Dr. Judith M. Newman



New Learning

[ Journal Entry ]

I decided to take David Olsen's psycholinguistics course at OISE because of how David ran it, not because I was particularly interested in psycholinguistics. The grapevine had it that the students worked very hard, read a lot, but learned to 'think with' the authors they were reading. That was something I wanted to know how to do better. So I took the course. And I worked very hard for the first few weeks but as I got the hang of how to read a lot of stuff quickly and get the gist of the argument, to reread where I needed to, to begin to see connections among the arguments, I was able to accomplish a lot more in a shorter time. That was a significant learning for me. Writing this, I realize that it was David who taught me how to do what I'm trying to help you learn as readers.

Now, hearing your reactions I have several decisions to make as teacher—do I back off, because you're uncomfortable and feeling stressed; do I shift gears in some way to simplify the situation for you; or do I hold firm for a bit longer to see if you'll make the accomodations that will make the task simpler for you.

My choice is to wait this out a bit to see whether you'll allow yourselves to change your expectations and discover new ways of doing things. That new way of reading was very useful for me; it might not be for you, but at the very least you'll find your repertoire broadened and will have more options in other situations.

New learning is difficult—take the paragliding, I'm having to unlearn some stuff I worked so hard to learn as a hang gliding pilot; the transfer isn't always direct. And it's very frustrating not feeling competent when I'm used to being capable and in control; but it's also exciting when the skills start becoming automatic and my body responds to the canopy without my brain consciously telling it to.

Picking up these new reading/thinking strategies is awfully like that. It feels very uncomfortable at first and seems to take more effort than it's worth but when you get skilled at reading fast and trusting that you're picking up a lot more than you realize you'll find you've acquired a very useful skill. So I'm keeping the pressure on.

This afternoon's discussion was interesting, I thought. Some of what's causing difficulty is a fear of trying new strategies—of wasting time and energy. But let me say that learning new strategies simply broadens your repertoire. You don't have to abandon the old in order to use the new. When a situation calls for it, you'll find you have some alternative ways of doing something where you didn't before.

Some of the difficulty involves beliefs about learning and teaching—those are harder to deal with; it's hard to put alternate views on the table and to walk around them to see whether they might make sense or not; to try them on to see how they feel. If old ideas get supplanted it means changing other parts of your personal theory of the world. That's tough.

All I'm asking you to do is to relax as learners to see what strengthens your own learning [equally to see what really interferes]. I'm not asking you to buy into any new beliefs without first seeing how they affect you as a learner. If you can allow yourself to play with your own learning then you can stand back to examine the conditions that helped you. For example, thinking about our own "not-learning" can't help but raise some interesting things to think about.

I think when we pool the factors in situations that evoked "not-learning" for each of us we're going to have some useful insights into students.