This is what I think of on the bus home from school

I’ll show you the process of learning.

The subject you are learning does not severely alter this process; I can apply it to almost anything I can think of. Riding an actual bike, learning jazz, writing, math…

We students start with an open mind. So open, in fact, that we have no sense of direction and might not even know where to start at all. (That is why self-teaching takes so much discipline.) In result, teachers set boundaries. Not limiting boundaries, just training wheels on the bike of learning. The training wheels don’t prevent you from making mistakes – you must make mistakes to learn anything. If you do everything right from the beginning, you’re probably not challenging yourself enough, therefore only repeating things you already know. Training wheels guide you, a helmet protects you, but to truly get the hang of it, you’ve got to focus and be aware of your surroundings. This is the Training Wheel Phase.

The Training Wheel Phase happens once you begin learning something new. Sure, it’s embarrassing: you make a terrific racket coming down the sidewalk, so everyone will know a newbie is trying to ride. Maybe you even have elbow pads. One must just remember that the training wheels are for helping. And hey, look on the bright side – you’re riding a darn bike, aren’t you?

Take learning jazz as an example – the best example I have since I am a current learner of jazz! When a student first learns to solo, when those first dooming words show themselves: “Okay, just play anything! No note is a wrong note!” To me, that said, “Ha HA! I know you are unprepared and now I’m going to put it in lights next to the Hollywood sign so everyone will know!” How was no note a wrong note? I thought. Our mind is too open to just comprehend stuff like that; the information just flies into the vacuum that is our minds and there is no gravity to hold it anywhere, so it just keeps on flying. So teachers give students the scales and arpeggios to rehearse. That puts a planet in our Brain Space, something with gravity to ground the new knowledge and give it a place to grow and live. Then, we can fiddle around on the scale so that every note sounds good and easy because we have somewhere for the knowledge to stick. This initial planet is the training wheels, established by the teacher.

The next phase must come quickly, nearly too early, because the most dangerous habit a student can make is becoming complacent or comfortable. The task of reversing it is too much work and a waste of time. No one wants to work backward to go forward again! This phase is Taking the Training Wheels Off. The training wheels must be removed once (and I mean RIGHT AS) the student gets the hang of a skill to prevent the bad habit of Believing That Just Because I Can Do This One Thing Really Well, I’m Great. To do so, the teacher suits up the little Brain Astronauts and sends them out into space again. They know they’ve got their home planet to return to if things go awry, but they’ll never see the possibilities if they don’t leave home!

This section of the learning path leads to feelings of unpreparedness. But the greatest lesson one can learn from this part is Unpreparedness is the best opportunity to learn! When one becomes a veteran of the learning path, one uses the feeling of unpreparedness to his or her advantage: it becomes a challenge and a surprise too see what happens when he or she tries something new.

This is like when learning jazz, you’ve soloed over a scale for a while and now the teacher takes the training wheels off and BAM you get to solo over changes – changes you don’t yet know! This is where the unpreparedness comes in (and the “no note is a wrong note” rule). The rule that no note is wrong is suddenly liberating because you don’t have to remember scales, you just have to be aware of what you play and recover from mistakes!

This stage cultivates or induces bloom of the following things:

  • Confidence
  • Selfishness
  • Skill
  • Relief

Confidence comes from repeating a new skill and getting better at it. Selfishness comes from exploring this new skill confidently and giving nary a care at who sees or what mistakes you make. Skill comes from having learned whatever you had been practicing. And Relief comes from being finally good at what you spent so much time on!

The last phase is a short one: Streamlining. Like in riding a bike, you start out with training wheels, then you graduate to no training wheels, then you can pick between a myriad of different things to do with your knowledge. You could buy a bike with thin tires and those tiny bike shorts and bike competitively. You could learn tricks and watch the X games. You could try a unicycle. You could ride to work or school or just leisurely. Or, you could forget about it and move on to something else. The only catch is, once you choose what next to do with your knowledge, you go right back up to Training Wheel Phase. It may seem disheartening at first to think this cycle goes on forever, but people who really work at it will come to enjoy it. Think of all the little planets your Brain Astronauts will have discovered in your Brain Space. Think of all the bikes you’ll have learned to ride. Looking back on that must be somewhat inspiring, right?



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