esther m palmer

what I've learned about how we learn

Thank you to Nesa by Makers on Unsplash for the photo


Black Lives Matter inspired me to learn

I think about learning a lot. How to do it better, how to help others learn, just how necessary the skill of learning is for us to thrive.

When George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight --just for being black + because the police officer kneeling on his neck valued his ability to exercise power over another man's life-- people around the world stood up to protest police brutality and the systemic racism that directs that violence disproportionately toward Black people.

And around the world, people also spoke up to say, "hey, do you not see how this came to be?"

"Do you need a primer on how racism took hold so fiercely in the US? You do? Ok, read this, this, this and this. And when you're done with those, there'll be more."

"Arm yourself with knowledge of what has happened in our distant and recent past so that you can understand what is happening now -- and stand up to fight it knowing things can't stay the way they've been for far. too. long."

I was inspired by the protests -- I always am. But I was even more inspired by that call to learn. I recognized it as both something I needed to do and something I can do to help me speak out against racism. Though I've never thought of myself as racist, it's not that simple. Racism is part what made the US, part of who we still are today. And how much of who you are do you see crystal clearly --the good, the bad, the ugly? Yeah, me either. There's always something about ourselves we willfully or innocently ignore. We have work to do and for many Americans it starts with learning what racism really looks like.

How we learn changes how we speak up

When I wrote a little something on the learning I know I have to do, and voiced my support for Black lives on my meditation podcast, my hope was to share a message of solidarity and also commitment. I'm fairly confident I have work to do in learning how to voice that effectively --and also how to follow through.

And the effort has made me think a lot about how I can authentically and continuously speak and stand up for truth, because that's what I hope to be encouraging you to do in your own lives.

Be true in your movement, be true in your mind, be true in your heart. Be true in action.

So how can we do that?

I think it has a lot to do with how we learn.

My take: learn how to be comfortable with what you don't know while you participate fully from where you are right now.

Let's look at how we learn

As kids are developing, they’re constantly doing things to test out how to behave and grow in the world. They’re primed for learning. It’s amazing to watch.

Adults can get settled into what they know. They can learn in the same haphazard way that kids do, but without any outside redirects, they’re more likely to "learn" things that reinforce what they already know and how they see the world. They’re also less likely to engage in the play that lets them stumble onto new ideas and experiences, because they’re so busy keeping up with their status quo.

Of course, that’s not all adults, and with the boom of online learning courses, we see that many adults want to be learning. So what does the basic process of learning look like? The meta version looks something like this:

  1. take in new information + relate it to stuff you already know
  2. test out your integrated knowledge by doing stuff / saying stuff
  3. learn more, revise your position, improve your skills
  4. repeat pretty much forever — note: this continual process gets easier as you accumulate more knowledge if you're willing to let new information persuade you to change your convictions and actions.

My guess is that everyone finds one of these steps more challenging than the others. I would hypothesize that one in particular is usually the toughest for most people, though I’m not going to guess which. 4 is the kicker for me.

It’s tough because staying at it past the introductory stage, starts to mean more and more self-guided learning. Which means you gotta learn how to learn, while you’re learning. If you can get truly "meta" in your learning, you’ll succeed where you can stick with the work that it takes.

How do we practice learning how to learn?

Getting meta with learning is the job of teachers. So hire one! Seek out a teacher or mentor who knows what it looks like to guide you towards learning independence.

In order to do that, it may help to understand where you’ll benefit most from that teacher’s guidance: at the start of the process or further along the way?

Learning new skills
For me, learning a new skill is waaaay more comfortable. Everything is shiny and new. I have fewer "but, what about —?" questions interrupting my absorption of information.

Though on the flip side of this, it’s harder to accumulate information that’s super new when there’s nothing in your existing knowledge bank to relate it to. That’s something we just know about how learning works in the brain. From my personal experience I recognize it as having no patience for learning something I’m not interested in (when stuff is "boring"). That’s where a teacher who can relate the topic to things I do care about (universal experiences do nicely) will make or break my success. Or having a teacher at all...

In learning, I'm driven by what lights a fire in me, as well as by the opportunity for engagement with other people (teachers, students). This is probably true for lots of people. And then there are the folks driven more by a desire to conquer the unknown and complete what they set out to do. For them, the "interest" or "delight" in the topic may matter less than getting the information they need or the fun challenge of learning. They are more likely to get "learning how to learn" — and it seems that just the process holds their interest. I believe we can all learn how to engage in new material this way.

Improving on existing skills
As you can probably guess, I find improving in an existing skill something of a challenge. Without a teacher or some outside push to help guide my efforts, it’s not only a challenge, it’s really uncomfortable.

Our drive to change our knowledge, perspective, and behavior can come from within, but it usually starts with the emotional impact of some external influence —something that inspired you, or scared you, or made you mad, or sad. A motivating factor can push you past the discomfort of learning more.

I say discomfort because going deeper into knowledge or skill is not a direct trajectory. It's not "keep doing what you've always done (that you're comfortable with) until you're a master." It's a process of compounding knowledge and skills — of learning that there's more to it than what you know. That seems obvious when written out like that, but when you’re in the thick of it, the what you don’t know sometimes feels like it’s threatening what you do know —that learning more will prove you wrong in your existing knowledge.

As a yoga teacher with an interest in anatomy, my knowledge of the "right" way to teach movement and shapes in yoga has changed many times over the years. And at every shift that shook up my trust in the knowledge that let me do my job with confidence, I felt like an ass. I felt like it was my fault for getting it "wrong" up until now. I cared more about my students’ well being than whether or not I was right or wrong, thank goodness, so it was just a feeling I had to deal with, not something that prevented me from moving forward. But it could have been.

When expanding your knowledge base, you have to let the new knowledge in, to be willing to adjust your perspective and how you operate in the world based on that new information, and change your behavior. It's like learning a whole new skill --only now it's doing it where you have skin in the game. Skin in the game, if you think that adjusting how you move through life means you were wrong before. If you think that changing your perspective demonstrates a failing on your part.

When you can learn that adapting is a sign of your "fitness" for life, rather than of your weakness or failures, you play the game differently. If we can all let growth through knowledge excite us and inspire us, maybe we'll go after learning with more fervor --and grace.

It’s never too late to learn

I learned all this as an adult. An adult who has made it through lots of really stellar schooling all while thinking I could learn just by doing more of the same, on repeat.

It is possible, of course, to pick up a new skill or information set without really being open to growth and change.

But learning something that rocks your world, takes a willingness to be open to new ideas and facts. And a willingness to move through life operating at full throttle just with the facts you have now inside of an awareness that they are not all the facts. That you are doing your best with the info you have.

In order for all of us to feel confident moving through the world in this way, we need to build an environment where all statements and questions posed in an open-hearted, willing-to-be-wrong spirit are given space and validity.

Building a safe space for learning and growing is what I see so many in the Black Lives Matter movement doing. I certainly look to the voices that come with history and facts, and are inviting and open, even when they show their anger and pain (as well folks should) —and so far, that's all I've witnessed. The spirit of inclusion and camaraderie is so much more powerful than that of division and hate.

Learning with you,

Thoughts or questions? I'd love to hear them.

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