Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Learning and mistakes

Separating out what's useful from what's not useful in our context of learning

Thread:                           Context, Learning, Mistakes
Previous related entry:     1/5/2011 "We are always in a context"
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
          —Michael Jordon
“I’m not a great inventor, I just make mistakes faster than most people.”
          —Thomas Edison

How do we make meaning and respond when we are in the context of learning something new? It certainly depends on whether we're alone, at or work, being judged, or exploring our own interests. To a great extent, it depends on our personal history. What's useful and what's not useful about how we have learned to approach learning?

Much learning—to walk, to ride a bicycle, to write, for example—occurs in a natural flow of trying something new, making adjustments, and trying again.

For many of us, as we grow up, this natural process of learning becomes burdened with the tension of having to get it right the first time and trying to avoid mistakes. The following illustrates how this might happen with a single instance taken from an early experience that involves learning the alphabet, learning to write, and learning to use an eraser.

The natural pleasure of learning
I was an earnest little kid. I was learning to distinguish the lowercase ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’, and ‘q’ from each other. Sometime in first grade, we graduated from those big thick pencils to the more grownup thin yellow models with an eraser… it felt like a big deal.

While copying words the teacher had written on the board, I wrote a ‘b’ that should have been a ‘d’… and I caught it! With my new pencil I carefully erased it and made the correction. I felt good.

Learning about mistakes
When the teacher walked by my desk she said, “You didn’t erase very well—I can see both your mistake and your correction. Erase it again, and then copy the correct letter.”

I now understood that I had made two of what the teacher called “mistakes.” First, I made a ‘b’ instead of ‘d’ and, second, I didn’t erase well enough. I didn’t feel good about this. I wanted to make it right so the teacher would approve of me. (I couldn’t yet distinguish between Teacher’s approval of my work and her approval of me.)

Learning to try to avoid making mistakes in front of others
Intent on doing it right, this time I pressed the eraser harder into the paper. It ripped! From across the room she said, curtly and more loudly than necessary, “Get another piece of paper. Now you’ll have to copy everything over.” Whatever Teacher’s intentions, I understood that I had done something wrong and that I was being admonished in front of the whole class. I felt stupid and ashamed.

Learning to be anxious and hesitant about circumstances of formal learning
On some level I understood that even when I tried my hardest to avoid them, mistakes had a way of sneaking up and happening anyway. When learning something new, like using an eraser, I couldn’t anticipate what might happen, like ripping the paper. But not being able to anticipate what might happen is what made it learning instead of already-knowing!

Over time and with enough experiences of this sort, we approach formal learning situations (school, work settings) anxiously and hesitantly. We want to avoid making mistakes and the resultant feelings of shame—of having screwed up again. It doesn’t matter if we know we can’t see a mistake coming. After we make a mistake, we can still beat ourselves up thinking we should have known better. Not a good feeling.

A variant: Learning to be hypercritical of oneself (I always make mistakes)
Perhaps you grew up around a critical parent who found fault with you (“On that paper that got a 97, what’d you mess up to get dinged 3 points?”) or who “helpfully” corrected you (“Toy dump trucks don’t fly! Here, let me show you how to play with that”).

As the natural pleasure in our own process of learning is repeatedly interrupted, we gradually learn to think of ourselves as incompetent and in need constant correction. We learn to be hyper-critical of ourselves.

Another variant: Learning I must be perfect (no mistakes!)
Or perhaps you were seen as a smart and capable child. Your parents, relatives, or teachers may have held you up as someone other children should emulate… as when Uncle says to Cousin, “Why can’t you be more like [your name]?” or Teacher says, “[your name] was the only one to get an A on this paper. [Your name, again], please read your essay to the class.”

As nice as this might feel at the time, it puts a lot of pressure on [your name] to be perfect… and to not make a mistake. From this, one might learn to have impossible and unhappy-making expectations of oneself.

Splitting our attention between what we are doing and doing it right
About such learning, Charles Brooks in his book “Reclaiming Vitality and Presence” writes:

As children, we naturally gave full attention to everything, though it all may have changed every moment. Then the authorities told us about our responsibility not to just do things but to do them right. Since then, our attention has been divided between what we are doing and whether we are doing it right. (p100)
In other words, our natural enlivening process of learning something new becomes burdened with self-consciously trying to avoid making mistakes.

Imagine this: No mistakes, just learning
To put the above experience in sharper relief, imagine if my experience had played out this way: The first time the teacher sees my paper she says, “Ah! You erased something [points to it]. Do you see how you can still see the old letter you erased? You learned how erasers work when you press them into the paper very gently. If you press a little harder you can erase the old letter so you can hardly see it. Try again on another letter.”

I press a little harder and now focus on erasing the pencil marks. I rip the paper! The teacher immediately says, “Great! Now you know more about too soft and too hard. Pick another letter and practice with that eraser. If you rip the paper, that’s too hard, if you can still see it clearly, that’s too soft.” I pick a letter and begin erasing. She watches and then says, “That’s it, that’s better, it takes a little practice to really learn something new.”

