Friday, May 13, 2011

A frame for how we learn

…how what we learn goes on autopilot and how it happens that we can feel stuck      (Coming Soon: getting unstuck)

Threads:                        Context, Learning
Relevant recent posts:     2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning
                                     4/5/2011       Gonzo blogging: The blog does the writer

It is better to learn as we go than to go as we have learned.
— Leslie J. Sabler

Cliff Notes: When we learn something good enough (like typing, walking, or the various aspects of being in relationship) it goes on autopilot; we do it without having to consciously think about it. The upside: We have more attention for other things. The downside: We don’t get any better at what’s on autopilot… which might be okay… or not.

This entry explores this aspect of our learning process, including feeling stuck when a previously good enough learning—now on autopilot—becomes a constraint. The next entry will explore how we can get unstuck or not stuck in the first place.

I do not intend this as a theory or a rigorous model of learning; it is a frame offered in support of changing aspects of ourselves that seem stuck and unchangeable.

Consider these two common human experiences:

“I’ve reached my ceiling” at competence X. No matter how much time I spend doing X, I don’t get any better.

For example, when we first start to play guitar, golf, ski, run, (or whatever), we quickly notice progress; after a while, no matter how much time we spend doing the activity… we don’t seem to improve.

“That’s just who I am.” I have behaviors I wish were different. I’ve tried to change but nothing has worked. 

For instance, we might experience ourselves as someone who is chronically anxious, or doesn’t sleep well, or is uncomfortable in social situations, or doesn’t set boundaries well,  or only likes meat and potatoes, or has a bad temper… and we’ve been this way as long as we can remember.

Stuck by any other name: “I yam what I yam”

In feeling that we’ve reached our limit with respect to a skill, or feeling that we can’t change our behavior or how we experience ourselves, the commonality is feeling stuck… unable to change or improve. As Popeye (a 1940s era cartoon character, see Reference) sang:
“I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam. I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.”
I think a lot of us feel this way: “There are aspects of what I do, how I behave, how I experience myself in the world that I’d like to change and have tried to change but nothing has made a difference. I guess ‘I yam what I am,’ and nothing will change that.”

A useful framing of some aspects of how we learn
I lifted the next two paragraphs from the previous blog entry because they were good enough. This business of “good enough” will gain significance as you continue reading.

When we learn something, a skill, an attitude, walking, anything… when we’ve learned it Good Enough, our unconscious takes it over. That specific learning stops, and it’s available to us on autopilot. Good Enough means good enough for the circumstance in which we learned it. Many variables might get folded into the calculation of good enough… and this occurs mostly out of conscious awareness.

Given that conscious awareness seems to be a limited resource—like a flashlight that lights up only what it’s aimed at—it’s to our advantage that we seem to function this way. It allows us to be available to our past learnings without burdening our limited conscious capacity.

Example of this framing of how we learn: Learning to type

Let’s use typing to explore how learning something “good enough” and becoming stuck might be related, and then how, once stuck, we might get unstuck. Some of the ideas here were inspired by an article in the February 20, 2011 issue of The New York Times Magazine by Joshua Foer entitled “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer.”
We learn incrementally, building on previous learnings
We learn typing a bit and piece at a time. First, we must consciously find the key associated with the letter we want to type. To do this, we continue to build on previous learnings—already on autopilot—such as hand-eye coordination.

As we learn a little piece good enough, our unconscious takes it over
As we gradually learn the location of individual letters and symbols good enough, our conscious attention is freed for other tasks, such as learning to use more of our fingers with less total movement. Again, as various aspects of finger efficiency are learned good enough, our unconscious takes them over too.

What constitutes good enough depends on such things as the immediate demands on our attention and the context in which we will use typing… good enough to get a job as a transcriptionist is different from good enough to peck out a personal email.

The bits and pieces settle and lock into place
Eventually, the component competencies of typing have all been learned good enough and our unconscious takes over management of the entire task. All those little bits of typing-learning settle and lock into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We no longer consciously think about the mechanics of typing.

We begin to rely on our ability to type without thinking about it
At this point, typing becomes a tool, a means to an end. Our conscious focus is on writing—a blog entry, an interaction with Google, whatever—not on learning to type.

Our competence at typing has reached the good enough plateau
Now, our typing happens on autopilot. Although we may use a keyboard to write for hours each day, our typing doesn’t improve.
What else have we have learned that’s on autopilot?
If this frame of how we learn (and how we use what we learn) was only relevant to skills like typing, I don’t think this blog entry would be worth your while to read, or my time to write.

