As adults, we can forget just how hard it is to learn something, just how difficult and stressful it is to be awkward and challenged at some learning task. Because of this, I decided that I needed to rediscover what those feelings were like in order to experience what a student goes through when trying to learn something difficult.
I realized, as someone who has taught students for over twenty years, that it was time I tried experiential learning, not for my students, but for myself. I figured it was about time I “did” something and didn’t merely “say” it.
I chose the most challenging field to test myself in: athletics. I come at this field with a great deal of anxiety because I had Juvenile Arthritis as a child and was required by doctors to cease all physical activity from grade five until grade ten. While my friends all played sports and had fun in PE, I sat on the sidelines and failed to experience all the team bonding, physical gifts, and bodily confidence that comes from sports. Through those years, I couldn’t learn what it was like to physically push myself or test my mental toughness under the stress of athletic performance. And on top of all that, my learning style is textual and visual; I find muscle memory and kinesthetic learning extremely difficult.
So I booked sessions with a personal trainer at a Fitness Centre. I’d never been in a gym in my life, let alone lifted a weight. This recreated what it is like as a student to attend school and in particular do classes that present learning style challenges. There was a difference: I was paying for the privilege to suffer and undergo extreme feelings of potential shame and failure. A famous actor described her work with a personal trainer as “a torture chamber of sorts” and she wasn’t kidding. I knew what I was getting myself into.
What happens when the teacher reverses the dynamic, at my stage of the game, and agrees to take the position of the “taught”?
It’s experiential all right. It’s game changing. I had to experience the agony of being absolutely new, clumsy, awkward, slow to figure out, couldn’t understand and when I finally figured it out, promptly forgot it the next session and had to learn it all over again.
And what was the reaction of my personal trainer?
Did he lose his mind and express disgust and rage at my failure to retain instructions? Did he lambaste me for needing to learn and starting out so weak? Did he humiliate me and expose me in front of others at the gym to ‘teach me a lesson’? Did he ignore or shun me because I couldn’t master his instructions?
He encouraged me. He told me we had to start small and we’d work up to big. He told me to not be ‘timid.’ He said “keep your shoulders back.” He showed me how to throw the weights down on the floor after a gruelling session to indicate triumph. When my legs shook, he’d say “you can do it.” He didn’t shun; instead, he laughed with genuine pleasure when I fought through the agony of some exercise. When things got very tough, he’d say “you’re okay, I’ve got you.” The repeated words he said were “good” and “that’s right.” The rest of the words were concrete directives on what I was doing wrong so I could correct it.
For seventh months, I dragged my feet to the gym. I dreaded going with an emotional intensity that surprised even me. I found it embarrassing to be so weak and so awkward. However, the faith my teacher had in my ability to succeed, the stories he told me of other students’ achievement through the hardship of learning gave me faith too. I stopped being so timid. I started to naturally hold my shoulders back. I began to look forward to going to the gym as I became more skilled at the exercises and day by day stronger.
I will never forget the initial stage of learning and how incredibly difficult it was and the ways in which it shook my sense of self. If I had had a teacher in that time tell me that I was a “loser” or “soft” or “pathetic,” I would have quit. If I had had a teacher who said I “wasn’t trying” or “looked lazy,” I would have quit. If my personal trainer had shown even the slightest gesture or facial expression of disgust, I would have quit. If he had sworn in a rage at my inability to learn quickly enough, or at the fact that I had forgotten a technique, I would have quit.
Seventy percent of thirteen year olds quit sports. How are we teaching them?