Creating Space for Learning

Back in my life as a junior in high school, I was required to take physical education classes, as we all were.  I remember one of the subjects I studied was weightlifting, something that was (and still is) quite foreign to me.  I had imagined it would be filled with what would later be termed as Jersey Shore idiots (no offense… wait, that’s a lie), but it ended up being filled with lots of people like me who had no idea what they were doing there.  However, I actually learned more about the human body and the physiological way that we acquire strength and endurance that I had in, say, the kickball or tennis sections I had taken before.  Of particular interest was how we grow muscle.  The act of weightlifting breaks down the muscles, then after resting, the muscle rebuilds itself stronger than before.

Dan Weightlifting

I did learn that muscle growth is directly proportional to making this face.

Now, there are plenty of things about weightlifting that I would not carry into other disciplines.  I don’t think playing the tuba requires a special belt, that teaching is best performed in a singlet, or that you should have a spotter for your romantic relationships (wait a second… I might be on to something…).  The idea of creating space to allow growth, however, does seem relevant, especially in light of how my recent experiments in productivity worked for me.  By giving myself the open space to be creative, I was able to let ideas stew and develop into something that would have been more difficult if I had forced myself to work within tighter confines.  I feel like it’s a concept that can be beneficial to just about any learning process.

This open space comes in two forms.  The more obvious one is a direct correlation to the weightlifting analogy.  The idea is that we go through concentrated exposures to information, and then need rest to sort the thoughts out and let them sink in.  An example of this is taking the time after a lecture to reflect on what was discussed.  Another is an intense practice session on a musical instrument, followed by listening to examples of good music to apply what was practiced to real life examples.  Or even taking a few days after a heated argument or discussion to consider how what was discussed impacts our own views.  We need this time away from the intensity of the moment of information collection to consider and reconsider what it is we’ve taken in.

Punch Out

Clock him out!

The other form is more difficult to consider, especially in a culture that revolves around a very specific sense of the word “productivity.”  So many of us in the business world are expected to punch out(!) any time we step away from our desks, as we are expected to be consistently productive.  Classrooms are considered a success if there is a flow of information from when the students sit down to when the bell rings.  Teachers are hired and fired based on a narrow set of metrics that involve standardized test scores.  But in addition to the discussed need for space surrounding our concentrated activity, I also believe we need space to learn within the concentrated activity.

I found this especially true when I was practicing the tuba during my recent “productive sabbatical.”  So much of the learning and the joy of learning took place when I stepped away from rigid constraints and allowed myself to meander.  Rather than playing the same exercises and etudes the same way, I would record a piece of my practice and immediately play it back.  Not only was this effective in developing the sound I was wanting, but it was fun.  Taking the time to explore what I could do on the instrument made practice less of a grueling thing to get out of the way.  It transformed it into an open canvas, ripe with the potential to be a masterpiece or a mistake, both of which were acceptable.

This second form can be applied in many different ways.  For instance, I’m thinking of ways I can apply it to the Excel classes I teach.  So often I have a track that I know will work to smoothly transition the class from one topic to the next.  What would it be like if I took some time to rest at each waypoint along the way?  I could do this by exploring different ways formulas can be used, for instance.  I’m constantly using Excel for unorthodox means.  Sure I have my lists of data and tables of calculations.  I also have used it to test and flesh out the Collatz Conjecture, to automate the generation of a customized and randomized sealed deck in the game Magic the Gathering, and to write music.  Bringing up those types of ideas in a class can lead to students adopting and improving on what I’ve created.  It can also give them ideas for new innovations that I haven’t even thought of.  It’s also possible that I could just get blank stares and poor evaluations at the end of the class.  There is that same potential for innovation versus disaster that I found while exploring practicing the tuba; but unless I make the space to discuss, create, and explore, I’m confined to the mediocrity of a preset mode of learning.

How can we make this happen in other kinds of classrooms (in public schools, for instance)?  We need to let go the reins a bit, and let the students take the time to explore hands-on what they’re learning.  If you happen to be a teacher, that idea can be terrifying; I know it’s terrifying to me.  With so-called merit-based pay for teachers and the fear that the slightest bit of freedom incorporated into certain classes can lead to anarchy, that terror is understandable.  It’s not something that happens overnight, and a cultural change is needed to really make strides within it.  But piece by piece, we need to begin to integrate into the classroom the openness for students to set the direction of their learning and the freedom to explore along the way.  Not only is this often more effective that the traditional route, but it’s also usually more fun.  Having fun while learning gives us greater incentive to continue to learn.  And just as with the previous two examples, this can turn out positively or negatively, but unless we do it, it will turn out predominantly mediocre, middle of the road minds.

Certainly we don’t all have the luxury to experiment with space within and around the things we’re doing.  Some of our cultures are inconceivable far from allowing that kind of slow time.  So we need to strike where we can and find the areas where space is possible.  Take the time to let your mind grow after intensive periods of work.  Explore the space we can build into our activities to make creative tangents and connections possible.  If it’s good enough for your body, shouldn’t it be good enough for your mind too?

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