Friday, March 17, 2006

Friday, March 17: Thinking, Learning, Rolling

Yesterday I attended a rare event, an event in which a group of people got to express and think about real problems in their own lives in a way in which they were listened to with real attention. This was a group of high school students who were invited by a group of Sonoma adults who are interested in open dialogue, rather than just the usual talking only among those with whom we agree. The students ranged from honors students to those “into” computers, one interested in animals, one in cooking, one in philosophy. The one interested in philosophy was a recent convert, a former slacker who somehow got turned on by Plato’s Republic. Go figure. Anyway, he had that charm of someone who is passionate about his new discovery.

This meeting had the flavor, to me, of a real opportunity for some amazing changes to happening, as when the automobile company Volvo had the bright idea of asking the workers how to better make cars. From this idea production went way up, accidents way down, and worker satisfaction skyrocketed.

What an idea: asking the students what was working and what wasn’t working in their school. They were pretty clear: testing wasn’t working, teachers who played favorites or were lazy wasn’t working, rote learning wasn’t working, reading for the sake of reading wasn’t working. What was working: talking to real live people about the real live world. Testing out new ideas. Learning new skills, be they on computers or with an oven.

What else wasn’t work was a feeling that, until this meeting, no one really was that interested in what they had to say about their education.

Behind all this, from my point of view is the distinction between teaching and learning. You can see this everywhere, art courses, tennis classes, yoga classes. Most teachers think if they show you the “right” way to do something, that they are teaching. Well, they are modeling something to follow, but they aren’t stimulating learning, they are just requiring imitation at best and slavery at worst.

What is learning, then?


This could be as simple as learning what 4+3= 7 is all about. Anyone can sooner or later memorize this, but to learn it you have to grasp a pile of 3 oranges here and 4 apples there and see that you end up with seven pieces of fruit. When this is learned, then the feeling of a room that is 12 x 14 can be easily imagined or even viscerally felt as different than the feel of a room that is 20x 30.

This is one thing that drives me crazy about teaching the Feldenkrais work, which a series of ongoing experiments, where people discover over and over how this way of moving feels comfortable and efficient and that doesn’t. There is never a right way to move, it’s all about learning and discovery. The thing that drives me crazy is people calling it “bodywork.” It’s brain work, because it’s about discovery, not about getting better at anything in particular, but about learning how to learn, which is about how to get better at anything you want to get better at. And in the field of the brain’s first and foremost learning: how to organize our relationship to gravity and our ability to move in this world.

What the high school kids want, what we all want, is real learning. Some of them are seduced by the lack of clarity on what thinking is, which is a new way of organizing your neurons so you can accomplish something you couldn’t before. Monkey sees bananas. Monkey sees stick. Light bulb goes off and monkey uses the stick to get the bananas. That’s thinking. Monkey talking about bananas is not thinking, it’s talking. Monkey talking about buying a better banana stick than his neighbor isn’t thinking. It’s talking.

Most people (go to City Council meetings to see this in action) confuse talking and thinking and I could see a couple of the kids has to false idea that if they could throw around words about something, they understood it, but at least they were trying out new sets of words. It was a start.

And there was some thinking: using a dance format to improve fitness rather than the usual PE, setting up a program to have non-English language at home students being given tutoring: these were ideas that could move and improve reality.

Which is what a Feldenkrais lesson is: an opportunity to learn how to solve various moving problems in a way that not only makes our life more pleasant and comfortable as we get in and out of a chair or out of bed in the morning or walk across a room, but set us back in the lifelong path of real learning that makes a real difference. Giving us a chance to think, not just bullshit, as it were.

So think about thinking, when it’s real and useful, when it’s rote and habitual, thoughts you’ve had over and over. Consider coming by Sunday to the Ballet Studio at 5 and getting back into learning how to learn.


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