Monday, December 14, 2009

Learning to learn

Over the past few years I've started trying to learn new things. Singing, speaking Portuguese, rock climbing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, these are all relatively new activities for me that have required some level of instruction from others. And in the process of learning (and teaching and learning with others) I've found that it's really easy to get in a nearly unteachable mindset -- the attitude of "I'm not comfortable being taught".

The thing about learning a new skill from someone else is that you are explicitly submitting to their authority on the matter. A problem arises when you try to maintain some control over the instructional process out of some combination of ego, insecurity, and pride. Whether we realize it or not, we don't like to seem "incompetent", and there is often a reflexive need to challenge the instruction, typically passively, as a defense mechanism.

Symptoms of this include constant questioning ("Why not do it this way? Why not that way? What if I do this instead?"), open statements of disbelief ("I don't think that would work in this situation."), arguing with the instructor ("I read somewhere else that you're supposed to do it like this"), or even more innocuous habits like making continuous observations during instruction ("Oh, I get it, so you do this...oh, and then you do that, so that if they do this other thing, oh, right, okay, I get it...") or refusing to try something until every detail has been mapped out ("I like to work at my own pace!").

But having all the details mapped out ahead of time rarely helps, and in fact often hinders learning.

In the book Instinctive Groundfighting, the author makes the observation that when instructing children on a new technique, when told to try it the very first thing the kids would do is start talking instead of doing. "Wait, your right hand or my right hand? Where does my foot go? Did he say push or pull?"

His insight was that he was providing too much detail with his initial instruction, even though it didn't seem like that much. This is a very common habit of teachers, especially inexperienced ones. They're worried they're not explaining things in enough detail instead of accepting that their students need to struggle a bit just to gain enough context to learn that they are flailing. (And there are also some teachers that overexplain out of a need to sound wise, but that's another discussion).

He got around this by just telling his students "Push each other over!" Then the students would just go at it. Then he'd call a break, let some students show what was working and what wasn't, and build from there. Context was established.

Saulo Ribeiro is an absolutely phenomenal jiu-jitsu instructor and a multiple world champion. He teaches by showing the broad strokes of a technique then having his students try it. Within 2 minutes he'll call "Time!" and go over a small detail that he notices students are missing. The students continue on, then again in 2 minutes he calls "Time!" and adds yet another detail. He does this continuously as a form of iterative instruction, and in the end the knowledge has a higher level of 'stickiness' than if he just explained a move for 10 minutes and then said "Okay, there you go."

Part of the problem is that students naturally often want everything explained in advance, but this is absolutely the wrong way to learn. I'm almost to the point where I don't think this is a subjective thing, people will say "I learn best by XYZ" but what they're really saying is "I'm most comfortable if I'm taught this way". Unless you're some kind of savant, you're not going to absorb a ton of details about something entirely new and then immediately apply them. Hell, you won't even remember them by the end of class. You need context for your lessons to stick, think of the initial failures as the canvas on which the lessons are being painted.

The process for learning that works for the majority of people goes something like this:
  1. Try
  2. Fail
  3. Learn a little bit
  4. Goto step 1 until you succeed
Failing is absolutely crucial, because that failure is what makes you stop and ask "How did that happen? Why didn't that work?" Saying "Don't stick your arms out!" isn't nearly as effective as letting someone stick their arms out and then joint locking them. It's an iterative process. Unfortunately very often we see students do this instead:
  1. Learn a little bit
  2. Learn a little bit
  3. Learn a little bit
  4. Learn a little bit
  5. Learn a little bit
  6. Try
  7. Fail
  8. Get pissed and quit
In writing the adage is "show, don't tell". For instruction, the 'show' is 'let the students find out for themselves'.

And the problem is that people instinctively don't like to fail, and when they do they often blame the teacher for letting them fail. "If you had told me not to do that from the beginning, I wouldn't have!" Maybe, maybe not, but if you don't touch the stove there's a good chance you won't really believe it's hot.