I’ve organized several of sequences of learnings, below, to evoke in you the awareness of the width and breadth of what I’m pointing at—and to bring to light how we incrementally learn and construct how we enact and experience ourselves. Here are some examples of what we learn and then rely on:

how to rollover on our stomach and back again, hold our head up, sit up, crawl, walk, climb stairs, jump, skip, hop, swim, ride a bike, safely cross a street, drive a car

how to use a spoon, drink out of a glass, eat solid foods; what foods we like and don’t like, what we eat when, how to cook, how special foods are part of the makeup of special occasions, what part food and eating plays in our relationships, what food means (e.g., love, comfort, safety, it makes me fat, it’s killing me)

how to hear a sound and turn our head to see what made it, reach for something, move towards something; what’s okay to reach for, what’s permissible to want, how to go after what we want, how we feel about what we want, how we feel about what we have, how we feel about having what we want; how to go about getting what we want, what money means (e.g., it’s good, it’s bad, can never have too much, can never have enough, it costs a lot to make, it’s easy to make, it’s for spending, it’s for saving…)

how to know something about thunder, rain, lightning, air, sunshine; the sound of a cat’s purr, birds, crickets, a bell, a passing train close by or in the distance; the smell of rain on a hot road, fresh baked bread, maple trees budding in the spring; the feel on the face of sunshine, a breeze, snow

how to make sounds, understand spoken language, speak words, coordinate our speaking and breathing such that inhaling doesn’t seem to interrupt the flow of what we say; how to communicate with tone of voice, inflection, and pauses; how to use body language and understand someone else’s body language without consciously thinking about it; how to write, how to read, add numbers, tell a story about what happened, tell a joke

how to know what your name is, what someone else’s name is, how to say hello and goodbye, ways to communicate what you want and need, how to play with others, how to respond to conflict, what attracts you to another and what doesn’t, what you like about another and what you don’t, how to listen, how to form a relationship, how to be in a relationship, how and when to end a relationship, what it means to be in various kinds of relationships—with others you identify as acquaintance, friend, best friend, buddy, lover, mate, colleague, boss, subordinate, teacher, student, parent, child, son, daughter, infant, youngster, teenager, adult, or elder
Like typing, once all such things are learned good enough, they too go on autopilot. 

Most of these learnings are what I call unconscious learnings (see previous blog entry) about which Milton Erickson (1996) said,

[You] can learn easily things about yourself and learn them without needing to know that you have learned them. [And] you can use those learnings without needing to know that you know those learnings.
These learnings form the foundation of how we live
For each of us, this complex structure of interconnected learnings, most of which function without conscious awareness, forms the foundation of the contexts out of which we make meaning, respond, generate experience for ourselves, interact with others, and continue to learn new things.

Because of our unique personal histories, our learnings are nuanced and structured differently within each of us; and so we are each different from any other.

As long as it works, this is great
That we may rely on previous learnings without having to consciously manage them is wonderful! Most of what we know how to do we can do without thinking. Our conscious attention is free to attend to something else.

And like typing, we can enact any one of these learnings-on-autopilot repeatedly and it doesn’t change.

But what was good enough then may no longer be good enough now
What if we don’t like something that we do on autopilot, like our golf stroke that hasn’t improved for years? We feel we’ve hit our ceiling. We feel stuck.

What if we don’t like something we do on autopilot for which we don’t have a simple name? For instance, we formed our first serious primary relationship just fine; then after a couple of years it turned sour. So did the next three, including our current relationship which is in the process of coming to a painful (and familiar) end. We can easily think “that’s just who I am.” We feel stuck.

How do we get unstuck?
How do we open up old learnings that have been on autopilot, separate out what’s no longer useful while keeping what is useful, and continue to build on them? We’ll begin to explore this in the next blog entry.

Erickson, M. H., Rossi, E. L. (1996). Hypnotherapy: An exploratory casebook. Irvington Publishers, Inc., NY. p 120

Foer, Joshua (2011). “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer,” The New York Times Magazine, 2/20/11. The New York Times, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. p. 35 (see complete article)

Popeye was created by Elzie Crisler Segar, and first appeared in the daily King Features comic strip Thimble Theatre on January 17, 1929. Sammy Lerner wrote Popeye’s song “I yam what I yam” for the 1933 film short “Popeye the Sailor Man.”