Learning to like formal and directed learning
In this fantasy, my natural trial and error process of learning is welcomed into the setting of formal and directed learning—a school room. I am learning to enjoy learning around others, and to accept and use the support of others in my own process of learning. 

Selver & Brooks (2007).“Reclaiming vitality and presence: Sensory awareness as a practice for life; The teachings of Charlotte Selver and Charles V. W. Brooks.” Lowe, R. & Laeng-Gilliatt, S. (eds.). North Atlantic Books, P.O. Box 12327 Berkeley, CA 94712.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Great article by David Brooks in The New Yorker

Thread:                           Context
Previous related entry:     1/5/2011 "We are always in a context"

The January 17, 2011 issue of The New Yorker magazine contains an article by David Brooks: “Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of life.” It combines compelling storytelling and the current findings of social science. In one section, Brooks describes the unconsciously held contexts at play as a young man and woman first meet and go on to form a primary relationship. In another, he writes of how we acquire the contexts out of which we live and make meaning:
“…I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.”
And about the unconscious mind:
“After all, the conscious mind chooses what we buy, but the unconscious mind chooses what we like.”
Other quotes from this article will appear in subsequent posts about context.
Click here for the entire article by David Brooks

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

We are always in a context

Thread:                             Context  
Previous related entries:    12/17/2010 “Context is the matrix of meaning”

I think of the contexts in which we function as one way the human organism uses its considerable resources to organize learnings from past experiences… and apply those learnings to navigate similar circumstances in the present… in a way that is on behalf of well-being now. 

Some things we are born knowing…
We are born knowing to hold our breath underwater, a knowing that is held in our inherited intelligence compliments of our brand new nervous system. In the context of being underwater, our nervous system (but not our cognitive intellect) enacts an appropriate response: We hold our breath.

Even when older, we find it impossible to willfully inhale (without an airline) while submerged in water. We don’t consciously hold this context to benefit by it; a more accurate description is to say the context holds us. 

…other things we learn as we go
As we grow, we learn to recognize other circumstances and to associate sets of possible responses with each circumstance.

For instance, along with learning to recognize a spoon, we learn how to grasp it, which way is right-side up, and how to use it as an eating tool (rather than as something to hit stuff with or make an adult pick up when dropped on the floor). Throughout life, when we recognize a spoon, we access our knowledge about how to use a spoon and what we can do with it. Of course, we aren’t burdened with sorting through our knowledge about spoons when we use one—all that reliably takes place under the hood.

Along the way we learned to recognize sidewalks, that streets are primarily for cars, that being hit by a car is bad, and that sidewalks are safer for walking than streets. When a bit older—and in the context of these learnings—a walk down the middle of a seldom trafficked neighborhood street might be experienced as a low grade act of daring. Without conscious awareness, throughout our life, when in circumstances that include sidewalks, streets, and walking, we access our relevant knowledge of such things and behave accordingly. Viola! Another instance of context is the matrix of meaning (and response). 

This learning of distinctions, categories, and circumstances—of forming contexts in which we make meaning  that allows us to navigate the world—goes on and on; it is the business of growing and developing.

Some things we learn awarely, and much we learn unawarely
Although we may be aware of what we are learning and that we have learned, much learning is accomplished without our conscious notice. For instance, we may have been aware of learning to draw the letters of alphabet; but few of us were consciously aware of learning (much less how we learned), as children, to build The Story Of Who We Are. This we learned, in large part, from how we were treated by others. We also learned—seemingly by osmosis—how to be in relationship by being with our parents as they interacted with each other and with others. 

All these learnings form the contexts from which we make meaning and respond 
At any given moment, although we may be consciously aware of some aspects of our current context, it is my experience that we spend much of our time making meaning and acting within contexts of which we have little or no conscious awareness.

This is certainly the case when we use a spoon or a sidewalk, but it also includes the functioning of contexts in which we find ourselves enjoying (or not) the company of people we find physically attractive, or enjoy public speaking (or not) and socializing (or not), or feel chronically good about ourselves (or not), and a whole host of ways of being and responding about which we might tell ourselves “that’s just who I am.” 

Contexts shift in response to circumstance
We each harbor a unique and richly layered weave of contexts—some we are born with, some we learn either awarely or unwarely in the course of our life experiences. Now, like a jukebox that holds our own extensive selection of favorites, when we recognize familiar circumstances, we access the associated context, and make meaning in a particular way that includes a set of familiar responses from which we choose. 

All these contexts and knowledge are resources…
Most of the time this is a great thing—without conscious management, much of our structure of contexts and knowledge functions as a deep resource on behalf of our well-being and interests.

…unless they’re constraining 
Of course, some of our old learnings are no longer relevant to our current circumstances and are, as a result, constraints. When obsolete learnings function outside of conscious awareness, we feel like there’s nothing we can do about it—again, “that’s just who I am.”

More about this in subsequent blog entries.