Sunday, October 02, 2005

Flashback: Notes From a Life-Long Learner

I posted the original form of this essay to an e-list last year as part of a discussion on the pros and cons of self-teaching:

The argument that children should not learn to read from primers but only from "real world reading experience" takes a very limited view of the real world. The real world includes all the things the child happens to find in it. Depending on where the child grows up this can include chickens, computers, nomadic tents, high-rise apartments, goats, gruel, cereal boxes and primers -- sometimes all at the same time.

I've tutored adult literacy students before. Their usual preferred reading material was the grocery sale ads and the paperwork they had to deal with on a daily basis. These were urgent matters that couldn't wait. But while grocery ads are interesting to my daughters, they lack the same relevance. In their world fairy tales and primers are just as important as milk sales and a lot more fun.

Brighteyes likes McGuffey's Eclectic Primer. She also likes reading every book, brochure, road sign and label she sees. Sunshine is more laid back, but she picks up an amazing amount of learning just from sitting back and listening, often answering puzzles before her big sister.

Both my husband and I had both a lot of formal education -- I've been to college, he has a PhD in Molecular Biology. We've also had a lot of informal and self education -- over the years we've taught ourselves an awful lot about the world, as well as
organic gardening, painting, sculpture, cooking, baking, carpentry, cabinet-making, dress-making, crochet, roofing, embroidery, husbandry, silversmithing, goldsmithing, blacksmithing, lapidary,sword-making and enameling. We've taught a lot of people in informal settings. We've taught a lot of people in classrooms.

Some students respond well to self teaching. Some students want or need someone to hold their hands. Those who can learn things well from a book will. Someone who has severe problems with dyslexia isn't going to learn well out of a book, and someone with a fear of fire isn't going to pick up a torch without guidance, however much they may yearn to learn soldering.

And that's not even getting into the various "styles" of learning -- visual, audio, kinetic. My husband once had a "taste" learner in Botany. She could only catalog facts if she had a taste to go with it. He taught her by giving her tiny bits of plant material to taste with the tip of her tongue, but she was completely lost in her English class.

Most techniques are really easy to self-teach and teach informally. Some techniques are almost impossible for the average person to learn without hands-on training from someone who knows what they are doing. My husband was part of the last class his graduate school taught in preparing slides for Electron Microscopy. The technique is so demanding the instructor has to literally hold and guide the students' hands for hours on end before the student develops the skill to cut a slice a micron thick on their own. The instructor couldn't teach more than five students a semester, and when the university insisted each class have at least 10 students the course had to be cancelled permanently.

Even the original proponents of the "modern" style of teaching art -- just do whatever you feel like, don't worry about technique -- now say that while it does a great job of freeing creativity it doesn't teach you what to do with that creativity. I vividly remember sitting in "Art" and "Creative Writing" classes boiling with fury as the teacher chirped, "Oh, just do whatever you feel like. Be creative!" I already had the creative ideas, thank-you-very-much. I was paying with my time and my money for pointers on how to massage those creative ideas into the shapes I wanted them in. What are the most dramatic ways of describing scene X as a prelude to Y? How do you modify proportions to make everything look right in a particular setting? What are the differences in "realistic", "classical", "heroic" and "fantasy" figures? What are the different solders used for? What's the difference in temperature between pouring silver for lost-wax casting and sand casting, and what are the torches, tips and regulators you need for both? It's taken a lifetime of obsessively searching out antique textbooks and extensive trial and error to recreate what one 19th Century expert could have shown us in an afternoon.

Things involving a high level of dexterity -- handwriting, playing an instrument, dance -- take up to 1000 repetitions before you can do them well. And that's if you're lucky to have good hand-eye coordination. I don't, sometimes it takes me as many as 10 times the repetitions as it takes other people. But young children don't know that, they can't even grasp the concept of 1000. The only way to learn "practice makes perfect" is to see it happen in real life. One thing I'm careful to do is to show my daughters Mommy practicing something she's not good at and how she gets better over time. Right now it's bellydance. :P If there's a problem with
the concept, it's time to do something else and come back to that later. But if it's just "don't wanna" my philosophy a little bit won't hurt you, then we'll do the fun stuff. "Three more bites of soup, then we'll get out the cheese and crackers." "Seven words a day, then we'll do a connect-the-dot puzzle."

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