How We Learn: How We Don’t Learn

It’s possible that if I even hint at the name “Melville” to begin a piece anyone who sojourns here will click the “close” button and be well on their merry way.  (Though surely there are intrepid adventurers among us willing always to hear more of the greatest American writer–yes, I said that.)

But, all I’m going to say is that Melville, in his great book on the mind of of America(ns), has Ishmael say that a “whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”  Melville, who in his first book, Typee, seems to this reader to be using every verbal muscle in his body–or better, seems to have stepped onto an Island of Hungry Words and is attempting to harvest as many as he can without be eaten up by them–learned to write by writing.  Likewise Van Gogh learned through so much painful failure to draw and paint by drawing and painting, almost without cessation.   Recall the Jesus Prayer must be repeated without cessation until it inhabits you–even remember that a trendy New Yorker writer has said that the Beatles, as an example, became the musicians they were through incessant playing.  We become unconscious artists in this way.  In this way, we ARE art–it flows from us.

I just wanted to relate stories I read this morning that seem connected to the above.

1. A neighbor who’s children attend elementary school with our kids offers her children and a few friends a kind of “daycare” “Geek camp” where they “do something cool.”   Last year, movie-making even with green screen tech.  This year, electronic circuitry…but also, whatever the kids decide floats their fun boat for the week.

2. This piece in Slate, “Learning by Making: American kids should be building rockets and robots, not taking standardized tests,” by Dale Dougherty.  I don’t agree on all the particulars but it seems to me a far better way to promote CREATIVITY than any school processes we have now.  He brings up two very insightful points.  Our standardized tests seem to be “teaching tools” because they must first acquaint test-takers with the material–a diminished form of “experience”–before they ask questions or offer answers, and so substitute a weak form of knowing for primary experience; and he answers the assessment question: “Making is evidence of learning.”  Easy.

3.  In this piece at Salon, “Your Words Matter,” there is a whole raft of ideas and issues to discuss.  Primarily, we don’t listen and don’t communicate because: A) we CAN’T process very much at one time and B) sometimes people talk at us TOO MUCH and C) we respond emotionally to trigger words and then do not REALLY hear or listen to what is being said.

4. Too many kids in classes and not enough teachers (parents, adults, older kids, to assist) means you won’t communicate, you won’t make, you won’t think, and you won’t experience LEARNING.

5. We’re really fat.  Not sure how that works in there (sodas and sugars in schools), but this is an interesting “way back” thought.  Fat then and Fat now

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  1. focus June 4, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    I didn’t click and close at the thought of Melville. Much to think about in this post Doug. Not enough time right now to look at all the pieces you referenced but I did look at the one linked in #5. Perception has changed. Those photos were well worth a look. I remember watching all those shows with my parents as a kid and I do have a memory of how large those characters were compared to all around them.
    My kids are going to a camp called Camp Invention this summer. They are to bring an item from home–a broken radio, computer keyboard, whatever and the plan is for them to take it apart (with help from the instructors) and repurpose the pieces and create something new. An artwork, sculpture or another item. I’ll let you know if it lives up to my expectations. I will agree with the Beatles commentary as well–they played constantly, especially in their early years. They learned by listening and mimicking and through the endless repetition and practice made what they learned their own. And then they added to it and created that unique sound that was all their own.

    1. Douglas Storm June 4, 2012 at 6:32 pm

      We really don’t even have an idea of what to value in order to mimic it, learn it deeply, and then create from it.

      That camp sounds good and I hope it is.

      1. focus June 5, 2012 at 12:17 am

        I hope it is good also.
        What do we value? How do we mimic it, learn it, feel it and then create it in a way that makes it our own?
        I wish I had an answer. The only mimicking I see often is the stupidity of what is on the tv and the endless permutations of reality tv–mimicking real life in a perverse parody that becomes grotesque. It makes me think of the movie The Truman Show–where his whole reality was the sham of Hollywood.

        1. Douglas Storm June 5, 2012 at 6:58 am

          The philosophical question: what is appearance/illusion and what is real? Movies–the cult of image–subverts the metaphysics of this with “we make what seems into what is real.” (not seems, madam…prince hammy)

  2. S.S. June 4, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Standardized tests only train (not teach) you to take more standardized tests. The most egregious part of these tests is that they’re mostly multiple choice, so much of the pre-test “education” is simply teaching students how to make an okay guess. You don’t really need to know anything to fair well on these tests, you just have to know how you’re being asked questions. The information contained within these questions is frequently irrelevant.

    Building and creativity require the utilization logic, reasoning, imagination, experimentation, spacial reasoning (parts vs. whole), i.e. there’s no shortcut to exploration. Testing in schools only teaches shortcuts. Taking tests within a limited amount of time, quickly reading questions to decode answers.

    And yes, we’re fat. I think about this frequently when I’m out and about and am confronted with the limited mobility of a lot of us. People will pay hundreds of dollars to join a gym (only setting themselves up to not go) while they are unable to walk a mile. We no longer use our bodies for transportation. I feel lucky to live in a town that is so easily traversed with my own feet! But, even here I am in the minority of people that covet this and place any value on walking, biking. These things, of course, are much slower and more considered than driving. Why don’t we have more time to walk?

    1. focus June 4, 2012 at 1:06 pm

      the irony of driving to the gym to get on a stationary bike or walk/run on a treadmill.

    2. Douglas Storm June 4, 2012 at 6:34 pm

      I wish I would have written that in the post, S.S.! Good points about testing!

      We’ve talked in the past about the mind that walks versus the mind that drives. Totally different awareness.

  3. focus June 6, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    “The school must represent present life—life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.” He also wrote that “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

    I like the above quote from the Slate article “Learning by Making.”

    “Your Words Matter” is another good one. It made me think of the neural pathways that are forged by writing. We discussed that a while ago I think–with penmanship being gradually deleted from school curriculum we lose the ability to work on the neural pathways that are formed as we attempt to write in cursive. It utilises a different neuronal cascade than printing or typing on a computer or keyboard. Who knows what building block this forms for future learning? Yet we are excluding it from school curriculum as an “unnecessary skill.”

    1. Douglas Storm June 6, 2012 at 8:00 pm

      It’s easy enough to argue that “closing one door opens another” when it comes to neural pathways.

      I think the creation of slow or deliberate mind (slow food, slow money, slow mind!) is what we’re losing. Probably the only really “human” specialness is in thoughtful deliberation.


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