that I can get up to speed and feel confident about what I'm going to write. They were surprised, thinking we adults had already finished school, so we knew everything we had to know. I laughed and said I wished that was so, but told them that I found it very exciting to constantly learn new things.