There is thus an immediate tension between the student that doesn't want to fail and the teacher that needs to let -- even encourage -- the student to fail because that is actually a more effective learning process. Yes, it might discourage the student, but in the end any student that does not accept failure is going to have a hard time learning no matter what, whether they fail early in a controlled form ("Try this, then we'll talk about it") or later when they think they "know" something and find out that they don't...the hard way.

In jiu-jitsu it's common to see guys that aren't willing to be challenged -- they stall, they stick to the game they know, they don't try new things. Winning, or at least not losing, is more important than taking risks and growing. A friend started jiu-jitsu over a year after I did, but in about 6 months he had overtaken me, and aside from his natural talent, I attribute much of this to his willingness to try new things even if they were risky or unproven. Failing and incorporating the lessons learned allowed him to grow in ability at a tremendous rate.

Learning isn't about finding a good teacher, it's about becoming a good student and trusting your teacher, even if you don't understand everything they're showing. If you have serious doubts about your teacher's ability, it's much healthier to just move on than it is to challenge them constantly.

Related to the identity and ego issues, something many advanced students forget is that it's possible to learn from those with less experience and even ability. If you can approach each class as "I'm here to learn from anyone" you can develop so much faster than if you're there to demonstrate your knowledge and ability. I have immense respect for a brown belt asking a blue belt how he did a particular sweep. That requires a degree of self-confidence that is hard to come by for a lot of people.

I started to realize that I was the fundamental problem in my education when my very first jiu-jitsu instructor got frustrated with me one day. I couldn't escape side control and he'd show me what to do and I just kept arguing with him. "THAT DOESN'T WORK, I CAN'T DO IT!" And finally he just had it and very calmly laid down the law -- if I wanted to learn, I needed to let myself learn instead of trying to imply that the instruction itself was at fault because, to be blunt, he was spending far more time arguing with me than actually teaching me. Like a petulant kid I stormed off and stopped training at his school (and then moved away before I had a chance to reconcile with him), which only punished me.

It took a solid year before it sunk into my head that he was totally right and that, in fact, the flaws in my training were related to my attitude, not his (or other's) instruction. I've trained with some great black belts in my life, including Saulo Ribeiro, Xande Ribeiro, Marcelo Alonso, Nelson Monteiro, and world champs like Atlanta's own Jason Evangelista, and they were always far better teachers than I was a student. I was simply unwilling to accept responsibility for my own education, instead pushing that off on my instructors.

These days when it comes to BJJ instruction, I really don't even care about technique, I care about finding someone that can help me with my attitude, my mindset, because that's the thing that's preventing me from advancing, not my underdeveloped spider guard or lack of a de la Riva guard pass.

Now that I've settled down a bit, I try to sit down and shut up when someone is instructing (at least to the best of my ability). I may ask a question for clarification, but I try very hard not to ask a question that implies that what is being taught is ineffective or inconsistent, I just do what they say and trust that they're not leading me astray and that they'll correct when necessary.

As I pick up more hobbies, I'm finding that this attitude applies to everything I'm learning, irrespective of the field.

And above all, I'm trying very hard not to get discouraged and not to blame others when I fail. I should accept responsibility for my progress instead of blaming my instructor or partners if for no other reason than I can change how I learn, but it is doubtful that I will change how someone else teaches.

Difficulty is the key to learning. If I didn't fail at speaking Portuguese, rock climbing, jiu jitsu, or singing, then clearly I don't even have anything to learn.

So if I want to learn, I have to embrace failing as a key step, and not assume that failure is an indictment of my ability as a student.

Side note: I've noted that a lot of people that have a hard time learning from others (without realizing it) will often retreat to the world of books and video and self-education. I'm not even sure if that's a conscious move or not, but there is a certain anonymity and lack of identity crisis when you're being taught by an inanimate object instead of another person (and possibly with other students around). It's hard to be self-conscious with no audience.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Inspiring, thanks!